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With respect to myself and online music discussions, it is an unspoken truth that I find most opinions laughable. In fact, I frequently do laugh at them. It is possible I could write weekly blog posts full of the dumb things people have said about music. I choose not to do this, in the name of writing a more informative blog. Indeed, today I read some discussion about the music industry that actually turned out to be very interesting, and I’d like to share it, and my perspective thereof.

The story in question was a forgettable Washington Post article which briefly demonstrated that music sales are trending upward, despite piracy. It is not piracy that sparked discussion, but rather the implications of the claim that music sales are rising. The full discussion is available here, for anyone who would like to form their own opinion prior to reading mine. I will be referencing segments I think are thought-provoking.

For some background, the protagonist of the thread is an independent indie¹-rock artist named William Cotton, who has released an album on Bandcamp entitled Melencolia I. In his opening post, he dismisses the article as pointless, and claims the author is being short-sighted in celebrating the present so-called success of the music industry. Cotton believes that the music industry as we know it is on its way out, for the following reasons:

  • Investors are leaving the industry because it is no longer a solid investment
  • Musicians require a work schedule that is increasingly incompatible with the modern economy
  • It is hard for a musician to have a sustainable “day job” while simultaneously being serious about music
  • The above is doubly true for bands that wish to tour, because the time investment is immense

The latter three arguments account for the typical “there is a large up-front cost for anyone who wants to be a professional musician,” which is frequently used to explain why it is so hard for people to become successful artists. Detractors from his argument make the case that such realities are never going to be the downfall of art, and I agree with that. His real argument comes from the first point: the very nature of the music industry is evaporating due to market effects.

What does he mean by this? What is going away? In his own words:

Music as we know it. Rock and roll and popular music as an art form. Albums, 3 minute songs. Things that were designed to fit on to a plastic disc and be played on the radio between commercial breaks.

This is truly an uncommon thought, and I have not heard anyone make this claim before. Cotton believes that when the music industry as we know it comes to an end, the type of music that it popularized will go with it. Before we think about this, let us perform a sanity check and examine some of the reasons that he thinks the modern music industry is dying.

At the foremost is its inability to adapt to the internet era. As stated above, the industry came about in order to sell records, then tapes, then compact discs. These are things that could be marketed and sold, and as Cotton points out, “touring was a loss-leader to sell plastic to people up until about 10 years ago.” Is it worth the cost in vehicles, gas, rent, event staff, bands, tents, etc. so that you can put on a concert and hopefully sell your music? Dwindling returns on investment in the music industry say no. The rapid rise of EDM into the mainstream is suddenly not so mysterious when put under the light of a shifting market. Perhaps it is not as risky an investment to get a guy with a Macbook to come play a show. All it takes is some good marketing, and people will pay good money to see any of a select few “chosen one” DJs.

Second, of course, are the several points William Cotton made about life for the musician in the 21st century. Inability to hold a steady job, inherent instability in making a career out of touring while your band is still unknown, near-impossibility of breaking through to the mainstream without serious marketing dollars — these are all impediments that loom large, especially now that we are in the midst of an economic downturn. One commenter points out:

The fact that there is no product left to monetize the music means that there will be fewer musicians being funded.

And this is the outlook facing aspiring artists today: decreasing investor support while the cost of living increases.

The interesting thing is that I believe the artists will turn to the internet (and have done so) well ahead of the music industry. The music industry cannot sustain itself, and will change to account for the realities of the market. The big record labels may simply find themselves left behind when the market for “records” (if you will) finally goes away.

Cotton’s argument was lost on many commenters in the thread due to his principled insistence on using the term “art form” to describe CDs and other physical music media. It is not incorrect for him to do this, but perhaps  “art medium” would have connected better. That said, I’d like to consider his prophecy: that the 3 minute track, or perhaps even the “album” will disappear when people finally realize that there’s no inherent reason for it. We don’t have any physical hardware forcing us to keep our creations to a certain length, or number of tracks. It used to be that way, and an entire industry was built around it. Bands went on tour so that the record companies could get album sales out of it.

The chart that was disregarded at the beginning of the thread shows us the signs of the times: internet media is not producing the sales nor the growth that the music industry once knew during what I guess we could call its heyday. Our generation is used to cheap, accessible music. Some might go as far as suggesting that our generation is used to free music outright. The music industry will have to pare down to a few global superstars that can produce profit on account of their brand: high ticket prices, celebrity appearances, merchandise, and rapidly released albums².

For the rest of us, the future is less certain. Perhaps sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are the be-all end-all? Artists will release their own albums, on their own time, and let viral marketing do the rest? This is an unexplored frontier, and anything is possible. Yet, I highly doubt it will end there. Already we are overburdened with independent artists putting their music online for free. And already the watchful capitalists have given artists the ability to pay for plays. New institutions will arise that more or less serve the role that record companies once had: promotion and capitalization of today’s up-and-coming artists. While the live show will surely never go away, it might be at least partly replaced with online “Hangout”-type shows, simply due to the near-nonexistent cost of doing so, coupled with the exponentially larger crowds that can be reached by such a measure.

Still, from the vantage point that Cotton provides in his comments, even this more modern take on the music industry (basically everything that I said is already happening in some form) is the last hurrah of a dying empire. Soon enough, it won’t be just an experiment to release music without tracks, or to release music without there being an album. It will be very interesting to see what such music might sound like, as it enters the mainstream. Perhaps music will have movements, as was common during earlier periods, or perhaps someone will devise an as-of-yet inconceivable new construct for popular songwriting. The takeaway to keep in mind is that there need not be anything deterministic about art. The eras past built up to this one in some ways, but in other ways this era is very unique, and the one that follows it is likely to be equally unique.

ONE MORE THING…

I couldn’t help but notice the following gem:

The mass marketed products like Justin Timberlake, Kanye (barf), Miley, etc will continue to be a part of the music business.

I would love to hear the basis for the blind disapproval that casual music listeners always seem to hold against Kanye West. I feel like he is always mentioned amidst company that his music is superior to, and this quote is no exception. Indeed, this quote lists him among company that the author considers Kanye inferior to, and I’d like to know why.

It is unlikely that most people have heard more than two songs by Kanye West, and yet it is unlikely that any two songs by Justin Timberlake or Miley Cyrus are better than those two. Maybe the stigma³ against hip-hop runs deeper than we’d like to think. The fact remains: Kanye West tries new things, makes unusual tracks, writes good beats, and that’s more than can be said for the artists he is usually compared to by philistines. His primary shortcoming is his actual rapping ability, when compared to truly good emcees. It’s not the kind of thing that fans of Macklemore ought to hold against him.

¹Funny how genres work these days, isn’t it?

²I think we can all think of one artist that is already receiving this treatment

³Anything but rap and country!

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