Monday, February 14, 2011

Death of the Music Industry

The music industry as we knew it, is dead.  This is a good thing!

The Grammie awards were on the other night.   Of course I didn't watch them, as I have a real life.  But it was in the news and some band in Canada won and the Eminem guy (he is still around?) didn't get as many as they thought he would, nor did lady Ga-Ga.

The music business is interesting today - a far cry from the heyday of the 1960's and 1970's.  Today, it is all about celebrity and costumes (like Lady Ga-Ga) or who won on America's Idol.  But the era when we all listened to the same music and bought the same albums is gone, I think, for good.  What happened?

A number of conditions have conspired to change the paradigm of the music business, dramatically and for good. And these changes are not reversible.  A new music industry is emerging, and the old is gone for good.  This is a good thing, trust me.

What happened to the music industry?  A number of things:

1.  Demographics:  As people age, they tend to buy less music.  Most older people listen to the music of their youth, so once they reach a certain age, they stop buying new music.  They also listen less.  And as the average age of our country has increased, the number of people listening to music - and the number listening to new music - has declined.  This shift will change over time - but it looks to be 20 years or more before Baby Boomers start dying off in sufficient numbers for our country to become more youth-cultured.

2.  Death of Radio:  In the old days, payola sold records.  People listened to radio - maybe 2-3 stations in each major market, and the DJ's took bribes from the record companies to play certain discs.  Bands like Def Leppard and Grand Funk Railroad owe their existence to payola.  But over the years, radio basically shot itself in the foot, putting on more bad music (payola records) or the same music from years past.  Kids today rock out to the same music I listened to as a youth.  It is frightening.  Radio listener-ship is down, and as a result, the great engine for selling records has been derailed.

3.  CDs:  The switch from LPs to CDs was viewed by many as a cynical attempt by the record industry to get people to re-buy the same albums again.  And to some extent, this was true.  But CDs, when properly handled, last forever, so there is no need to "re-buy" an album - which we did back in the 1970's when we literally wore the grooves off our records.  The sheer cost of CDs - $15 to $20 or more, in some instances, forced people to buy less and listen to the same library of music more.  In the old days, you could buy an LP for $3.99 and if it stank, well, you weren't out much.  Today, spending $20 for an album with one decent song on it is just not cost-effective.

4. The iPod:  Moving your music from CD to iPod is cumbersome, but once you put all your CDs on a computer, you don't need them anymore.  And many people are doing just that - often sharing music with friends.  It is not hard to accumulate 10,000 songs or more on your iPod - enough to play it for a month or more without repeating.  And nowadays, you can buy your music online for far less than the cost of a CD - and buy only the songs you want.  And since an online store can "stock" every single title, you can buy what you want to hear, not what is heavily promoted or in stock.

5. The Record Industry:  The industry itself is to blame, in part by calling itself the industry and not an artistry.  Record companies became very cynical with regard to their talent and their customers, and like the big-3 automakers, forgot what they were all about - and instead of selling value, merely concerned themselves with their own personal fiefdoms.  Most recoding artists received little in the way of royalties from recordings, so they had little incentive to record.  Touring became the name of the game, if you wanted to make money.

6.  Chasing the Tail:  With the Internet economy, it is possible for a band to "record" an album in their living room, using a computer.   Gone forever are the days of the "recording studio" with its millions of dollars of analog equipment and precious and expensive recording sessions.  An artist like Moby can record an album in his one-room apartment.  And since artists can "sell" their music directly to consumers on-line, the need for the recording industry is further diminished.  With the death of payola and radio, the ability of the industry to promote and "sell" an album is gone, for the most part.

7.  The Music:  20-50 years ago, the best music in this country was recorded by black people - R&B, Funk, Pop, Disco, and even the early rap.  What happened?  Today, rap has devolved into a posturing medium where the bad-assedness of the rapper is the selling point, with the shouting in the microphone being only secondary.  If old people listen to the music of their youth, I'm glad I won't be in the nursing home when the Lawrence Welk Rappin' Hour comes on, in the year 2059.  White music is even worse.  Poorly dressed teens with ski hats play instruments badly, sing off-key dirges, droning on about how their life sucks.  It's like punk rock, but completely devoid of any energy.  The Sex Pistols on Valium.  With products like these, what's not to like?  And granted, they have niche audiences, but little in the way of crossover.  You could sell Marvin Gaye to a wide audience of listeners.  Today's music is niche marketed.

But all that being said, this is a good thing.  Music is ART, not an INDUSTRY, and the attempts by the "Music Industry" to make itself into an "Industry" merely illustrated the crass commercialism of Pop music.

To be sure, there are still followers and adherents of the Music Industry.  American Idol is now the gateway to music sales, with more and more people listening to Pop music ballads.  But again, this is less about the music itself and more about the posturing of the performer.  And maybe the Music Video is to blame for this (an 8th factor, not listed above).  Video killed the radio star, it would seem (although if you watch MTV these days, there are no music videos to watch!)  It is not enough, anymore, to sell the song, you have to sell the dance, the costume, and the music video theme.

But again,  I think the death of the old music industry model is a good thing - we have more choices today, and more opportunities for bands to get ahead.  In the old days, maybe a few bands would "hit it big" and the rest be relegated to obscurity - doing weddings and bar mitzvahs.  The model today, I think, allows for more variation and innovation - and allows smaller acts to find smaller audiences.

One thing is for sure, I think, and that is the era of "Pop" music - when everyone, it seemed, listened to the same radio stations and hummed the same tunes, as they walked down the street - has been changed forever.