Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Music Industry and Me

The other day I was listening to an online talk show about the decimation of the music industry. This is a story which has been recounted hundreds of times, of course, so it need only be summarized here. 

Not so long ago, the music industry was highly profitable. Both sales and revenues peaked around the year 2000.

Your interpretation of what happened next will likely depend on your age, your politics, and your philosophical beliefs about the nature of intellectual property.

According to one narrative, the generation that came of age in the last decade also came to see music piracy as an entitlement. They were abetted by a cadre of coddling adults (Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, etc.) who parlayed the evangelizing of digital utopianism into a business model: one that spawned plum book deals and paid speaking engagements.

A competing narrative asserts that the recording labels of the late 20th century were greedy, sclerotic dinosaurs who failed to adapt to inexorable technological changes. They engineered their own downfalls.

Whichever narrative you accept, one thing is certain: Music industry revenues are a little more than half of what they were in 2000. 

It isn't that people are consuming less music. Now, as then, music is more or less ubiquitous. The problem, rather, is that people aren't paying for it. The music industry has a highly popular product. It just can't manage to sell it.

Musicians can still, in theory, make as much money as ever on live performances. But there have always been millions of music lovers who rarely, if ever, attend live concerts. (In my music-loving days, I was one of these. I was never drawn to noisy, crowded settings, either for music or anything else.)

The cash cow of the music industry had always been recording sales. That revenue model has basically imploded. It has been replaced, in part, by paltry sales of digital downloads, and micropayments from streaming services. 

But these pale in comparison. It is difficult to make much money when you have to make it a fraction of a cent at a time. And while there are technically more musicians making money on the so-called “long tail" of the music industry, very few are making much money. 

No one in the music business is really happy with the new business model. It is, rather, a question of how much they openly kvetch about it in public, balanced against the fear of alienating their declining base of paying fans.

I used to be a paying fan of the music industry. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, a portion of every check I earned from lawn mowing or my sundry odd jobs was allocated to the purchase of music. Back then it came in the form of the vinyl album, purchased for $6.99 or $7.99 a pop.

I also remember this as a time when music industry executives were publicly fretting over the very low-volume piracy that occurred via the Memorex cassette tape. These complaints (which were often accompanied by appeals for a “piracy tax” on the sale of every blank cassette) never failed to irk the teenage me: It was true that my friends and I recorded individual songs from the radio, and we occasionally exchanged vinyl albums for recording amongst ourselves. But we still gave the industry a lot of our hard-earned money at the end of the day; and we certainly weren't uploading entire albums to the then nonexistent Internet.

I bear the music industry no ill will. On the contrary, during a particular phase of my life, the products of the music industry brought me considerable pleasure. I no longer have the need for music that I once did. But every now and then I will hear a popular song from 1983 or 1985, and I'm instantly transported backward to what the Canadian rock band Rush referred to in their song, “Red Barchetta” as “a better, vanished time.”

But my ultimate purpose here is to explore the question: Will the music industry ever make more money from me? 

Probably not. It is symptomatic of those of us in middle age that when we listen to music, we tend to listen to music that we already know. I still listen to Rush, AC/DC, and Def Leppard. But I couldn't name a Lady Gaga song to save my life. My active interest in popular music petered out around the time that grunge was supplanted by rap; and my knowledge of it is more or less frozen at that juncture.

I have a collection of 1980s-era CDs that I purchased in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I had previously bought almost all of this music in other formats: In some cases, in the form of the vinyl album, in others in the form of the cassette tape. I even had—and this will really make some readers cringe—a collection of 8-tracks during the early 1980s. (8-tracks were on their way out even then. As others were embracing the new technology of the cassette tape, I was clinging to those boxy old 8-tracks.) 

By 1998, all of my old cassette tapes and vinyl albums had been either lost or destroyed. I therefore considered my mass purchase of the CDs one of my rare, but necessary, concessions to modernity.

And while I still listen to these CDs on occasion, I will readily admit that I now find it much easier to listen to music on…YouTube. This is especially convenient for me because I rarely listen to more than a song or two at a time.

It is therefore not inaccurate to say that I have become part of the music industry’s problem. I haven't been a paying customer for fifteen years. And while I don't necessarily feel guilty for listening to (often pirated) YouTube recordings that I've already purchased in duplicate or triplicate, I realize that I'm doing absolutely nothing to help a creative industry that once enriched my life.

I suppose my assessment does not bode well for the future of the music industry as a source a viable careers and living wages. There is an old saying: If no one gets paid, then eventually nothing gets made. As it becomes ever harder to make money as a musician, fewer people will decide to take a gamble on what was always an uncertain profession. (But a profession that could—with hard work, dedication, and a bit of luck—potentially pay off under the old business model.) 

I dabbled with the six-string guitar for a while in my early teens and quickly gave it up. It takes a considerable investment of time, effort, and money to become a professional-level musician. And after you master an instrument, you have to find bandmates who play complimentary instruments, write original material, and market yourself as a band.

The members of all the great rock bands—the Rolling Stones, Def Leppard, Rush, Aerosmith, etc.—made that investment for the love of music, but also because the potential rewards were high. How many kids will be willing to make that investment nowadays, if the only potential reward is the 1/100th of a cent micropayment on Spotify or Pandora—divided among four to six band members? Why not become a CEO or a brain surgeon instead?

The creatively rich music industry of the late 20th century may turn out to be a historical anomaly. I wish it were otherwise. But I’m glad I was here for the golden days of the great rock band—even if the occasional $7.99 vinyl album was the cost of admission.