The music business today is so oft bemoaned; you’d think it’s bound to collapse at any minute. “Piracy is killing the music business!” “There hasn’t been any good music since the 90s!” “Record labels are obsolete now that we have iTunes!” All frequent complaints, but what does it all mean? Are declining record sales killing artists? Is the digital format the end of record labels? And why does it seem that every music video you go on seems to have a torrent of comments complaining “They just don’t make them like [insert band older than 2001] anymore!” Let’s explore these phenomena of the modern music business.
First, let’s quickly address the complaints about digital sales and the record industry, as I’ve written an entire essay on that alone (which can be seen at http://ljfacesthemusic.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/record-labels-in-the-digital-age/). While it is true that distributors obviously lose money if they don’t have any physical albums or CDs or whatever to move, but all this means is that record labels must evolve. And while artists can self-release music to the internet directly, they still don’t have the connections that record labels have, and they never will. Record labels have access to Hollywood, which means lucrative licensing deals for TV and movies. They have connections with hallowed producers and venerated studios, resulting in focused, higher-quality recordings. They have connections with bookers and promoters, which means shows, which is where the majority of the money in music is made these days. In short, record labels will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
As for piracy, this is a much more complicated issue. On the one hand, yes, it is directly impacting the profits an artist makes, and for underground artists, this can be a dire blow to their financial viability. Underground artists don’t have the fanbase required to make their record sales something they can live off of, so touring is important to them as a source of income as well as promotion, but every little bit can help, and when a source of income is severely reduced, this can mean that underground bands have to quit because they simply don’t have the means to continue. So while it is not true, as some argue, that because music isn’t the enormous money maker it supposedly used to be, musicians don’t bother trying to make it in the industry, because if someone is passionate about music they’ll do it anyway, it is true that the viability of this endeavor is damaged. I will discuss the implications of this later on, but let’s consider the other side of music piracy. Artists like Arctic Monkeys actually achieved success partially through the free distribution of their music, as it was a huge promotional tool. This resulted in their tours being incredibly successful, and they were subsequently catapulted to the forefront of the UK music scene (which is notorious for its overhyping of young bands, and it could be argued whether this had a positive or negative effect on Arctic Monkeys, but that is another matter). In all, it seems perhaps piracy helped them in the long run. Disturbed is another band that has come out in defense of the phenomenon of file sharing. Frontman David Draiman has always supported file sharing in a sense, as successful bands make most of their money on touring and licensing anyway. Before music services like Spotify, he suggested a fee was enacted on ISP’s to compensate for the free downloading of music. With the rise of music streaming services like Spotify and Slacker, however, which, for a nominal fee, one has the ability to stream unlimited music, without ads, on their computer or mobile device, there is very little excuse for the legitimacy of internet piracy.”Make no mistake, however,” says Draiman, “that the culture that has been bred over the course of the last 10+ years of simply thinking that all music should be available for free is wrong and immoral; plain and simple.” The incursion on the income of artists has resulted in so-called “360 deals,” where record labels take a chunk of everything that an artist does, which invariably hurts the artist, and by extension the fans. When bands, particularly underground bands, often stream their whole discography through things like Bandcamp, the “try before you buy” excuse, which follows the logic that sampling an artist’s music for free before getting invested in concert tickets, t-shirts, and albums, is increasingly an invalid one when it comes to file sharing. And while there is some appreciation to be had for the idea that music ceases to be an enterprise driven by profit when it is freely available, and becomes when driven solely by artistic endeavor, this is unfortunately not a reality, because in order for an artist to continue making music with the focus that it demands, they need to be compensated. It is hard to imagine The Beatles would have created ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ if they were all forced to hold down day jobs. Art has never functioned this way, and seeing as pop musicians are unlikely to find patronage as their peers in the conventional art world do, the realities of the current music industry become apparent.
So then, how does this affect the supposed decline in quality of music? Why doesn’t the music you like get the exposure it deserves? Why aren’t there any new, exciting musical movements popping up and taking over what is perceived to be a bland, homogenized musical climate? Well, for one, you should stop complaining just because the music everybody else likes isn’t the music you like. But more seriously, there is good music coming out, you just have to look a bit harder than looking at the popular music trends on YouTube or Spotify. This has always been the case; to look for the up-and-coming trendsetters and game-changers, you had to look harder. Only now, instead of digging through the local mom-n-pop record shop for a record by a label you were cultishly devoted to, you have to comb through music forums and the like. Mainstream staples like MTV were never a haven for some musical utopia (‘120 Minutes’ notwithstanding), you had to be devoted to a scene. And this is where it gets interesting. Rather than sitting around, pirating only the music you’re directly exposed to and complaining about it, in order to affect a direct change in the music scene, you have to go out and support the music scene directly. Because when you go out to local shows, buy t-shirts, tickets, albums, talk with the band after the show and get really involved with the music you love, you have a hand in their success. Bands go out of their way to tour extensively and foster support for them. Sometimes, if enough public support is made known, your favorite underground band from all the way out in Connecticut might just make a stop at your small town in suburban California. And if enough people get involved, it might just be enough to launch them into the public sphere, where they can actually affect a change in the overall musical climate. This is how every musical movement since punk rock started – just average fans supporting their bands. When you pirate music, don’t bother looking for good bands and just sit around complaining about the mainstream, then you’re more a part of the problem than the solution. If you don’t like how something works, change it! Do something, get involved! That’s the only way it is ever going to happen.