Sometimes its nice to return to those sites where one has left a comment, to see if anyone responded to it. Some blogs have a feature which notifies you when someone else responds. There is even a Web 2.0 application which does that job for you.
It was in such an act of trawling that I happened across a comment on Dave Hill’s post about the Amazon Kindle. The comment is a week old now, but still worth a response. Chip says:
I do fear that it would mark the death of novels in the way that MP3s are destroying the recording industry.
I think this is to mistake evolution for death. MP3s may be breaking the Music Industry’s current business model, but I see no reason why the model cannot change, to adapt to the new technology. At present, the way music is created and published is an anachronism. The standard album of about twelve tracks is a hang-over from the vinyl days – that was all you could fit on a 12 inch playing at 33 1/3 rpm. These days, since most music is released on CDs, you can fit a lot more than twelve three minute tracks onto an album. Double, in fact, yet the artists rarely use this free space.
Likewise with the three-and-a-half minute ‘single’ track, so designed for convenient radio airplay. If, in the future, most music is advertised online (via MySpace, say, or Last.fm) then time constraints are less of an issue. Control is returned to the artist, who can play on for five or ten minutes if they feel the need, without being labeled ‘indulgent’.
So, the idea persists that a musician should produce a coherent body of work of about three-quarters of an hour, cut up into twelve tracks, and that they should do this about once every eighteen months or so. The costs involved in this (studio time, a big marketing drive, and maybe a tour) have to be recouped by the label. All these considerations feed into the business model… and when the income demanded by this business model is undercut by MP3 downloads and sales, the new technology is blamed for killing off an industry.
The way music is published clearly needs to change, and embrace the new digital formats. Instead of producing an album per year, why not simply release a new MP3 track each month, or each week, maybe as part of a podcast? This would actually be more interesting, since fans could observe the development of an artists style over a much longer period. If the artist publishes a blog, and maybe a dynamic playlist (“Currently listening to…”) then the fans will be able to engage with the artist and their work on a much deeper level. Its no longer a case of ‘the difficult second album’ so much as the ‘difficult second year’.
As computer software becomes better, and computer hardware becomes cheaper, publishing high-quality audio becomes easier too, meaning that more people can create music. It is no longer the preserve of the elite, in their ivory studios, backed by big labels. If production costs go down, then break-even points are much lower, and fewer sales are required in order to recoup costs. And by releasing fewer tracks at a time, but with greater frequency, musicians will see a quicker return, too.
Finally, this model should also foster greater creativity, and better music. A favourite essay of mine, by a digital artist named Momus, discusses this point at length: For something to be ‘mainstream’, he says, it necessarily needs to be generic. Artists have to smooth their edge if they wish to appeal to a diverse audience with its own tastes (A pop music track of any given era sounds much like any other pop music track from the same era. This is because they are all compromises, attempts on the middle-ground). However, in the digital age, the global audience is big enough that a small yet viable audience can be achieved without the compromises of ‘mainstream’. Musicians can find a fan base, and give it what it wants. Even better, with a weekly or monthly MP3 release, the cost of ‘flopping’ is greatly reduced, allowing more risk-taking, experimentation and collaboration.
The MP3 format may be killing the music industry, but it is also the stork of a new kind of social market for music, where the money is spread amongst a greater number of artists. The distribution and pricing models are not in place yet, but at least musicians are trying new methods. Radiohead offered fans the chance to pay whatever they felt like for In Rainbows. Prince gave away his latest album free with the Mail on Sunday.
Continue reading “On Killing the Music Industry”