On Killing the Music Industry

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.

PrinceThe 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.

Afterthought

The comment is a week old now

So I said above, apologizing for responding to something so old. People only tend to comment on recent blog posts. This practice, too, is a hang-over from TV and print media, which necessarily deals with current affairs. However, there really is no need for such a news-cycle to persist onto the blogs, which have unlimited space, and exist outside of time.

6 thoughts on “On Killing the Music Industry”

  1. Hmm. I have some issues with mp3, but not that they are killing the established music industry, which is greedy, bloated, risk averse and has lost interest in anything except shifting units.

    Firstly, the sound quality. Mp3s sound ok on an ipod, with minimal amplification and, at best average, earphones, but plug them into any decent system and they sound awful. Tinny, lacking in depth, no dynamics, and in fact with some of the frequencies missing.

    Secondly – In creative terms, I think the album is still a benchmark of excellence, capturing a creative peak in a signature body of work recorded over a relatively short period of time, often, although increasingly not always, in one place. Most people still associate Jimi Hendrix with Electric Ladyland, the Beatles with Sgt Pepper, Pink Floyd with DSOM, The Smiths with Hatfull of Hollow, Blur with Parklife, The Verve with Urban Hymns, Radiohead with ok computer etc etc. Albums are about capturing a time and a place as much as showcasing the technical talents of the musicians.

    Thirdly, the limitations of the album were indeed initially set by the physics of viynl recording, but the 12 ish track, 2 side format was kept long after it became technologically possible to go much further. CDs have been around since mid/late 80s and are still by far the dominant format. Maybe this is because, coincidentally or not, 45-60 minutes feels like about the right amount of time to listen to one artist. Long enough to become absorbing but short enough not to become boring. Like it and you can play it again, don’t and you can change it.

    Thirdly, the business model will have to change and, as you say, it’s not clear how. Only 10 years ago the standard way to make it in music was to spend an apprentiship, anything from a month to a decade, touring pubs and dodgy clubs, in the back of a van up and down motorways, playing to often unnapreciative audiences, whilst holding down a menial job or living in penury. This went on until you got spotted by an A&R man or a manager who thought you had potential, you got a recording contract which either ripped you off or set you up with lifelong fame and fortune. You could argue that this created an elite, or that it created musical excellence. I would argue that this apprentiship system has served Uk music well, and enabled one of the smaller countries in the world to produce a disproportiante amount of the best popular music on the planet for over 40 years. If being a musician now simply involves recording in your bedroom on a laptop and then uploading to the internet, where is the talent, the perseverance or the passion ? More importantly for the musicians, where is the money ?

    Fourthly. I think digitisation has changed what used to be the social nature of music. There’s something about sitting in a social space and isolating yourself with your own individual soundtrack that I find horribly clinical and, in it’s true sense, anti-social. It makes music disposable, transient lines of machine code, and inevitably de-values it. Music is not meant to be solitary and bespoke, it is meant to be social and democratic.

    As someone who remembers the saturday morning ritual of going to a record shop, to browse, chat and maybe buy some music, or the teenage thrill of playing a coveted album one for the first time, I could well be drifting into nostaliga – arguments about technology killing the music industry have been going on since the advent of the casette tape. Even synthesisers were initially seen as a threat to “real” music – but at the same time is it a coincidence that the Uks relevance as producers of popular music has coincided with the most recent paradigm shift, and mainstream music is dominanted by reheated established acts, and the products of TV “talent” shows ?

    The afterthought is a good point, but the layout of many blogs makes finding historic posts difficult and time consuming, plus you always feel a bit of a berk commenting on something that was last commented on x years ago.

  2. All good points. On the ‘social’ front, I recall reading somewhere that in the past, gigs were used to promote albums, because that’s where the money lay. Nowadays, albums are used to promote gigs. One would hope that new technologies – the same blogs and mailing lists I alluded to above – also allow better communication about gigs and events. Facebook is very good for this, and I’m part of several groups for unsigned bands that I really like, and I’m at pretty much all of their gigs as a result.

    “Where’s the money?” is of course they key, something I didn’t address above. I’m not envisaging a situation where every music producer gets instant fame and fortune. I still think the ‘apprenticeship’ model would remain. I just hope that the point at which people find it a profitable venture arrives earlier, and that more people reach this point. The down-side to this is that the ‘fortune’ aspect may diminish. As Momus says in the essay I linked to: “Everyone will be famous for fifteen people.” The small number of millionaire musicians are replaced by a large number of artists who are simply ‘salaried’.

    Linking in with the ideas of culture and shared experiences we’ve discussed elsewhere – yes, this is perhaps where the the model is left wanting. But as I’ve said above, if gigs and festivals remain, then one would hope that those seminal moments continue. Although albums are very famous, its usually only one or two songs that become the “track of the summer”.

    Finally, you’re right about the MP3 quality. But these problems have always been with us, what with people listening to songs on cassette, or taping the Top 40 countdown off the radio. I think, much like the demand for opera, classical concerts, or even the organic fruit & veg section at Waitrose, there will always be a residual demand for vinyl, played on a high-end hi-fi.

    interestingly, MP3s also suffer from similar restraints to vinyl or CD. At current broadband speeds, a five or six megabyte file is the sort of thing that can be e-mailed or downloaded quickly, and therefore conveniently, by the consumer. For a three or four minute music track, 192 kbps has become the norm. But there is no reason why, as hard-drive space and broadband speeds increase, that 320 kbps should not rise in popularity… or even delivery in the richer, bigger .WAV formats.

  3. Ooh, you’d better watch it, Rob. Haven’t you heard? Prince is demanding every image of him be removed from the internet, and suing anyone who disagrees.

  4. I agree and I enjoyed your response, Robert. Perhaps I was too hasty to say MP3 is destroying the music industry. I should have phrased it ‘causing problems for the music industry’. Clearly things did need to evolve. However, my point was really about book publishing and the role of the writer. That’s what concerned me the most. Blogging is a worrying model for electronic books. I write full time and make no money from it. Why? Because I give everything away free on the web. Okay, some might say I’m not good enough to deserve payment, but I do see my work appearing in newspapers in that ‘on the blogs’ format they’re so handily using to fill pages without paying writers.

    These electronic books could be a huge problem for the industry if people took to them in a significant way. Fortunately, books are still the low tech preference for the vast majority. People enjoy the feel, look, heft, smell, and general physicality of a book. Should it change, I can’t see an obvious way to prevent widespread theft of copyright. They say newspapers will disappear in ten years. It’s not a good time to be a writer. The increasing screen sizes of iPods/iPhones, and the whole way that technology is leading us to a portable multimedia format, suitable for everything from newspapers, books, comic, films, and music, the harder it will be for writers to earn money from their work unless a different and workable revenue model comes along at he same time.

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