Tuesday, March 29, 2011

there is nothing wrong with the music industry

I've had a fantastic few months of touring this spring, with wonderful, soul-expanding shows all the way across the US and the UK. I've also had a really prolific few months of writing, with my next album simmering on the front burner of my mind (if not yet in reality). I'm feeling generally lucky and happy and musically satisfied. However, one question keeps prodding the back of my mind.

What is the deal with the music industry?

There was a time, or so I hear, when there were these things called Major Labels. They were presided over by fancy-suited executives, and bankrolled by glittering rockstars, who sold millions upon millions of records. Due to the success of said rockstars, said executives could afford to "invest" in small time artists like myself, in hopes that they, too, would become glittering rock stars. We're not talking small change, either; an investment in a new, unknown but promising artist could easily climb into the millions of bucks.

Then, along came Napster. People started stealing music, instead of buying it. Suddenly, a multi-billion dollar industry started shrinking rapidly (music sales in the US fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.1 billion in 2010.) *Thanks to Iain Drummond for the correction, lifted from the NY Times.

Nowadays, an artist like me would be considered lucky if a tiny, sickly record label could come up with $30,000 to invest in my next album (and remember, I would be effectively selling them the rights to all the music on that album for a fairly measly price).

But, here's the funny thing, which you won't read in the papers. The aforementioned statistics are for record sales, which are traditionally the primary revenue source for record labels. Sales have never been the primary source of revenue for artists. Artists make the bulk of their money from royalties (the money we make when our songs get played on the radio), licensing (the money we make when our songs get used in a TV show or movie), and live concerts. Interestingly, overall revenue from live concerts has actually doubled between 2000 and 2007 (from $1.7 t0 $3.9 billion).

That means that, while the selling of records may be a dying industry, the selling of tickets and songs is still a vital and growing one.

I am writing this overly academic, potentially boring blog post just to bust a single myth, and here goes: there is nothing wrong with the music industry. Musicians make music, people listen to music, love it, and are willing to pay for it. All that's changing is the format: people don't pay so much for recordings, and they don't like to buy full-length albums. That means that the record industry is, indeed, on its way out.

The only effect this will have on artists is that the churning, growling, multi-billion dollar machine that is the record industry, which has perfected the art of turning musicians into pop idols, is a thing of the past. That means we might not get turned into pop idols so fast or so often.

To put all this in perspective, let's take a moment to consider the history of the record industry, as I understand it.

1890s-1910s: Edison invents the phonograph. Phonographs are too expensive for the average person to buy, but jukeboxes come along, and soon enough, record companies are selling about 3 million records per year to keep juke joints stocked with the new stuff.

1920s-1930s: Gramophones and vinyl records (10 inch, 5 minutes per side) are invented, and become affordable to the general public. Quickly thereafter, however, radios also become affordable and available!* Sales plummet. This is the first great record industry disaster.
Sales recover slowly as the US comes out of the great depression.

*Footnote: Also in the '30s, some businessman realizes that the only way for records to rival radio is if record labels make their artists sign contracts limiting their freedom to record/perform for other companies or media outlets. Those contracts mean that if the average music lover wants to hear Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives, she'll have to buy the record from Okeh. Modern record contracts are born!

1950s-'60s: The first LPs (25 minutes of music per side) become available to the general public. Also in this decade, somebody invents the multi-track tape recorder, which allows musicians to record several instruments at once, and go back in and edit any tracks that weren't perfect (up until this point, all recordings were live). Bands like the Beach Boys and the Beatles exploit multi-track technology for all its worth
(try to imagine "Pet Sounds" without multi-tracking).

1960s-1990s: The golden age of the record industry. The age of pop stars, Cadillacs, and the rock and roll lifestyle. Platinum records, concerts in amphitheaters, screaming, fainting fans. During this time, it was actually possible
to become a millionaire just because you were good at music.

1990s-2000s: As the internet worms its way insidiously into millions of homes throughout the western world, Napster, Limewire and etcetera are invented, giving any teenager with a phone line the ability to get all the music he desires for free. Even those teens on the straight-and-narrow tend to buy single tracks from iTunes, rather than full-length albums from record stores. This is the second great record industry disaster, and quite possibly the last.

I say all this just to prove one point: the record industry was short-lived, like the corset industry. Realistically, the demise of the gold or platinum record is but a footnote in the long history of music and musicians. Mozart didn't sell records, and nor will the musical geniuses being born in this decade. However, as Gillian Welch poignantly made clear, "We're gonna do it anyway/even if it doesn't pay". People will always make music, and if it's good, other people will always want to hear it. If the record industry is dead, I say good riddance.

And good riddance to the rock and roll lifestyle. I will settle for being a thousandaire. I am not really that much into hookers and blow, anyhow.


  1. I <3 you for writing this--of course, I am also a total nerd, so, y'know, take my love with a grain of salt.

    Don't knock the hookers and blow, either. Maybe they're only really excited if you're also totally wasted and exhaustingly tired.

  2. Good stuff, well written and informative.
    Although I would point out that the 60s/70s also gave us payola scandals and the consolidation of radio stations limiting the platform for new talent.

    Thanks for allowing us to read this.

  3. Hey now!

    Nice. An edumacation! By the way, that somebody who invented multi-track was none other than the great guitar maker, recording pioneer, guitar virtuoso, Les Paul.

    Thanks for the lesson, Carsie!


  4. I spent days at a major music conference hearing about and trying to absorb, what you said so eloquently here. 3 cheers!

  5. Agreed...it's been quite an interesting past decade in the evolution of the music industry. I have still yet to meet an up-coming artist who has knocked music downloading. They've all said the same thing - the interwebs have been the fastest way to disperse their music throughout the world, building the fan base that has made posible their tours and shows.

    Another interesting influence of the web has been not just dispersal of music, but also dispersal of information. It's so easy now to follow your favorite artists, and the web opens an entire new world for promoting and marketing concert dates as well as anything else artists are willing to share, such as these wonderful thoughts. I'm loving the age of music we are living in. I wonder what Mozart would write about if he had a blog like this?

  6. Great post, Carsie! Thanks for sharing. :)

  7. I agree that there isn't anything wrong with the industry because when it comes down to it, the music industry is about just that - the music. There will never be a shortage of those making it and thanks to the ever-evolving interwebs, there will never be a shortage of ways to find it.

    But the thing to remember is that the same crap will always sell. Maybe not in the same form from year to year but if it isn't a suit with money promoting Britney Spears from no-talent to even-less-talent, it will be the bastards behind Rebecca Black pimping out the latest, mindless pop idol on YouTube. So that won't ever change unless we, as a united front of universal music listeners, stop paying attention to that stuff. But that's besides the point.

    Record labels have tried so hard to hold on for dear life, especially with that ever-precious 360 deal. But the truth is it's time for a new approach to music "publishing" and I don't think anyone but the record label execs are really upset about that.

    Also, as just an aside (because this comment is long and obnoxious enough), I've often questioned what ultimately led to the success of Napster. I mean yes, we're all perpetually looking for free stuff, that's the way of the world. But this stealing and, most importantly, unbundling of music, did it cause a decline in music quality or did a decline in music quality force us to say "I'm so over paying $20 for a CD that has 2 good songs, so I'll just steal it instead." which then caused an onslaught of other crap? Chicken or the egg?

    Yeah though, bottom line - nothing to be afraid of.

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  9. A concise, clear, right-on summary. I agree. So much so that I quoted you on my facebook page. Thanks!

  10. Nicely done!

    A couple of additions:
    1) "During this time, it was actually possible
    to become a millionaire just because you were good at music." Actually I think that the musicians who became millionaires were the ones that did not sell or give-away the copyrights to the songs that the wrote.

    and 2) It looks like many artists are making there own cd's to sell on the road, and also posting them on iTunes, eMusic, etc. Not much $$'s involved but they "get the word out." and, someday, those cd's and or digital downloads might go "viral," and the musicians might profit, at least for a little while.