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.