The Music Industry Is Indeed Doomed
As Thom Yorke said in a recent interview for a British civics textbook (how great would that textbook be, by the way? I don’t remember reading any interviews with Brian Wilson when I was in school). The timing of this news is fortuitous, because I have been spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about the music industry these days, for two reasons.
The first is that I just finished a group project about GrooveShark for my Electronic Commerce course at Yonsei GSIS. The company streams music, largely illegally, from a huge library built from user uploads. The group’s original assumption was that the company, which had already been sued by EMI, was doomed. Further research revealed why EMI was the only record label to sue GrooveShark, and why the record giant decided to settle and now licenses its music to GrooveShark: record labels are not doing so well, and they are now forced to seek out revenue streams wherever they exist. Streaming music is an underdeveloped industry, in that there is money to be made there that nobody has really figured out exactly how to make yet. The hurting record industry is giving a pass to companies like GrooveShark in the hopes that they will figure out how to turn streaming music into money. The old model, where radios and videos serve as advertising for CD and concert sales is giving out.
And then there’s the personal reason. I’ve been working on my music a lot. I’ve set September 1 for myself as the deadline to finish my current project, and I’ve been teaching myself home recording. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in collaborating, let me know). Seeing how the tools of production are falling in the hands of literally anyone with a couple hundred dollars and the inclination leads one to realize startling things about the relationship between technology and art. For example, I was listening to the Portishead album Dummy, and I suddenly realized that someone much more talented than me using modern-day software and hardware only slightly better than mine could very easily produce an album pretty close to Dummy in quality, upload it to the internet themselves and cut out the music industry entirely. I was out at the disappointing Georgia Wing in Gangnam the other night, and I realized that most of the pop songs playing on the satellite radio were all digital, with the occasional guitar, but that I, with my absolute bottom-of-the-line equipment, have access to the same basic utilities that the producers of these top 40 hits do. Look at someone like Don Glover aka Childish Gambino, who raps about how he produces professional quality music in his bedroom and distributes it for free. There is really no longer any need for aspiring musicians to appeal to the big record labels for record deals and studio time when the cost of producing and distributing music on your own is so low.
This is a bad time to be in the music industry. The money’s drying up. I think my daughter’s generation will look back and marvel at how much money had once pooled up there in the first place. It’s like the ice industry. Before the invention of refrigeration, supplying ice was a big complex endeavor, but people loved ice enough to pay for it. They would probably still pay the same for it now if refrigeration suddenly disappeared, but it’s here to stay. People love to make music. People love to listen to music. The music industry developed when making and accessing music were both expensive endeavors. They no longer are. As long as people can make music and be reasonably compensated for it they will continue to do so.
For some, just being listened to is compensation enough. This is what garage bands represent. Because garage bands did it for the love, the poor sound quality that doing it on their own resulted in became proof of independence. Eventually, lo-fi became fetishized as some sort of bona fide of authenticity. With the technology we have now it’s neither hard nor expensive to sound good. That’s why my ancillary prediction is that the lo-fi aesthetic will be decoupled from the concept of authenticity. I’m sure people will still make lo-fi music, and I have no idea what type of cultural signifier it will serve as. But I do know that, with the price of sounding good constantly falling, sounding bad will be an ever more conscious choice (see the Mountain Goats’).