The record industry is dying, and in its desperate attempts to stay alive, is embarking on an aggressive and desperate attempt to halt and reverse the fatal consequences of inexorable changes that the internet has brought. The advent of broadband, and the Torrents and Peer2Peer networks mean that it is no longer necessary for music lovers to pay for albums and singles. They can be downloaded for free instead, which is illegal but viewed by most as entirely legitimate given the extortionate cost of music in shops, and the essentially parasitic role of the record industry.
The record industry will be viewed by history as a particularly greasy middle-man that performed a necessary function in the era when mass production was needed for the dissemination of music. Now the music can be transferred digitally, and the production of physical goods is unnecessary.
Savvy bands such as Radiohead and Muse are exploring the possibilities of releasing their music through their websites, with downloaders choosing how much they pay for individual tracks or albums. This can include paying nothing, as many chose to when downloading Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. The media made great play of this, to deride the experiment as a failure, but it is worth noting that despite this freeloading, Radiohead made more money on In Rainbows than any previous album, because the dead hand of the record industry was not there to cream off most of the money paid.
The minority of fans that can afford to, and desire to, pay a decent amount for an album or individual track, makes it worth a band’s while to release music this way. There are some fundamental, and positive changes I can see happening as a result of new technologies changing the shape of music, and relegating the record industry to a footnote.
Firstly, that the album as the staple crop of bands will die. Bands will release new songs or batches of songs as and when they are ready, and this will reduce the effort and time wasted on filler tracks. It will also allow some creative combination and recombination of these tracks by fans, who can create their own albums and maybe even post them for download on the band’s website. There may still be albums released, particularly concept albums, but the creativity of the band and their fans can lead to new forms of releasing and presenting music, away from the mass-production driven strictures of the album + singles straightjacket.
Secondly, the death of the record industry will lead to a flowering of quality, and a reduction in dross. The model of making money with the death of the record industry will no longer be hyping and marketing fairly crappy acts, to the exclusion and obscurity of good music. For a band to flourish they will need either mass following who are willing to attend live gigs or like the act enough to voluntarily pay for music, or a small but dedicated following willing to do the same. Some crap will still slip through the net, but more importantly, better bands will flourish and receive more exposure, and more fans.
Thirdly, the new model will allow new and obscure bands to break through, if they have the talent. At the moment, with only a few examples such as the Arctic Monkeys, notable for their rarity, for a new band to break through requires the marketing budget of a record company. The record companies are no less idiotic and wrong headed than in the days of Decca turning down the Beatles. Like the pharmaceutical industry, they eschew innovation and originality for a copy of the last big blockbuster. The litany of dreadful Coldplay knockoffs after that tepid indie band’s inexplicable success is one of many appalling examples of this.
Music fans in the past have relied on word of mouth or seeing a band in the flesh to discover great new acts. No longer. At zero cost, today’s music fan can discover all sorts of bands they never would have heard of if they relied on the mainstream media and the record companies’ marketing. Once these bands are discovered, they can then benefit from bigger crowds at their live gigs, and greater future downloads of their music, with more money voluntarily paid to them.
Now, this is a very optimistic view, but I believe the future is bright for music fans, and for (good) musicians as well. It isn’t so good for the record industry, which is why they are appealing to the capitalist state’s interest in upholding private property to get it to clamp down on this. But this is a bit like the Catholic Church trying to clamp down on Galileo’s ideas once he had expressed and disseminated them. This is progress of a sort that cannot be stopped by repressive state action. It can be halted or slowed down though, and good people can get hurt along the way.
Some of these, who ran the Pirate Bay website, have recently been sent to jail in a disgraceful verdict in Sweden. The fight for this better future for music lies in not only overthrowing the capitalist state in order to remove the brake on progress, but in defending those who seek to improve things within the framework of capitalism also. The Norwegian political party Rodt has set up a campaign to support them here. Also make sure you check out the Pirate Bay website itself.