Hey, have you guys heard of the Internet? You know, that weird thing that made porn so much better and basically changed everything forever? Yeah, that thing. Now that we’ve been hanging out in Internetland for nearly 2 decades, it seems that most industries have, more of less, caught on and embraced what the digital world means for their business; we pretty much never have to leave the house to go shopping anymore, and who even remembers the last time they wrote a check for a utility bill? So, it stands to reason that if the most boring, banal industries can get onboard with being online, then certainly industries that are creative can get down too, right? Eh, maybe not as much as you might think.
It seems, rather, that of all industries, music has been the one to encounter more friction as it fights against the evolution and growth of technology. It turns out that selling a creative product does not necessarily equate to operating a progressive industry. Legal disputes over piracy and copyright issues have been prevalent in the media for over a decade now, all essentially coming back to the same question: how do we, as an industry, combat the access that technology has given music consumers that risks to undermine our entire way of doing business?
And it’s a legitimate question. Historically, the success of a thriving music industry relies on record labels and music publishers acting as gatekeepers. They are the doormen to whom music fans have heretofore been required to pay a cover if they want access to the music they want. For basically the entirety of the 20th century, if you wanted to consume music, you had three main avenues: radio, live shows, and buying records/cassettes/CDs. That’s it.
On the other end, if you were an artist in the pre-Internet world, you were equally dependent on big labels to raise you out of obscurity and give you a platform and an audience. Whereas today, being an “indie” band means nearly limitless possibilities as far as amassing fans, going on tours, and selling albums. No magical gatekeepers required. And using the old music industry model, keeping revenue in its proper channel was easy enough.
So how did it change? We don’t need to belabor this story; we all know it: The Internet came along, and readily started unraveling the seemingly unbreakable relationships and processes that kept the music industry hierarchy in power. Suddenly, listeners could not only hear, but possess whole albums, whole anthologies – for free. Record labels, artists, and pretty much everyone else on the music industry payroll was cut out of the equation. Needless to say, they weren’t thrilled about this. Enter years of lawsuits and efforts on the part of the music industry to compete with the insurmountable allure of “free.” (Turns out, “illegal” was a pretty decent weapon to compete with, but that’s another story.)
To be fair, the music industry/consumer relationship has seemingly reached a slightly more stable truce in recent years; online streaming services and digital music sales have at least begun to monetize music consumption in a digital world. So why does it still feel like listeners and labels are at odds with one another, with artists sitting like confused kids in the middle of a bitter, lingering divorce?
One possible answer: the big music industry institutions are still continuing to view listeners are just their customers, when the new reality makes them something much closer to colleagues.
When labels look at listeners solely as consumers, they are faced with the challenge of keeping them in line with methods of music consumption that feed listener dollars into label pockets. But if the music industry shifted their perspective and instead started to regard listeners as vital, active, valuable parts of the music machine, and actively embraced them as such, it might suddenly be a lot easier to keep them close. It’s a whole “catching more flies with honey than marketing” situation.
Think about it like this: no matter what industry you’re looking at, people are infinitely more likely to patronize businesses where they feel some personal connection. Give someone a chance to have a real stake in something and you won’t have to worry about their loyalty; supporting your business turns into supporting their business. And the same principle could very well hold true for music.
How exactly? Here we go: One of the big problems with the whole music-industry-meets-the-internet problem is that artists and listeners can now find each other directly, effectively cutting out major labels, A&R reps, and publicists in the process. Over the last decade or more, artists have learned (to varying degrees of success) how to perform most of those functions for themselves. Are artists still using labels and publicists? Sure, of course they are. But lately that’s seen as more of a luxury. Bands are no longer formed with the mission to “get discovered and make it big”; they’re bred with the goal to “DIY really, really well…and then make it big.”
Part of the reason for this way of thinking goes back to what gave big labels so much power in the beginning: how out of reach “being discovered” felt. The unique, special quality of being tapped by a label rep to be worked with, recorded, promoted and sold as a super star was something that only happened to a special few… and being among those few had as much to do with luck and timing as it did with talent. Which is essentially what gave labels so much power. They picked (and in many cases, created) the music stars. So when the Internet came along and artists realized that they now had the tools to build their own brand, they began doing so with gusto. Now, toiling away in local dives waiting to be discovered wasn’t the only option. Bands could record music, distribute it online, find fans, book tours, sell tickets, albums, and merch, and Tweet their own 140-character press releases. Meanwhile, cut to all record label execs everywhere, basically losing their shit.
But, as things tend to do, the situation didn’t stop evolving there. Artists having the ability to be their own hype machine meant that eventually the Internet would inevitably become a whirlwind of white noise – too many artists trying to sell themselves too eagerly, with seemingly less really quality, innovative music showing up at all. As it turns out, the “waiting to be discovered” thing gave bands a lot of time to actually work on creating interesting music because that was the part of their business they were responsible for. By 2013, with so many artists taking on responsibility for every aspect of their careers, is it possible that the quality of the music is suffering? A lot (I mean, a lot) of listeners would say yes. And there it is: it turns out, disassembling the established music industry as it’s existed for nearly a century has a downside (and for this argument, we’re just talking about a creative downside; that’s not to mention the sheer number of jobs that are lost when a major entertainment industry takes a hit like music has in the last 15 years.)
So here’s the new conundrum: at this point, artists and listeners alike are finding themselves a bit nostalgic for the pre-internet revolution days of the music industry. The problem is that what has been seen can’t really be unseen; the curtain has been lifted, and listeners and artists are no longer in the dark about how the music machine actually works. Furthermore, they’ve been in the driver’s seat for too many years to completely hand the wheel back to the big labels.
So what’s the solution? That’s when we get back to the idea of bringing listeners into the process in a more direct way. If labels can find a way to benevolently insert themselves into the platforms where artists and listeners are meeting and exchanging music and providing feedback, then maybe everyone can play ball together. Rather than trying to push listeners back across the line from choosing what they like to being told what to like, if labels can find a way to not only accept the power of the internet crowds, but harness it, then they could find themselves in a terrific position.
The fact is artists and listeners have had a good number of years being largely in control of their business, both of buying and selling music. But wouldn’t it be beneficial for everyone if they could avail themselves of the power and resources of big industry entities without feeling like they have to be shut out of so much of the discovery/production/sales aspects of things? And wouldn’t listeners be potentially a lot more riveted with a more diverse selection of truly original music if bands could spend more time in the studio or on the stage than they did managing their PR?
Clearly, no matter how the chips continue to fall, there’s still a lot to sort out as to how the music industry is going to look going forward. But one thing is clear: violently scrambling to put artists, listeners, and label folks back into their “proper”, pre-Internet roles is never going to happen. Everyone involved would be way better served if the big industry heavyweights could realize that they’re never going to see a return to unmitigated control over music – but that they still might be invited to hang out if they can begin to embrace everyone’s new roles and they authority each party has.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.
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[Image of music listener from Shutterstock.]