“The bricks and mortar of the music business, they don’t exist any longer.”
Ok. Here’s the deal. I am not a Grammy Winner and never will be. I am also not a producer. Similarly, I am not an engineer nor am I a choreographer or even a vendor. But, what I am is a journalist and a working musician and in my travels either performing music or writing about it, there is one inescapable conclusion that I have reached: The health of our industry is not good.
Why do I say that? Well, there are really two observations that I have found to be true over and over again. First, I cannot remember the last time that I have heard that anyone is really making money in music. Instead, I seem to see that contraction is much more common that expansion. “Retreating” is a good word I suppose. You know, we “used” to sell this or we “used” to buy that but, no more. For me, the digital age–which was billed as a renaissance of sorts–really started a downward trend particularly in music. In fact, I distinctly remember Metallica’s drummer championing the cause against free music when the Napster debacle hit (late 1990s-early 2000s) and that was the beginning of some of the problem, in my opinion.
“Napster hijacked our music without asking. They never sought our permission. Our catalog of music simply became available as free downloads on the Napster system.”
Lars Ulrich, Metallica
Additionally, despite warnings from some of our great musical minds exploitation of the digital technology began to come unchecked and run fast and furious. “Extinction” became synonymous with some of the very staples of our musical existence. Case in point, does anyone buy albums anymore? Yes, we all know exceptions but on a whole can we say with a straight face that most musicians are selling records?
I also started to see the contraction with vendors. Booths at NAMM starting to shrink, vendors discontinued promotional budgets or greatly reduced them, and, sales of higher end items began to drop. Additionally, to my untrained economic eye, I also started to notice that many things online were now “free,” that is, cheap in comparison to their predecessors that were not gratis.
“My own experience is use the tools that are out there. Use the digital world. But never lose sight of the need to reach out and talk to other people who don’t share your view. Listen to them and see if you can find a way to compromise.”
I still think about U2’s “free” release of Songs Of Innocence in 2014. I know there was a strategy to that but still. What were they thinking? I wasn’t raised on “free” music; instead, I remember artists trying to be fair but still wanting to get paid a decent wage for their work. Case in point was Pearl Jam’s crusade in the 1990s against Ticketmaster; the band argued for reduced ticket prices but not free shows. That explains why I supported Taylor Swift’s stance on getting paid for her craft when she expressed that view point in her open letter to Apple.
The second reason why I say the industry is not healthy is that in speaking with seasoned veterans I have been told the same story repeatedly; that job or sessions that used to exist no longer do so. I have heard the same story–told independently–by veterans over and over again; that’s a strong indication of veracity. The reasons for the decay in work are apparently many-fold; technology, lower budgets, and, outsourcing to cheaper vicinages, just to name a few. Regardless of the reason, the work that was once there is simply not there anymore and it is not coming back.
Wow, that’s sobering. Think about your own profession or industry–whatever it is–and imagine a large portion of it suddenly gone. By way of example, the United States Post Office is experiencing this effect now. In some circles no longer is the mail in vogue; indeed in some industries “regular mail” is passe’. Thus, the music industry is not alone in the atrophy of its workload however, there is an argument to be made that music has been hit harder than most. What Tom Scholz did in 1976–which was record one of the best selling albums of all time in his apartment studio and which was an anomaly then–is indeed the norm today.
In light of my observations, I began to wonder if I was misinterpreting data or sampling unrepresentative bodies of work. However, I quickly learned that I was not the only one thinking this way. Check out this trailer from a documentary entitled Unsound. The trailer speaks for itself.
So notwithstanding any naysayers in the crowd, I feel pretty convinced my observations are accurate. If I missed the boat I would certainly invite anyone to set me straight.
That then leads to the really important question–in fact, the ultimate question. What can be done to remedy the situation? What or who will fix the industry if it can be fixed at all? I am not qualified to provide that answer but I know enough to know that when I need a doctor that I call a doctor; a professional. I don’t self-diagnose or “Google” it. Here’s my point. Let’s face the fact that there is a problem. The symptoms are just too apparent to ignore–I cannot attend a dinner party if I am bleeding profusely. But rather than mask the dilemma with another fad or quick fix, let’s really tackle the problem.
Just remember this folks, it was not that long ago that “albums”–vinyl–were the thing. Then, “cassettes” were the thing. Well, CD’s are about to join the relic parade too if they haven’t already; they are about to become the newest thing (in the past tense of course). We can’t seem to live without music yet we don’t seem to notice that the proverbial ship is taking on water; or do we? In fact, do we really care? Our music industry might be dying right before our own eyes if we don’t watch it and I don’t think we need another award or reality show, or, another “free” app to solve our problem. We need real relief. People relief. Robots are not welcomed nor is autotune.
Memo to the music industry; it’s time to see a doctor. We are not well. Please call for an appointment as soon as you can.