Kids, Thank Your Parents For Killing the Music Industry
When I was young, I was taught to respect my elders. I didn’t, of course — who would? What was so great about them? So they fought in a war. That’s a good thing? What, were we supposed to hope for a war to make us great? What kind of lunacy is that? Respect my elders? I could barely comprehend them.
Nor do I labor under the illusion that our children will think any better of us. Sure, we’ve learned to be better parents than our parents were to us — we don’t belittle our children or beat them, but we’re sure to have screwed them up in ways that will only become apparent once we’re too old to do anything but say, “oh well; we didn’t know any better.”
There is one thing that my generation deserves recognition and praise for, however; something that, while admittedly not as epic as fighting a war on foreign soil, was certainly an unequivocal victory for the forces of good—we killed the music industry.
This may not seem like a big deal, especially to those too young to know what life was like when radio and MTV were the only music delivery services available to the public, when the music in your library was dependent on whatever happened to be in stock at your local record store, but it is.
For music lovers, these are bounteous times. There’s more music being made today than any time in recent memory, and it’s all far more available than ever before. The cultural seeds that were planted in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s have taken root, and once-fringe musical movements like ambient, minimalism, post-punk, music concrete, and minimal wave have been rediscovered by new generations, who are twisting them together like so much cultural Play-Doh.
Today’s music makers are, for the first time ever, able to draw on the entire history of recorded sound, most of it now only a mouse-click away. And, thanks to the proliferation of music-making software, they’re creating exciting new sounds at a rate unthinkable in the days when the expense of studio time and the scarcity of record contracts stood in the way of many a would-be musician’s full creative expression.
To be fair, the death of the music biz (and let’s be fairer; it’s not dead, just a veritable zombified corpse of its former self) was, for the most part, an accidental suicide. Caught between the public’s voracious appetite for new music and its own unquenchable greed, the industry leapt headfirst into digital technology whilst failing to anticipate the consequences of a format that could be endlessly copied with no decline in quality.
And lest we forget; this was always digital’s selling point; it wasn’t some sneaky back-door hack that no one could have possibly anticipated. Digital was about improved quality and the purity of that quality down through endless generations. This is what made digital appealing; every other previous method of sound reproduction, from wire recorders to magnetic tape to metal master plates to digital audio tape, suffered quality loss as a result of reproduction.
But the digitization of music wasn’t the beginning of the present musical Golden Age. Portability was the first revolution. From tape-trading to file sharing, freeing music from the confines of the record room and the concert hall enabled just about every modern musical genre, from punk to hip hop to world music and beyond.
The Internet didn’t create music sharing, it just happened along at the exact right moment. A confluence of events — the proliferation of home computers, easy access to the internet, and affordable disc burners — caught the music industry unawares, and by the time it knew what hit it, the business had lost the stranglehold on music distribution that was its primary profit source.
But it was us, the Napster generation, the mothers and fathers of today’s youth, whose passion, ingenuity, and love of music in all its forms, ended the reign of the major labels.
The death of the music business was a long time coming. From the beginning, it was an industry built on exploitation and fraud. Throughout the entire history of record labels, artists have always been given the smallest cut of the take. The justification goes like this: because record companies assume all of the costs of recording, production, manufacture, and distribution, they need to take more than they give to artists, especially considering that the vast majority of releases do not recoup the costs of their creation.
All of that is more or less true, but it’s an argument that presumes that record labels are necessary in the first place. They’re not, of course, nor were they ever. Clearly there can be music in the absence of the music industry. Music existed for eons before anyone thought of selling it for profit. What there can never be is a music industry in the absence of music.
Sure, our means of consumption would have been different; but who’s to say this would have been a bad thing? In fact, one could easily make the argument that had modern man not been trained since infancy to consume culture rather than to create and/or participate in it, the world would be a vastly better place.
Regardless, the music industry stopped actually being what we imagine to be “the music industry” as soon as once innovative, talent-nurturing labels such as Elektra, Atlantic, Island, and the rest got swallowed up by the mega conglomerates that took control of, and swiftly ruined, every decent record company in the world. Today, Universal, Sony, and Warner Music control about 80% of the music market.
Of course, the fact that the industry of the post-digital ‘80s and ‘90s discouraged originality, innovation, and development (or, more accurately, so tirelessly pursued quick-hit acts that everyone else mostly got ignored, the end result being the de facto discouraging of innovation), didn’t mean people stopped listening to and enjoying music; far from it. In the post-Nirvana Valhalla that was the industry’s final yawp before shriveling to its current Wicked-Witch-of-the-East-like proportions (what was once a fearsome demon is now just a pair of fake shoes, in other words), records and CDs were regularly setting new sales records.
But that only goes to prove my point; people will always enjoy music — it doesn’t even have to be “good,” it just has to be music.
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” as William Congreve (and not Shakespeare, despite what you think) famously wrote. Maybe in his day that’s what it did. These days, however, music does far more than soothe: it gets us moving; it riles us up; it can make us angry; it can make us cry; it can make us literally jump for joy, for crying out loud; it’s even used as a device for torture. That’s how intensely physical music is. It’s up there with sex, and to many record collectors I know, it probably tops the charts. Congreve (who also gave us another line, “Hell hath no fury…,” that frequently gets mis-ascribed to the Bard) knew this, actually, which is why the full verse, which remains little known, is much more effusive in its praise of rhythm and melody:
“Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast
to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.
I’ve read that things inanimate have moved,
and as with living souls, have been informed
by magic numbers and persuasive sounds.”
— The Mourning Bride, Act One, Scene One
Thinking that there would be no music without the music industry is like thinking there could be no drugs under prohibition, or thinking that there would be no live entertainment without Ticketmaster. The music industry, like most industries, if you follow the Marx & Engels line of thinking, is built upon pure exploitation. It’s a con game; a way for no-talents to exploit the talented-but-not-business-savvy. It was never anything but, and the fact that it enabled so much great art along the way is in no way a testament to its greatness, rather a testament to the unstoppable power of music. It’s neither surprising nor impressive when people who are explicitly in the talent-exploiting business successfully exploit talent; it’s literally their only job.
All of which isn’t to say that the music industry hasn’t helped plenty of musicians. If you’re lucky enough to score a contract, and you’re lucky enough to post impressive sales on your first release, you may be able to make a go of it in the industry. But if you’re among the 99.999% of musicians who don’t, the industry has nothing to offer.
The good news is, thanks in part to our generation, musicians don’t need to rely on the industry anymore. The means of production are now within everyone’s hands, and the D.I.Y. ethos that blossomed in the post-punk era (punk rock itself, was—ironically—largely a major-label-funded movement; pretty much every album from the original punk era came out on a major) is alive and well.
And if you doubt my words, take a look around you, and if you’re not too middle-aged and cynical to recognize the ridiculous amount of truly amazing music being produced in the world right now, you’ll understand what I mean.
There are those who claim that it’s much more difficult for musicians to make a living in the post-industry era, but that position necessitates a bit of revisionist history. Being a musician, a painter, a poet, a sculptor — or following any creative pursuit, really — has always been a rough way to make a living. That’s no argument for not doing it, nor has it ever been.
It’s also worth noting that the exploitation and thievery of the major labels has, in many ways, simply been replaced by the exploitation and thievery of YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, and other streaming music services, but sites like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, MySpace (remember them?) et. al. provide musicians with multiple free and easy means to get their music out in front of the public, something that was never an option for previous generations.
The fact remains that whatever the music business was in its heyday, it’s clear what it is now; a glorious irrelevancy. And now you know who to thank.