Has Online Audio Distribution Destroyed Music as We Know It?

Illustration by Tom Gauld, www.tomgauld.com

As a member of the so-called Oregon Trail Generation, I first experienced online music sharing and downloading in my freshman year of college (or university if you live anywhere other than the US) with my roommates PC in our tiny dorm room, connected to the university’s (lightning fast at the time, snail’s pace in hindsight) Ethernet.

Image: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/03/17/parker_fanning_on_napster/

We sat up late at night eating lightly seasoned, uncooked ramen noodles crushed and straight from the plastic packaging. We sat, drank Bicardi Limon and waited for our download of Eminem’s latest track. Or maybe it was Hoobastank? Or was it Papa Roach? This experience was at once liberating, yet slightly guilt ridden. Music, before this, felt like something more honest, tangible, approachable.

As time has progressed, access to music online has grown easier and faster, until it is now virtually omnipresent. As a musician and avid devour-er of music, this is something that has deeply affected my very existence. The music industry, music itself, is not what it once was.

For the Oregon trail era punk rock kids, you might know a band called The Suicide Machines. Perhaps their 2001 album’s ironic title, “Steal This Record”, was a commentary on the coming age of digital music file sharing, considered stealing by many.

The immediate and unlimited access to everything via the internet, is particularly important and problematic for musicians. This is certainly not a new issue. Artists like Dr. Dre and Lars Ulrich were at the throat of Napster in its infancy, almost before my roommate could complete his download of Paul Oakenfold’s most recent club mix. Outrage and outcry continues to fill the headlines as artists like Taylor Swift speak out against sites like Spotify.

I’m not sure we should worry about the welfare of these artists, however. Big names are still able to keep plenty of food on their plates through live tours, promotions and advertising. But for those young independents just starting out, breaking out and making money through your recordings has become much more difficult, some say impossible.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons

Music is exponentially more accessible, and at the price of nothing. All this at the unfortunate expense of many young artists hoping to sell it. As a musician, a part of me understands the rage felt and expressed by some of today’s leading artists. How dare someone take what is not rightfully paid for!

The Musician’s Dilemma

On the other hand, as an unknown musician, a part of me titters and revels in the state of things today. The playing field was leveled by a file sharing atom bomb what feels like ages ago. However, that same bomb which potentially put unknowns like me on the same level as Taylor Swift, has also sheared off our arms and legs with free and over-saturated musical shrapnel.

Access to Everything = Over-saturation

The ease at which the public can now access music online poses a dilemma for musicians, especially new, up-and-coming ones, for several reasons. The fact that everyone has access to your music means that you now have access to everyone. While theoretically this means that you have the opportunity for unlimited exposure, the over-saturation of online music means that you are very likely to be lost in the flow.

There is too much content to sift through out there. How can new and unknown musicians rise above the masses? When anyone and everyone floods the musical market, it becomes increasingly hard for one band, artist or songwriter to stand out in the flow to be heard and earn a living by making music.

Illustration by Tom Gauld, www.tomgauld.com

This over-saturated access to everything at once can be overwhelming and frustrating for users and potential listeners. It has also resulted in access to an inundation of lot of poor quality music. Some may give up and not be willing to sift through the multitude of half-assed material until they reach your auditory gems.

Why would they pay for it?

Why would someone pay you for your music, when they can have it for free? Sites like Youtube, SoundCloud, Spotify, the list is endless, offer increasingly easy and free access to music. With enough data on your phone, even downloading can become obsolete. Throw illegal downloads (“Piracy!” they cry) into the mix and things do not bode well for artists and producers.

Image: Google, Creative Commons

This leaves many musicians feeling disenfranchised. Faced with the feeling that no one cares about what you do and the reality that you probably can’t make money doing what you love, this may lead many talented artists to simply give up.

Is the Music Industry Dying?

Enter the music industry you say? Where are the producers to help these young independent acts market themselves? To be fair, we do still see instances of this.

However, according to Gene Simmons, finance focused record labels exist to hoist up and reap the profits from a chosen few. In an interview with his son, for Esquire, Simmons states that “Rock is finally dead”. He takes it further to say that it did not die of old age, it was murdered. The culprit? He points the finger at (surprise, surprise!) file sharing and downloads.

You simply can’t earn money for your music anymore, he says. No one is willing to pay you for it. He adds that the recording industry is also dead, especially for rock acts. Although he says that record labels are still working for genres like pop, rap and country, songwriters in rock, blues and soul should abandon all hope. Simmons claims there are no record labels to support them. He says you’re better off auditioning for The X-Factor, than putting in work on an instrument and honing your craft.

Dave Grohl, in an interview for Delta Sky Magazine, also speaks out against contest driven music programs.

“Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f****** hours with 800 people at a convention center and then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not f****** good enough.’ Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians!”

OK, so I’ve gotten a bit off topic, but bare with me. There is a connection to be seen here. How different is standing in line at a convention center from sitting in an endless digital queue of songs? Are musicians on the internet essentially waiting in an endless line hoping to be heard only to be told that no one wants to buy their music?

Image: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-05-24/how-itunes-destroyed-music-business-1-simple-chart

Sales of music, including digital music have been steadily declining for years. It seems that listeners simply aren’t interested in paying. They are not being convinced that purchasing music has any benefit for the listener. Read here for one writers opinion of how iTunes destroyed the music business.

Image: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-05-24/how-itunes-destroyed-music-business-1-simple-chart

The Music Industry Strikes Back…

The recording industry has begun to tighten its squeeze on the free trade of musical property. Some speculate that the age of free music is nearing its close.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons

Under increasing pressure from record labels, SoundCloud may be moving towards paid subscriptions.

According to statista.com, Spotify doubled its worldwide paid subscribers from 10 million in May 2014 to 20 million in June 2015. Total users increased in that same time at a slightly lower rate, from 40 million to 75 million. Is it possible that more users are being enticed into paid services?

Apple recently announced that they would be joining the streaming wars, with the pending launch of Apple Music on June 30th.

Other sites like Rdio, Beats Music, Rhapsody, Google Play, Tidal and a plethora of others continue to offer paid services that many are willing to pay for.

Can this save the starving musician? Probably not. More than likely this will continue to fill the pockets of the already famous, while most independent musicians will continue to go unnoticed.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons

Is this really a new trend? The success of the privileged few at the hand of the upper tier of the economic spectrum is anything but a new concept in a capitalist market. Am I whining? A little. But to be realistic, the uphill battle for the struggling unknown artist to gain popularity and eek out a living is probably not much different now than from the age before online connections allowed us to skirt copyright laws with greater ease.

Two sides to the blade

There are, of course, those who applaud the way that online distribution has changed the game. It’s undeniable that there are benefits for musicians in this new system. Others are are unhappy with the changes and feel they are detrimental to artists and the music industry.

Carl Wilson, a music critic for Slate Magazine, defended the online distribution. He was quoted in an article on thedailybeast.com:

“The industry losing some of its control has been positive, just as I hoped it would be at the time — the wide-open way music is discovered today has broken down barriers between genres, between the ‘commercial’ and the ‘artistic’, between audience niches.”

In the same article, Jessica Hopper, editor of Pitchfork Review and band advice columnist for Village Voice, did not have such positive things to say:

“I think the ease of being able to obtain music for free instantly has diminished its value. A lot of musicians write….with questions about if they should even bother charging for music because they know everyone expects to just have it for free.”

Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, believes that free music will save the industry, not kill it.

“We’re getting better and better at giving upcoming artists exposure on the service and creating tools to give those new artists a way to market themselves. In the future, people will listen to more music from a bigger variety of artists.”

Regardless of ones opinion, things have changed and to avoid dealing with them would be to admit defeat. Are we headed for Don McClean’s apocalyptic vision in his song “American Pie”?

Image: Flicker, Creative Commons
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
- Don McClean — American Pie

Or will musicians continue to find new and innovative ways to challenge the system? As for me, I’ll agree with Huey Lewis and the News:

Now the old boy may be barely breathing
But the heart of rock and roll, heart of rock and roll is still beating
- Huey Lewis and the News — The Heart of Rock and Roll

Musicians Never Say Die

For Dave Grohl, there is still hope for young independent musicians:

“Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old f****** drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll f******* start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s***** old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-a** s***, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a f****** computer or the Internet” (from his interview with Delta Sky Magazine)

Ultimately the incredible thing about music is that it transcends issues of money. It’s not something that can ever fully be harnessed or monetized. It resides in our very anatomy, an organic extension of our emotions.

Image: Flickr, Creative Commons

Those young kids will always be in that garage, playing their instruments terribly until their fingers bleed. Until suddenly, one day, they’re not so terrible anymore. Perhaps they’ve become great. They may not be able to reap a hefty profit and earn a living by selling their musical product, at least not in the ways of past generations of musicians. Yet, they will still inevitably be there, creating the music that may one day inspire a generation of listeners. Maybe they’ll work their butts off to properly market and promote their sounds using the limitless tools available to them online. Maybe they will spark the interest of the right label executive. Maybe we’ll hear them on Spotify or SoundCloud. Maybe we’ll pay for it. Maybe we won’t. But we’ll hear them.

So, is the music industry dead? Probably not. Is Gene Simmons’ version of rock dead? Probably. Has music changed? Of course. Has music been destroyed? Never.

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