An armchair general saves the music industry, part one

>> Thursday, January 31, 2008

While I was showering for work the other morning, it occurred to me that my post the other day about Paul McGuinness’ speech on the tribulations of the recording industry, I offered a lot of criticism and not any real solutions. It’s easy to offer criticism without offering alternatives.

Not that my alternatives mean anything more than my criticism: I’m not a recording industry professional, merely an interested (sometimes obsessed) music fan. So anything I say around here is me being the classic armchair general. Or, to paraphrase the old line about a critic being like the eunuch in a harem, I can offer advice on how it’s being done but I can’t do it myself.

On the other hand, why should that stop me?

I actually do have some ideas about how the music industry can save itself. The problem is that those ideas don’t leave much of a place for the Big Four and therefore aren’t all that grounded in the contemporary reality. Nor is it likely the Big Four will save the industry by fracturing for the good of art and commerce. What’s far more likely is that we’ll see a bunch of failed schemes along the lines of what McGuinness proposes as the Big Four, the telecoms, and the legislators they bribe influence vie for power, perhaps abetted by the companies vying for control of your living room—Apple, Microsoft, and (sometime schizophrenic Big Four member) Sony.

Fracturing the industry is one solution, tho’ it probably isn’t going to happen. Part of the industry’s woes stem from the fact that the industry has essentially become a monoculture. “Monoculture” is—I hope I’m not oversimplifying too much—a biology term for a population in which genetic diversity has become minimal. Because of this, monocultures are notoriously susceptible to catastrophe: there’s not enough genetic diversity for the population to adapt to a new stressor in the environment (e.g. climate change, epidemic, big rock from space), so a new stressor wipes the population out.

Let’s say there are only four major labels, and each one of them is pushing “the next Shaun Cassidy,” all four of them are shitouttaluck when all of last year’s 14 year-old girls turn 15 and start pining for “the next Robert Smith.” And this last bit is inevitable: last year’s 14 year-olds will turn 15. Pig-tails will be replaced by black nail polish (don’t take that line literally, adjust it for your relevant decade), and everything turns, turns, turns. A few acts always surprise everyone by outlasting their expiration dates (“runners,” you might call ‘em; The Beatles were one, Justin Timberlake might yet prove to be another), but for the rest, nothing (there are very good odds Brittney Spears is on her way to joining Herman’s Hermits and New Kids On The Block; sorry, Brittney, your palm is blinking).

When there were more majors and mid-levels, the industry as a whole was in a position to weather the changes in the environment. A label heavily-invested in acoustic-guitar-playing singer-songwriters might be in rough shape when the Age Of Disco dawned, but the industry as a whole would march on. But now it’s like everyone is over-invested in one or two things. And tastes change.

There’s another major solution I can see that, although it’s been suggested before, goes against roughly sixty years of habit, tradition, practice, and conventional wisdom. And it’s another option that’s good for bands and good for music and good for the industry but bad for the big four labels. And that’s to give away the music.

(COMING UP NEXT: In part two we take a historical interlude in which we discuss how Columbia Records' need to sell hardware turned the fashion by which musicians made a living on its head, and propose a new paradigm for success in the music industry that really isn't.)


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