An armchair general saves the music industry, part two

>> Friday, February 01, 2008

(YESTERDAY in part one, I had the unmitigated gall to suggest that the biggest problem with the music industry, and a major cause of declining sales, was that the industry had become an unhealthy monoculture. I also promised a history lesson to explain why another solution to the problems of the music business might be to give music away. Today, our not-so-thrilling conclusion to the blatherings of a music-obsessed idiot.)

At this point, I’m afraid a tiny nibblet of music history is in order. Once upon a time, musicians made their livings (when they could) by playing live. That was the bread and butter. You went on the road, and you played for your dinners.

You could maybe supplement that by going into a studio and recording a song yourself—usually at your own expense or the expense of a small-time producer who would probably end up taking most of whatever profit you made. There were only a few national labels—almost a monoculture, except the nationals didn’t have that far a reach and there were a lot of little tiny regional labels only a collector’s heard of.

Pressing a few hundred copies of a single wasn’t going to make you rich, but you could send them to radio stations or try selling ‘em, and so singles could promote your live performances. And that was the real reason for cutting a single, to get more people in the door at a show (even today, most musicians are paid for live gigs with a percentage of admission revenue).

Now, it came to pass that there were two American corporations that were in the home entertainment business—the technological side of the home entertainment business. They were the Radio Corporation Of America and the Columbia Broadcasting System, and they sold radios and gramophones (there were a lot of other companies, but these are the two that interest us for the moment). The gramophone, of course, was the first method invented of distributing music into the home. Of course, the funny thing was that RCA and CBS weren’t necessarily interested in gramophone recordings as an end as much as they were interested in gramophone recordings as a means to an end: getting people to buy gramophones. Indeed, much as we’ve seen in recent days with the feuds between Betamax and VHS or Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, there tended to be a conflict among companies between the urge to produce proprietary media (media only playable on compatible devices) and standard media (media playable on any device). (In the wax cylinder days, the industry players agreed on a standard format, much as industry players would for CDA a century later.)

RCA’s standard gramophone format was a platter that played back at 78 revolutions per minute. The fidelity was pretty good, but at that speed the record finished playing after a few minutes. CBS had another idea: longer recordings playable at 33⅓ RPM. You see where this is going, right? Columbia’s format had fidelity issues: you could only cut the grooves in a record oh-so-close-together and oh-so-deep before you ran a risk of the playback needle bouncing right off the record or skittering uselessly across the surface. But you could get a long classical piece that fit onto fifteen of the RCA discs onto three or four of the Columbia discs. Yeah, it was kinda like what happened when CDA replaced vinyl and what’s happening with MP3 and CDA now—there’s nothing new under the sun, etc. Eventually RCA came back with a little record that played at 45 RPM that you could almost put in a coat pocket; that was great for a three-minute single, but you still couldn’t get an opera on it.

Of course, there was more of a market for the short, pop music stuff than there was for the classical. But Columbia was invested in a long-form technology that distributed music in roughly 34-minute chunks. So when CBS began selling LPs after WWII, one of the things they did was contract with pop artists like Frank Sinatra to sell ten-song collections of the artist’s work. And that’s where the album really came from—it was a way to sell record players by bundling together media that previously would have been sold separately in single-song bits. The benefit to the artist, of course, was that the recorded music promoted those live shows. Except….

…Except that hanging out in a studio and doing live shows on the radio, while hard work, isn’t nearly as grueling as a tour can be. And in the post-WWII prosperity there was a lot of money to be made filling the demand for new media—TV, radio, and record players. A number of artists, with Sinatra leading the way with his “concept” LPs for Columbia, began recording albums as artforms in their own right, and not merely as repackaged collections of singles used to promote tours.

Roughly within a decade (i.e. around the end of the 1950s), the LP had turned the music industry on its head. The album became the fundamental unit of music distribution, instead of the live performance. Touring was reconceived as a way to promote the album instead of the other way around. And that’s how things stand now, bringing us back to the original topic:

The second way to save the music industry is for artists to return to touring as the primary means of making a living, giving away albums if necessary.

Now, let me say: that’s a helluva thing. I adore the album as an artform, and the album is a separate musical form. Sgt. Pepper’s and Dark Side Of The Moon are more than the sum of their parts. And, contrary to what the conventional wisdom keeps saying about “the album is dead,” bands like Wilco and Radiohead continue to prove that there’s an art to making a solid block of songs that work together as an experience distinct from listening to the songs individually. (Go, sit in the dark with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or OK Computer and come back if you really feel like arguing any part of that point.) But the album’s viability as a commercial artform is questionable. This isn’t anything unique to music: there are a lot of reasons that plays, movies and books are generally getting shorter that have little to do with “short attention spans” or other insults to the public; I think it’s even debatable whether there was ever a wide market for longform art, but that’s getting far afield. The bottom line is that I hope Radiohead releases an In Rainbows every two years for the rest of my life, but I can’t realistically hope those recordings will feed the band or buy them nice houses. Selling concert tickets and t-shirts to the people who have heard In Rainbows--even the ones who paid “0” for it at the official site or booted it from a torrent site--will keep the band in comfort and finance the next recording.

I don’t think I’m the only one seeing this: a big deal is made over Radiohead and Madonna ditching their major-labels, but folks like Chuck D. have been looking at alternative business models/independent distribution methods for more than a decade. And the “give away music to get people to come to our shows” has been a viable model for They Might Be Giants for twenty years.

Obviously this model doesn’t save the Big Four (or any other label), since it effectively takes them out of the picture entirely. You might even say it destroys the industry to save it: all the artist needs is a web presence, management, and maybe a small label to assist in distributing physical media—a role that can be filled by artist collectives like United Musicians or artist-owned labels like Righteous Babe far better than by Sony BMG or EMI.

Is that the future? No idea. But this much is clear: the thrashings of the Big Four are the death-throes of dinosaurs in a changing environment. My hope is that their deaths will make way for the mammals, but we’ll see, won’t we?

(An essential source for this post that didn't quite fit into an in-text hyperlink was this first-hand account of the Columbia-RCA rivalry and Columbia's development of the 33⅓ LP by one of the men who was there when it happened. I strongly recommend you go take a look--it's a great story.)


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