A great article on the scary state of the music biz.
A couple of things to note: First, if you look at the graphs, teens spend more on those pesky ‘physical formats’ than millennials. My guess is that this is because teens aren’t yet ‘free’ enough from their parents to pirate as much. In other words, the parents still have a modicum of control and, old farts that they are, encourage the kids to get ‘real’ CDs. My next guess is that this will fade over time.
I cannot stress enough how much the current income system (which values live performance but de-values the actual music being performed) hurts the quality of music.
Next, in the comments, it’s pointed out that one reason ticket prices are now so high is because live gigs are the only way most artists can actually make a living. So they compensate for the loss in album sales by jacking up the live ticket prices. This makes perfect sense to me, even though fans will likely (and rightly) feel screwed. There’s also the question of gentrification which I won’t get into here but it does seem to be worth noting that when an artist needs to charge $100 per ticket to make up for no album sales, then what does that do to the fan base? It creates yet another haves/have-nots class system where only the wealthy get to actually see the artist and the rest of us schleps make do with Youtube videos.
But I digress. Here’s the really interesting thing for me. Where the author says “And that brings us to one of the biggest advantages of live gigs: scarcity. In the end, a concert can’t be instantly copied and duplicated, and neither can the social, in-person aspects that come with it.”, he’s pointing out an important truth: so long as ‘the product’ cannot be contained, it will continue to move towards a zero value. In other words, if you can’t control the supply of a thing, it’s essentially worthless.
I believe that it is very possible to control the supply of music. After all, money has been, for many decades now, an ephemeral thing. It is not backed by gold. It is traded electronically. No one even needs physical ‘cash’ anymore. And yet, it’s supply is scrupulously monitored and controlled.
Music is in the terrible state it now finds itself because the people who created the web and the software, did not want it to be controlled. They are of a generation that believed in ‘free access’ so they didn’t try too hard to make music like money, ie. a managed commodity. And the adults back in the 90’s were too stupid to see this great truth and thus let it happen.
What I find galling is when people say, “Data wants to be free.” No, you want data to be free. ‘Data’ itself wants nothing. We actually can manage non-physical containers very nicely, thank you very much. Just go on-line to yer bank account if you don’t believe or buy a Bitcoin if yer of that ilk. It’s very possible to control non-physical assets.
I believe that music stinks so much these days (and so much of it does) because we haven’t realised that controlling scarcity actually improves the quality of the art. There’s this wholly stupid notion started back in the day which said that somehow making music ‘free’ would improve the quality of the art. This logic says that the more art people make, the more chances there are for great art. Well, as anyone who has used a drawing program and a laser printer can tell you, more art doesn’t mean more great art. It simply means more art. A lot more art.
The idea of free opportunities to get your music out there was intentionally conflated with the idea of making the product itself ‘free’. Basically ‘free’ became this all-purpose catch-phrase; kind of like how tea-party people now use the word ‘liberty’. It means whatever you want it to mean. So ‘free’ can mean, ‘free access for musicians to potential audiences’ but it can also mean ‘free access to content’. But those are very different things.
Do I know how to get the genie back in the bottle? Sure I do. That’s simple. The big boys (Apple, Google, AT&T, Comcast, etc.) control the front end. Don’t kid yerself. If they decided to make a concerted effort to create properly encrypted containers for music the problem would get sorted out. There just has to be the will to do it. Sure hackers would try to disrupt such efforts, but eventually a way would be found–just as with on-line banking. And note that I didn’t mention record companies. They are no longer part of the equation because they don’t control the container (the bits of data).
The real reason there is no will to fix this is because all these Interweb companies have perverse incentives to not lock down music. In other words, they make money off of piracy and any attempts to control it would slow the sale of iPhones and data plans. And we can’t have that now can we? Oh and I didn’t mention that you, dear public, don’t want this either because, hey, who ever turned down ‘free’? In other words, the number of high-minded people who say they want artists to get paid yet who still steal (..er… ‘download’) music is pretty darned high.
But here’s my real point (I finally got to it!) I cannot stress enough how much the current income system (which values live performance but de-values the actual music being performed) hurts the quality of music. Some of the best music made in the past fifty years was made in the studio and is meant to be listened to. The end product is the album. Yes, one may perform the pieces live, but the real sound is the album. I contend that the records we like best simply would not exist if the artists knew they would have to play them live. When you make music knowing that the ‘real’ deal is the live show, it can’t help but affect the music you make; and not for the better in my opinion.
A live show is a visceral thing. It’s meant to hit people at that gut level–which is great, don’t get me wrong. But a good album in contrast, is a much more involving and ‘cerebral’ deal. One can concentrate on details and layers that simply can’t be accessed in a live performance. When one makes a record that is really meant to be listened to repeatedly you make completely different choices as to arrangements, emotions, basically everything. And since I make those sorts of albums, since the music I’ve enjoyed the most in my life (the entire oeuvre of progressive rock) were made as such self-contained works, I’m biased towards this type of art.
If you value music that is created for listening then you will join me in figuring out a way to lock down music; to make it something that is not ‘free’. You’ll support the idea of managing the scarcity of music content as we do with money so that artists can get paid for the work they create as opposed to the current system which only rewards for performance.