Fans Not Only to Blame for “Music’s Lost Decade”
In a CNN.com article last week, they called the oughts “Music’s lost decade,” citing the meteoric decline of sales during the ten year span. Between 1999 and 2009, music sales went from $14.6 billion, to $6.3 billion; a decline of over half.
Of course the main cause cited was people downloading music illegally, and the slow transition of the music industry from hard copies to digital downloads. Without question, this is certainly a factor in the decline of revenue, but really is this the only cause, or even the main cause?
Since sales have been declining 8% annually, the scapegoat for the music industry has been the dirty illegally downloading consumer, but a study by the British group Forrester Research at the end of last year paints a different picture. As reported by UK’s The Independent:
“People who illegally download music from the internet also spend more money on music than anyone else . . . The survey found that those who admit illegally downloading music spent an average of £77 a year on music £33 more than those who claim that they never download music dishonestly. . . “The people who file-share are the ones who are interested in music,” said Mark Mulligan of Forrester Research. “They use file-sharing as a discovery mechanism.””
And nobody is asking why these consumers are so willing to steal their music instead of paying for it. Few fans care about propping up the corporations that distribute music, but do want to support the artists themselves. The common perception is that when music is purchased, very little if any of the money actually goes to the artist, not only prompting consumers to wonder why they would pay for the music in the first place, but also painting major music labels with a bad brush, like they are making money off the hard work of the artist, but giving very little of it back. Then there’s the stories about major labels manipulating artists’ music.
But maybe the problem is much deeper, and rooted in the lack of variety and creativity coming out of the music industry today, and the recent consolidation in the industries that are meant to promote and distribute information about music.
Radio stations have been consolidated to control cost, driving real live DJ’s underground and replacing them with syndicated national shows or pre-formulated satellite feeds that are voiced over by local “DJ’s” coming in and out of commercial breaks, thus offering little or no locally generated music content. The media has consolidated as well. Many locally-oriented outlets have gone out of business or are facing budget cuts, and the few outlets left rarely dig to find that fresh voice, they want to land one of the big artists that can assure interest by readers.
Bleeding regionalism out of music has meant the mid-size, second tier musician has been squeezed out of the promotion process, and that minor league of musicians where new talent and fresh music perspectives can be found is circling the drain. When combined together, these smaller acts used to generate a sizable amount of album sales. Major movements in music like Grunge, the last significant movement in popular music, started as a regionalized movement that eventually went national and international to boost music interest and sales.
The news that people are spending less money on music is not good news for anybody: the industry, artists, fans, and the overall health of music in our culture. Sure, I think it serves corporate music right that there’s less money flowing into their coffers, but it also makes me worry that music is heading into a dark age, if it is not already there.
Country music isn’t dead. Music is dead, period. And if the music industry wants to find a way out of this tailspin, they have to stop looking at the fans they still have as the ones to blame, and start looking at themselves. Their complete lack of creativity, their insistence on pushing what is safe instead of taking risks on new artists and new movements, their overbearing control of the creative process during recording, and their near puppet-master manipulation of artist’s careers also all has to be questioned.
PS: I have never downloaded even one song illegally off the Internet.
February 9, 2010 @ 1:48 pm
After taking a break from new music for at least 5 years (I’ve lived off of older pre-oughts music), I’ve started getting interested again. Guess what started it, Hank III. First time I heard him, I knew I was hearing something different and new (not that crap pop-country music). Since stumbling across him, I’ve since started listening to Those Poor Bastards, Beirut, Elliot Brood, Raconteurs and a whole slew of others. By himself, he has rekindled a love of music within me and has started me on a journey of finding those artists that are refreshing and deserved to be listened to (unlike the polished crap that is being put out by the industry).
I blame the lost decade solely on the record industry, they came after swappers, they dumb downed the music, and made it generic, to the point it all sounded the same. Long live the independents!
February 9, 2010 @ 3:09 pm
It’s funny because some of my current favorite bands are regional favorites that come through every year. I pay $10-20 in cover to see these bands kick ass ever year, yet I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a CD in an actual store.
I have found myself more likely to buy merch at shows lately. Last weekend my friend asked me why I would drop $30 on two CDs at a show. I told him it was my penance for music downloads in college.
I can say with complete honesty that if it weren’t for “illegal” downloads off Napster back in the day, my brokeass 18-year old self would never have listened to Hank III. He definitely would never have listened to Hiram Hank. I would probably still think Radiohead was the coolest band on the planet.
February 9, 2010 @ 5:21 pm
I’m with Big A.
If it wasn’t for music downloading I wouldn’t have spent as much money as I have AT SHOWS happily paying for merch and cds directly from the artist (or their merch person).
With that said, I haven’t illegally downloaded music since probably 2002. I feel much more comfortable buying via online retailers such as Amazon’s MP3 store or CDbaby.com than illegally downloading.
I still buy cd’s in stores every now and again (there are some good record stores in Seattle still) but at the same time, I’m ALWAYS disappointed that they have hardly any albums by my favorite artists.
P.S. One local record store up here had “The Devil Makes Three” filed under Pop / Rock. True story.
February 9, 2010 @ 5:57 pm
Well Big A and Nlindsey, you’re just helping prove the point.
The other thing that British story pointed out was that if you put the brakes on illegal downloads, you would be putting the breaks on the best mechanism for artists to promote their music. Since radio, Rolling Stone Magazine, etc is only for the spoon fed, audiofiles find their music through other avenues, file sharing, and podcasts which rarely play by licensing rules either.
February 9, 2010 @ 7:28 pm
There’s a book I recently read about copyright laws that touched on the argument that it’s not possible to compete against illegal downloading because it’s free. The author argued that yes, it is possible, and it’s by making the user’s experience better than the free option. That’s why I love CDBaby.com. Most of the time even if they don’t have something you want to buy, their suggestions for other artists you might like are actually really damn good.
I don’t recall the name of it, but I remember reading an article about a music-store site where the prices would vary based on users input. The owner’s argument was something along the lines of, “why should it cost the same price to buy some forgotten track off an old Bread album as it does for something that’s inherently better?”
February 9, 2010 @ 9:05 pm
I love CD Baby as well. Why? Because its mostly real, genuine, and original. They’re artists who aren’t being “spoonfed” to us. No “suit” is deciding what goes on or what gets released.
Let me tell you a secret Nashville, LA, NY etc… WE love Hank 3, Dale Watson, Lucky Tubb, The .357 String Band, Bob Wayne, Joe Buck, Billy Joe Shaver,…etc, because they are personable. They’re in touch w/ their fanbase, REAL people. Take note and get a clue.
February 10, 2010 @ 12:53 am
CD Baby opened up online distribution for a lot of artists, and it deserves huge Kudos for that. Also something that a lot of fans don’t know is that CD Baby offers a service to artists where you send them in a master of the disc, and then for a small fee, I think it is $35 or something, CD Baby puts the tracks on iTunes, Amazon.com, and makes them available for Rhapsody and Real Network as well. Of course, all these other things compete with CD Baby, but CD Baby understands that artists need help with that kind of stuff, so they do it anyway.
February 10, 2010 @ 5:36 pm
I work for Real Networks and now I finally understand our relationship with CD Baby. Still not sure why Bob isn’t on Rhapsody though.