Friday, October 10, 2008
While the rest of America watches in slack jawed horror as Wall Street tumbles into previously unheard of depths, we in the record business have been going through our own financial apocalypse for some time now. Without going into a long and drawn out history lesson, somewhere along the line, a basic shift has occurred in the way people value (or don't) music. While music plays a larger part than ever in our day to day existence, the fact that it has become so easy to get for free has somehow translated for many consumers to the fact that it SHOULD be free.
I will never forget one Christmas a few years ago, teaching my niece how to download from the i-tunes store (she had just received her first i-pod for the holidays) and her 16 year old cousin commenting that "paying for music was for suckers and chumps". This was a kid who was heavily into the alternative punk scene coming out of his native Northwest area. When I asked him how the bands he loved were supposed to survive without people paying for their music, he told me that he would happily pay to see them live and buy a Tee-shirt but why would he buy music when it was so easy to get it free. Besides, everyone knows that record companies rip off artists anyway so why shouldn't people rip THEM off. I have spoken on this issue at many colleges and high schools and I can tell you that this is an attitude that is widely held by younger music fans who have absolutely no idea of any distinction between the historically heinous practices of many major labels and the vastly different world of independent music.
Those of us who work on the independent side of the music business know that with very few exceptions, no one is getting rich in this game. Most of us have made conscious decisions somewhere in our careers to forego higher paying, major label jobs in order to focus on music that we love, rather than music that could sell in huge quantities. I have a large network of friends and acquaintances at other indie labels and I am here to tell you that for the most part, these are fans just like yourselves who are still passionate about music and have made many sacrifices to work in this world. I'm not trying to paint us all as glorious martyrs. We have gladly chosen a path that was never going to make us wealthy BUT we never signed on as charity workers. The idea that my contemporaries and I shouldn't be able to make a living in the music business because technology has made it easy to download and burn music for free is simply ridiculous. I believe it was Doug Morris (chairman of the Universal Music Group) who when asked how the RIAA could condone suing their own consumers for illegal downloading, asked the rhetorical question, "What do you think the makers of Coca Cola would do if someone invented a device that you could easily install at home, enabling you to get free Coke from your own sink?"- you can damn well expect that they would do whatever they had to in order to stop it and no one would blame them for a second. Think for a moment about whatever business you are in. If some new technology allowed your customers to steal from you with impunity how would you feel?
Most importantly here, what about the artists? I'm not condoning downloading free music from major label artists by any means but people need to understand that performers like Eminem, U2, Lil' Wayne etc. will always be able to make a fabulous living off of their touring and merchandise. I read somewhere that Britney Spears made more money from the Tee- shirt sales on her last big tour (this was before her spectacular "fall from grace") than she did from her record sales. There are some indie artists who have carved out lucrative touring careers but when you look at our niche of music, it is very rare. In fact, most of our artists still have a tour "short fall" that we make up for as the label with pre-approved tour support dollars. The point I'm making here is that for the level of artist that we (and most indie labels) work with, every dollar counts towards them being able to make a living at this game. Should one of my artists have to take a day job because people feel that 99 cents is too much to pay for a song?
Now I know that most of you understand this in principle and I would like to think that most of our consumers are actually BUYING our music but frankly the numbers over the last few years tell a disturbing story. Traditional retail stores like Tower Records are going the way of the dinosaurs and while digital sales are on the rise, they are not growing at a rate that makes up for the decline in physical sales. Time and time again I meet people who think nothing of paying $7 for a beer or $4 for a bottle of water at a club but balk loudly at plunking down $14 for a CD or $9.99 for an album download. It simply blows my mind how the general public's perception of the actual value of music has changed over the years. It is traditional wisdom that you can't put a price tag on the emotional impact that a great song or a great CD can bring to your life but maybe we need to start doing just that.
This is obviously a huge issue here and I will be tackling different facets of it in further installments on this topic- but let me leave you with this thought. There IS an economic system that helps ensure that independent artists can survive and make their art. If you love music that exists outside of the parameters of mainstream rock, pop and hip hop and if you want to continue to have a choice in what you can listen to, then you NEED to support the artists and the labels that make that music. If real music fans like yourselves who actually take the time and have the interest in reading a blog like this don't actually PAY for eclectic music, then this music is going to start to go away. Labels and retailers are already dropping like flies and now with the economy in free-fall the challenges are going to get bigger than ever.
I welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue.
Posted by Global Noize at 12:59 PM