“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” – Hunter S. Thompson
What a way to open up a music blog right? With a very prophetic quote, from legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson who tragically committed suicide in 2005. The year 2005 was in the early days of iTunes, Social Media, and when labels were still actively fighting piracy, and not trying to adapt to it. Thompson said this quote probably decades ago, during a time prior to the Internet. A time when people still purchased music, and downloading songs online was not even a blip on the radar. But, Hunter S. Thompson seemed to be able to forecast a sentiment that musicians have in today’s music industry. A sentiment that content has lost its value, and music is only worth the profit it could make. Don’t get me wrong, I work in THE BUSINESS of music, and understand it is an industry where profit needs to made…or else I would not have a job. But in today’s music business, there is little to emphasis on art and tremendous amount more on commerce. A new documentary is being promoted about the collapse of the traditional music business, and explores the world of the current music business and how it has affected musicians and recording artists.
Mikael “Count” Eldrige, musician and producer from San Francisco known for his work with DJ Shadow, and Galactic, is in the process of raising funding to complete a documentary he directed and produced called “Unsound.” Eldrige is using IndieGogo to raise funding for his passion project, which explores the collapse of the music industry due to the Internet. “Unsound” follows the careers of many recording artists including Jurassic 5, Zoe Keating, David Lowery, Rhett Miller, and Tyco. It focuses on how these artists have adapted to the new music business paradigm, and how in today’s music business model the content has lost its value. An interesting note to this film is it comes during a period in Eldrige’s life when he is facing eviction from his home and recording studio. According to Eldridge, “The movie uses the collapse of the music business as the backdrop to tell the story because that’s what people understand. But that opens the door to the much larger discussion.”
“Count,” as he is collectively known as in the music industry, became interested in making this film because of the fallacy many musicians had about what the internet was going to offer them when it first was developed for public use. Musicians initially were excited about the rise of Internet because they assumed it would allow them a direct link to fans, which would enable them to create a higher profit margin. But he, as well as many other musicians started to see the opposite. Eldridge said in this article from SF Gate by Aidin Vaziri, “What’s interesting about being a musician in San Francisco and seeing the Internet revolution happening around us, we all thought this was going to be great for us. We all thought that not only would we be able to reach more fans but also we would all profit from it. We all saw the promise of the Internet and embraced it immediately. But music has become more and more devalued financially and emotionally. People don’t even click on a link if you try to give it away for free. It’s had an enormous impact.”
Eldrige had realized that this story, from the perspective of how the Internet has affected working musicians needs to be told. He wasn’t seeing anyone else speaking up, so he took it upon himself to put together a film that focuses on this perspective. As Eldridge stated, “I watched and waited and nobody was telling the story. It was shocking to me. It’s not just about the music. This is about the entire Internet revolution and how it’s impacting all content. If you want it for free you can take it. This is about the unintended consequences of the Age of Free. For consumers it’s never been better – they have instant access to all the music, books and movies they want for free. There are serious consequences.”
One of the most poignant points Eldrige makes in his documentary is the unique perspective from the artist’s who use music to support themselves. Precisely, how the lack of album sales, and increase in online music piracy affects the income of recording artists. We all too often think about how illegal music downloading effects the big name artists or the pockets of major label execs. Not the working artists. We almost never look at how it affects the smaller music acts. It is a perspective that very few music fans will ever hear. He says, “It’s sad when your favorite band has to give up and get day jobs because they don’t make money doing music. It’s downright scary when a journalist can’t research a news issue because there’s no money in it.” It is one thing when major artists like Metallica go to court and fight against piracy. But what about the working artists? What about the smaller bands that aren’t selling out major stadiums or music venues? How are they supposed to survive? If artists cannot make money from their music, how will they be able to continue making music? Whether we want to admit it or not, making music is essentially a job. If we cannot make a living from music, we will have to find something else to do in order to survive. Then essentially, making music will resort to becoming a hobby for many talented artists. Imagine this…what if the Beatles, The Stones, Eminem, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or any other landmark musician had never made a enough from their early albums to support their careers? These artists would have given up early on and gone on to make a living doing something else and we would have never had so much of their amazing music to enjoy.
The dramatic decrease in music sales due to Internet piracy has been a pretty hot topic of discussion in the music industry for the last 14 years or so. But, as I have said many times before in some of my previous blogs, the threat of technology against the commerce in art is not a new issue in the entertainment issue. In the earliest days of the music business, music was reproduced to the listener from a phonograph. Although the phonograph was a radical invention during it’s time, it had its limitations. For one, it did not allow for duplicates of recordings. Then the 1890’s hit, and music turned into a business; recordings were able to be mass-produced from this point forward. It changed music from a service industry to a product-oriented business. The format war begun, and companies sold music as a cylinder or a disc. The public had a choice! To compete with each other, companies argued that one format was “bad for music and musicians.” In 1906 American music composer and conductor John Philip Sousa even wrote an essay a response to early record players titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Here is a link to his essay from 1906 as published in Appleton’s Magazine, Vol. 8. Then in the 1930’s, music was starting to be played on the radio, and companies panicked, because they thought it would destroy the music business as they knew it…they thought, “well why are people going to buy music any more when they can get it for free on the radio?!” Sound familiar? In June of 1928, Williams Arms Fisher of the Association of Sheet Music Dealers said, “Radio at one blow undermines the concert tours of artists who perform to potential buyers of sheet music and diverts music into the ear of those who follow the line of least resistance – by that I mean those who might desire to sing or play or perform – but with radio, content themselves by bathing in music as a pleasant sensation, and with half-hearted attention.” Check out the article Williams Arms Fisher from 1928 featured in “The Music Trade.”
We know now that their fears were wrong.The phonograph and radio obviously did not kill the music business. It actually did the opposite. It helped it expand and grow into a big business corporate driven industry. The business coasted along for years until the cassette tape arrived. This format was the first true playback and record media for home users. This became a legitimate problem for the business. In the early 1980’s, to combat piracy, the BPI (British Phonograph Industry) had a widely circulated slogan…”Home Taping is Killing Music.”
The industry was facing a serious problem with cassette tapes because home users had the ability to duplicate any record or tape they wanted and give copies away to peers…or worse, sell them! The Compact Disc came out as sort of a solution for bootlegging music. Industry execs assumed that people would go back out to record store and re-buy all their old dusty records on CD, which was being promoted as a new high definition format. They were right. I even remember going to record stores with my dad in the early 80s to buy many of his favorite albums on CD. We were flabbergasted at the clarity heard on this new “compact disc.”
Then, the MP3 was developed and released to consumers in 1995. Computers were installed with programs like Win Amp, and Windows Media Players prior to iTunes, so users can play Mp3’s on their computers. Music fans the world over bought MP3 players (iPods pretty much became the standard). With the ease of sending these new smaller music files through the Internet, music fans started to download music for free from peer-to-peer file sharing sites. In 1999 Napster hit, and for the first time, the amount of music being pirated started to eclipse traditional physical music sales. Just like there was in the early days of the phonograph, people fell on both sides of the argument. Some artists like rap legend Chuck D, were big supporters of it. In the early 2000’s, Chuck was interviewed by the New York Times, and asked his opinion of things like Napster and MP3’s. Chuck D, of ‘Public Enemy’ fame said “We should think of (Napster) as a new kind of radio–a promotional tool that can help artists who don’t have the opportunity to get their music played on mainstream radio or on MTV,” Check out the Article here.
But as we all know, some musicians were not happy at all about Napster, and online peer-to-peer file sharing. Legendary metal group Metallica, were once maligned for their public pursuit of Napster and music fans who were stealing their music. Drummer, Lar Ulrich was noted as saying in court, “With each project, we go through a grueling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives. We take our craft — whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork — very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy — a/k/a taking something that doesn’t belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information — whether it’s music, videos, photos, or whatever – is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods.”
Technology has not ONLY been an issue in the music business. It was also a concern for creators of many forms of art. Filmmakers, writers, and photographers all had to adapt to technology at one point or another. When home television sets became popular in homes, filmmakers assumed this would be the death of movies. Famed film industry lobbyist Jack Valenti was noted as saying in the early 1980’s that “The VCR is to the American Film producer and the American public, what the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Horrible analogy Jack, but the point seems to be articulated. When Xerox machines were easily accessible, writers feared it would kill the sale of books.
What technology allows for us to today seems to be rarely expressed by many people. With all this new technology, recording music has become much more affordable. It also allows us to easily, and cheaply distribute music all over the world, without the need of a major corporation. With social media, and sites like Pandora and Spotify, music fans have at their fingertips new and exciting ways to discover new music. One of the major perks of social media and online music distribution/streaming is being able to discover unknown, and emerging artists. I ran into a quote online from celebrated music blogger, Paul Lamere. Lamere articulates the point about how fantastic today’s music industry is unfolding for recording artists. He said,“20 years ago a new artist needed a record company to be successful for three reasons: the recording studio, the record promotion and the distribution channel. Today, a record studio is a cheap and distribution is easy. The last piece of the puzzle is helping listeners find the new artists music.”
The new music business paradigm is not perfected yet, but it is still growing and I feel developing into something special. It is continually adapting to new technology, new business strategies and, and the new ways fans discover music. For more info and a sneak peak at the movie “Unsound,” check out it’s website here.