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Summary:

It’s been a bloody decade for the music industry, with labels, musicians, startups and consumers pointing fingers and passing the blame around. But as the industry continues to shrink, most parties are realizing that it’s more productive to dispense with blame and start cooperating.

It’s been a bloody decade for the music industry. Among artists, musicians, labels and startups, few can claim triumph. Expectations have been humbled and the list of failures has been long, as the broadband Internet has compounded the business’s inherent problems. The desperation has resulted in a blame game: labels blaming piracy, musicians blaming labels, innovative ideas killed by lawsuits, and consumers justifying file-sharing habits by broadly blaming an industry they felt had ripped them off for years.

But as the industry continues to shrink, most parties concerned are realizing that it’s more productive to dispense with blame and start cooperating. Musicians are looking to startups and technological tools for constructive solutions, and becoming more self-reliant to earn a living. Labels that once sued startups are now working in concert with them, sometimes investing in ideas nearly identical to the ones they pursued in court a few years ago. Many new business models seem to accept piracy realistically. In the coming decade, the antagonism seems ready to yield to cooperation — mostly because all parties concerned don’t have much of a choice anymore.

Industry observers seem to agree that a transition is finally taking place. BigChampagne CEO Eric Garland told NPR recently that industry execs soon may be wishing they could just blame piracy for all their problems, signaling some acceptance after a decade of adversarial struggles. Meanwhile, onetime Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen offered this thoughtful essay earlier this month, expressing exasperation with musicians who haven’t adjusted to the changing climate while anticipating a “punk rock” moment in which artists thrive by embracing technological innovation. And although the RIAA declared a year ago that it would stop suing file-sharers, it hasn’t followed up on its promise to pursue them aggressively through other channels, perhaps fearing another PR nightmare.

With any luck, the blame game will be a vestige of an industry’s painful decade-long transition. Consider that the music industry’s target audience now includes high school and college students who were younger than 10 when the original Napster ushered in the era of massive file-sharing. Many have never been to a record store and are part of a generation that spends less time enjoying music as a standalone activity and more time multitasking with music in the background.

No company, no label, no lawsuit, no musician can be blamed for that. A seismic shift has taken place, brought on primarily by technological innovation, and that simply doesn’t make for good scapegoating. (As Garland told the Houston Chronicle last week, “We thought the problem was piracy, but it turns out the problem was the Internet.”)

As recorded music formats have evolved and consumer tastes have changed over the years, musicians and businesses have made adjustments and persisted. The smartest and best-suited for survival have not only weathered storms, but in some cases have distinguished themselves by seeing technological changes as opportunities. And in the coming decade, with any luck, cooperation will be rewarded more than antagonism, and constructive thinking will replace scapegoating.

Image courtesy of Pfala on Flickr.

  1. I hope you’re right, but I think the possible future of cooperation is overly optimistic. I think record execs, artists, and fans will continue to find ways to antagonize each other.

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  2. I’ve grown pretty bored with articles rehashing what major labels didn’t when Napster came along (and I am not convinced they could have changed the result anyway). It really doesn’t have much to do with where the music industry is headed now.

    Just because the major labels are in decline does not mean it has suddenly become easier for unsigned artists to make a living at this. There are a lot more musicians hoping to gain a piece of the music pie, which presents its own set of challenges.

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  3. Hi,

    our new startup BuskerLabel is online and in Private Beta now.
    We provide a platform to finance fresh, free music.
    Very easily.
    It’s entirely different from existing fund-raising websites.

    It’s about the relationship between Artists and True Fans.
    It’s about the need for music we all have from our first tape cassette to the latest playlist.
    It’s about Artists using music as the main promotion tool, thanks to Creative Commons.
    It’s about the word “piracy”: can’t be suitable for 95% of total downloaded music (IFPI music report 2009).

    It’s invitation only for now, but you can ask for invitation codes :)

    Have a great 2010!

    Pancrazio
    http://buskerlabel.com

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  4. Paul,

    Thanks for the reference and link to my recent essay. You rightly point out that at least two generations of young people have grown up without ever visiting a CD store or even buying a CD. This trend will continue. As I wrote at the end of the essay, 8 year olds will be looking to musicians to provide them with much more than a CD release. The “event” around any music release is what will move them to support an artist.

    Today, and even more in the future, kids do not want to own, store, or even necessarily collect music, they simply want to access it wherever they go. This is not a new iPod generation, it’s the burgeoning cloud generation. Let’s see where Apple and LaLa go together…

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  5. Pancrazio,

    What do you think of Kickstarter http://www.kickstarter.com/ or Cash Music http://cashmusic.org/ ??

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    1. Dave,

      we give big credit to them.

      Today I had the pleasure of reading some of your writings: I’m very happy to find a lot of sharing in our vision of these times.

      We brought BuskerLabel online to provide a music-focused and a very accessible way for Artists to get funded before releasing their songs or album; and for Fans to establish their personal brand as the co-producers of the new music in a fair way.

      We believe this is a great way to start a relationship between Artists and True Fans.
      And the Artist gets the money from the Hat on the release date.

      True Fans will also have their name in Credits, forever.

      The “release event” is central in BuskerLabel: we believe that its uniqueness should get the right attention and value.
      We invite Fans to take part to the discovery of new music: this will add audience to the current fan base of an Artist (e.g. MySpace or FB “friends”).

      In the last Beta months we got feedback from bands and indies: they want to enlarge the fan base, they like the implicit emphasis on the “release date” and they want to follow-up with True Fans to discover places for live concerts and get help from True Fans on the territory.

      We’d like to find enlightened people to share this venture and be part of this transformation.

      Have a 2010 of success, for passions and projects.

      Pancrazio

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  6. [...] seem to bear out the idea that citizens and businesses respond to legal threats.  Of course, the RIAA eventually adopt other tactics to achieve their goals, but the point is still valid: a little litigation scares the masses into [...]

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