For Online Music, Is the Blame Game Finally Over?

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.

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