The Death of the Music Industry?
Recently I’ve read a couple of articles and seen a few charts about the “Death of the Music Industry”. By chance I also saw a question on Quora about why rock music today is so bad (not my assessment but that of the asker of the question). I think both of these topics are very much by-products of the music industry’s evolution. The Internet has increased the velocity of change in the music industry however this change began just about the same time the Internet was invented, back in 1969.
I’ll address the question about rock music first and tie in a broader industry view.
So, first how do you define rock music? This is not an easy answer since the late 1960’s rock has steadily undergone a fragmentation. This fragmentation has been driven by artists who hit barriers in expressing their creativity, barriers that were built based on how rock was defined by “conventional wisdom”.
Without these barriers, some seasoned artists have explored different sub-genres of rock along with new artists who have chosen specific sub-genres as their primary form of expression. The downside is less radio play, less promotion by the music industry marketing machine. For some seasoned artists, this isn’t a big challenge since in a sense they are more like a brand name and people buy the brand. For new artists, the Internet has become the only way to achieve some critical mass in their fan base. To be honest; I’ve not seen an effective model that can predict what will go viral on the Internet so building a traditional business strategy doesn’t work.
In parallel the music industry has undergone a radical transformation, one that has recently combined technology and marketing to manufacture “stars” based on a formulaic approach to what may go viral and sell more music, merchandise, etc. The music industry is looking for mass appeal however niche genres of music have limited audiences. Profit margins in selling music is much like any other product, one must generate a certain level of return on their investment. The investment in the music industry is in promoting the artists. The cost to promote an artist with mass appeal (a pop-star) is about the same as promoting an artist with a niche genre (a symphonic metal band), however the return can be substantially different.
To sustain itself, the music industry needs to control supply by making music that is pleasant, not stirring; something that is likeable but without passion, music that is bounded by time, not enduring. In 30 years will we be nostalgic for many of today’s stars?
So it is easy to say that rock is dead, or some of the other radical statement made here, but in reality, rock is still very much alive but not necessarily in the forms that are easily found, or easily labeled as “Rock”. It’s just that the music we are exposed to tends to be what is considered to be “conventional” rock. It’s all about what sells. The same can be said about other music genres.
So where are things heading? Well I’d say that music has become more alive and dynamic. By that I mean the business of the music industry is changing, not by the industry, but by the artists and their fans. In the past, artists played live to promote sales of their records, CDs, etc. As things change, artists create music and then use their music to promote sales of tickets to their live concerts. In a sense, the revenue generated from music sales will become irrelevant in comparison to live shows. Ultimately it will evolve to a point where the majority of traditional sales will be led by manufactured stars, while independent artists will dominate the live show scene, not in terms of dollars but certainly in attendance.
So perhaps the evolution of the music industry isn’t about traditional business models, maybe, just maybe it’s about a lifestyle focused around creativity and sharing that creativity with others.