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The music industry must think again

August 31, 2009

For thousands of years music was a purely live experience. Either you were there to hear it or you weren’t. Excepting a few oddities, the first mechanical device capable of recording and reproducing music was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877.

So the late 19th century saw the beginning of the recorded music industry (history). Is the beginning of the 21st century witnessing its end? I think so.

The point I’m trying to make is that the multi-billion dollar recorded music industry is a temporary and fleeting phenomenon. For thousands of years it didn’t exist. Then for about 120 years there existed a situation where a few people or companies controlled access to equipment capable of recording music in high quality while the majority of the population had access only to reproduction (playing) equipment.

Pressed records were first (78, then 45 and 33rpm), then the Compact Cassette and more relevant to my point the Compact Disc (CD) which became commercially available in 1982.

While there had been ways of re-recording commercial recordings, such as reel-to-reel tape recorders, the music industry really only became worried about copying affecting revenues with the cassette. But the quality wasn’t great, whatever it said on the outside of the box. Chrome tapes and Dolby noise reduction made it better, but it still wasn’t as good as owning the original tape, or better the original record.

So people would pay for recorded music in the best available quality. At this time bands toured. Universities were great places for gigs. However touring was really a way of promoting the recordings – each Madonna tour had the name of the first lady of pop’s latest album. Money was made by selling recordings and live performances were marketing.

I suggest that this has changed around. But some of the record companies haven’t recognised it yet.

The change started with the introduction of the CD. Admittedly the music industry thought it was onto a winner, and that it could (and did) sell all those recordings from its back catalogues all over again in crystal clear digital quality. But that digital thing meant that each copy was just as high fidelity as the original.

Then came CD recorders, and PCs, which meant we could “rip” music in perfect quality off a CD and store it on our PC, or our music player (which for me started with a Sony MiniDisc player) or make other copies of it.

Then, worst of all for the music industry came the internet. This meant the network of people with whom we could each share our music expanded from our friends, neighbours, family and colleagues to the whole world. This led to file sharing and peer-to-peer networking sites.

And now the music industry is fighting a rearguard action, in collaboration with government. (Haven’t the government got something better to do than support a soon to be defunct industry? What about focusing on the health service, or the economy?) Treating your customers as idiots is not a sustainable business model, so how can treating them as criminals be any more sustainable?

In my view the recording industry is as defunct as the canal transport system. It’s been overtaken by technology (in this case digital recording and the internet, for the canals it was the railways that made them obselete). As Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, pointed out in a recent blog “…fans who wouldn’t pay £15 for a CD are happy to pay £50 or more to see their favourite band live…” Hence the rise of publicity for, attendance at, and TV coverage of, Glastonbury, the V Festival, Reading and Leeds and so on.

Where in the past the live performance was aimed at promoting the moneymaking recording, today the recording promotes the moneymaking live performance. And if that’s the case then the heads of marketing surely want the recordings to be as widely available as possible: free internet downloads, channels on YouTube and MySpace, covermount CDs on popular magazines and so on. So stop treating your customers as criminals just because your business model is no longer sustainable.

The sooner the music industry recognises the change and modifies its business model to adapt, the sooner we, and the government, can get on with something more important, and musicians can get back to playing live – by far the best way to enjoy music.

One comment

  1. Thanks a great article.



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