In the ever-evolving "battle" over the future of the music industry, many questions are being asked: Who will emerge victorious, the artist or the label? How will musicians eke out a living despite the ease of recording transfer from machine to machine across invisible networks? Is this the demise of the retail store? Will digital be the inevitable stamp of the future? What are the boundaries of organizations like the RIAA, and how much influence should they have over governmental regulations?
These are only five questions among many on the tips of industry and musician tongues. The boldest move of 2007 was certainly Radiohead's online offering of their latest album, In Rainbows, at a choose-your-own payment rate, starting at the base price of free. Numerous people took advantage and paid nothing. Still, some have speculated that the band brought in over nine million dollars a number that is likely inflated, although vocalist Thom Yorke stated that they've made more from digital sales on this recording than from all their other releases.
The Radiohead Chronicles show us that digital sales empower artists. But they raise an even more relevant point: Why are we so concerned with the fiscal status of superstars?
This Fortune magazine feature on Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino touches on the industry's concerns. Record labels are in disarray, digging up every last publishing right in the hope of making some sense out of what they're up against. Enter Rapino, who snatches up Madonna in a move that turns his concert production company into a full-fledged record-label-cum-public-relations-agency-cum-tour-management-company. Add in the individualized convenience of online marketing, and you have a potential emperor in this brave new industry.
Look at the common thread between Radiohead's indie missive and Madonna's convenient corporatizing: brand names. Both artists are more established than most any other on the planet. Were they to release albums on eight-track and tour only in Paraguay, they would be considered groundbreaking revolutionaries. While the occasional Wilco emerges to show that viral marketing and word of mouth really do matter, major media stays focused on Brittney's pregnancies and the Black Eyed Peas turning themselves into cartoons to sell candy bars. Of course blogs are essential to promoting music, and of course the indie artist has never been as empowered as today to carve out a niche in the machine. Just like all the other 216,617,932 MySpace soon-to-be's.
What matters most in the current music scene is what has always mattered: ingenuity and creativity. The idea that music can be a lucrative commodity is part of a psychology not even a century-and-a-half old. Safe to say, music is much older. This does not mean we should overlook its evolution into economics. But it should also not dissuade us from understanding its ritualistic and mythological not to mention emotionally necessary component in being a human.
When an economy is in failure, it does all it can to maintain the illusion that it is still in fine shape. This is true of most anything human we do not want to admit death. We feel that we can cheat death, like the way the Internet "saved" the American economy in the 90s. While this amazing piece of technology certainly breathed life into a failing system, the CPR is proving temporary. What's needed is an organ transplant, not a tire patch. That begins by recognizing our arts as socially and spiritually relevant works, and not only focusing on commercial aspects. Nothing could be more indicative of this trend than the slew of coverage by major networks on Christmas 2007 being a "disappointing" retail season, as corporations did not get as large of an increase as they expected over last year.
Like the music industry, this boils down to expectations. That chain retailers saw any increase should be a sign of success. Instead of focusing on the fact that they did not see a loss, they complain about not making enough more money than they made last year. They point toward a slumping economy, inexplicably high healthcare costs and cuts, and rampant oil prices as scapegoats. Never do these people turn the finger on themselves, realizing that some things may not be compatible with the stresses of economics. It is popular to market the Christmas season an old agricultural motif regarding the sun reaching its lowest point, only to be reborn (resurrected) and start its annual ascent to fertilize the fields as a time of family and friendship. That their product may not be necessary to the communal bonds of humanity is beyond their limited scope.
The record industry has made the same mistake. In their idealism that music is something that must be marketed, controlled and distributed in a very specific manner, they have misunderstood the nature of music, which is liberating, not restricting. They have confused a form for the essence. The form is their particular means of selling music; it is a template, a blueprint, and obviously not a very sturdy one, considering it has survived not quite a century. The essence, of course, is music itself, what old yogis called Nada Brahma: the science of sound. When I hit play on the beautiful "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" from In Rainbows, I don't stop to consider how much I paid for the song as compared to the number of times I have played it. I close my eyes and am engulfed by the sound, and am inspired to create in the way that I do, through metal keys punching alphabets on computer screens. This is why music, like all art, is truly viral. It makes us want to do more of it.
One year ago this month I stood over my grandfather's casket and said goodbye for the last time. The man that taught me how to search for edible mushrooms in thick forests and fed me quarters to feed slot machines during Seaside Heights winters so that I could compile fake coins to win chinzy Chinese finger tricks and rubber snakes had left the planet. His eighty-eight years of life were now memories, and I chose to hold the good ones, to learn from the mistakes, and to continue living. What we do as humans is no different than what we do when humans form companies, organizations and corporations. These "nameless" businesses are compilations of names, and if the people behind them refuse to be held accountable for their actions, then it is not they who we should blame. We need to hold them accountable by not purchasing their products, and by creating our own forms of media and promoting and marketing our own arts and culture.
As death is a natural process of life; all forms that the essence takes will go this route. This decade has proven to witness the death of a particular way of selling, marketing and distributing music. This is obviously not the same as the death of music itself. In my fourteen years of music journalism, I have never seen such a rich and prosperous year as 2007. That means that something is going very right. While a few pantry staples are not making the tens of millions of dollars they are accustomed to, tens of millions of artists are figuring out how to turn their creative forces into something sustainable. It may not make them rich enough to buy multiple homes, but it feeds them in ways previously unimagined. And the more we imagine and use the technological extensions that our imaginations create, the more we feed each other.
Image by Michael Zappa used via a Creative Commons license.