The only reason I hesitate using a metaphor to equate the music industry to a lumbering dinosaur on the brink of extinction is that, unlike those giants of the Jurassic age, big biz knew its time was up and did nothing to stop it.
Too slow to respond to the obvious signs of a technological apocalypse that finally arrived in the form of the 2 gig iPod Nano, the entertainment industry has since been playing catch-up after 7 years of declining CD sales have translated into almost a billion dollars a year in lost revenues. Oh sure, they've set up an online retail market that has been more or less successful, increasing at a rate of about 50% a year. But even that hasn't been able to make up for lost profits from the one billion songs that are illegally downloaded through peer to peer sharing circles every single month. Not to mention the legal costs of suing everyone from software developers to web-sites to even you, the consumer. The reality is unfortunate, but at this point no matter what new ploy the industry conjures up to combat music's new digital system, revenues seem likely to continue shrinking every year.
But truly, the strangest part of this whole evolution, the thing that surprises me most of all, is that everyone, from musicians to music lovers, is more than happy to watch the old beast suffer and die; as though if the great behemoth is felled, an artistic utopia will rise from its ashes where musicians make music for nothing and listeners get to have it for free. I'm obviously over simplifying here, but the reality is that the issues facing both musicians and consumers in the new digital age are not just vast but have yet to really surface. And I often fear that, once the joy of watching fat-cat music execs loose their shirts wears off, we'll all be left facing a very strange world indeed.
For starters, and as much as we all seem to despise the notion, the music industry, like any other, is propelled by profits. The popular rationale of "it's okay if I download this album because I'll pay money to see the band live," for example, doesn't really hold up when the only reason bands ever toured in the first place was to promote one simple product, their shiny new CD. In fact it's an absolute misconception that independent groups make money touring (trust me I've been there). Without the promise of profitable return at the end of an already arduous process, bands will be more likely to skip your small city all together than show up for the paltry returns from a few ticket sales. It's much more probable that they'll be forced to look elsewhere to recoup the high costs of recording, ultimately leading them to the ethical slippery slope of the publishing business.
Ten years ago, a successful indie band with robust record sales and a strong live following wouldn't dream of licensing a song to Volkswagen for fear of fan reprisal. Today, a band doesn't have any fans unless they do, and this has been getting a lot of them into trouble lately. Indeed, it's becoming more and more likely that while watching your favorite television show you'll be shocked to hear Feist supporting Locoste, or Le Tigre providing the musical cue behind those cuddly Telus monkeys. No, this isn't a case of the greedy musician who couldn't say no to the big pay-day, but rather a means to an end. A survival of the fittest end game where if you want your music to be heard in a sea of increasing options you'd better play the marketing game as good as your professional forefathers. It begs the question, if one 15 second cue spot in a McDonalds commercial pays for the recording of The Shins' new album then should they be held accountable by the very fans that are insatiable in their quest to download more tracks to fill 80 gigabytes of hard drive space? The digital market has given bands more artistic power to be sure, but it has also forced them to take control of their own business interests. Those without the stomach to juggle both culture and commerce might find themselves quickly lost in the iPod shuffle.
But, at the end of the day, it would be ill advised for any of us to bet against a sure thing. The digital revolution has come and gone and the casualties have been counted. The old guard has been usurped by a fast-paced new media run by smartly dressed young whippersnappers who've got a lot to prove. But, like any war-time victory, it's the clean up that's the hard part. The music industry will need infrastructure to survive, and in a world where it's still unclear who is in charge, it might be a while before it gets it. In fact so much is happening everyday that, like a much needed civil service, Silicon Death Valley might well have to become a regular series on these pages, if only to cover the plethora of topics that constantly arise. Because, if this online world, oversaturated with sound bytes and 20 second YouTube video clips, has taught us anything, it's that a band is only as relevant as their next download, and there is absolutely nothing more vital than being current.
Article by: Chris Webster
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