Something inconclusive I wrote about the music industry

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Mainly to reassure my many readers (hi dad) that I am still an active, relevant music journo, here is an article I wrote recently that was originally published in Trinity Bull.  I promise more of those sweet, waffly posts about music I like full of questionable use of words like “crepuscular” and “ethereal” are coming soon.  For now, here’s the article:

“I changed the music industry for better and for always”, is the claim made by Napster-founder Sean Parker (as played by Justin Timberlake) in 2010’s The Social Network. While Napster revolutionised the music business as a whole back in 1999, many would question whether it was really “for better”. We continue to hear claims that the music industry is dead; that illegal downloading and piracy are destroying the livelihood of artists, and that the era of CDs and records is behind us.

It’s an ongoing debate, but as the tussle between modern technology and the music industry continues, one has to question why it has persisted for so long. After all, every business has endured unprecedented challenges with the growth of the Internet, and we stand in an era where we expect information to come to us for free. If that is the case, should it accordingly be the same for the arts?

Music as a commodity is hard to quantify by a monetary value in itself. When we buy physical albums and singles, it is ultimately the actual object we are paying for, not the music, and while audiophiles still buy physical records, it is perhaps a medium in decline. If you can buy an MP3 on iTunes for 99c, then artists can’t be making much from their actual music. Digital royalties are practically negligible – a 2010 survey in America estimated that artists got about nine cents from a ninety-nine cent track on iTunes. For small-scale artists, the purported prime losers from piracy, the music industry is a dubious champion.

Streaming is held up as a lesser evil than illegal downloading. Yet ostensibly-noble services such as Spotify are, ultimately, about as useful to artists as iTunes or just all-out piracy, monetarily speaking; perhaps less-so, given that in 2011 it was estimated that it would take 200 streams for an artist to equal the royalties from one iTunes download. Taylor Swift’s controversial recent decision to withhold her latest album, 1979, from Spotify was seen by some as a greedy move, but this is rather cynical. Instead, it serves to highlight how much we take our ability to hear music for free as a right.

It is hardly as though the doomsday predictions of the death of the music industry have transpired, however. Free MP3s have been available for years now on an increasing scale, but people still stump up cash. The charts, though full of often quite questionable music, still exist, and there is still hotly fought competition. One has only to look at the enviable sales of Adele’s Twenty-One or, more recently, Royal Blood’s self-titled debut, for it to become apparent that people are still buying music on a big scale.

Even artists lacking Adele-style record sales are making a living. The reason for this is that the majority of musicians don’t make their cash from music at all now, but from touring and selling their own merchandise. It is telling that in spite of Twenty-One being the biggest-selling album of 2011, Adele was only ranked as the tenth highest earning artist of that year, having had to cancel tour dates due to throat surgery. If you really want to support an artist, then spending 99c on a track makes barely a dent, as compared to seeing them live or buying a t-shirt. Doing something different and a bit more personal is a way for artists to make ends meet too, with Lucy Rose selling her own-brand tea, while Dublin’s own Princess have been selling T-singles – limited edition t-shirts with a download code for their latest track.

A piece was published in the New York Times recently describing the increasingly corporate nature of the music industry with stages at festivals sponsored by the likes of Samsung Galaxy and Honda. More recently still, underground darling FKA twigs became the unlikely face of Google Glass. There was a time when this all might have been considered “selling-out”, but artists need to earn somehow, and for all of Taylor Swift’s earnest romanticism about not entrusting her life’s work to Spotify, for most artists earning from their music alone is a naively optimistic sentiment in this day and age.

Perhaps all this means that, in the future, artists will increasingly opt for the approach taken by Radiohead for In Rainbows, asking fans to pay whatever they deem fit for the digital album. Music’s value, as with all art, is entirely subjective; as such, perhaps it would be best to let the consumers reward their favourite music accordingly. Yes, some would pay nothing. But if someone is interested primarily in trying before buying anyway, then they are surely just as likely to illegally download the music. Radiohead didn’t make a loss with In Rainbows, but then again they are very much an established band. Girl Talk admitted that thousands of people downloaded Feed the Animals for free back in 2008 under the same, pay-what-you-want scheme; however, he did ultimately profit from the venture, and has continued to sell his albums in this way.

With the future of the music industry still in flux, it seems foolish to focus so heavily on record sales alone, and the majority of new artists will have to move away from that old model. For now, shows, merchandise and, ultimately, some kind of corporate sponsorship, are the most lucrative revenue-generators for artists. But perhaps something unprecedented like Napster might yet come in and shake things up once more. That Cheryl is the first British woman to have five number 1 singles is perhaps a sign of the bell-tolling on the music industry – but we must try to remain optimistic.

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