State Of The Music Industry 2012 Edition: A Return To The Wild Wild West?

It wasn't so long ago that the music business was a reasonably orderly den of vipers with a well-established pecking system. The artists provided the content, also once known as "songs", while the major labels provided the methods of distribution and promotion. Without them, an ambitious artist could operate at the independent level, perhaps build a regional following and shift some units through regional chains and ma-and-pa records stores. At some point, however, said artist would eventually need the assistance of a major label to achieve any sizable penetration at the national level.

National success is all about ego. When's the last time you heard a wanna-be rock star say that they dream of being a regional sensation? In hindsight, if more artists had been a little more realistic in their lofty ambitions and perhaps settled for regional acclaim, they could have reached just such a plateau and enjoyed a very fruitful career. Instead, they reached for the brass ring, spun the major label wheel of fortune, and ended up having their own ass handed to them.

Sure, it has long been common knowledge that entering into a deal with a major label was akin to signing a deal with the devil, but the up-side of that was being granted access to the well-oiled infrastructure of the major label system. That system could take a single and, within a matter of days, make it a hit single, delivered into the hands of radio programmers across the nation.

The idea of undertaking such an endeavor on one's own would be a huge waste of time and money because not only did the major labels have the infrastructure, they had the relationships. They knew the folks at radio by name and reputation. They knew what it would take to get such-and-such a station to play their single.

And then a funny thing happened... the past caught up with the major labels.

It is oddly poetic that the very same past that had filled their pockets for over a decade was now the cause of their ultimate demise. See, back in the mid-80's, the major labels took it upon themselves to introduce a new format - the compact disc - and do away with albums and cassettes. The thing was, consumers hadn't asked for a format change. We were happy with our albums and cassettes. Albums gave us the overall experience for home listening. Cassettes provided us the option for listening to our music on-the-go.

But that wasn't good enough for the major labels, as sales of new product was dropping gradually each year. Consumer sentiment that labels were charging too much and giving too little in the way of quality product was growing, but would ultimately fall on deaf ears.

Rather than meet consumers half-way by lowering the price of albums, or delivering a better product, the labels proposed a third option: a new digital format upon consumers. Ever the diplomats, the labels went one step further by raising the price of an album in the new format.

So, even as we began re-buying albums on this new format, we were now paying more for the same exact album that we had already purchased on vinyl or cassette. Perhaps initially believing there was some additional value to purchasing familiar albums the new format, we consumers begrudgingly went along with it and began re-buying our collections on CD.

This soon led to a huge and much-needed cash injection for the major labels. After a particularly rocky few years, times were good again and money was flowing freely. At the same time, though consumers were re-buying titles on CD ind roves, we weren't necessarily happy about doing so. There was an underlying sentiment that the new format wasn't better, just different.

So, in the late 1990's, when the internet became easily accessible to all, another funny thing happened.

Consumers who'd long been tired of labels charging a $19.98 list price for new CD's took matters into their own hands and began trading mp3's online. For free. Needless to say, when Napster came along and provided the platform for millions of music fans to trade music files, the landscape changed forever. Were the major labels unhappy about the fact that the new format (mp3) hadn't been their idea, or that consumers were now getting much of their music for free?

The answer to that question is "both", but the labels only had themselves to blame for the current sentiment that music should be free. After all, when we bought that first Boston album on vinyl, it had been our idea. And when we decided that we wanted to be able to listen to that same album in the car, thus transferring it to cassette, it had also been our idea. But being forced to embrace the compact disc and re-buy that very same album in a third format had not been our idea.

The ill-will caused by that one careless decision on the part of the major labels is what has led directly to the current state of the music business and to the growing sentiment that music should not cost anything to acquire.

That so many people understand that it is wrong to steal, yet see nothing wrong with illegally downloading the new Lady Gaga album says quite a lot about how wronged we consumers feel. The music business could have saved themselves at several points after the proverbial genie was let out of the bottle, but their every action has been one of blind and ill-informed self-preservation.

Rather than reach a reasonable truce with Napster when they had the chance, they instead sued the company into oblivion and then turned their lawyers on consumers, as if such a thing would lessen the bad taste in our mouths. As a result, thousands of music industry jobs were lost and a multitude of labels have been forced into an uneasy consolidation, leaving but only a few major labels in existence. Mind you, there are many record company titles out there - heck, even IRS Records was brought back from the dead recently - but most are nothing more than mere logos belonging to either EMI, Universal or Sony.

If there is any good at all to be found in the current state of the music industry, it is that the old rules no longer apply. Bands and artists who would have been shunned by major labels for being too weird, too idiosyncratic, or, even worse, too old, are now finding a larger audience than they ever would have before.

Not so long ago, if you were an artist in your thirties and unsigned, you may as well have hung up your guitar, as no major label was going to touch you. In today's musical landscape, no such rules apply because the major label system is in such a state of flux that the usual gatekeepers are no longer able to keep out such artists. While sales of new music are only a fraction of what they were ten years ago, the possibilities for artists of any age, in any genre, are limitless. There are no rules anymore. Ambition, perseverance, and a great song are all you need to rule the fucking world, and not a minute too soon because now more than ever, the world could use a great song.

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