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Monday, April 28, 2014

The Downfall (and Potential Revitalization) of the Music "Industry"


As Record Store Day approaches, it's the perfect opportunity to evaluate the music industry and remind people of what it once was (and what it can be again).

At the dawn of the transition from physical to digital formats, the availability of music in a digital format (namely the mp3) quickly earned a bad reputation and over time has become a scapegoat for many problems related to the financial downfall of the music "industry".  It started with peer-to-peer filesharing services like Napster (and others that followed) that escalated what once was considered innocent tape trading into a rampant free-for-all, the musical equivalent of "looting". 
For those who've consistently purchased their music, either in physical form (CD's, vinyl) or in digital formats from iTunes and Amazon, digital availability did nothing to devalue music as it has for many others.  However, even for many listeners who buy music (rather than illegally downloading), the mentality has shifted away from buying full albums and instead "cherry picking" thanks to the ability to purchase individual tracks.  The blame for the massive shift in the business model that has made platinum-selling albums a rarity cannot be placed on anything but the people who adopted a sense of entitlement to simply take music without paying for it, without supporting artists or the facets of the industry that are vital to its longevity.  Today's musical landscape is a mixed bag filled with the artists of previous generations fighting to protect their legacy against a never-ending barrage of new artists who gain popularity with the power of the Internet at their disposal and the technology to help some of them achieve undeserved success.
 
The dying concept of the album is a far more accurate gauge of how digital sales have played a direct role in changing the way listeners and artists connect.  Buyers have the option to not only pick apart new releases with their ears but also with their wallets,  which could simply act as a motivational challenge for bands who were still striving to make their best album, and one that people would want to buy in its entirety.  However, illegal downloading can understandably hinder any artist’s desire to pour their soul into crafting an album knowing it will likely either become listener roadkill or stolen entirely through online piracy.  Before illegal downloading became a sales-shattering epidemic, record labels were already pushing "singles" to create an early demand for new releases which led to huge sales, sometimes record-breaking.  While some artists still enjoy nearly instant Platinum success, casual listeners have been trained to stop focusing on albums as a whole by following individual track ratings that tend to highlight the more popular radio-friendly songs, ignoring the "deep cuts" which typically showcase more depth and musicianship from the artist.  These are not to be mistaken for "filler" tracks which do nothing more than spotlight an artist or group's focus on quantity over quality.  While some of the most classic and timeless albums of the 70's and 80's had no more than 10 tracks, many artists who are not enjoying the kind of album sales they did before the digital era are making albums with up to 15 tracks and including bonus media and packaging hoping to entice listeners to buy the album.

Meanwhile, the once beloved "record store" has become an underdog as retailers like Target, Walmart and Best Buy (to name a few) have cut into the business by selling a variety of music at prices that independent stores can't easily compete with as foot traffic has been mostly diluted to hardcore fans and audiophiles.  This can be viewed as a theoretical parallel to the evolution of recording music as it transitioned from analog to digital.  There is an integrity that resides in the old ways of recording on analog, as documented in Dave Grohl's "Sound City" film, and the same idea can be applied to the independent stores that once served to promote music as social media does now.  Back before online purchasing and downloading, the local record store was the place everyone flocked to every Tuesday to pick up the highly anticipated new releases without the early overexposure of social media.  Although California-based Tower Records met its end at the hand of price wars many years ago (as well as many others), there are still independent record stores and chains in existence, and they need to be recognized and utilized.

I
t all starts with the listener, and with a promise to support not only the artists whose music enriches our lives but the record stores that still play a vital role in the musical eco-system by keeping helping music fans connect with music that exists beyond airplay and sales charts that only focus on what's popular.  Breaking beyond that barrier cannot be achieved when you toss today's new release into a cart filled with discounted clothing, pantry staples and household items, just as the quality of music will never improve nor will the concept of the album return if we don't show artists that we want to hear all they have to offer, not just what radio will play.  BUY ALBUMS, not just a few of the top-rated songs from digital sales, and even if you buy your music digitally visit a record store once in a while.  Most stores (like Dimple Records in Sacramento) do a great job to promote new and noteworthy music with a "staff picks" section, and by playing those "deep cuts" that you won't hear on the radio they may turn you on to an artist or album you may never have considered before.
The music business model changed in order to adapt to the available technology, and unfortunately a lot of people took advantage in negative ways by devaluing music.  Illegal downloading, and the massive toll it has taken on album sales, has significantly damaged the relationship between record label and artist in terms of the amount of support the artist gets without the guaranteed profit from album sales.  Touring has become the only real way for artists to make a living in the music business, which stands to reason why ticket prices have steadily climbed to offset the loss of album sales.  Meanwhile, so called "fans" are downloading albums for free and show their "support" by seeing bands in concert and buying a t-shirt which probably cost more than the album.  Real music fans have the power to restore the business to what it once was by supporting artists and the local record stores that promote great music, and by inspiring others to do the same.
 

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