Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Real Reason Why The Music Industry Collapsed

The real reason why the music industry collapsed By Nick Ross ABC Technology and Games : Updated 25 May 2012 (First posted 24 May 2012) There's a reason people stopped buying CDs and it wasn't just because they preferred downloading: the content changed - not just the distribution technology - and that's hardly ever acknowledged. I don't like pushing cases that I can't prove, but in this instance I believe my observations, experiences and reasoning hold more water than those given by the music industry. The following isn't particularly balanced, but hopefully it's thought provoking and offers a not-widely-stated counter to the music industry's claims that piracy is killing their business and that downloading is the primary reason that music revenues have collapsed since the 90s. I'll start off with some graphs which generally illustrate my point before going into a lengthy justification. Please check this link to see the graph's mentioned in this article. Source: There are many variations of the same graph. The point is that there was a huge spike in the 90s and I aim to explain that. You don't have to be an analyst to identify something wrong with the record industry's graph. Predicting an unprecedented period of revenue generation off the back of a two year growth period when two of the preceding three years had seen revenue declines (one of them large) is more than optimistic. It could be explained by new strategy, marketing and innovation pushes by the music industry, but hindsight shows no evidence of that. In a nutshell, the music industry is adamant that illegal downloading is the prime cause of its revenues dropping over the past decade. Opponents say that we're buying more music than ever, but that we're buying individual songs and not expensive albums on CDs and that's why revenue is down. But is the current quality of music really comparable to what was on offer in the 90s? Or is it more akin to the 80s? What really happened The following is something of a personal history, but then my formative years were spent growing up in the early 90s and after living through that I was a very early adopter of the web and MP3s in particular. My experiences were mirrored by everyone I knew when growing up. As to how much my world was a tiny microcosm in the great scheme of things is up for debate. In 1988 I was 15 and had spent the 80s gawping at people's bizarre clothing, ridiculous hairstyles, listening to mostly-horrendous music and wondering why I struggled so much to fit in. I just didn't get what was going on. I liked Michael Jackson (who didn't back then?) but the first CD I bought was the Fat Boys' (with Chubby Checker) The Twist and the first 45 record I bought was Dr and The Medics doing Spirit in the Sky (which is actually awesome and, fashion apart, more 90s-style than 80s). For those who look back on the 80s as a great music decade, I can't stress how wrong you are. For every great song there were a thousand audio turds which made up the mainstream. It doesn't look like anyone's bothered to upload many of them to the internet. Then one day it all changed. I was at my godmother's house and her son played a record (we often hijacked our parents' stereos back then and they had turntables). CDs were available but they were expensive and the players massively so. Cassettes were the most popular format for albums with singles mainly being sold as 45s or cheaper CDs. Anyway, he played a single called It's so Easy by a band from America called Guns n' Roses. Have you had one of those defining moments in your life when suddenly you understand everything? That was it for me. A song with edge. An angry sounding mental singer and some kick-ass guitar. They kept saying the F-word too. The song was near irrelevant (it's hardly one of their best). It was the sound and the vibe. Over the next months at school just about everyone had got into this band. It brought people from all years together. Whatever people think and say about Guns n Roses now, to me they were the defining band that kicked the 80s into touch and launched a new music scene which exploded in the 90s. At the very least they were one of the first. Quite simply, everyone I knew got into music. People were discovering new bands left right and center and we were swapping albums at school. It's hard to believe now but MTV was awesome back then. Its rock shows and "alternative" shows were breaking bands left right and centre. Several bands formed at school. We played gigs. We met other bands from other schools at the gigs and found that pretty much the whole country was into music and going to concerts - especially small local ones. (Here's my old band, if anyone's interested. I'm still adamant that Thermal Heaven (demo) would work well at Wembley.) If you didn't like rock (and you weren't some trendy 80s tragic who ignored it and embraced Rave and Jungle instead) then there was an Indie movement happening at the same time. The Stone Roses were kings of this movement and were backed up by Suede, The Charlatans, James and a heap more. You'd tend to like one genre or the other but generally you respected the other people's music and hung out at similar places. Another ground breaking moment was when metal band Metallica performed a new song for the first time at the MTV Music Awards. It was called Enter Sandman and you can watch the performance here. It instantly elevated these kings of metal to being one of the top bands in the world. Their Black album became the ultimate rock/metal crossover success and unified a bedraggled bunch of 80s metal fans (who wore a uniform of Dunlop trainers, skinny ripped light-blue jeans, Iron Maiden T-shirts, biker jackets and long permed hair with a fringe) with all those who liked hard rock (and who'd previously been regarded as a separate scene). We called ourselves "Metallers". Then MTV Alternative started playing a video from a new band in Seattle. It was unlike anything we'd heard before. A bit indie but with loud rock guitars. The video featured a bunch of cheerleaders in a school gym and a bloke with a mop. Seattle became the focus for the world of music, Nirvana went stratospheric and we all bought lumberjack shirts. Pearl Jam released Alive shortly after and we discovered a raft of other neighbouring bands like Alice in Chains and Mother Love Bone. The mainstream completely gave up pretending that people still cared about pop. Nirvana appeared on Top of the Pops and attracted a legion of teeny bopper fans not unlike One Direction (much to Cobain's chagrin). New amazing bands appeared out of the blue all the time. A hit movie appeared, "Singles" which, while bad, came with one of the best soundtracks ever. This was followed up by another iffy movie with a stunning soundtrack called Judgment Night which saw some of the coolest bands team up with some top rap acts. Suddenly we were listening to the burgeoning rap scene too which included NWA, Ice-T and Cypress Hill. The Commitments was a massive film. That got everyone listening to classic soul. A tribute album to the Dead Kennedys contributed to us getting listening to punk. The point I could go on and on. The point is that the music scene of the early 90s was the greatest since the 60s and saw bands being formed across society and interest in new music flourishing across the board. As things progressed from the start, we'd identify new bands and then work out who their influences were meaning that we'd start listening to (and buying) music from the 70's like Led Zepplin, The Doors (which was another massively popular music movie), Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix et al. Some, like Aerosmith, released their best work (Pump) at that time. As we took up instruments we'd start investigating all the great musicians, especially those featuring guitarists like B.B.King, Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Les Paul. As we diversified from just rock through to metal, indie, rap, and even club music (The Prodigy can take credit for crossing over those scenes), we went looking for anything that was good. I even bought an Edith Piaf album because I'd loved the soundtrack from the movie French Kiss. If you weren't into anything edgy then you still had massive bands like U2 and INXS to provide a bridge between respectable 'proper' bands and the mainstream. The pop world had Madonna storming the planet with Vogue and Michael Jackson was at his peak. When Freddie Mercury died parents and kids alike watched the tribute concert which opened with Metallica, featured artists like David Bowie and a duet between Axl Rose and Elton John. College bands like REM went ballistic. Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic medley and unwittingly invented the whole Unplugged movement which got many hard rockers respecting music that wasn't loud. Music festivals all over the world became huge and were packed with great bands. Monsters of Rock at Donnington Park saw some of its greatest shows while Perry Farrell launched Lollapalooza in the US, to name but two. There was something for everyone. Music was all pervasive. We weren't just buying music from our favourite bands but anything that got recommended by the thriving music press or something that got fished out of a bargain bucket. My favourite bands were called Kyuss and The God Machine there were loads of great minor bands to pick from. (addendum: the intro/outro of The God Machine's Home even got me looking into World Music). But then it all started going wrong. The beginning of the end Mid 1994 might sound like an early start of the decline - there were some great releases that year - but pointedly, most came from existing bands. Guns N Roses were becoming a caricature of themselves. Metallica weren't doing much new and then, out of the blue, Kurt Cobain shot himself. This was incredibly upsetting to me and millions of others and it rather emphasised a change that was in the air. Music (new music in particular) was losing its edge and becoming more commercial. I can put a rough date on the first nail in the coffin for me - the day when devouring new music ended and I went back to listening to music from those bands I already knew - mid 1994. MTV, which had been so hugely inspirational for the past five years started putting two acts on very high rotation at the expense of all the angry, angst-ridden good stuff. They were the epitome of sanitized, radio-friendly, power pop shite. They were Buddy Holly by Weezer and Basket Case by Green Day (I've since forgiven Green Day but it took a long time). It seemed MTV was determined to push these bands ahead of all else and for the first time since the 80s, I just didn't get much of what was happening in the mainstream music world anymore. Fortunately, 1994 also saw the debut album of a mouthy band from the North of England who'd been playing gigs in local cinemas and other dives. The band's two brothers were a massive hit with the media but pointedly they didn't sell out. Their rivalry with a soaring Blur kept the spotlight on them. Oasis versus Blur (and the flourishing Brit Pop scene) provided a welcome parachute into a reawakened world of commercial music and a reappearance of pop music. That journey was arguably underlined by the Spice Girls and Take That who represented the final move from 'proper band' and 'live music' Brit Pop into predominantly commercial, industry-friendly music. The good thing about this time was that at least CDs and CD players had matured and dropped in price. Many people's back catalogues were boosted heavily towards the end of the 90s. Great new bands since the mid 90s. For the next decade, I challenged people to name a single decent DEBUT album since 1995. I'm not talking about a great-sounding band that some people like, I'm talking about a great band which a bible-bashing suburbanite two-point-four-children middle-American has both heard of and disapproved of. I'm all too aware that I sound like my dad when saying that. Even now it's a struggle. The White Stripes and Muse exploded on to the scene much later but they actually existed in the early 90s. The best example I can think of is, well, Coldplay. They're very good, but they haven't inspired the world to take up guitar. The top 'guitar' band seems to be the Foo Fighters, but they're almost there by default. Green Day periodically seem to rebel against things. I like Wolfmother but they're not a global household name. Other top musicians seem happy to do what their paymasters tell them, support worthy causes and generally be rather pleasant. Eminem may be the great exception to the rule. I'd love to be comprehensively proved wrong on this. I guess I must also mention the super-popular Nickelback: the band which has managed to invent douchebaggy, music-by-numbers "Rock" for people with no soul, heart, understanding of music, appreciation for the arts, personality or humanity. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh. Wait, no I'm not. Where's the new music scene? Ultimately, the 90s golden age saw so much great music appear that the scenes transcended age and borders. Everyone was so heavily into music that it's surely no wonder that music sales went berserk during that period. But this declined in the late 90s and things haven't improved. Are there huge music scenes happening at schools around the world now? No. Are the airwaves filled with music from hot new bands? No. In the UK I'll vouchsafe that they're still deluging the public with pop, in Australia the most popular music stations play mostly 90s music and I suspect that America is still full of genre-based stations with no united music scene getting people excited. Is it any wonder that music sales have been in decline since the late 90s? Music since that time, at least comparatively, has not inspired the creation of heaps of new bands, or got people looking into musical history and rock family trees or buying back catalogues. Simon Cowell, arguably the global leader in mainstream music, is credited with saying that a song won't be a hit if it doesn't appeal to 14-year-old girls. Why does the music industry expect current revenues to be the same as the 90s or even higher? Aren't we in a time where new music passes many people by save for the occasional epic hit like Lady Gaga's Bad Romance - just like the 80s? Shouldn't the music industry expect revenues to subsequently match the 80s and not the 90s? Other causes I won't dwell on the following as they've been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere but here are the most-discussed points:- Music unit sales are actually higher than ever, but people aren't buying albums anymore, they're buying individual songs. Want to buy Radio Head's Creep? You can buy the single. You don't have to buy the bland Pablo Honey album just to get it like I did. Then there's the change in technology. I haven't bought a music CD for over a decade. I don't actually own a CD player (at least one that isn't part of a DVD drive in a computer, and even then, I barely use those) and I haven't for over a decade. You can't buy an MP3 even though it's been the format of choice for over a decade. Services like iTunes charge $2.19 for a single track in Australia and only $1.19 in the USA and the public views that as being ripped off. Innovative services, like Pandora, which are credited for introducing people to new music (and then buying it) got banned outside America. Innovative business models for music sales, like, which allowed you to choose the format and quality of any song you wanted - and pay a low price for it - got banned. The record industry is adamant that downloading is decimating music revenues but the facts are that the current global music scene is incomparable to the 90s and the industry still won't sell MP3s to people at a reasonable price. Downloading Again I'll be brief here. I used Napster, Audio Galaxy and Kazaa a fair bit. Initially, it was regarded as a more-efficient way of swapping music in the playground and there was no question of it being illegal. Back then, the main things I downloaded were rare bootlegs that couldn't be bought anywhere else and digital versions of the music I already owned. Steve Jobs collected Bob Dylan bootlegs as a hobby. Slash lamented there being no bootleg version of Paradise City in existence which didn't feature Axl's screaming synths at the beginning. The term bootleg has been around for decades but should those songs count as theft and loss in sales too? There aren't really any performances I want to get bootlegs of nowadays. Maybe this. Then there is the notion that if you bought music on one format, you'd have to buy it again on another format and this is still highly contentious. Considering that it's acceptable to go through the arduous process of transferring a paid-for cassette version of an album into an MP3 using a computer, how large a slight is it towards the music industry to download the digital version? How many people are happy to pay to download music from iTunes when they've already bought it on other formats. I know some do. Should we all be forced to? Then there's the music press. This was decimated after the 90s, but this was well before online started biting chunks out of print media. If music was just as popular, but downloading had killed revenues, why did so many music journals decline and collapse? As time goes on all physical music will be obsolete anyway and everything will be computer-based and digital (something which the industry seems to point blank refuse to acknowledge). The future model appears to be subscription services like Spotify, Zune, iTunes, Songl et al which are great save for the fact that only major artists get paid. Without there being a market for new independent music, or the ability to actually buy MP3s at major market places, how will new music scenes appear and how will the music industry get its revenues? Conclusion The main point of this article was to highlight what I think is the MAIN reason why music revenues have collapsed. I haven't seen these reasons given before although there has been at least one excellent examination of the subject which uses facts and figures to make the same case. There are obviously many reasons as to why music revenues have changed over the past couple of decades. I've skirted over some of them but they've been heavily discussed elsewhere. There was a reason people were buying CDs, it wasn't the technology itself, it was the music that they contained. Do you agree? I'm happy to be proved wrong on this one. At the end of the day, however, I suspect we can all agree that if music revenues once again reach the dizzy heights of the 90s, it would be good for everyone: the industry, the artists, the public and music in general. So agreeing on causes is to everyone's benefit... it's certainly a darn sight more positive than seeing hate-filled wars of the industry versus the public being fought in courts and pushed through contentious government lobbying.

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