The Future of Music

(Originally Published on in August 2010)

I love music. During any of my waking hours it can be safely assumed that I am listening to music. It could be while walking into town, on the bus, working on my computer or simply kicking back and relaxing; something which I am quite good at I might add. I grew up as a part of a very musical family where there was always an instrument or two lying around. Granted I didn’t learn to appreciate this until I was a little older, I do not doubt the fact that without such a childhood, I wouldn’t have become so enthralled by music as a teenager. There was a problem though.

It was a rare occasion when I had enough money to buy a cd. Pocket money was non-existent and I did have the odd job here and there during a few teenage summers, but my cd buying was extremely rare as I simply couldn’t afford it. So, I relied primarily on copied cds and quite a lot of tapes that friends made for me. By the time I moved out of home, when I was 18, it’s a safe estimation to make that I had a maximum of thirty cds to my name. I’m now twenty five years old and to say much has changed would be a complete understatement. What was completely alien seven years ago is now the norm. The norm now is the ability to download any album of any artist within a matter of minutes, at either a fraction of the cost of a physical copy or, by going the illegal downloading route, at no cost at all. Cd sales have plummeted all the while downloading of the illegal kind seems to increase almost exponentially on a yearly basis. One would think that the record companies have evolved in order to survive in the 21st century where almost instantaneous access to any music is possible. Here is the conundrum they now find themselves in; they haven’t evolved either fast enough or at all.

Illegal downloading is the scourge of the music industry and, rather paradoxically, it is its saviour. What the major labels do not realise is that people who download illegally can be, and are, introduced to a plethora of new artists, and genres, that otherwise would have been completely inaccessible to them. Take my story in the previous paragraph as an analogy of sorts; without a multitude of copied tapes and cds from friends as a teenager, I simply wouldn’t have found numerous bands that I still listen to today. These are the same bands that I spend money on seeing live and support either financially, by buying merchandise, vinyl (I’ll get to that soon), or in some other way. This is the exact same thing that illegal downloaders do. They are introduced to new bands via illegal downloads and may discover that they are enraptured by what they have discovered. In turn they then end up spending money on seeing the band live, buying their merchandise or even buying the occasional cd or two. They then may even recommend the band to other people by posting about their new discovery on an online forum. This is just as viable a way of supporting a band. It’s precisely the same as the “word of mouth” process that we all relied upon in the days before mass internet usage. All that’s different is that it has been updated and is now in an online setting. Supporting music cannot simply be reduced to monetary value, although the major labels, and their defenders, try their best to do this.

However, people do still spend money on the traditional formats that music came in and i’m one of those people. I buy and collect vinyl. This is only a relatively recent addiction of sorts and I only began buying vinyl roughly four years ago. My collection is still relatively small, with only 104 albums on vinyl in my collection, but some people’s collectionsnumbers in the thousands. I have spent an exorbitant amount of money on my small collection, the highest amount of money I have spent on one single LP was €128, but those people whose collection dwarfs mine have most definitely spent many multiples of what I have spent so far. Again, remember the analogy that was set up in the above paragraph. I was introduced to a band for free where upon I have ended up buying their discography on vinyl,  have even travelled as far as Sweden to see them play live, as well as seeing them play two further times here in Ireland, bought their merchandise i.e. t-shirts and have even met the band. Now, maybe I am the exception to the rule but that is not the point. The point is that in the eyes of the labels I am a criminal whose acquisition of music for free, from some friends, is punishable by fines and even a jail sentence in some extreme cases; all of this despite the fact that I have easily spent hundreds of euro in “supporting” this particular band.

What the industry is doing wrong is slowly, but surely, killing it. They are alienating their entire market or are trying to through sheer ignorance of modern society. The major labels are reliant on making millions in financial returns from one artist in order to offset the losses they make on dozens of other artists. This is the old paradigm. They have now started to combat this by reducing the number of artists that they are signing to their label and even then, they are now investing less and less in the new artists. It is becoming more and more difficult for artists to get noticed, although not impossible. On the other hand, there are those within the industry who are trying to change things and implement modern technology, specifically the internet, into their new business plan. Mike McCready, a co-founder and CEO of Music X-ray, has stated that “most insiders believe recorded music will cease to be paid for by the end consumer. It will instead either be free (built into the cost of marketing other products) or built into the cost of other services you pay for such as your internet and cable TV bill or your mobile phone service. It will feel free and the actual revenue generated from the distribution of recorded music will be a fragment of what it has been historically”. If you tie this in with the ever reducing cost of recording an album, then the future of the music industry does seem somewhat hopeful. Whether or not they have the ability to do all of the above fast enough is something that remains to be seen.

Most people could argue that there is no need for major record labels anymore; that they have outlived their viable usage and are victims of their own greed. All of this may be true but the simple fact is that if they do all somehow go under, something else will take their place. Major record labels are always going to exist in a capitalist society and even more so in a globalised society where everything is assigned some financial value. Where there is money to be made, someone will at the very least try to make it. Until the industry wakes up and stops grouping illegal downloaders into the same group as criminals, it will continue into its downward spiral until someone or something can rescue it from itself.