Friends and colleagues often ask me how I see the current state of the music industry and how I think it is going to play out. I'm not a futurist by any means, and you may not agree with what I have to say. However, I will share with you what I have observed over the last 12 years and in particular the last 14 months.
I believe the future of the music industry is a topic of concern and interest to many, particularly because there are insiders as well as outsiders who believe it is a sinking ship beyond all repair or recovery.
As I've already suggested, there are many streams of thought on the subject, and I wouldn't point to any one viewpoint as being completely right or 100% wrong. Reality - it seems - is in the eye of the beholder in the daily circumstances and situations they live out.
Some businesses, sectors and artists are still experiencing a great deal of success, and they aren't necessarily those whose names are known in every household. On the other hand, some are striving and working incredibly hard to develop a profitable model for their business or career, and cannot seem to find any apparent solutions. There are even those who are regularly in the public eye, but operate on a deficit.
It isn't - nor has it ever been - a matter of who is the most talented. It often gets talked about, but it isn't always a truth that's readily accepted. Sometimes we see the big stars on TV and automatically assume they possess talents and skills beyond the realm of normalcy, when in reality it was just a marketable image or a sellable trait that producers and labels found cash value in. Most artists that have been around a while will tell you that much.
Labels may not have the resources they once did, but we still have to recognize that if they choose to put their machine behind an artist, they can get them into the public eye with enough haste and regularity to propel them into stardom; even if only for a short while. It doesn't always go that smoothly, but as you are surely aware, major labels aren't taking chances on developing artists anymore. It's the readily sellable artists that get transmitted onto screens of all sizes across the globe; silver screens, TVs, computer monitors, mobile devices, etc.
It's the spoon that feeds the masses. Fortunately, people aren't that naïve anymore. Sure, they might still check out the latest Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry singles, but for most people those only represent a smaller number of many exposures to various artists and styles of music over the course of a single day.
Moreover, interests are really diversifying in the modern world. Some country fans like to follow the hardcore rap scene and some metal fans like easy-listening or acoustic music too. The teenyboppers will continue to eat up what is most visible, but beyond that there really isn't a neat symmetry of disparate music cultures anymore. In this post-Industrial Age, people embrace all of their interests with far less discrimination and tribal segregation than any other age.
From the Compact Disc to Digital
Credit: pixabay.com - NemoThe music industry wasn't poised and ready for the transition to digital the same way the book industry was. File-sharing and illegal downloading was, for many people, the first exposure to music in the online world. Though retaliatory measures were taken and underwhelming music apps were launched in response, it was too late. The expectation that recorded music should be free continues to this day, and internet pirates have always found a way.
Many blamed record labels for their slowness to adapt. As it turns out, we were all looking in the wrong direction. Had independents been ready to accept the responsibility of innovation and new technology, they could have developed services and applications - perhaps even in place of corporate giants - to combat the status quo. If major labels had been ready to embrace the MP3, they could have taken more decisive action. Unfortunately, we were too busy looking up, while they were too busy looking down.
Artists became more and more skeptical and cynical. "Let's wait and find out" has become the new mantra of many indie artists - even those who can't afford not to take risks - either for the perceived harm that was done to them, or for the honest-to-god exploitation they had to endure.
None of that changes the fact that this is still a good time for independent labels, businesses and artists to pursue their passions. However, unquestionably, developing a profitable and sustainable model requires ingenuity. The idea that all startups will succeed, take off or not have to go through skepticism and opposition should be done away with. It has never worked that way, even outside of the music industry. Artist are just going to "sit and watch" until you can prove reliability and trustworthiness as a company.
Conversely, we should try to be more accepting of new models that come along. The solutions we're seeking for aren't likely to come from going back in time or returning to the age of the Compact Disc; that much should be apparent. As long as the internet continues to be a largely unrestricted medium, it's best to proceed as though we are beyond the point of no return. Innovation is no longer the fancy word we use to describe outside-the-box or quirky ideas coming from spectacled mad geniuses. It's becoming a pre-requisite for meaningful change in the industry.
With that being said, innovation is not a business model. This is where things start to get a little tricky. A company could go out on a limb to prove to the world how awesome their new service is, only to be rejected and overlooked. People are most interested in the 'why', and without a compelling reason, no one is going to get behind a cause; even one that might be worthy of more attention.
In the process of exploring different options, money and jobs could be lost, dreams could be shattered, and time could be wasted. But hope is not lost if the defeated rise again, and time is never wasted if the right lessons are salvaged from errors in judgment.
Companies are always looking for constructive criticism, so perhaps we should be more proactive in offering that instead of blanket negativity. Perhaps we should be a little more soft-hearted and a little less closed to forthcoming ideas. Perhaps we should try to support those who are trying to make a positive difference for the entire industry as opposed to cutting them down to size. Artists need to come off the fence and begin rallying for the purveyors, because they are the ones fighting for the future of artists.