Can the music industry accept the death of the CD?
Music journalism has embraced a curious form of clairvoyance over the last ten years, trying to constantly second guess the future of music. Whether it be the stability of record labels, the morality of illegal downloading or indeed alternative methods of distribution, the music industry is a paranoid place to be at the moment. The theme that emerges from this is the notion of sustainability: how can music – a medium predominantly distributed in a physical format – embrace the electronic age which would doing so come at a huge cost to the industry?
The answer to this conundrum is twofold, firstly you need to convince a generation of music fans, who thought nothing of illegally downloading music, that buying music is a worthwhile investment. Internet piracy has empowered the consumer and the moral debate has played heavily on some devotee’s minds – they want to give something back to artists. Fans want to cut out the middleman and offer a direct line of purchase to the artist rewarding them for their hard work and talent. In the music industry credibility is power, an uncomfortable truth perhaps for the ‘Big Three’.
Additionally, you need an avenue that can support this artist-audience centric consumer enthusiasm. Streaming services, such as Rhapsody, Pandora, Rdio, Grooveshark, Last.fm and particularly Spotify, have been able to capture public interest in a way that lends itself to this ideal. It allows for audiences to pay artists en masse and expand their musical horizons without additional cost, thereby encouraging wider music involvement.
An interesting division to have emerged from the current economic reality of the music industry is the grouping of record labels. Over music’s rich history, mainstream labels have streamlined into well oiled machines producing market friendly artists intended to shift as many units as possible – think Beyonce, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons. It’s a rigorously efficient business model intended to inherit as little risk as possible, so more alternative and forward thinking artists often never get a chance at these labels. They are picked up by a relatively new group of labels that have retained independence so that they can nurture the talent of these esoteric artists. XL, Warp, Domino, Rough Trade, Drag City, 4AD, Sub Pop, Jagjaguwar, Matador, Merge are but a few of the more popular labels to have made a success out of merging bankable artists like Radiohead, the Arctic Monkeys and The Pixies with less successful, but still popular artists like Deerhunter, Beach House and Animal Collective. The two co-exist in the spectrum of modern music in mutual equilibrium with some crossover, but ultimately the two function well regardless of the other.
However, this duality isn’t being reciprocated by streaming services. Rather than supporting both markets, they are targeting the quick dollar in favour of finding a middle ground and treat music as a business rather than entertainment. Drag City’s head of domestic sales demonstrates the inherent flaw of streaming services such as Spotify: “for someone like Joanna [Newsom], her records are being sold via LP, CD, iTunes and so forth, so by this reckoning, she wouldn’t need to stream 4 million songs in a month in order to make minimum wage… It is simply unthinkable for us to sign of [sic] on the potential value of a song being worth [£0.00029], even when it comes in the form of a stream. Once we put such a value on the music at that rate, we are devaluing it.”
In essence the problem of streaming services is that they are intended for the major labels and their artists, but make no allowance for any artist that could not comfortably sellout Madison Square Garden. The concept of an online subscription service is a sustainable alternative to physical distribution (sorry HMV), but to keep the benefits from aiding the artists will only suppress the idea among a vital proportion of artists and fans. Spotify is an experiment that has proven that people are willing to invest in a new model of listening to music, but the experiment has failed. It’s commercial tendencies have alienated audiences and what we need now is a new streaming service that bridges the gap between artist and audience and provide the solution to the ever present dilemma of finding sustainability in the modern, electronic music industry.