The Many Killers Of The Music Industry: The Digital Era
from the the-bigger-they-are-the-louder-they-bitch dept
Welcome to the second half of our rather longwinded look at the attempted industriacide committed by various music formats over the years. Part two concerns itself with the Digital Era, an era that started with the introduction of the CD, which was hailed by the industry as the "savior of the music business," right up until someone had the bright idea of "releasing" CDs with nothing on them. Read on…
If LPs and cassettes were the show ponies of the media race, the “CD” (or “See Dee”) was Manowar, Secretariat and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s horses rolled into one.
Popular, cheap to produce and yet another format to gouge completists with, the CD had it all. Distribution cost? $0. Paid out of the artists’ royalties. Production costs? Studio time? Blow? Free. All paid for by the artists. Plastic, paper, ink – all cheap. Lots and lots and lots of profit.
The music industry responded to their incredible fortune the way any short-sighted leviathan would: by steadily increasing prices. Soon customers were paying $19 for one good song and 11 shitty ones. On top of that, the new format ran 20-25 minutes longer than the LP, leading many bands to pack their albums with filler their drummer wrote. Finally, after so many other formats repeatedly “killing the music industry,” they had found a savior in a nice, cheap plastic disc.
But there was trouble on the horizon. The twin specters of “used CDs” and “blank CDs” soon cast a shadow over the hookers and blow purchased with its ill-gotten gains.
The first, “used CDs,” was decried by artists as disparate and incredibly wealthy as Garth Brooks (68 million albums sold) and Chris Gaines (1.1 million albums traded in at used CD stores). They now demanded to be reimbursed every time the album changed hands, claiming that purchasing music in this format subjected you to a vague and ever-shifting contract, filled with more rule changes than a drinking game.
The other, “blank CDs,” when combined with affordable CD writers, shoved a slightly-battered industry towards the edge of a long flight of stairs. The industry responded with more built-in fees and cries of “Home burning is killing music.” This cry was misinterpreted by various local fire departments and indie-leaning arsonists, who both quickly sprung into counterproductive action.
Having learned nothing from its “Betamax” experiment, Sony forged ahead with a boldly miscalculated attempt to corner a non-existent market with the MiniDisc. Like a CD, only smaller, more easily lost/damaged and handcuffed to Sony hardware, the MiniDisc never had a chance.
Sony once again walked away empty-handed from the R&D roulette table, having shown only that early adopters will buy anything as long as it’s shiny and prohibitively expensive. Its ability to record music onto the midget-sized discs threatened to destroy the music industry, or at least kick it a little when it was safely down. The music industry responded to this pint-sized miscreant with “Awwww. The little guy’s trying to say something” and slapped it with some punitive fees.
Not content to be merely a threat to the entire music industry, the mp3′s storage-friendly compression rate and ultra-portability did what no other medium had, and actually destroyed the music industry. The music industry was now truly “fuckt,” as Mozart had so aptly put it millions of years ago. Its Rasputin-like longevity was threatened as was its Rasputin-like propensity for evil behavior. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry with an eMachine could download and dump hundreds of pirated songs onto jump drives, mp3 players and CDs with absolutely no physical effort. And, thanks to the major labels and their years of price gouging, no one was troubled in the least to see them limping into port covered in pirate wounds.
Soon the good ship “Outdated Industry” was leaking money from a million tiny holes. So-called “experts”, in the guise of lawyers and yes-men, were consulted. They all agreed on two things:
It summoned Dark Elf Lars Ulrich to attack the face of international music piracy: a certain Shawn Fanning. Coming off their most successful album to date, Metallica forged ahead in (self-)righteous indignation, alienating an entire generation of potential fans. With Napster on the ropes, the recording industry went from barn to barn to verify that all the horses were indeed missing and methodically began slamming shut door after door.
A nation of tweens and octogenarians were summoned to court and threatened with usurious fines for downloading/uploading “Happy Birthday” and other such top 40 songs. Kazaa watched in horror as its user base (which numbered in the dozens) was swept into lawsuit after lawsuit. Meanwhile, malware creators watched in horror as their remaining victims lost their internet privileges and a great deal of money, both being very key components of their continued success.
Other high-dollar performers got into the act. Madonna seeded file sharers with mp3s of her asking, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Most pirates found this immensely preferable to her second-rate electronica and occasional British accent. Alicia Silverstone hastened her irrelevance by appearing in magazine ads reminding people that stealing mp3s was exactly like stealing cars, a move that upped the “cool” factor of file sharing to the Nth degree. The youth of the world, properly chastened, switched from P2P to torrents, in essence moving from joyriding to Gone in 60 Seconds.
As the industry bled out, it summoned its archangel, Bono, to appear in the “paper of record,” flatly stating that America needed to follow the lead of Communist China and track every piece of information travelling the internet. This was met with sneers of derision and cries of “Fuck you, Bono! Find some other way to finance your malfunctioning electro-lemons!”
Panicked lawsuits filled countless courtrooms and lined countless corporate lawyers’ pockets. Bills for "lost revenue" were presented to anyone who acknowledged that “music” existed. Everyone and anyone was asked to “give until it hurts,” in order to prop up a sagging multi-billion dollar industry. No one was spared. YouTube, bloggers, Girl Scouts, mom & pop stores, animal shelters, cop shops, hotels, bars and nightclubs all became notches on rent-seeking industry’s bedpost.
Nothing stopped the bleeding. The mighty mp3, victorious over King Music(k), waved its variable bit rate triumphantly, zipped itself into a compacted file and hid itself amongst the overstuffed shelves of Mediafire, RapidShare and Megaupload.
The industry wasn’t done being killed yet, despite the best efforts of a new compression format. The latest and greatest thing to change the music scene was something referred to euphemistically as "the cloud." Now this "the cloud" wasn’t so much "little" and "fluffy" like the clouds Rickie Lee Jones sued about so many years ago, but rather an unpicturesque rack of redundant servers. With Amazon taking the lead and Google following shortly thereafter, music fans now had a new and ultra-portable way to enjoy their music.
The labels and various rights groups were none too pleased as these new "clouds" rolled out. The performance rights groups indicated that it was really only interested in one kind of "streaming": that of money into their pockets. The major labels declared this to be a violation of its unwritten end-user agreement, which didn’t allow for music that could be accessed anywhere at any time. "Music wasn’t meant to be portable," it bitched. "After all, it never has been before," it said as it looked back fondly on the heady days of cassettes, CDs, 8-tracks and MiniDiscs.
While no lawsuits have been filed yet, it can only be a matter of time before the shambling, corpse-like music industry attempts to sue Amazon, Google, et al into the Stone Age, musically speaking. Its only hope now is to return to the days before music could be carried around like so many photos on an SD card, a golden era when listening to music meant purchasing an ultra-expensive, hand-cranked phonograph, whose incredible heft required a team of child laborers to install.
So, as Big Music limps into the future, cursing the whole way, unsteadily clutching its Congressional life support system, music lovers can be sure of one thing: behind every technological step forward, there’s an irate record exec dying (not literally, of course) to take everyone two steps back.