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… 

Compact Discs
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:

1. Something should be done at some vague point in the future.
2. Someone should be sued.

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 "Cloud"
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.

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Comments on “The Many Killers Of The Music Industry: The Digital Era”

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AJ says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why must you be such an ass??”

I’ll take a shot at this one….

Because Tim’s view does not support the old school business model that’s kept a dying industry propped up over so many years. What your seeing, in the Anonymous Coward posting, is actually the death throes of the music industry. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion… lol

AG Wright (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I keep having this discussion with people. The music business has little to do with the recording industry. The product can be the same but there are many millions of people involved in the music industry, teachers, salesmen, students, manufacturers and just players that are not involved in recording or only occasionally if they are.
Even then the involvement in recording is in recording their own performances not in the “recording industry”.
It’s only in the last 75 to 100 or so years that if a person is involved in making music the dream was to make recordings. Before that people were happy to play have fun and maybe make a living.

Mr Big Content says:

Re: :eR

This is the kind of astute commentary that is so sadly-lacking in these one-sided freetardist debates. Notice how this commenter carefully refrains from quoting any part of the posting in question, so there?s no way you can accuse them of ?piracy? of this posting. This is someone who practises what they preach?no stealing content for them. Not even a teentsy bit. Because, as you know, you can?t be a little bit criminal, just as you can?t be a little bit pregnant.

If more discussions were conducted in this way, the world would be a much better, and more legal, place.

John Doe says:

This is exactly my point on your last post

Soon customers were paying $19 for one good song and 11 shitty ones.

There is less money spent on music (songs) today because people no longer have to buy 10 songs to get one good one. Now they can buy the one good one. Add to it that they aren’t going to pay “full price” for a digital copy and you can easily see why music sales are shrinking.

John Doe says:

Re: Re:

What I would like to see is a serious history of recorded music (sheet & otherwise) compiled like this along with the industries response and the actual end results. It has all been here in bits and pieces, but a timeline would be great. That kind of article should then be sent to anyone and everyone who is contemplating passing protectionist laws.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: *Adding up*


Combine this with Lessig’s books and Mozart’s piracy…

Add “Moral Panics” and “Remix Manifesto”…

That’s a LOT of history. Might need to define which aspect to look into. Namely, case law vs cultural impact. Both have a lot of impact on how musicians have expressed themselves, and you would have a LOT of research into jazz music (which is dying) and new fusions of music.

If anything, you would also need to look into Mike’s post about the 1970s scare with the laser disc (can’t remember how to find it.) or even how ASCAP came into being and what it means now with the patchwork quilt that is copyright.

Call me Al says:

Thanks Tim. This was an amusing and informative read. You must have spent ages digging out all those other articles to reference.

I’ve been trying to explain all this to a friend of mine for ages but he always demands that I provide some form of proof… which seems harsh considering we discuss it in a pub while drinking beer and so I am unlikely to have reams of supporting documentation available.. At least with ths he can follow all the links he wants to.

Nuwri456 (profile) says:

The Digital Record Industry

I love your insight throughout your article, but what are we to do as Indie Artist if the old industry is dead or dying, and we don’t fully utilize the new digital one to it’s full Social Media power? musicians, songwriters, producers STRIKE! in these times What?
Remember who loves you,
The Silver Conductor @ http://www.thesilverconductor, Facebook,Youtube,Twitter & itunes

Anonymous Coward says:

Both articles have a striking similarity. New technology kills off the existing model. it does this buy striping away outdated forms of pay walls and adding accessibility. connecting the consumer one step closer to the artist. Musicks true value is in the live performance. What would you be willing to pay for a live concert of you favorite, but long dead artist. Beatles reunion anyone. The musick lives forever the artists don’t.

Ninja (profile) says:

I honestly laughed my ass off! 10/10 to this article, funny as hell!

Hopefully the dying corpse will go away and die already and something new and better will take it’s place. Unfortunately, MAFIAA posts record profits year after year so I think we have some powerful sort of Highlander out there waiting to have its head cut. MP3 wounded it, P2P did some nasty damage, streaming is simply rocking but all those couldn’t cut the last string that keeps the head connected to the body.

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

minidiscs say what???

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.

Where to start? Pretty much EVERYTHING in this paragraph is wrong.

Non-existent market? A portable robust easy-to-record format? Sounds like a digital replacement for cassette tape to me.
Not quite like a CD either, they’re magneto-optical, not just optical. It actually has more in common with 8-track than CD.

The more easily lost/damaged – OH BOY. it’s as ‘easy to lose’ as any cassette tape, or a CD and a SD card is FAR easier to lose. It’s a LOT harder to damage them though. I’ve a bunch of minidiscs from the late 90s that have gone around the world with me, still play perfectly. I’ve a DVD of my wedding a friend burnt for me 8 years ago, it’s starting to ‘rot’. MDs are in mostly-sealed, very shock-resistant plastic cases, they are more robust than cassette tapes, certainly more so than CDs/DVDs and have a 2yo bite on an SD card and see what happens, nothing with an MD

Handcuffed to Sony hardware? Crap, someone better tell Sharp then that they didn’t make the MD-701 portable recorder I bought in 1998. Same with the company that made the 3MD&3CD hifi I bought in 99 (aiwa I think)

And ‘Never had a chance’ – yes, because it never ended up having widespread acceptance in many industries, like radio

Normally, I like your articles but on this one, there was just no effort made to research the topic, or at least the major aspects of it. But when a whole section is so patently wrong, it does throw the validity of the rest into question…

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