Bent Notes 2-08

Adapt or Die!

The clarion call that’s been heeded by every species seeking to escape certain extinction throughout our planet’s history has been pointedly ignored by one of its most bloated, stagnant beasts: The Music Industry. While thriving for years on a curdled diet of consumer fraud, royalty rate thievery and artistic indifference, the great behemoth now finds itself marred in the tar pit of 21st century technology, public disgust and withering competition.

According to Soundscan data, CD sales in the U.S., the world’s largest market, were down 19 percent in 2007, while music sales worldwide dropped approximately 11 percent, making last year the worst for the recording industry in more than a quarter of a century. Columbia, Warner and Island Def Jam, three of the major industry players, have begun laying off not only low-level employees but also top A&R executives in heretofore unheard of numbers. Add to this the dismal Christmas sales numbers (down 21 percent) plus forecasts for an even darker 2008 and it’s no wonder moral at these companies has reportedly hit an all-time low.

While the old-boys club dinosaurs are quick to blame everything from piracy to video games for their current woes, the painful truth is that signs of impending disaster have been looming in plain sight for at least a decade. The advent of Napster and file sharing software should have sent these companies into a frenzy of innovative brain storming as they sought new ways to market and distribute their products in an increasingly computer-driven, net-savvy world.

Instead, the fat cats hunkered down with their lawyers and attempted to sue their way towards a future of continued relevance and prosperity. Having grown lazy and smugly contemptuous of any model that deviated from their decades-long reign, they were understandably loath to break with tradition.

But as often happens when stagnation and entropy overtake an outdated life form, the wolves of innovation have circled the beast and begun slowly but inexorably devouring its putrid carcass. Try as they might, their too little, too late attempts to launch themselves into the new digital world, via online record stores such as iTunes and eMusic, simply will not stem the tide of public and artist defection already well underway. Years of ripping off consumers with over-inflated CD prices won’t be forgiven anytime soon and with a multitude of free music available elsewhere the equation is really quite simple: If you rip off your customers they will, eventually, rip you off in return.

Fortunately, the artists themselves are well ahead of their overlords. Major players such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have recently come out with albums driven by innovative, web-based marketing campaigns and free downloads. Prince, a true innovator in this area, has managed to forego record company oligarchy for extended periods and sale his music and merchandise directly from his web site.

Prince learned years ago, as many other bands are just beginning to, that due to the increased profits of self-promoted, internet-based sales, the need to move millions of copies in order to pay back the record company for royalty advances and studio time simply vanishes. Perhaps most importantly, these artists have renewed the essential pact between themselves and their public, recognizing the fans as intelligent, flesh and blood human beings worthy of respect and not merely numbers on an executive’s profit margin graph.

Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to years of frustration over rising music prices and being forced to sift through the infinitely repackaged, sub-par products from companies that seem more interested in draining every last cent from the fan base coffers than actually delivering affordable, quality music.

Though I’m not without my own qualms concerning the way music is currently being bought and enjoyed (atrocious MP3 sound quality, fans losing the experience of listening to entire albums, etc.), I’m a firm believer that the recent innovations have benefited not only music consumers but the artists as well.

The recent signs of desperation from the major record companies is proof positive that even these slow witted behemoths have finally realized that their days of acting as music’s middle men are all but numbered. Schemes such as raising CD prices and attempting to cut themselves in on a piece of their artist’s merchandising and ticket sales should only hasten their demise.

The sooner these companies accept the fact that the glory days of the 80’s and 90’s are gone for good and begin working with artists and consumers to develop viable models for the future, the less painful their death throes will be for everyone involved. Until then, music fans can sit back and enjoy the desperate whimperings and fading influence of these crippled giants as they shuffle off into the graveyard of music history.

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