Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Record Industry Is In Decline, and I Am Part of the Problem

"Piracy is stealing!"

"Support the artists, otherwise there won't be any music industry left to enjoy!"

Record sales have been slipping steadily since an all-time peak in the 1990's, and record sales have always been the key component of artist success in the music industry, so if the music industry is in dire straits there's a clear root problem to be solved there: you. You're not buying enough. I know I'm certainly not, but I suppose I can afford to be a bit glib with my headline there since, as a longtime music critic, I tend to get my promos for free anyway. Sure, they tend to be almost exclusively digital files these days, but I doubt too many level headed pundits would honestly expect me to go out and spend $15 on a physical copy of an album that I'd gotten for free and played to death two months ago.

Or maybe they would. This issue tends to inspire impassioned arguments which are not always beholden to logic or reason, and when you consider that those arguments are positioned as sticking up for the artists first and foremost, well... the arguer has little incentive to shore up holes in their rationale. They get to be "right" in some capacity or another either way.

I'm certainly not here to revel in the paucity of largesse I'm currently throwing at the recording industry myself, nor to encourage you to give up that completist vinyl jones, but in the interest of maybe coming up with more practical solutions to restoring the recording industry's preeminence it seems to me that there's value in picking apart the axiomatic assumptions at the heart of the most common complaints, many of which have been cyclically making the rounds for years with little acknowledgment that maybe their lack of results is a direct function of faulty premises to begin with.

First off, there's the assertion - usually writ large with moralistic implications - that as fans we are beneficiaries of the artist's talent and are obligated to compensate them accordingly. When positioned within the context of such a broad dictum it's hard to argue against that point, although the actual means in which we compensate the artists is usually given a much slimmer interpretation: you buy their music, the same as your parents did and their parents before them.

This argument is not so much flawed as it is anachronistic: it made a lot more sense in the pre-streaming heyday of Napster and Limewire in which it originated, when for all practical purposes there were still only two means of acquiring music: buying the CD or illegally downloading it off of the internet. In 2016, illegal downloading has been almost entirely supplanted by streaming options like Spotify and Pandora, but in spite of the above board legality of these streaming options we as consumers are still admonished for supporting these streaming services due to the services themselves offering below subsistence compensation (WELL below, in pretty much all cases) to the artists. We are informed, in stern intonations meant to impart that we should have known as much without having to be told, that until streaming services are able to at least approximate the lost revenue of traditional album sales they are, if anything, a part of the problem and not the solution.

"Very well", a typical consumer might not be remiss in thinking, "but what the hell does that have to do with me?" It's an interesting conundrum in that the record industry is not the only multinational empire struggling to adapt to a changing tech paradigm, although it is arguably the only one of which it is widely implied that the consumer himself bears some large portion of the burden in solving. The U.S. Auto Industry has found itself in serious peril several times over the years (the most recent of which roughly coincided with the subprime mortgage crisis of the previous decade), but I imagine a Manhattanite getting by just fine on the subway and saving himself a pretty penny in expensive parking fees in the process would be surprised to hear that he had a patriotic duty to go out and buy a Chrysler (in this analogy the government bailouts obviously hadn't happened yet).

While it's a perfectly understandable instinct to go to bat for a relatable artist with which one feels a kinship, on the other hand it's all too easy to overlook the shifting economics of the average consumer's monthly expenditures over the last twenty years. In 1999, the year Napster broke, the average American still had dial up internet and used a land line. The monthly nut we now allot to tech alone has swelled to consume much of the expendable income that we used to throw at our record collections in the 90's (a decade where used CD sales provided a sort of warm-up debate to the filesharing woes right around the corner). Many of us spend close to $100 a month for a combined voice/data plan on a single smartphone; that money would have bought you roughly half a dozen albums at $15 a pop back in the day, surely an at least marginally higher number than the average music buyer was throwing down for each month even at the peak of 90's album sales.

And that apologia completely belies the fact that, so long as Spotify, Tidal, etc are legal, ongoing concerns, the consumer has no obligation to spend his or her money acquiring a physical music library when their needs are being met at a much lower price point and with greater convenience elsewhere... as far as the consumer is concerned, the fight for equitable compensation is entirely between the artist and the licensee, and doesn't require consumer arbitration any more than any other contract dispute between content providers and the intellectual property owners they seek to do business with. For many people that are bewildered at the fact that they're being chastised for not doing more to solve a high-level business conundrum, the very airing out of such internecine grievances represents unsavory dirty laundry which should be handled in-house, behind the scenes.

The imperative to continue purchasing physical media is further undermined by the admission among many existing collectors that, in spite of an enviable stockpile of vinyl that would make the Library of Congress blush, they nonetheless do the vast majority of their listening via streaming... for the convenience.  Well, shit, if even the lifers that never gave up the fight to begin with are still getting their most frequent fix from Spotify or Youtube, how reasonable is it to expect the more casual fan to pony up $10-15 a clip for a physical (or even MP3) album that they'll never actually use? Industry enthusiasts have been playing the shame game with consumers since the advent of filesharing, and the little they have to show for it has never caused them to question that maybe their arguments are one-sided and reductionist?

Another consideration is that, at least in terms of underground or only semi-commercial music, there is simply more material coming out every year than ever. That's not meant to be a cynical denial of the diminishing economics of a reeling industry, but rather an acknowledgment that the ability for a hardcore music fan to stay on top of current trends in 2016 is almost entirely predicated on the idea of the vast majority of that listening being of a free nature. Like it or not, the barrier of entry in getting new music exposed has ensured that only the wealthiest among us could possibly hope to pay for everything we listen to and still expect to maintain any kind of genre expertise within the scope of those purchases.

Very well, let's assume it's not an all or nothing deal, that we're allowing for a reasonable amount of free "skimming" so long as the consumer continues to purchase the music they listen to most frequently. How many repeat streams trigger the obligation to purchase the album rather than continue streaming it? No two people would arrive at the same answer to that question, which makes the whole thing unenforceable, if not downright asinine. In fact, the mere willingness to allow for any degree of free skimming by nature removes the matter from the sphere of ethics and makes it a subjective, practical concern. A mathematical problem, not a moral imperative.

It also doesn't help that the labels themselves have often treated their most loyal customer - the completist - with increasing degrees of bad faith. The people most likely to buy your albums are the ones with the mindset of an archivist: they enjoy seeking out rare pressings, imported b-sides and the like. What they don't enjoy doing is paying full retail for multiple domestic versions of an album just because the Best Buy pressing has one exclusive bonus track, the Target pressing another, etc. And that speaks nothing of the even more common iTunes versions, which in many cases either collects all of the bonus tracks available in various physical editions into one digital package, or even more frequently offers extensive bonus content not available in any physical edition.

Collectors being collectors, they tend to prefer their amassed libraries all in one place, and of a type. For some that may mean a bunch of daisy-chained hard drives full of MP3s, for others that will be a shelf full of vinyl, but for almost no one does it imply a partial discography on physical media, another piece of it in lossy MP3 and the remainder of it settled for on a streaming service. Insisting that such an anal retentive mindset (and again, this is the last bastion of your target demographic here) conform to the vagaries of confusing, unsatisfying - and, ultimately, expensive - marketing decisions just further erodes the case for spending disposable income on large music collections of questionable endurability and fragmented presentation.

So the record labels are unsympathetic and the consumer's financial loyalty is being pulled in a million different directions... where does this leave the artists themselves? That's still the million dollar question, really. Sympathy for the livelihood of the musician (including the purely selfish desire to see them continue making music as opposed to, I don't know, painting houses) is the driving force behind these handwringing arguments about the future of the music industry in the first place; nobody's fussing about whether Def Jam or Columbia will continue to be thriving labels in the year's to come, it's all about keeping the artists in play. I don't have any ready made solutions, unfortunately, but there simply has to be better ideas out there than insisting on semi-voluntary patronage, throwing Scooby snacks their way based on individual discretion, no longer tied to any actual unit of fixed value.

No comments:

Post a Comment