It’s in the news every other week. Spotify is ruining musicians. iTunes killed the album. Labels are angry at Pandora. It seems like the music industry is doomed. Take a closer look though, and you’ll see the core issue: Things are changing, and we’re doing a terrible job of handling it.
The Changing Landscape
In the last 20 years, the music industry has changed more significantly than in its entire history. What happened? The internet arrived. First it was Napster. Suddenly everyone could get music for free. A few years later iTunes came along offering a paid option, and breaking up albums into single-track downloads. Now there’s Spotify, Pandora, and with them, endless debates. Stories of streaming services paying mere cents for thousands of streams, or calling it the “last desperate fart of a dead corpse” (this is my favorite) seem to come out weekly.
Not only that, MIDI samples are being substituted for studio musicians. Auto Tune can make make anyone sound halfway decent. Studio editing can make a botched performance radio ready. Any kid with garageband and a mic can get his music heard by thousands, instantly. The market is saturated with music, and hardly anyone is making money.
That’s only on the recording side of the music industry. On the live music scene, symphonies are closing, club owners are paying pitiful rates, and suddenly everyone is a DJ. How can anyone afford live music in this economy??!?!
The Music Industry Isn’t Helping.
Does suing 12 year old kids and 83 year old deceased women for hundreds of thousands of dollars solve anything? Is complaining about how things aren’t like they used to be going to change how people consume music?
One of my college professors provided great insight on this debate. “How do you get someone to pay for something when they could easily get it for free?” he asked us. The class unanimously agreed that it was impossible. We argued that if given the option, people will always take something for free rather than paying for it.
“What about bottled water?” he asked. Well, crap.
Why Bottled Water Matters
Remember the days before bottled water? You could get water anywhere. Out of the tap, from a drinking fountain, from the SKY even! The best part is that it was all free. Doesn’t that seem strange now? Fastforward a few years. Now the bottled water industry makes over 100 billion dollars a year. Let me say that again: these companies are making 10 billion (with a B) dollars every year by selling something that you can get for free.
Before you make the argument that “Fiji is the nectar of the gods” or “Arrowhead tastes like it’s bottled from the LA River,” I’m well aware of the differences between bottle water. You don’t want to get me started on this.
Look, music isn’t going anywhere. If there’s one thing that has been made clear in the last 20 years, it’s this: people love music. People want to listen to music. Napster, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, and SoundCloud all prove this.
Music is essential to life, just like water. Yet people stream music on Spotify for free as they drink a $3 bottle of Evian. (In Evian’s defense, their pH levels are higher than tap water. I’m telling you, you don’t get me started.) The past 20 years have been a transition period for our industry, trying to figure out the “bottled water of music.” We haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m hopeful that the music industry’s best days are ahead.
One Industry Is Doing It Right
When internet piracy showed up, the film industry was hit with the same problem as music, but they’ve handled it much better. Rather than complaining about streaming services like Netflix, they’ve decided to up their game. In recent years, movie theaters have added new upgrades like 3D, IMAX and Dolby Atmos Sound to make the movie going experience something you don’t want to miss.
Sure, I could have torrented Gravity and watched it on my laptop, but instead I saw it in IMAX 3D. I was completely immersed in the story. When I left the theater, I felt like I could finally breathe again. It was an incredible experience that I wouldn’t have had watching the torrented version at home. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see it a second time in theaters.
The film industry has found their bottle.
Trying New Things
In order to find music’s bottled water, we have to be constantly trying new things. Here’s two groups that are experimenting with unconventional methods of making money with music, for better or worse.
Cheating The System
LA Funk band Vulfpeck is trying something interesting. Rather than complain about Spotify’s low streaming rates, they’re using Spotify to fund their upcoming tour. They recently released Sleepify, an album of complete silence. They’re asking fans to stream this album on repeat from Spotify when they go to sleep. Because the band earns only half a cent per song streamed, each fan will generate $4 per night. The band then plans on launching a tour of the cities with the most fans, at no charge.
Will this plan work? We’ll have to wait and see. It’s important to note that Vulfpeck’s other albums are actually great music, and not silence. Is this the solution to the music industry’s problem? Not exactly, but I love that Vulfpeck is taking lemons and making lemonade.
Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing To Torrent
Hip hop group Wu Tang Clan plans to release exactly one copy of their forthcoming album. Yes really. The lone album will be toured around in various museums and festivals, where eager fans can take a listen on headphones, for a price. After the tour concludes the album will be auctioned off, presumably for millions of dollars, at which point the owner is free to do what they want with it (READ: it will be leaked online).
The idea behind this is to restore music as an art form, and I applaud Wu Tang for trying something no one has ever done before. Obviously this method won’t work for most artists, since they don’t have a Wu Tang-like following, but the larger statement they’re making is bold.
What Do We Do Now?
Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answer. I have no idea what the music industry is going to look like in the next 20 years. But I’m confident that smart, hard working musicians are going to keep fighting, keep trying new things, and keep their entreprenurial spirits alive. Let’s figure this out together. That’s the only way we’re going to find our bottle.
(Final note: Smart Water is the best tasting water and I will fight any man that says otherwise. Plus, it has electrolytes. It’s what plants crave.)
Photo credit: Lora Rajah