“Musician” has never been what you could call a stable career choice. At the very least, it’s not what could be called a get-rich-quick scheme. Art tends to be like that — driven more by a love of the process than the possibility for profit.
With that in mind, it’s always mind-boggling to me that the word “industry” gets attached so readily to something that is so completely different. How many times in the past few weeks have broadcasts harped on some form or another of the destruction of the music industry by file-sharing and other challenges?
It helps to have an idea of to whom the term “industry” refers. The RIAA is a conglomeration of five companies (Sony, EMI, UMG, Time Warner and BMG) who are responsible for a staggering 85 percent of all music released. In an economy that has thrived on an anti-trust mentality since the days of the robber barons, it’s hard to imagine the RIAA as anything else. It’s just strange to see that the commodity represented is music — what would have at one time been considered an art form, not a commodity.
That’s the industry: five corporations. When you read in a newspaper that record sales are down, it only means that record sales are down for the RIAA. The big five are the ones paying for the polls to be taken, and they don’t take a lot of things into account.
Take, for example, the amount of music that independent distributors make and distribute. There’s close to no argument that there has been an indie revolution over the past decade, mostly due to the stagnation of a record “industry” that likes to dictate to the people what they want to hear, as well as a proliferation of (surprise) file sharing.
It’s a simple, common-sense theory. A band in Ohio releases a song, everybody in Ohio goes crazy about that song and then everybody sends that music to his and her friends through Kazaa or some other tool. Those people, if they are genuinely interested in music, probably hate 90 percent of what’s on corporate radio. The industry created its own counter-market.
In the same way, if a company with media saturation tells the entire United States that they need one song, that song will be everywhere. Homogeny is its own enemy.
Now, the press is a very tricky thing. Bands that aren’t signed to a label often have little access to the means of production necessary. The way you start a national movement is to get your CD into the hands of every DJ in the country. This isn’t an easy task at stations with playlists as low as 50 or 60 songs — the ones that comprise nearly all of corporate radio (thank you very much, Clear Channel).
Alright, so you get your CD to the college radio stations. Not an easy task, but easier thanks to publications like CMJ that list off the addresses of nearly every college radio station in the country. Still, DJs tend to skew toward the indie-cred labels — dead giants like Elephant 6, pop-star producers like Saddle Creek. So if you want a chance at credible stardom, it’s going to require at least some kind of backing to finance productions of thousands of just-for-press CDs with a little stamp to prove you’re not just some punk with a four-track.
It is of note that the academics, the people with the most education and the most relative freedom to program what they want without censorship, don’t always stay away from the big five, but they usually do.
The problem with music today is an apparently irreconcilable difference between quality, access and connection. People who love music and can’t afford it steal it; people who have the money for music often want it so that they can share it with their friends (which is easier to do by stealing); and people who have the means to buy the music often don’t care about quality or aren’t educated enough about music to know what they like beyond an intuitive distinction between the things put in front of them by “the industry.”
There is a readjustment taking place that is grossly misinterpreted by the press at large. Music is becoming a commodity to an increasingly small number of people. “Adult contemporary” releases lead the pack for sales, catering to people with money to burn, while students with the disposable time to spend on music education are developing a boutique “industry” of their own, much more varied and educated than the homogenized crap offered up by most of the media cartels. Result: the price of crappy music is going up while the RIAA attempts to destroy all challenges to its domination of the market by guilting the populace into thinking they’ve robbed the artists.
There’s an easy way to tell if you’ve robbed an artist: if you aren’t buying any music at all but you’re listening to music, yes, you are screwing over the artist. Art deserves compensation. But probably not if that artist is owned by the RIAA (I just can’t see a lot of the backwards-engineered crap as “art”).
But if you’re buying indie, if you’re buying responsibly and with an educated palette, then you may be part of the emerging solution to both problems — one that would allow good artists to get by based on their merit rather than their earning potential, enriching society like art is supposed to. The key to living responsibly in any corporate culture (something that extends far beyond just music) is to consume responsibly. So keep “researching” and reading on the Internet and keep buying music, but screw the RIAA. As a society, I think we deserve more than 50 songs.