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Is the Music Industry Failing?

A friend posted this article to Facebook:

Ramin Street — Top 10 Reasons Why the Music Industry is Failing

And while I have indulged in my own share of curmudgeonly ranting over the state of modern music, Street’s article attacks the status quo for the wrong reasons. In my own reaction to the article I have discovered in myself a latent optimism, awakened by a compulsion to respond to Street’s points one at a time. Here is my response:

“1. Record Labels Stopped Doing Their Job.”

In other words, labels stopped seeking out innovators and began focusing on self-preservation, not taking risks on truly original talent. This is reminiscent of comments that I recall Frank Zappa making during an interview, about how old-school record executives didn’t know what they were doing, and thus were more willing to gamble than their modern counterparts.

First of all, what music is he listening to? Even mainstream radio is currently featuring some rather unique-sounding acts: Florence and the Machine, Of Monsters and Men, Bon Iver, and Gotye immediately come to mind.

But let’s say he’s correct, and that record labels are no longer taking charge in bringing innovative artists to public attention. How relevant are labels anyway? What necessitates their assumption of the lead in artist discovery and promotion? DIY is the next wave of music marketing. Labels need not be relevant or useful to the artist anymore. Also recall that Beethoven and Schoenberg were self-promoters, so this concept is far from new.

“2. The Record Labels Became Too Big.”

Here we are with the labels again. Let them fall; they only stand in the way.

“3. Lack of Talent and Personality”

The question of musicianship vs. entertainment is age-old. Look at the so-called “sweet” versus “hot” bands of the 20’s and 30’s. Is the problem greater now? I would think not. It’s just that the talent resides in the long tail — in other words, good artists sell fewer units to more listeners at higher margins while mediocre artists sell more units to fewer listeners at lower margins.

“4. Traditional Roles Have Disappeared.”

Street elaborates: “…with the dwindling of funds for music education in our public schools, we now have artists calling themselves songwriters with little knowledge of music theory, composition or song structure or appreciation for styles that came before (to our detriment). We also have people calling themselves producers with minimal studio experience and an extremely limited understanding of orchestration/arranging to better help an artist in realizing his or her full potential.”

This argument reeks of elitism. Many of the artists we “serious” musicians idolize lacked formal training. I would also refrain from jumping to the conclusion that education funding makes any difference. I personally witnessed programs that squandered the resources they had because there was no passion to learn in the first place. I credit half of my personal education to experience. Budding musicians have proven very good at independently seeking out knowledge. Furthermore, school music programs mainly succeed in bringing the weakest member of a band to standards, whereas private and self-education allows a prodigy freedom to exceed standards.

“5. Fan Abuse (e.g. high ticket prices, high CD prices)”

This is the one point Street raises with which I am in near-total agreement. Live music and complete albums offer little value these days.

“6. We Lost Some of the Old Experience”

Also agreed. From vinyl to tape to CD to digital files, the industry has been gradually trading convenience for sound quality. But more importantly, it’s the liner notes, artwork, etc. that promote a comprehensive listening experience. Gone are the days of the album as a cohesive product. As musicians, however, we must take initiative in dealing with the shift: We can respond by either trying to change public demand, or by adapting to it.

“7. MP3s Sound Horrible.”

Again, a little scent of elitism. While I am aware that I just commented that the shift to digital distribution has sacrificed sound quality, “horrible” is too strong a word. We have always dealt with worse-than-optimal sound quality. Was there such a negative attitude towards cassettes? We also tend to listen in environments that effectively mask the inadequacies of the medium. Just now, in fact, I am listening to Bach in my quiet house, save for the humming of a fridge, an aquarium pump and filter, and other incidental noise. Without noise-cancelling headphones in the dead of night, I cannot discern between 192kbps MP3, 128 AAC, or WAV. I would suspect most others wouldn’t either.

“8. Too Many Choices and Not Enough Filters.”

On no other point does Street miss the mark more. A musician himself, he acts against his own self-interest by lamenting the unfettered access listeners have to artists, even going so far as to suggest we need an agent “directing, filtering, or grading all the music being created.” Yet he goes on to criticize media outlets for their “generic, universal playlists.” What is he calling for, exactly?

With unfettered access to band websites featuring streaming tracks, song-sharing services like Spotify, and viral social news networks like Reddit, undiscovered and independent artists are enjoying more exposure than ever. Who would have heard of Jake Shimabukuro or Andy McKee in 1995?

“9. Lack of Musicianship.”

Here, Street is mostly just repeating point #4. And he must not have his ears to the ground, because there are plenty of virtuosos out there. Maybe they just don’t play the kinds of music he likes. Or maybe, as implied earlier, he still expects to discover them through traditional channels.

“10. Focus is on Beats Over Melody.”

Another age-old complaint which lacks support. How can one allege that there is too great an emphasis on beats over melody when acoustic acts like Mumford and Sons are all over the airwaves? If his point is that crap music occupies the top 40, then he is restating what has been bleedingly obvious since 1986.

I do believe there are plenty of things for us musicians to worry about lately; the decline of interest in small club shows and the emphasis on entertainment over craftsmanship are two that come to mind. But to look to the institutions with which musicians and their fans have always shared a tenuous relationship, borne of professional convenience, not artistic vision — the radio stations, record labels and promoters — to straighten out our concerns is to venture down a directionless path.

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