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The Business Of Music: Tis Better to Live in Silence These Days

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April 26th, 2012

Whatever happened to good music? From the 50s through the 80s, music was exciting. It brought people together, defined generations and sub-cultures. It was alive and a new album releases by supergroups were huge events. Now, that’s all gone and what seems to be left is record executives touting an online business degree and high profit margins. It seems like music today consists of manufactured boy bands, slutty girl bands, and a few stars who lyricize like middle-schoolers. I don’t know why some of them are famous at all, yet they have plenty of fans.

Those within the music industry blame their woes on the Internet claiming that file sharing and free downloads have killed their profits. Others in the industry, like Radiohead, claim that fans are forced to download music for free, because the radio stations don’t play anything that anyone wants to hear. Other big names in the music industry chimed in on this video, with comments that the business is run by young, arrogant music executives who only make money due to the virtual monopoly status of the major labels. Some believe these producers take control and creativity away from unique and talented musicians.

There are many reasons why the music industry has declined, among them:

  • Death of the album as individual downloads become the norm
  • Music taxes collected at the ISP level
  • Notion of music as a product as opposed to a service
  • Mobile devices, with inferior sound quality
  • Confusing revenue streams, with income generated from sources like Youtube and downloads, rather than album sales
  • The difficulty of monetizing an online fan base
  • Monopolistic behavior of major labels, driving out innovation and focusing on the short term bottom line rather than developing talent.
  • Business taking precedence over art
  • Lack of investment capital
  • Corrupt accounting and greed

Steve Albini, who produced Nirvana’s “In Utero” describes the problem of contracts and accounting in “The Problem with Music.” He points out that bands are often given “deal memos,” which aren’t really contracts at all, but can bind a band to the label. When actual contracts are written, they are structured in such a way that the band is owned - lock, stock and barrel - by the record label. They are often promised royalties, but once the accountants have finished their dirty work, royalties are diminished to table scraps. Even if a band is successful, the more money they make for the label, the more money they owe in the end.

Still, music isn’t quite dead. There is more music available than ever before. It is being produced in garages and on computers. What has broken down isn’t the creativity but rather the channels bringing that music to the mass market. Today, the big labels have become stuck and stagnant. On the other hand, there is a growing underground of young bands developing the new strategies and tactics to make and sell music without the middleman. The old music industry model might be a dinosaur, but the music lives on.

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