Monday, May 11, 2020

The Music Industry and The Pandemic

[A friend asked for my thoughts on this Esquire article about how "Coronavirus Might Kill The Music Industry."]

The problems described in the article were all making life difficult for musicians long before CoVID-19. The pandemic is doing the same thing to the music business as every other industry: choking off cash for an extended period of time, with resulting economic asphyxiation at multiple levels.

Live music was under threat from rising rents and what is referred to as "gentrification" plus a general loss of interest in music from the average person well before the pandemic. The current situation is just putting extra pressure on things, as it is for every struggling business.

Like restaurants, a bunch of venues will go out of business. A bunch of them were on the verge anyhow. Like a forest after a fire, you'll get a few starting to grow back in a few years. It won't be the same, but life never is.

Are we really going to start arguing that streaming services are bad? They're the only growth the music industry has had after decades of economic nose-dive. People aren't going to go back to buying vinyl or CDs or (god forbid) downloads. That's over.

When did the music industry ever "work for everyone?" The "golden age" of the 1970s and early 1980s, where a handful of payola-fueled artists locked down segregated and limited radio stations? It was very much winner-take-all in those days, and independents had no way to get any real exposure or distribution. And there were no other real outlets for media and culture. No internet. No video games. No DVDs (barely VCRs, and movies on tape cost the equivalent of about $250 of today's dollars).

More music is being made now than ever before in human history, and more is available to everyone to listen to.

Economically speaking, it's not a surprise that recorded music has little value anymore. A decade-plus of piracy (late 90s-early 00s) and limp and hostile industry response meant an entire generation grew up with the expectation that music was (or should be) free.

The fact that artists have been complaining about it all for ~20 years doesn't help. If the MAKERS of the music are constantly saying "It sounds like shit, it's not worth paying for, it's a rip-off, and I don't make any money from it anyhow," (refrains for CDs, downloads, AND streaming) what makes anyone think the average person will say "ooh, yeah, I'm going to spend money on THAT!"

In 2020, there's an endless supply of free recorded music. Pick whatever service you want, you can probably find what you want to hear or something close enough for $0.

Thanks to the democratization of recording, recorded music isn't special. People can (and do) make records on their phones or computers now. The number of new recordings has gone up to an astounding number. Granted, most of them are terrible, but few people care about the "quality" of the music.

Music has also become less of a cultural force than it used to be. I don't mean for music fans (like us), I mean for the average person. The 80% of the public that really just doesn't care that much anymore. They used to buy a couple albums a year, maybe, and that was the margin that kept the business going. Now, that money goes to Netflix or Disney+ or video games or phone apps or paying for broadband.

You can see this reflected in most people's homes. They don't have stereos anymore. Not even boomboxes. Maybe they have a "smart speaker" they sometimes use for listening to music. They definitely don't have a CD player or turntable. (Again, not talking about the handful of fans. I'm talking about everyone else, the majority.)

The ocean of music out there means people also don't have to have their tastes challenged or new stuff cycled in and out periodically. FM and AM radio are wastelands, good for polarized talk radio and little else. In your car, you're listening to SiriusXM or your phone. Alexa and Siri play what you expect or ask them to.

If you're exposed to new music, it's likely because the artist made a clever or shocking video, which people watch 30-60 seconds of on social media, either with the sound off or hissing out of their tinny, tiny phone speaker. Or because they did something outrageous and you read about it and wondered what they sounded like.

When you have massive supply of a good and the same (or declining) demand for that good, the price of that good drops.

As for streaming service payouts...really, this again?

Briefly: If artists have bad deals with their labels, it's the artist's problem. Services make deals with the owners of the recording and publishing copyrights. Streaming services already pay so much off the top they can barely survive.

Look at the graveyard of services past and compare them to what you've got now. There's exactly ZERO difference between, say, RDIO and Apple or Spotify. Practically the same interface design, same business model, same features. Marginal differences, more music.

The majority of the public thinks music streaming is too expensive, which is why there's only one semi-independent player left standing at this point (Spotify, who is partially owned by the labels and titans like Tencent.) and the other streaming services are arms of major tech titans who can afford to take losses on music as part of a larger digital media or device ecosystem strategy.

That's right: losses. Nobody is really making lots of money off of streaming services. Even Spotify is aggressively moving into podcasts because those cost so much less for them to provide.

It is a winner-take-all world in streaming, but it's always been that way in the music business. We hoped that streaming would make things slightly better by giving everyone a platform; it ended up making it slightly worse due to the overwhelming flood of music (and industry incentives to promote certain artists over others, and people's inherent laziness in curating their own media universe, which is completely understandable and predictable for non-music fans).

All physical media has taken a big hit -- books, DVDs/Blu-Rays, etc. Again, look at people's houses. No CD player, why should they buy CDs? CDs were a bad deal for most people anyhow, with the average CD being played fewer than 10 times after purchase.

One thing to keep in mind is this: People, fans, listeners seem to have no problem paying for one or more expensive video streaming services -- Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Disney. Each of those costs around $10 per month to provide a narrow slice of "content".

Ask the same people to throw down $10 a month for all the music in the world, and they hem and haw and go to YouTube and listen for free, or ask their smart speaker to play something and suffer through ads.

Why? I go back to "music doesn't matter that much anymore".

The live music business has been broken for a long time before this. Classical and jazz ensembles and institutions have had to beg rich people for money for decades. They are museums for the wealthy, and their repertoire and business models reflect and cater to that demographic reality.

The average person just doesn't attend those performances. Maybe for a date, once. And sales are embarrassingly small numbers.

Live pop music also has plenty of problems. It's too late, it's too loud, it's too long, it's too expensive.

Big shows are spectacles, and if you're a major act touring without video walls and dancers, you're probably doing it wrong. P.S. People don't care about backing tracks anymore. The aging rockers can tour their albums to their aging fans, but that is literally a dying art. Younger bands have to focus on
"the show" more than "the music" to attract attention.

Festivals are great if you're someone who likes festivals. Personally, I can't stand them. But like Marvel movies, ultimately the festival's star is the FESTIVAL, not the bands on the bill.

Independent bands in clubs can be thrilling experience, but are most often boring and simply not worth it. Smaller venues have been suffering from rising rents and changing urban values for some time. Again, some of this is simply because most people don't care that much about music.

Put another way, if you ran a restaurant, would you only serve food from 9 - midnight (the sign said 8, but you made people wait around for another hour before your actually opened the kitchen)? Would you make the food so hot that it burned people's mouths unless they took precautions? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Even if you do care about music, is it really fun to stand around at 11:30 on a Wednesday night having your ears blown off by a bunch of amateurs? Sometimes. Maybe.

Personally, I can't stand live-streamed concerts. It's like the worst of both recorded music and live music, with little of the good bits. I can't imagine that anyone is really sitting through an hour of that.

It is also worth noting that nearly every other media vertical is suffering. Cinema/film/movies are taking a big hit for many of the same reasons as music. The future there is shaky indies, mediocre streaming-service series, and soulless Disney/China behemoths, streamed to your phones.

Nobody cares about books, either. If you want to see some scary numbers, read some articles about how many units "best-selling" authors move, and how little money they pull in.

All that said, MUSIC is going to be just fine. Because real artists don't do it for the money, they do it because they WANT to, or because they HAVE to. It is a difficult life choice, as it has always been.

Anyone who chose to go into music for the money, as a business, is also in for a tough time, but I'd argue there is no business that isn't suffering right now, and/or that isn't tough in the 21st century. Maybe banking.

[For context, I've been playing music since I was single-digit years old, was a professional musician for most of the 90s, and helped invent and launch the music subscription business. I'm also old and a little jaded about all this.]

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