The music industry is changing, but there is a lot of speculation about the direction in which it is going. For the past year, I have spent considerable time trying to understand a variety of issues related to the industry. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope the vast diversity and culture as well as the quality of our music is preserved when the dust settles. Perhaps most importantly, I hope that music will continue to provide for deserving artists.
As for the quality of music, I believe we are about to witness yet another sea change in this industry. Everyone seems to be focused on file sharing right now, but I believe there is more change on the horizon. Tangible media is not dead…..it is just in a coma. The oft-times maligned labels will eventually re-emerge with new media. The major labels remember the 80s and 90s when folks rushed to the stores to upgrade their existing collections of music. I was one of those people that bought CD music that I had on vinyl.
Have we reached the point of saturation with mp3s? I don’t know but the next generation of music media will hopefully have the same appeal for audiophiles that high definition television has for videophiles. Although I am not an expert, I believe that many people are not aware of the difference in music quality.
Digital music is in it’s infancy. Sampling rates for CDs are fixed. CD players were designed to accommodate the existing format, but the quality is not that great. While mp3s are a wonderful way for folks to share their music, the music is compressed and a lot of quality is lost. Most folks would be amazed to hear the difference between mp3s, CDs, and vinyl on a high end audio system (we’re talking systems that currently cost over $30,000.00).
This is the real problem for the major labels. If they are to remain a player in this new age, they must embrace a new media that will bridge the gap between systems costing sometimes over a hundred grand and systems that cost several thousand dollars. The difference is technological infrastructure. The technology is available, but a new standard must be set by labels and equipment manufacturers and then accepted by the consumer public.
Why do the major labels matter? First of all, they are not necessarily the bad guys. They provided the means for many artists to achieve great things. They will continue to have the studios, tangible media, marketing and distribution channels. However, they have moved further toward the mature end of the artist development spectrum. They still have the power to select an artist that is ready for success. With higher quality media, they will have the means to hold on to their position at the far end of the spectrum.
There is another part of the artist development spectrum that is equally important. It is the early phases of development which typically precedes discovery. The major labels have mostly abandoned their efforts to support and encourage developing artists. It is no longer economically feasible for them as there is a new medium for incubating artistic talent. Thanks to the Internet, it is now possible for independents to enjoy an occasional breakout. The pool of independent talent is growing very quickly. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it provides the means for people to find an audience that was not available 5 or 10 years ago, but they still must be found.
Finally, music is not free. While mp3s are shared regularly, they are the means to an end. It has become a form of marketing. Sharing music with mp3s is analogous to radio without the payment of blanket fees to PROs. Hopefully, people will continue to buy the music if they like it.