What will happen to the music industry?

Since MIDEM, I have been reflecting a lot on the future of the music industry. As I wrote below, as an outsider, I was discouraged by what seemed to be backwards thinking regarding what I see as the great opportunities of the era of the networked audience.

Two posts today from Techdirt and the MIDEM blog question whether the recording industry is really ready to collaborate and cooperate with new services and fans or whether all that talk is just another PR campaign.

What struck me at MIDEM was that for all the sobbing or cynical snickering from those within the industry about the damage being done and the jobs and revenue being lost, I found that most of the time I was surrounded by really smart, really optimistic people who were creating new jobs, new revenue streams, and having a really good time doing well in the music business.

The thing was, all those people had accepted that the audience is irrevocably networked and that digital music is and will always be easily and freely shared. They were building businesses that use social media to turn people on to new music, to connect people to one another around music, and to provide comprehensible data analysis to the people making and marketing music. They weren’t in the old jobs working for record labels and publishing companies.

If I were a futurist, I would predict this future:

As the old industry behemoths focus more and more on controlling intellectual property, fewer and fewer artists will be willing to deal with the restrictions this places on their fans’ ability to build excitement around them. Rather than fearing the exchange of their music for free, or the propensity of fans to make their own videos and remixes, more and more artists will seek it out, realizing there’s plenty of money to be made giving the music away and selling scarcities (see Masnick’s Techdirt writings for long exegeses of this idea).

Third party companies and services  on the internet will make it easier and easier for artists to spread their music and reap financial rewards outside of the sign-with-a-label/get-on-the-radio system. Eventually the recording industry as it stands now will become a small marginalized part of the industry as the people who understand that “protecting” intellectual property is a good way to kill your business, while sharing is a good way to build it decide it makes more sense for them to forego major label representation. To the extent that rights-holders opt in to a system that locks them into a protectionist-orientation, they’ll be increasingly irrelevant. To the extent that they bypass that increasingly restrictive system, they’ll thrive. Eventually there will be so many outside the system, what’s now fringe will be the norm.

Now I understand that it’s not reasonable to expect musicians to also be ace marketers and social media experts. The people at labels do real work, and I don’t mean to dimish that. The huge need is going to be a new kind of intermediary, not a label, not exactly a manager (though they’ll still be useful), but the social-media-advisor who can make sense of the many forms of media through which word is spreading, the many kinds of social activity through which those words flow, and guide the musicians’ media presence.

For those who say “but musicians should be able to make a living by charging people for the music, they shouldn’t have to do all that other stuff” I say, well yeah, in the perfect world. But this is the new world. Some people may still get away with that, but clinging to that historically brief past in which recorded music could be a primary source of income will only lead to obsolescence.


On a housekeeping note, I apologize to any readers who are bummed that I’ve been such an infrequent blogger. I find my thoughts these days are either happening in 140 character form or really long form (since my blogging slow down I’ve written four book chapters and two journal articles as well as a few talks). Blog post length seems either too long or too short. But I’ll keep trying.

Comments (5) to “What will happen to the music industry?”

  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. I have been reading a book called Elsewhere USA by Dalton Conley. I have been thinking that it would be interesting to read a book about the music industry from a sociologist’s point of view. Nice to read your post, look forward to more.

  3. This is an EXCELENT complement to my article, “Getting Real About Going Independent,” which follows:

    Once upon a time, not too long ago, most music artists wanted a record deal. Being an independent artist was more of an ambition than a phenomenon. While Ani DiFranco, a non-commercial music artist and the poster child of independence, garnered attention and respect from her peers, she didn’t exactly serve as a catalyst to the independent movement.

    Then a highly publicized feud between Prince and Warner Bros. erupted in which he likened his contractual obligations and restrictions to that of a “slave,” caught the media’s attention and truly galvanized the movement.

    More recently acts such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna have left the homes of major labels and taken-up residency in the independent hotel. Will it be a permanent one? That remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: rooms are filling up fast.

    It’s apparent that being independent has become a right of passage; a badge of honor and valor that’s proudly displayed for other music artists to identify with and applaud…a blueprint for greater autonomy, creativity, and financial dividends. But what does being an independent artist really mean?

    In short, it means being a business person and an entrepreneur. That’s the one little (and often overlooked) aspect of “going independent” that I never hear artists discuss, and it’s the one major issue I have with industry professionals who promote being independent as more of a lifestyle, than a career choice.

    Most artists are creative, emotional, right-brained people. Those are the intrinsic qualities that make them what they are. Those are also the qualities that make it difficult for them to function and thrive as business people who are required to engage in left-brained activities. But at every conference I attend, and every panel discussion that I witness, there is no mention of the necessity to think and behave like an entrepreneur while being an independent artist. It never comes up.

    Why is that?

    It’s because for artists, the choice to “go independent” is often an emotional decision, not a business decision. It’s not really a choice that they make, but rather one that is made for them when they are unsuccessful in landing the elusive and rarely obtained record deal. They are not responding to the scarcity of recording contracts, they are reacting to the frustrations that stem from not getting one. This frustration either becomes the fire that fuels their motivation to prove their worth, or the wet blanket that extinguishes their dreams, and validates someone else’s opinion about their lack of commercial value.

    They also don’t mention that the most successful independent artists either came from, or have affiliation with, a major label.

    By overemphasizing the creative freedoms and bigger paydays that await independent artists, focus is diverted from the monumental task of marketing and promoting music as a business person and entrepreneur. It’s tantamount to telling people that they should just leave their jobs and work for themselves. That’s unrealistic and downright ridiculous – especially without having the fundamental knowledge of what being self-employed entails. How many self-employed people do you know? Cut that number in half and that’s how many successful independent artists there are.

    Make no mistake about it; being an independent artist is the equivalent to being self-employed.

    While everyone can recognize the fringe benefits such as freedom and flexibility that the self-employed enjoy, there are a myriad of challenges that they are constantly faced with in order to survive and succeed. Funding, legalities, taxes, overhead expenses, operational costs, accounting procedures, and attending to endless administrative details are functions of their everyday life. They also have marketing costs, but unlike music artists, they don’t sell products that can be obtained for free.

    So what does it take to succeed independently?

    Ironically, operating like a major label. Go figure. The independent movement reminds me of teenagers who don’t know what running a household requires, involves, or entails because their parents handle that responsibility. It’s not until they have to run their own households that they are forced to learn how to do it own their own. The same holds true of the independent artists that attempt to run their own labels: they discover how expensive it is, and how much work it takes.

    If you are going to get real about going independent and being successful at it (i.e. profitable), be aware that it can’t be something that you just do on the weekends; it’s a huge business decision that impacts your world both professionally and personally. It requires the same level of preparation, organization and commitment that being a prosperous business person entails. Establishing your success and maintaining it will be one of the hardest things you can do in your life, and one of the most rewarding.

  4. Came across your blog today and must say it stuck a real chord. As someone who works at an agency with a number of clients who have music associations/properties (some more credible than others)….I whole heartedly support your POV. Not sure if you saw our presentation at MIDEM but we have spent the last year developing Bacardi’s ‘partnership’ with Groove Armada and have just launched a new initiative that challanges the music business model by actively encouraging and rewarding file sharing of new content amongst fan bases. Now we’re not short minded enough to think that this is a long term model as it will tire, particularly as the adoption curve grows. However, it does help reinforce your point that there are people out there willing to try new ways of getting their music into the hands of their fans and that there are plenty of 3rd parties/brands etc willing to invest in helping them to do so……..recognising that apart from the traditional method of charging for music, there are ever evolving routes to contributing towards the bottom line in a way that benefits all stakeholders, including the artists and the end users themselves.

  5. Artist should stay hungry and broke to come up with the perfect art.
    “Investors” make talented people lose their creative talent. They will make you sing what they want to hear. In the end you will be famous like Beatles but you will forget who you really are.
    It is possible to trade your life for money. The backward exchange is not possible, however.