Choose Your Own Future Of Music

Just as each year ends with a tempest of review pieces, each new year begins with a myriad of dazzling predictions for the months to come. Will music become like water? Will major artists leave their record companies behind and distribute their songs themselves? Will the major labels stop creating cookie-cutter one-hit-wonders and make some long-term investments? There’s only one way to find out…

Children Have The Right To Music

Across the blogosphere, and amongst music consumers generally, there is a very prominent sentiment that P2P mp3 downloading is a) unstoppable and b) not really a bad thing. People have come to expect that they can get music for free online in a remarkably convenient, on-demand manner.

If downloaders ever think about the ethics of what they are doing, they would probably only see the ‘record industry’ as the victim – which is perceived as a conglomerate of rich, greedy, litigious, self-serving artist exploitation executives. This bad PR is then compounded by badly executed attempts to crack down on illegal downloads, such as DRM restrictions on mp3s and even on CDs. Such restrictions serve only to make P2P downloads even more convenient – and convenience is probably the main driver of music consumption trends.

The only way to know the future is to live it; but it seems a safe bet that the convenience paradigm that has driven consumer music technologies over the past century will continue through the next. NMS has an interesting post about predicting this year’s music model, which has as many ideas in the comments as in the post itself.

More Ways To Pay The Piper

One suggestion is a compulsory license fee, which is certainly in the same vein as the “music like water” proposition. The idea is that the music labels sell a license to network operators, who then pass on the cost to the consumers in their monthly billing fee. In return, consumers get ‘feels-like-free’ access to the entire database of music provided by the label. However, this model does give rise to many administration and distribution issues. Tracking all downloads and distributing royalties to the appropriate artists would require significant (and costly) resources.

There would have to be an agreement between all labels regarding how this should be done – a system like this would only really work if every album and song ever created was integrated into it. It may be possible to have a label opt-in when you join your service provider – sort of like getting your TV service installed and choosing which extra channels you want to bundle with it. The advantage of this is that a jazz listener wouldn’t have to pay for access to vast amounts of death metal and deep house trance that she would never listen to. As such, a focused subscription-type model may prove to be a more effective solution.

Is It About The Music Or The Money?

One common thread running through all discussions about the future of the music industry is this: money. People have been making music for a long time (sometime around the dawn of man, whenever that was) but it is only over the past century that people have been getting rich from it. The ability to record music performances has led to the commodification of music; in a remarkably short time, public perception of the musician has changed from ‘wandering minstrel’ to ‘rock star’. As the music industry grew more and more profitable, more and more people in the “music industry” were actually there to make money, and very few (the actual artists) where actually making music.

Now, however, it may be time to reset the clock somewhat. In the new music model, the distribution graph will be much flatter across all artists, fewer acts will reach the status of ‘enormously wealthy music gods’ and there will be less fat for ancilliary administrative supervision executives to wallow around in. On the other hand, more acts may reach the status of ‘making a comfortable living from music’. This was always a more realistic ambition for a musician, and the development of a more open music economy may well make this an attainable goal for more artists than was ever possible before.

The music industry should be about enabling musicians to make music – the money is the means, not the end. The real power of music is not in its potential to make people rich, but in its ability to make people feel and think. No matter what business model comes over the horizon, musicians will continue making music whether they get paid or not – but if anyone is to make money from music, the musician should be top of the list.


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