I have been talking about the evolution of content distribution in my last couple of posts, and I’ve pulled together some thoughts about how this has affected the music industry specifically. Robert Heinlein said it best in his 1939 novel, Life-Line:
“There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statue or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”Life-Line (Robert Heinlein, 1939)
When you look through all of the misinformation that has been spewing out of Big Content mouthpieces over the past decade, we see the following truths:
- CD sales are declining as physical media gives way to the digital. The last Diamond-certified album (10x Platinum, or ten million copies) was in 2002, which not at all coincidentally was the year Apple released the very first iPod.
- Physical media continues to hold value in a more limited scale for some, who actually discover new artists through p2p filesharing, and music enthusiasts, the people who also comprise the most serious group of downloaders.
Downloading hasn’t disproportionally hurt big-name artists, who continue to top sales charts even though their works are among the most highly downloaded. At the same time, numerous other “small-time” artists are able to reach fans around the world for practically no financial cost for marketing. Every one of those people is a potential customer for something unique, be it merchandise, physical media, or concert tickets. Even if the percentage of actual buyers is small, the number of actual buyers can increase as the pool of potential buyers increases.
Musicians ranging from Joss Stone (English begins around 1 min in) to Nine Inch Nails have progressively opted to embrace the p2p community, realizing that their fans share their music simply because they enjoy it.
In the most daring experiment to date, Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV album was released in lossless quality for free online. Channels were provided to fans to contribute financially either directly or through ordering physical media copies. The songs were under a Creative Commons license that allows anybody to remix or reuse the work. The band made $1.6 million in a week, every cent of it going directly to the band and the people associated with them who helped make the project a success.
Recorded music has transformed from being a primary source of income to a promotional tool (although it’s arguable that it’s always been a promotional tool, since artists get such a low cut from sales). Now, every single artist has the ability to communicate directly with their fans and see their music enjoyed around the world; all of this is without high promotional costs. Although music may no longer be the multibillion-dollar “industry” it once was, artists will continue to be able to ply their craft and more people will be able to enjoy an integral part of our global culture than ever before.