What’s really wrong with the music biz?

Salon: What’s wrong with the music biz?. “Napster’s out of the picture, but for the first time in a decade, album sales are down — and ticket sales are sagging too.”

The sub-title of this article seems to imply that Napster has something to do with the recent decline in sales, but looking to blame either Napster’s existence, or lack thereof, is way off the mark in my opinion.

Also from the Salon article: “What we’re seeing is a downward trend of the business,” says one industry veteran from the touring side. “It’s continuing to implode. And folks don’t really have a clue. The leadership at labels, senior management of the business, doesn’t have a clue where the industry is going, tech issues aside.”

Do you think the senior management of the major lables have any idea what the music is about? That is their product, after all. In my experience they don’t. They’re only interested in the bottom line. They want to know who’s in the top-20 this week, and who they can sign to get in on the latest trend. They want to know about profit margins, earnings expectations, mergers and aquisitions, and the size of their quarterly bonuses. The record company execs couldn’t give a rodent’s sphincter about the music itself, so how could they possibly understand their market?

Jim Winstead says, “people know they’re getting screwed, and are sick of it. I bet you would see album sales explode if prices dropped by five bucks. The music industry has gotten lazy from bloated margins.” He also suggests that part of the problem is the industry’s failure to figure out how to make money distributing music online. I don’t buy that either.

The Salon article gives us a clue: “Among those who are not to blame for the concert downturn are U2, Madonna and the Dave Matthews Band.”

Here’s what I think is really going on: For at least the last two decades, the big record companies have been spending billions of dollars promoting (and exploiting) young, naive artists, for one-off one-hit-wonder type success. When there’s no second hit, or no top-10 hit on the second album, the labels unapologetically drop their contracts without blinking twice. (Maybe they wink at their A&R guy, but only if he’s over 35.)

They keep 90% of the profits they made from the one-hit-wonder (who’s now either on skid row, or acting on daytime television), and put the rest of the money into another immature artist, hoping that they can repeat the success. They usually don’t. My gut tells me that the unstated corporate justification for this idiotic behavior is to prevent the artists from getting a big head, and hiring real lawyers to negotiate equitable contracts, which they think would have an adverse effect on their bottom-line.

As far as I can tell, all that the mainstream record industry is interested in nurturing, is their marketing machine. The people in charge of making decisions have no interest in investing in the long-term success and growth of the truly talented musicians and songwriters, whose careers they’re supposed to be building.

Is it really any wonder that their target audiences are bored to death? Is it a surprise we’re sick of hearing the same adolescent schlock over and over again? Even the largest record-buying demographic, young people, age 15-20, are smarter than that. We want to be challenged and engaged. We want to think and feel. We want the music we listen to, to illuminate our souls and enhance our lives. We don’t just want to bop around, while dreaming of jumping in the sack with Britney Spears or the lead singer from O-Town.

That there’s a need for reform of the music distribution channels and contract law is no surprise anymore. The Napster phenomenon and subsequent fallout made these facts undeniable. What the current downturn in the music industry is showing us, is that we take ourselves more seriously that the record companies do. To fix their business, they’re going to have to invest in meaningful art, and not in marketing buzz.

That’s what the strong sales of mature acts U2, Madonna and Dave Matthews is telling us. All three acts have the artistic vision to satisfy us and engage our minds and hearts. But more important than that, they all had the good luck to have had big hits early in their careers (trust me, it’s more luck than marketing). This afforded them the luxury of the time and money they needed to nurture their art. That’s what people are paying them for now: their art.

As long as the record companies hold onto the one-hit-wonder approach to investing in their industry and their artists, they’ll remain hobbled. Let’s hope they catch on. Someday I’d like to hear some new music that doesn’t put me to sleep.

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