To even the most casual bystander, it is clear that the music industry is preparing to breathe it’s last. With revenues consistently falling like the proverbial stone, archaic and bumbling business practices which would be rued in any other industry, a product which no one wants to pay for (or needs to, as it is available for free from a variety of sources on the internet) and a host of other seemingly terminal ailments, there can be no doubt regarding the future of music business infrastructure. It may not all die away completely, however, what is left when the dust clears may only vaguely resemble what we recognize now.
Everyone inside (and on the periphery) of the music business is obsessed with this state of affairs. The mindset of how to save (or fix) the music business is more all-encompassing to those inside it than is the day to day operation of the music business itself. People are constantly throwing around statements like “new business model” and “rebranding”. The truth is, nobody has idea one about how to save the music industry and everyone is scared. Terrified. They smell their own blood, but are too frozen from fear to desert the sinking ship.
Going into detail about fixing a business this broken right now is far less important than examining the product which the music industry purports to sell.
In the panic which has seized an entire industry around how to save that industry, the most important thing about it has been disregarded- music itself. With the impending fall of the music business, it’s product has been dragged down with it. In the past 10-15 years, music has been cheapened, made shallow, turned into wallpaper. At this point, there are very few people who will argue to the contrary. I have spoken to a variety of young people, all of whom are mystified as to why there is such a drastic difference between music from 30-50 years ago and contemporary music. They can feel there is something missing, but they have no idea what it is or why.
What happened? We who are responsible for stoking the engines of this industry became lazy. In a moment of utter folly, we believed we had stumbled on a formula to print money because we had begun to make so much of it. Then, when the formula began to fall apart and people stopped buying CD’s, we became scared. We relied upon technicians instead of musicians to make recordings. In this process, we somehow believed that people who buy CD’s wouldn’t notice that we were using a computer to tune someone’s voice, instead of making a singer work harder and sing better. Then, we became entrenched in a systematic methodology for making recordings- the creative equivalent of an assembly-line.
Combining a systematic approach to something (which was traditionally) fluid with fear is like a recipe for epoxy- you get rigidity. People who want to make more money (and more expediently) are always looking for a means of systematizing something. If you can make a process systematic, you can get the job done quicker and cheaper. This mindset works great on a real assembly-line- not so well in a creative endeavor.
In the end, greed and fear have congealed together. The majority of people in the music business are panicking and attempting to save the wrong element in this drama at the expense of the right element. They can’t see what they are doing because they are too frightened of losing their jobs. They would do better to be more concerned about the cost and affect of their shortsightedness upon the world they live in.
Music is a cornerstone to this civilization and has been exactly that to every prior civilization in recorded history. The idea that in the present day, a pack of scared people are running this show and helping to make music more mediocre every passing moment is unthinkable. Music has gone through many phases over many eons, but it’s power is capable of uniting or dividing nations, inspiring the mind, the senses, the soul and bringing humanity to truly understand it’s higher purpose. Any deviation from this is inexcusable and something that shouldn’t be tolerated.
The other day, I watched a movie called “Ikiru” by Akira Kurosawa. It’s a favorite of mine and one of Kurosawa’s best. The story is about a meek, underachieving, unassuming civil servant who discovers that he is about to die from stomach cancer. In an instant, his life is changed. He goes through a period of soul searching and self pity, finally arriving at a moment of self-realization. In his epiphany, he transforms his life from being mundane and lacking purpose to a life infused with meaning. He has the understanding that he is a civil servant and that his role is to serve. Tirelessly, even while he is dying, he completes a civic project for poor people which he and his colleagues had avoided for months prior. He tells no one of his fate and no one who knows him realizes any of this until after he has died.
Somewhere along the line, someone got the wrong idea about what they were doing in the music business. Originally, the people marketing and selling music were all fans of music- they loved it as much as any other fan- perhaps even more. If they couldn’t play an instrument, they’d figure out how to get music to the world. Naturally, there were some with larcenous intentions- where there’s money to be made, there will be those ready to grab it in questionable ways. This notwithstanding, the main goal of the music lovers in the music industry was to support art. Their job was (like the protagonist in “Ikiru”) to serve.
This is what anyone who works with music (or any art from) is meant to do- serve. If you are an artist, you serve your talent; if you are in the business, you serve the artist. Any deviation from this upsets the natural order of things. If this sentiment makes no sense to the reader, I recommend taking a look at the present landscape of the music business. Does the current state of affairs in the music business make more sense than serving something greater (as opposed to serving something temporal)?
The fact is this- we are all serving something. Artists remind us that we have a choice in what we serve.
Once, people did their work with courage, joy and conviction. This was done without question and was the norm. Now, the norm is to work from a place of fear and/or greed. The only cure for this kind of mediocrity is to find a place of courage within one’s self and to operate from there. Watching the engine which drives an industry grind to a halt may not be as arresting as discovering you’re going to die from stomach cancer in a few weeks, however, the long term ramifications are comparable.
We each have a role to play in the direction this world goes, consequently, each one of us is of immeasurable value. This is the time that each person is required to become brave and to do their very best. Whether or not the music business dies is irrelevant- what is relevant is- by being afraid, by doing nothing, will we all have a hand in helping popular music die?