The music industry has always been about selling music in the most marketable form possible given the prevailing technology. It started way back in the days of the industrial revolution and the advent of mass-produced instruments and sheet music. It soon became possible to sell recorded music by means of wax cylinders. As technology advanced, the wax cylinders gave way to other physical consumables – wax discs, then vinyl disks, and then eventually tape and CDs. The supply chain that got the consumables to the end user was a great money-spinner. Sure, the paradigm was threatened from time to time. Unauthorised duplications of physical deliverables prompted the occasional indignant protest, but the major-label record company behemoths were never in serious danger of being toppled by the trifling irritation of home taping. Until music went digital.
When music went digital it marked a watershed in the history of how people listen to music. Consumers started exploiting new ways to get their favourite sounds. The established supply chain became redundant. CD sales plummeted, pushing independent music stores to the brink of extinction, while there was a concomitant increase in legal online purchases of music and illegal file-sharing. The indignation of the music industry turned into apoplexy. “The entire music ecosystem is distorted by illegal downloading,” sputtered David Joseph, Chairman and CEO of Universal Music UK and Chairman of the BRIT Awards. Music chiefs, like Geoff Taylor, chief executive of BPI, declared war on internet pirates who cost the music industry an estimated 200 million pounds a year.
Alarmed by the perceived threat to their royalties, some musicians, songwriters and composers have also condemned the music pirates. UK Music chief executive, Feargal Sharkey said: “Our members cannot continue to innovate and invest in the shadow of an illegal peer-to-peer ecosystem.” Singer Lily Allen has been campaigning for action against online pirates: “File sharing’s not okay for British music,” she writes on her website. “We need to find new ways to help consumers access and buy music legally, but saying file sharing’s fine is not helping anyone – and definitely not helping British music.”
Some musicians are also inclined to have a go at iTunes and Amazon for enabling customers to pick individual tracks from their albums, but the fact is, music fans just want to buy that one track that’s stuck in their heads and don’t want to take a chance on unfamiliar material that the group or artist considers to be related. The single reigned supreme in the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s. So haven’t we just come full circle? In the land of the overpriced take-a-chance CD, the downloadable single is king.
Yes, these are muddy waters, and they’re being muddied further by the pirates. Blood is going to be spilled on the decks and I certainly don’t want it to be musicians’ blood. Musicians and composers deserve a fair reward for their talent and labour. Indeed, most of them have worked out they don’t need the record companies any longer and, as the thunder of battle subsides, many are engaged in the process of identifying new revenue streams. The music industry in its current form may be in its death throes, but the harbingers of doom have got it wrong – this is not the day the music itself died. You can no more stop music than you can stop time.