Convergence Creates Controversy

Several years ago my brother and I were discussing our worst album purchases. He was quick to attack my Creed Human Clay CD and mentioned MC Ren as a regrettable purchase (Sorry to all the Creed and MC Ren fans). This was at a time where I was a member of BMG and obtained my albums via a mailing list subscription. I ordered what BMG offered that fit my tastes and take a chance on an album I thought I might like. Of course, there were some not so great albums that slipped through the cracks and you would have to listen through an entire album to decipher what you did or did not like. Today, the landscape has been changed forever as new mediums dictate how we listen to and purchase music.

We are in an era of convergence. Apple’s line of iPods, iPhones and iPads are leading us to what many call the Black Box Fallacy (accessing all media content through one device). Shuffling through your albums (be it record, cassette or CD) by hand has been replaced with scrolling or swiping through digital album covers through iTunes.

The days of phones being used for talking and music players used for only music are nearly extinct. Being without my smartphone for several hours (having misplaced it in a friend’s car) over the weekend left me feeling nearly helpless (although briefly liberated). In an instant, I realized I didn’t have a phone, my contacts, GPS, way to check email on the go, music player, camera and a portable web browser. When I lost my (now retired) Sony Walkman as a child, I was bummed. When I lost my phone on Saturday, I almost panicked.

While established artists like Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z can usually rely on their fan base to make their albums reach gold or platinum status, the music industry’s landscape makes it extremely difficult for unknown artists to break through.  As Scott Berinato’s post  The iTunes Effect and the Future of Content says, “Perhaps artists will have to ‘sell out’ to video games and placement in advertisements and TV shows (as many have done) with increasing frequency.” Evidence is quickly proving this. I first heard of the band Phoenix through a car commercial opposed to what normally would have been on the radio first.

Video games like Guitar and Rock Band are giving new and independent artists another (although not as lucrative) platform to show their music to the masses and some people are always purchasing ringtones for their phones. Is it enough? How does a new artist even attract attention to themselves? Do they have to dress outlandishly like Lady Gaga just to make headlines? The days of releasing a single, music video and the anticipation of an album are almost of a bygone era. I can remember a time where Michael Jackson premiering a music video in primetime was an event. It was almost like a mini-movie. With MTV and VH-1 needing higher ratings and revenue finding an actual video on those networks is a rarity as video are now relegated on-demand via YouTube or niche channels. Yet another way for the consumer to easily decide what they do or don’t like. The hours of commercials I would sit through in the early days of watching MTV on cable, have now been replaced with a 30 second spot I begrudgingly watch before a music video on YouTube.

While listening to music on the radio is still a constant, it is no longer the main way we consume music. If I wanted a new album, I would hear about it word of mouth and maybe take a chance on purchasing it without hearing more than one or two songs (along with paying a steep price at Sam Goody). Today, I can go on iTunes or Amazon and sample 30 seconds off each song and read a plethora of customer reviews. It narrows the risk of buying something I won’t like.

One Man’s Stealing Is Another Man’s Sharing

How can you talk about music in the digital age and not talk about file sharing? Napster was all the rage when I was in high school and even though that service was shut down, many continue to this day. Even while long standing peer to peer (P2P) sharing programs like Limewire recently shut down, there are dozens more you may not have heard of that pop up. Can we justify what Metallica’s Lars Ulrich once called “stealing” as simply “sharing?” He later recalled his feeling (pardon the language)…

That is an ethical question, but while there were always folks that would rather take something for the price of free, it was also the consumer speaking up. Consumers felt they were paying far too much for music or just wanted access to hear bands they might not have heard that the record companies weren’t marketing. It was a case of technology moving faster than the music industry. While I won’t begin to condone stealing music (after all big brother is watching), Steve Knopper raises some good point in his book Appetite for Self-Destruction, chronicling the downfall of the recording industry. As Knopper says,

One of the first things the labels got wrong was the elimination of the single. It got young people out of the habit of regularly visiting record stores and forced them to buy an entire CD to get the one song they craved. In the short term this was good business practice. In the long term it built up animosity. It was suicidal.

Some consumers could argue that practices like this made the record companies seem greedy, which justified their usage of file sharing programs. While that argument has gotten people into dicey legal situations, the fact remains that record companies were far too slow to adapt to technology.

Where does this leave us?

The good news is that the art form that is music will never die. Artists will create and people will listen to music, although the way they listen to music has evolved. We don’t really have to hear anything we don’t like. I can change the channel or just buy only the individual songs I want. As Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson calls this the “golden age of opinion.” This can force an artist with an established fan base to connect with their fans even more. Waiting for the latest issues of Rolling Stone or a fan club mail is no longer the only means to connect directly with your favorite artist as most are on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

The bad news is that the industry is not making the money it used to. While I am not sympathizing with “the man,” the consumer gets shortchanged in other ways. Ticket prices for live shows have gone up drastically to compensate profit margins and new artists waiting to be discovered have an extremely tough road ahead of them. The record companies will not pay artists what they did and a clever music video may never even get seen. Will future generations of children be as motivated to start a garage band of their own or will they just be content to play around in the comfort of their room using Garage Band software on their Mac? Has owning an actual CD or record just become a novelty? Did the consumer really win? Or will record companies find new ways to drive the consumer?

  • “The ITunes Effect and the Future of Content – Scott Berinato – Research – Harvard Business Review.” Business Management Ideas – Harvard Business Review Blogs. Web. 09 Nov. 2010. <http://blogs.hbr.org/research/2010/01/the-itunes-effect-and-the-futu.html>.
  • Oiaga, By Marius. “No More LimeWire Downloads, the File-Sharing Network Shut Down by Court Order – Softpedia.” Latest News – Softpedia. Web. 09 Nov. 2010. <http://news.softpedia.com/news/No-More-LimeWire-Downloads-the-File-Sharing-Network-Shut-Down-by-Court-Order-163125.shtml>.
  • Technological Convergence.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 09 Nov. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_convergence>.
  • “Sony Retires the Cassette Walkman After 30 Years.” Social Media News and Web Tips – Mashable – The Social Media Guide. Web. 09 Nov. 2010. <http://mashable.com/2010/10/24/sony-walkman-rip/>.
  • Garner, Dwight. “When Labels Fought the Digital, and the Digital Won.” New York Times, 6 Jan. 2009. Web. 9 Nov. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/07/books/07garn.html>.
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