Monday, January 4, 2010

All the Rules of the Music Business Have Changed - A World of Megabeats and Megabytes (NYTimes)

A World of Megabeats and Megabytes

MY 21st century started in 1998, when I got a new toy. It was the Diamond Rio PMP300, a flimsy plastic gadget the size of a cigarette pack. PMP stood for Portable Music Player. It had a headphone jack, and it played a recently invented digital file format: MPEG-1 Audio Layer Three, or MP3.

The Rio’s 32 megabytes of storage held a dozen songs at passable fidelity. Its sound was clearly inferior to a portable CD player; its capacity was comparable to a cassette or two. But the beauty of it was that it didn’t need any CD or cassette inserted, just digital files — copies of songs — loaded from a computer, to be changed at whim. They might come from albums people owned or borrowed; they might come, even back then, from strangers online. The Recording Industry Association of America sued to have the PMP300 taken off the market and failed — the prelude to a decade of lawsuits trying to corral online music.

It was already too late. For those who were willing to be geeky — learning new software, slowly downloading via dial-up — music had forever escaped its plastic containers to travel the Web. The old distribution system was on its way to becoming irrelevant.


...Because songs are small chunks of information that many people want, music was the canary in the digital coal mine, presaging what would happen to other art forms as Internet connections spread and sped up. For the old recording business everything went wrong. Sales of CDs have dropped by nearly half since 2000, while digital sales of individual songs haven’t come close to compensating. Movies and television (and journalism too) are now scrambling not to become the next victims of an omnivorous but tight-fisted Internet.

By now, in 2010, we’re all geeks, conversant with file formats and software players. Our cellphone/camera/music player/Web browser gadgets fit in a pocket, with their little LCD screens beckoning. Their tiny memory chips hold collections of music equivalent to backpacks full of CDs. The 2000s were the broadband decade, the disintermediation decade, the file-sharing decade, the digital recording (and image) decade, the iPod decade, the long-tail decade, the blog decade, the user-generated decade, the on-demand decade, the all-access decade. Inaugurating the new millennium, the Internet swallowed culture whole and delivered it back — cheaper, faster and smaller — to everyone who can get online.

For artists of all kinds (with musicians on the front lines) a 21st-century habitat of possibilities and pressures is taking shape — one that demands skills their predecessors forgot or never needed. The art they make can be created, as well as disseminated, faster and more cheaply. But it will also face exponentially more rivals for attention, and many more temptations toward superficiality and sellouts.


...Ease of consumption is paralleled by ease of production. The computer is the definitive 21st-century studio, now that do-it-yourself musicians can record professional-sounding tracks onto a laptop in a bedroom. The ubiquitous software ProTools offers endless overdubbing and can put errant musicians back on the beat or tune them up, though it’s not always an improvement when dull robot precision replaces individual quirks.

The cut-and-mix, mashup procedures of hip-hop and disc-jockey culture have only accelerated. Beats from old vinyl discs were foundations of hip-hop back in the 1970s. Now no one needs to track down the physical disc because some aggregator or collector has probably put it online...


...And without being able to depend on album sales, musicians’ job descriptions changed. Increasingly it was up to the performers — not their struggling major label if they had one, not the radio stations that had long treated them as disposable — to get themselves noticed. That could mean making silly novelty videos for YouTube, or it could involve what was once considered selling out: placing a song in a commercial, where people could hear it repeatedly (and then track it down online).
Instead of waiting for royalties to trickle in from sales, musicians were happy to get paid upfront for licensing their music to advertisers and to TV and movie soundtracks. A distracted listener was better than none at all.

In the 2010s musicians can look forward to working harder for smaller payoffs. They’re resuming — if they ever really left it behind — their age-old role as troubadours, touring more frequently to make up for disappearing album sales. (Big stars with expiring contracts went independent instead of renewing their major-label commitments, or set up so-called “360 deals” that depend as much on touring and merchandising as on selling albums.)

There are newer demands on them as well: interacting with fans who never had to accept the top-down, broadcast model of the old music business and have come to expect the individualized tone of the Internet. To perform offstage musicians now hone social-networking skills: mastering the blog post, the semi-candid photo, the not too overtly promotional self-promotion, the guarded personal revelation, the clever Tweet. Those with true star ambitions will also have to manage the meta-careers that a little bit of fame now entails, knowing that any time they show their face in public, it can turn up on a photo blog, any interview can be cross-referenced forever, any live performances or television moment might show up on YouTube. The smart ones, like Lady Gaga, already have their costume changes planned.

Musicians and their managers will also be improvising their own routes amid a wilderness of marketing and career strategies...

...One emblematic album for the 2000s was Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” in 2004, which backed up a cappella raps from Jay-Z’s “Black Album” with finely micro-sliced samples from “The Beatles,” a k a the White Album. All of its sounds, in other words, were recycled; the musicality was in the cleverness of the cut and paste. There was no permission from the Beatles and no official commercial release. The album simply escaped onto the Internet, where it can still be grabbed, earning nothing but good will for the musicians, but ready to play any time.


1 comment:

Delinda said...

I have to agree with what Ive read (so far) the music biz has gone digital and over to the internet however one of the problems is not all the listeners (consumers) have for instance those who love jazz and classical music. I think they (the majority of them) are still wandering around record stores and the music is getting released independently on the web and not always in those stores. I think this is leaving a huge gap.