The Music Industry in the Digital Age


by Alex Roth

Much has been said recently about the changes that are taking place throughout the music industry and the way that musicians’ revenue streams are being affected by them. Most of the commentary I have read – from professional musicians, critics and retailers alike – has been downcast, bemoaning slumps in CD sales and drastic funding cutsinternet piracy and the corporate exploitation of live performers. Certainly, paid performance opportunities for bands playing their own music seem to have diminished. On top of this, it is increasingly difficult for artists to profit from selling CDs, despite recording and production costs being lower than ever before. The credit crunch has also limited the extent to which state funding is available for the creation and promotion of new music, and there are concerns that those who do receive funding are therefore less willing to take risks for fear of losing it. And I haven’t yet mentioned the debacle regarding the organisers of the Olympics deciding not to pay musicians for performances during the Games.

All this would seem to indicate that 2012 is a terrible time to be a musician. But in fact, for every hundred established industry professionals lamenting the current state of affairs, there is a young entrepreneur relishing the opportunities presented by the digital revolution. YouTube, Bandcamp and other online services have made it easier than ever for artists of all kinds to discover, expand and engage with their audiences, and every week there seems to be a new way of promoting, selling or even generating music online. While this does mean there is more competition out there for creators (making it harder still to get one’s voice heard), the opportunities it presents to the most DIY-minded practitioners are unparalleled.

The “music industry” (in a global sense) has for some years been dominated by just a few major record labels and PR companies who, through selective promotion and a ruthlessly capitalist approach to competition, have to a large extent decided who tops the charts each week, creating the illusion of an impenetrable fortress into which only the luckiest of “stars” could hope to gain admission. But in reality the industry has always responded to the innovations of individuals who do things their own way, either through the music itself (Miles Davis, the biggest-selling jazz musician of all time, can hardly be said to have pandered to the demands of record executives); through novel approaches to performance (whatever you think of Lady Gaga’s music, she could be seen as a descendent of Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono and Laurie Anderson); or throughinteresting marketing strategies.

Commentators who bemoan the decline in CD sales and their consequent loss of income are missing the point. The fact is the CD is no longer the end result of a creative process; for the majority of musicians outside the mainstream it is now a marketing necessity which functions as a kind of hi-tech business card, providing examples of their work, contact details and evidence of investment (either their own or their record label’s).

But even if records aren’t selling as they used to, people will still pay for music in a variety of situations, from streaming services to live shows to multi-media collaborations. The artists who understand where their own opportunities lie are the ones who will gain from the changes taking place.

Each generation brings with it a new understanding of the relationship between “society” and “the individual”, and technology can be interpreted as a result of this interaction. Opportunists who seize widely available resources and twist them to suit their own aims define the way in which the next wave of artists customarily interacts with its audiences. And this is not a recent phenomenon; it is the way it has always been. The concept of a “Golden Age” in relation to the music industry (or any area of human activity for that matter) is a retrospective construct imposed on a previous era by commentators too far removed from the realities of that era to be aware of the complaints that would have been made by its practitioners. Nevertheless, critics are already calling the so-called “digital revolution” a key point in the history of the music industry, and I am confident that future generations will regard it as something of a golden age of creativity.

  One Response to “The Music Industry in the Digital Age”

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