Not all digital transformation is good. Or at the very least, that’s the case according to many musicians and their fans. In some ways I count myself amongst those fans but am also perfectly aware that this makes me “an old”. I’m going to wager that at least 90% on my music is pre-1991. I often still buy (used) CDs, even if I have the album on my Apple Music. I miss the days of records stores so much that I’ve spend that past 3+ years driving all over eastern Massachusetts checking out the few ones that remain and the even fewer number that have decently sized collections (shout-out to Newbury Comics in Norwood). I’m not totally alone in this musical luddite movement. Vinyl purchases have seen somewhat of a comeback. In Japan, a country where many hard rock acts still thrive, a whopping 70% of their music sales are in CD format. With that said, streaming is taking over and I need to come to terms with that.
Setting my own nostalgia aside, the effects of streaming on music have been profound. For band, the business model has flipped. In the past, a band would tour to support a new album. Now a days, they put out an album to support a tour. As streaming isn’t providing much in the way of revenue for the artists, they need to tour endlessly. While that maybe be the most visible negative effect streaming and the digital transformation of music, there are several other angles to consider.
Let’s start off with the issue of artist royalties before I inevitably go off topic. Artists (allegedly) being screwed out of what they would say is their fair share is nothing new to this industry. There is a long and well documented history of musicians complaining (rightfully and wrongfully) about bad contracts, often luring them in with advances. It could be described as predatory to take starving artists lacking in business acumen and trapping them in label-friendly contracts. But on the other hand, the artists can’t deflect from signing away the rights to their music or agreeing to recoupment on all costs.
The primary complaint these days is centered on revenue per stream. Artists are aggrieved that that Spotify only pays $0.003 to $0.0084 per stream with bigger artists typically getting a much better shake. Apple music recently boasted that they pay $0.01 per stream, no doubt hoping to sign artists to exclusive deals. So perhaps the free market is the solution to this issue.
Either way, legislation has been championed to attempt to address some these grievances. Much was made a few years ago about the Music Modernization Act which took aim at digital copyright laws. More acts are possibly on the horizon that try to amend anti-trust laws so as to give artists a more level playing field in negotiation. I’m no expert in this and welcome the input of the law squad.
While the legal and economic ramifications of streaming are not my forte but the musical impact most certainly is. We’ve now arrived at the part of the blog where I inform you of some of the downstream (yes, I went there) effects of digitization (particularly the internet) on the music itself.
While we’re all familiar with the artists’ issues with streaming, the record companies took a bigger hit. The internet has given way to somewhat of a democratization of the business permanently dented the standing of the labels. While it’s easy to say power to the people, some would argue that this has hurt the music itself. For all their flaws, the labels served the gate keepers of what is good. A band needed a record deal to get any real distribution and thus only a few made it through. Now, virtually anyone can get their music out there. While the upside of this is obvious, the downside is an intense oversaturation. Some people (namely in the rock fanbase) think there aren’t enough new bands coming out. The truth is that there are too many and most of them suck. Without the infrastructure of the old system, anyone put their music out their and thus standing out from the crowd has become much harder.
On the flipside, good music (this is of course subjective) has broken through when it might not have in before the internet. Artists with enough social media savvy can build up a good following and promote themselves on a massive scale. On top of that, there has always been a certain degree of oversaturation in the music industry. When record companies felt that they found a formula, they would overproduce and create a quick burn effect of certain genres (see the demise of my beloved 80’s glam metal).
The recurring theme of digitized music is recurring themes. There is little new if anything under the sun. People have always tried to steal music, be it through bootlegged tapes or LimeWire. Artists have always fought over royalties, be it with labels or streaming platforms. Music isn’t going anywhere. Nor is digitization. It’s simply a matter of adapting to it as best as possible.