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Hate and the Music Industry

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It’s no secret. The music industry has a bit of a problem with its public image. Yesterday I spotted two articles that exemplify the problem.

One was “Why Everybody Hates The Music Industry” by TechWeb’s Fredric Paul. Written after Paul read Forrester Research’s “Music Lessons: Is Your Industry At Risk?” report, the article traces the music industry’s recent stumbles not to Forrester’s conclusion — the “rigid monopoly-oriented thinking behavior” of media monocultures — but to the fact that everybody hates record labels.

“Musicians hate them for habitually sucking the creativity out of the music and the profits from the CD sales. Usually they do it legally, if not morally, but all too often naïve musicians with few options end up swindled out of their rightful earnings. And music lovers—don’t call us consumers; music can’t be consumed—see the record companies as greedy, clueless profiteers quick to jack up prices while placing limits on what music gets released and how you can listen to it.”

Mixed in with common mythology (record labels “add little real value to the process of creating and distributing music,” the irrelevance of which label an artist is on) are some very valid and substantive arguments — although they’re mostly the bullet points taken from the Forrester’s report. In the five stages of death and dying, the music industry is around stage four: depression. The strategies aren’t going so well, he writes, and it’s getting them down. Next will come acceptance “as the industry tries new download services.”

I’m not sure depression is accurate because (a) the industry has been given new optimism from the Grokster decision and P2P companies’ sudden willingness to play ball, and (b) I think it’s too stubborn to admit yet that a rethinking of strategy may be a good idea. There’s little that hints to remorse over a failed policy (at least publicly) and a lot of hints that there’s a strong resolution to stay the course.

Paul’s article was well though out and not nearly as judgmental as most. It certainly wasn’t as judgmental and lopsided as “Music Industry Is Monopoly” op-ed in The Current, the newspaper of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Though it shows a fundamental lack of perspective and insight, this should worry the industry much more than Paul’s article. If labels want to know what a young college student thinks of their industry, go no further. Op-ed author Zach Meyer uses payola as a basis for his rant.

“Thanks to major music label industries and greedy communication companies, the radio waves are not what they could, or should, be. Independent record-based bands are scarcely heard and even big time acts receive a diminutive amount of the royalties. And yet, this blasphemy as has been occurring for years.”

Some of the usual arguments are there. Greed: check. Payola alone keeps indies off the radio: check. Complaints about low royalty rates: check. And yes, labels pay (or paid, to be more accurate) for that airplay. Then Meyer went after the shallowness of record labels.

“They need new products and have little time to search for new talents if they want to make a profit. Therefore, their solution is to cookie-cut certain singers or bands into what they think will get them to highest possible profit and buy them to most time until they can cookie cut another act.”

Let’s not talk about Leif Garret in the ’70s and New Kids on the Block in the ’80s. And Meyer doesn’t realize — or doesn’t want to realize — that pop music has always been manufactured to one degree or another. Never mind that jack radio has added much diversity to radio — and without government intervention. None of that is important. The factual content of the op-ed is far less important than the fact that the commentary represents commonly held beliefs. This is what people think. This is what gets passed around as fact. The hatred is there. The half-baked reasoning in articles like Meyers’ is merely a struggle to put that hatred into words.

Every step taken is criticized without much attempt at being understood. (Empathy isn’t the industry’s strong suit, so why should the public show any?) Want the option of variable prices at iTunes? You’re greedy. Want to enforce copyright law by suing the more flagrant file sharers? You hate your customers. Want to introduce DualDisc to the market? You’re stupid, the CD is dead. Want to enter into revenue-sharing agreements with your artists? You probably coerced the signature.

One article accurately called the industry a monoculture. The other article called it a monopoly. The ages of the writers differ by decades. In the middle there’s some truth, some falsehood and the undeniable fact that people of all ages and all walks of life rally around a common loathing of the music industry. Embracing legal P2P or reshaping business structures or dropping CD prices will do very little to put labels in the good graces of John Q. Public. The hatred may always be there, or at least linger for years and years to come. If labels can live with that and find a way to stay afloat, I have a strong feeling they’d take success over popularity.

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About Glenn Peoples

  • uao

    Excellent piece, Glenn.

    The funny thing about the industry is that they seem so disingenuous; they can’t seem to understand why, for example, people don’t see p2p as wrong. Some p2p’ers actuallythink they’re commiting a right in the face of inductry greed, corruption, payola, and creative bankruptcy.

    It is these things, far more than p2p that has caused their financial decline, yet the industry approaches its public with a “we’ll crush you” attitude whileasking that same public to pony up more dough for rip-off crap.

    Your article raises a lot of interesting points; well done.

  • Matt

    The thing that amazes me is that the music industry thinks that we should hear one decent song off an album, nothing more, and then commit $14 of hard earned money on a crapshoot. Sorry–I’ve been burned too many times. My music colleciton is bulging with new releases, but I heard almost all of them in their entirety before buying. I was also able to avoid claptrap like The Bravery and Caesars before wasting my money.

  • Temple A. Stark

    This post was chosen by the section editor as a BC pick of the week. Go HERE (link) to find out why.

    And thank you

  • Yashin

    Excellent article on a thorny issue. Definitely guilty of adopting popular myth myself.

    We form such an emotional bond with music that it’s hard to empathise with an industry that seems concerned only with exploiting that bond.

    For an industry obsessed with image and PR, it’s amazing that they can’t present a more friendly face to joe public.

  • sfasfasfasfasf

    you all suck

  • Eric Olsen

    sfas, don’t tell anyone

    Glenn, great story, thanks!! How are you doing?