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Music Shouldn’t Be Viewed As A Loss Leader

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How is it possible for a band to sell an album digitally online for any price the listener is willing to pay for it (even for nothing), and release the same album physically in stores months later and still top the Billboard album charts?

The music industry didn’t know what to make of Radiohead’s experiment, but it did seem to start a chain reaction that led artists away from the label system. With millions of people having already downloaded the album, the music industry was probably as shocked to see Radiohead’s In Rainbows sell 122,300 copies. The moral of the story? People are willing to (and will) pay for (good) music.

To a point I can agree that piracy has affected the music industry, but nowhere near the levels that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claims. With hints of the RIAA’s demise, the music industry might need to turn toward other means of enforcing copyrights and making extra revenue (lawsuit settlements aside). A music tax is possible, but there hasn’t been enough research in its achievability or feasibility.

Music’s biggest problem is really the product itself. Not the packaging, mind you. It’s this idea that music (and this would also apply to movies as well) isn’t something to worshiped and just listened to. Music isn’t considered good enough to be paid for. Music isn’t good enough anymore to exist on its own.

Unfortunately, the Internet can partly be blamed for this. The Internet made it easier to get music, but the music industry is guilty for not embracing it (and it still hasn’t). Napster was viewed as a threat, but those executives had no clue as to not just who was using Napster, but how they were using it. I was in high school during its heyday and everyone who was using it was really enthused by it. Not because they were getting songs for free, but because they were finding songs they hadn’t listened to in years and they could discover new songs not found on the radio.

The executives never understood this, and thus started the cataclysm chain against the average listener. Napster fell and dozens of programs replaced it. The industry fought and won, or did it? The result is the general apathy toward music in general.

Napster can be blamed for the idea that people expected to have music all the time. Music should be readily available whenever one wants it. That caused the CD’s decline. But most people associate the CD’s decline to music’s decline. Music is still popular. The music experience has just changed.

There aren’t many active listeners any more. I remember when people had to physically leave their homes and go to a record store to get the music they wanted. Music buying was an event. Record stores opened at midnight when high-profile albums were released. Listeners came and hung out.

The moment when listeners became passive to music is the day that music really died.

There isn’t any effort made anymore toward listening to music. Radio still is the most prominent method of listening to music, but that’s done while driving or sitting in traffic. Movies and TV can still create buzz (even commercials). Video games feature music as well, especially Guitar Hero III and Rock Band which have induced fans to buy seven million songs in addition to the in-game provided tracks.

The only real method now is the Internet. Some mouse clicks and a few keystrokes are all it takes to download (legally or illegally) the tunes you want. The Internet isn’t all bad though. World music is now readily available and it's cheap. No more high export prices. Up-and-coming bands are no longer relegated to their general area and can be heard any and everywhere.

Specialty record stores don’t really exist anymore. Tower Records is long gone. What’s left are mass retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart which heavily discount CDs and DVDs to entice shoppers into the stores with the hope they will buy items with bigger profit margins. Music is considered a loss leader and that doesn’t help its image any one bit. Take a clue from wine — raising the prices helps people enjoy it more.

If a track is $0.99, then people will treat it as such. Ninety-nine cents might seem cheap, but cheap doesn’t necessarily mean that people are more likely or willing to buy it. Just ask Radiohead. While I’m not lobbying for major price hikes, music certainly can use a facelift in terms of its value.

The music itself isn’t viewed to have any value. In a Web 2.0 world where content is king, the music industry seems to be on the other fence. The distribution instead has value. Music sales have lip-syncing or using body doubles doesn’t help.

The music industry needs to repair loads of damage. It needs to recreate the musical experience. Bringing vinyl back would help. Listening to music needs to be cool again. Does anyone just listen to music anymore? Or does it have to accompany other forms of action?

It’s up to the consumer at that point.

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About Tan The Man

A proud dork and loser, Tan The Man writes mostly about film and music, and has previously covered the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, South By Southwest and WonderCon.
  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    Interesting article. SOrry, I have little to add, just wanted to say….
    Well Done.

  • wyly

    Young Man,

    You make a few good points. However, the socialization of music idea is a bad one. Any tax is a bad tax as far as I’m concerned, but especially a tax that would even further diminish the connection music has with a cost or value, which you agree is part of the problem. No, the answer already exists. But due to the current zeitgeist in which nothing except that with an Apple logo is considered cool, the answer is ignored…even worse, it is almost universally reviled by the blogs. What is this answer? Well, you mentioned it already in your article. It’s Napster. Napster 4.0 does everything the original Napster did and more (except allow rampant theft of intellectual property). But now it’s legal and you have to pay the price of two Venti lattes per month to subscribe. I subscribe and love it. I play it about twelve hours a day and discover new artists constantly. It is truly amazing. If you want portability you can get it for an extre $3 per month. And if the cost is problem, three people can go together for a sub at $5 each and the contract allows the music to be downloaded to 3 computers and 3 players. When they start selling DRM-fre mp3s sometime in the next 3 months (which has been confirmed) you can also purchase music that will play almost anywhere if “ownership” of music files is your thing. Personally, I have no desire to “own” a file of electrons hidden in a box under my desk. But that’s up to you. Cheers.

  • asjl

    I don’t think that music is any less of an “event” than it was when people still went out and bought it. Maybe you had to put more effort into acquiring the music, but I certainly wasn’t grateful for the fact that I could only listen to new music when I could take a trip to a record store.

    Now, at my computer, I can spend the time actually listening to and experiencing new music, rather than driving/taking the subway/walking, dealing with cashiers, and buying albums that I could only hope would be worthwhile (even stores like the Virgin Megastores didn’t have lots of their stock on those listening machines). Now, I can load up an album in my media player, turn off the monitor, and lay back and just listen. I can do that with a n exponentially greater library of music. I can get clues as to what I’ll like from services like Pandora or Last.fm. I am an “active listener”, so you should come up with a citation for your claim that people like me are extinct.

    Why should we need to expend more effort than necessary to get to listen to music? Why should we have to be hunters? Why run the risk of a store running out of Cds from a band I wanted to try out, then forgetting to check back with them later and forgetting the band altogether?

    The internet has saved music, not killed it. I listen to much more than I ever did when I bought CDs and I don’t listen to it any less intensely. Music as a loss leader doesn’t decay its value, it only makes it easier to acquire. Fans who want to support bands now have to work harder by going to concerts and buying merchandise… so there’s your “effort” right there.

  • Lou Novacheck

    You say: “A music tax is possible, but there hasn’t been enough research in its achievability or feasibility.”

    Has lack of research ever stopped them from imposing still another tax?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    The music industry needs to repair loads of damage. It needs to recreate the musical experience. Bringing vinyl back would help. Listening to music needs to be cool again. Does anyone just listen to music anymore? Or does it have to accompany other forms of action?

    The music industry tried to revive the experience with SACD & DVD-Audio but, unfortunately, most people didn’t feel the need to purchase new stereo equipment when they can listen to their shoddy Mp3s @ 128kbps on their Mp3 Players or their computer. Hell, most of your so-called everyday consumer doesn’t even support the simple cool sh!t like Flac,Ape or Ogg Vorbis. If people actually cared about High Fidelity then they wouldn’t listen to the crap that the record labels push…

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    True, but research into a tax will let us see if it’s a good thing or not (despite whether people like it or not).

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i doubt that a tax will save the major labels. their top-heavy structure, along with some incredibly bad decision-making, will sink them in the end.

    in the meantime, there is a ton of great music out their (mostly ignored by these sinking ships).

    things are changing. we just don’t know what the resultant landscape will look like.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    in the meantime, there is a ton of great music out their (mostly ignored by these sinking ships).

    I have to agree 100%… When I was a teenager trying to find those tapes from obscure metal bands that my friends & I were into, it was almost impossible. We always had to do a special order at only one location & it always cost more than the “regular” selection. Now, with the internet I can find & buy all the craziest shite from all over the world. There are a ton of bands from my era that I had no clue about until now because I was limited to either magazine,tv or “word of mouth”.

    I say…F*ck the recording industry!! Let’em flail like a bird with a broken wing. People have found ways to release music without them[thanks to the net] and,hopefully, one day we will see a complete circumvention of that horrible system which doesn’t really support the artist/musician anyways!!

  • IamMusic

    The internet didn’t make songs free – the radio did. The internet just made the selection and delivery of music almost cost free which fans and musicians embraced as empowering. The RIAA and major label executives aren’t exactly happy about loosing their power and income, however, so I guess that’s why you’re calling for a tax. Maybe they can call it “Clive’s party fund tax” or “RIAA legal aid tax against evil college students”.

  • Rose

    I agree that the current generation of young’uns, in general, doesn’t listen to music the same way many of their older family members did. Yes, it’s passive. Yes, it’s less of a social activity now. I don’t think that vinyl will bring it back, though- plenty of places still sell vinyl, new and old, and it doesn’t seem to be doing a lick of good. Hell, I sure don’t buy it anymore- too clunky and inconvenient. I’d rather have my songs in digital format so that I can plug them into my ears anywhere.

    Although admittedly I haven’t eschewed the practice of listening to vinyl entirely, I think that part of the reason it’s gone by the wayside for many people is that they just don’t have the time. If we’re going to find a way to reinvigorate the medium and its fans, it has to be in a way that doesn’t require them to spend much time doing any one thing, unfortunately.

    Napster was great for this, and I wish, like you, that the record companies had embraced it rather than shut it down. I know I certainly explored music more frequently when it was available; it’s still possible to give bands a quick try via MySpace and Facebook, but not everyone has a profile, so if I want some obscure 2 Unlimited track, I’m S.O.L.

    My best suggestion is just to pass on the culture of listening to music as an event. Keep doing it with friends. Teach younger kids what it means to get lost in a record. We may not be able to come up with a new solution for how to regard music as art on a popular scale (and with some of the stuff out there, maybe we don’t want to), but the practice will survive if enough of us keep it up.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    I think it’s interesting to read views of people like “asjl.” He clearly comes from a different time than many of us and has a very different perspective. I think he’s experienced the same frustrations that many of us do with regards to acquiring new music of the hard-copy variety, in that there’s that fear that the local store won’t have it. The difference is that many of us come from a time when that fear wasn’t as prevalent. I know I could go down to one of many small, local record stores and at least one, if not many, of them would have what I was looking for. Almost always. It was very rare that I run into the situations that I do today where I wander around sighing “Where is this? Why don’t they have this?” And then come home and order it (because I just don’t do the mp3 thing, sorry asjl.)

    But, to answer the question posed, no, most people do not listen to music. I can’t count the number of times when talking to someone about a piece of music that I’ve pointed something out and they have no idea what I’m talking about, and it’s accompanied by something to the effect of “I just have it on in the background.” And that, sadly, is just the state of music today because it’s what people need. Music is where it is not just because of the industry’s stupidity but because the buyers sought out this stuff. If they didn’t want it, they would have found other stuff to buy – the good stuff has always been around and it would have found an audience if people had wanted it. I’m not saying the industry gets off scot-free. I’m just saying that the industry responded to the desires of the public for easy-to-ignore pap. They always have. Of course, what people wanted was a variety – they wanted pap, they wanted pop, they wanted rock, they wanted rap, they wanted metal. We used to get it because music, as an industry, was young and inefficient. But as all industries grow, they learn that it’s much more efficient to focus on one thing, so they give us lots and lots of identical pap and just change it as tastes shift. I don’t see how it will ever be any different, unfortunately. Vinyl won’t do a thing to change that – the only people buying vinyl are those who already look for “the experience” in music to begin with, and that’s freaks like us. It’s not going to win over the common people who just want background noise. Analog background noise and digital background noise is exactly the same when you don’t pay attention to it.

    And, man, 99 cents is a LOT for one friggin’ song-file that doesn’t even have a hard copy backup. No thank you.