Is the Music Business Worth Saving?

The Future! (Thank you, Drew from Toothpaste For Dinner).

Once again, Rolling Stone has taken it upon themselves to dig their once-respected reputation even further into a pit of the narcissism built on that reputation, refusing stubbornly to want to have anything to do with any kind of counterculture. Beyond the irritating imitation tabloid section in every issue, the assumption that to be Democrat is to have instantaneously cool, or that their actual music coverage has dwindled, sinking below obvious lesser publications and niche periodicals that have to dig months at a time to find anything to cover, they’ve decidedly pledged allegiance to the music business. While, certainly, the livelihood of the business is now codependent with the art form upon which is built, to promote executives and somewhat-creative producers as celebrities in their own right is to celebrate the wealth of others without regard to their actual lot in life. Beatles trivia may happen to include some of the exploits of Brian Epstein, but does anybody celebrate him as a genius, to be a candidate of the venerated “Fifth Beatle” tag? He put them in suits and got them to some key gigs, but he didn’t write “Hold My Hand.”

More after the jump.
So why in the hell should we listen to U2’s manager about what to do about music piracy? U2, whose music is played on virtually every station due to it’s wretched generic qualities that fit it as both alternative and mainstream, modern rock and classic, hard rock clichés and lite contemporary pop pap. Why should we listen to Paul McGuinness’ pleas to aid the artists that executives have robbed for years on the crooked scheme that is music distribution? Is it the audience’s fault that artists only make pennies per unit sold, or a fraction of that in the digital market?
Yes, noble of you to try and meet your customers in the middle. Subscription services have bode well for everyone, pending upon taste. The resolution to pay a set price for access to entire catalogs would satisfy the lot who tend to ‘consume’ music, or would satiate the tastemakers looking for new emerging sounds. Yet, even Paul McGuinness has admitted that with a tighter control on how to manage ‘free’ content — that being, instead of it being free in terms of price, it becomes free in terms of exchange that anybody who has paid their monthly subscription dues will get to do what they please with the unit — means that fewer new artists will have the opportunity to make a living in the music business. But if I know artists (and I like to think I do), they will find a venue to be heard. More likely than not, this will be a free venue.
We may have been spoiled for too long by the music industry for giving us too much for free. Only now that it is biting them hard, they want to yank the reigns on this wild horse. After all, the price of broadcast radio is free for audiences. And radio stations regularly offer concert tickets, albums and singles for free as promotional goodies to listeners as incentive to bother tuning in, not to listen to the music genre they represent but to the lifestyle they promote in advertising. Whether the businesses who advertise on these stations make any bank is their business — what matters is that it works out in the end for radio to keep giving away music for free. Even with laws preventing Pay for Play, there’s a regulated method to keep certain artists in rotation for a fee. You may be shocked to know that music critics, as maligned as they are, do hold sway in what artists are promoted and which ones are held down to the once-dreaded term ‘alternative.’ And I’m sure that in the heyday of pirate radio, it was even worse because those artists weren’t receiving royalties from the likes of Caroline or Big L.
Then again, those were the days when physical units were the only way to hear music aside from concerts and radio. The problem of digital music being so easily copied and manipulated is that anybody can have a copy, proliferated with ease greater than when the CD burner became a common accessory in PC’s in the late ‘90s.

Paul McGuinness’ solution to save the biz is essentially to hope that everything they do now works. Seriously. Rolling Stone gave three pages for this man to carp on the state of the music business, only for him to say ‘in the future, we’ll have subscription services, downloads, and, yes, we’ll still have physical units to satisfy all demands.’ So stay the course, big guy. Stay the course.
The only new idea offered here is to share revenue and profits with ISPs, an idea so horrifically terrifying to the ideals upon which the internet was created (then again, ISPs were probably never intended when it came to the creation of an international information marketplace), that it should be met with the same fervent opposition as the net neutrality movement. Such an alliance has the potential to become a bureaucratic nightmare, shutting out new artists from being heard, and preventing listeners from discovering such music for the few that could squeeze through the cracks. The fact that this would require intervention from the government is threatening enough, implying qualifications of censorship and setting the pyramid scheme of payment that would probably rob artists of more royalties.
It’s clear that the intent of any of these ideas is to preserve the business and not help the artists. McGuinness closes his piece by saying that ‘free content’ means fewer artists making a living as musicians. But that’s exactly the same result of regulating the internet because it’s leaving the businesses to set the standards of quality. And I refuse to trust any marketplace that endorses Maroon 5 as the future of music.
It is assuring to know that even though ‘alternative’ and ‘indie’ has been co-opted by the business, and that the new alternative and independent is bands willing to have their music heard by any means possible. It creates the variety necessary for a marketplace to thrive, and recalls a time when anybody with discernible talent can express themselves and be heard.

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