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The End of A&R

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Tuesday, Oct 14, 2008

This Economist article updates the music business’s evolving relationship with the subscription model, in which users could have all the music they wanted indiscriminately, as long as they paid a regular fee. For a while it has seemed to me that such a model was inevitable, given the ease of digital distribution and the fact that music can no longer be played without being, in a sense, copied. But reading this article I started to wonder how it’s possible for record companies to compete with each other if all their goods are available for one lump sum. I suppose the intermediaries who run the subscription service would track which songs were acquired and pay the companies accordingly, or one would need to subscribe to each record companies library individually, in which case it would be easier to go on pirating.


But overall, does the existence of all-you-can-eat subscription services eliminate the record companies’ incentive to pick and choose the best music to try and sell? Can’t they overwhelm us with quantity rather than work for quality, since we end up getting it all anyway? It seems like the fruits of A&R efforts accrue to the artists themselves, who can leverage their brand better, rather than the companies themselves. I wonder if the record companies, recognizing the hopelessness of their moribund business, will effectively give up, become a cabal that collects residuals on its past accomplishments—just collect the steady income that can be had leasing the use rights to recorded music, 1900 to 2008.


Of course, someone will have to take over the promotional duties for pop music, otherwise it will cease to perform its function of uniting people in the excitement of hype and giving fresh and relevant-seeming expression to common and quotidian feelings. Not sure if individual bands will be up to it, given their tradition of fueling their fires by complaining about commercialism, though they will learn if they want to make money. But maybe if we are lucky, the world will revert to a culture of amateurism with regard to music.

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