Caring about the music business

[16 April 2008]

By Rob Horning

Megan McArdle recently had a post about the music business, attempting to debunk the idea that concert revenue can supplant that of CD sales as labels turn into promoter/marketers a la Live Nation. She points out that there’s a limit to the number of concerts a person can see, whereas there are few limits to how many CDs one can own (as my own experience among the record-collecting subculture has amply demonstrated for me). Also, concerts are generally out for most people with families, limiting the demographic for pop music by and large to those under 30. But it has been true since the “invention of the teenager” in the 1950s that pop music has been for the under-30 set; record companies targeted the discretionary spending of kids, who had nothing better really to spend it on and could invest a lot of energy into the identity politics pop music serves as a proxy for—they care about projecting an identity through the music they listen to.

But more baffling to me is McArdle’s concern that “file-sharing culture will kill the music business, making us all worse off.” People in the music business will surely be worse off, but I wonder how much the rest of us will be affected if their ceased to be new mass-marketed music. Inundated with music as it is, I can’t imagine worrying about not having enough of it. I feel like I already have too much to deal with now, more than I could ever need, and I haven’t even started trying to appreciate classical music yet. And it is not like the pop-music business has prompted the creation of innovative and interesting new music; for the most part it has capitalized on innovations made by artists who likely never expected much success.

Major labels have generally served up the same musical styles and simply changed the names and faces attached to them. It works best when dealing with known commodities, because it is essentially a marketing business, and it is easier to sell something you have sold effectively before. The music business’s heyday, after all, came when it got to re-release the music of the past few decades on CD. If anything, the absence of a national music business would spur local innovations and the cultivation of local styles suiting the needs of specific populations and fomenting a stronger sense of community among them—the revival perhaps of local scenes that record collecting types tend to sentimentalize, if not fetishize. (I’m heavily into the Amsterdam scene circa 1966.) There would be less opportunity for participating in a mass phenomenon in the musical realm, but then, that’s what American Idol is for.

Apologists for the national music industry think its investment in talent in necessary to make good music, but pop music is not like pharmaceuticals. It doesn’t take a whole lot of R&D and isn’t necessarily the high-fixed-cost industry McArdle argues that it is. Give four average teenagers a few weeks of studio time and somebody who has a rudimentary understanding of sound engineering, and they could make pop music. What the national industry is good for is promotion and marketing, for making national brands of bands, and unless you believe that that stuff is all pop music essentially is (and I have flirted with the idea myself), the music business is superfluous to music itself. The high costs come in in trying to promote and distribute music on a large scale, but locally, the product sells itself. Hence anonymous, marginally talented bar bands can make a steady living in towns like Tucson and Las Vegas. The idea that major labels “discover” and “nurture” talent is almost entirely A&R propaganda.

Also questionable is the idea that musicians need the promise of big-time success to prompt them to create at the highest artistic level. McArdle puts it this way:

Music is basically a tournament business: a few people get rich, encouraging many others to toil in poverty. This almost certainly generates more new music than paying everyone $18,000 a year for the rest of their lives. If the tournament runs out of prizes, what will happen to those of us who like having a lot of new albums to listen to every month?

Maybe the musicians who toil in poverty are sustained by the fantasy of mega-fame and big bucks. But I suspect that some just do it because playing music for people is intrinsically rewarding when done on a human scale. Whereas when it’s done on the mega-stadium scale, it tends to turn artists into egomaniacs, disoriented drug casualties or misanthropes. (Just watch The Wall.) It seems that musicians start putting money first only when it’s already on the table, when they have already had a taste. (And money incentives may not even motivate the creation of better products: This PsyBlog post details studies that show cash incentives decreased performance.) It’s fashionable to pretend that musicians don’t “sell out,” but let’s face it, they do, unless they have been making product from the get-go. But again, viewing music as a culture industry, and looking at its production from an economy-of-scale, profit-maximization perspective, the conclusion is that the industry needs to manufacture new superstars capable of filling stadiums, the point made in the American article by Jillian Cohan that prompted McArdle’s post.

The assumption is that success can only be measured in terms of moving millions of units, and anything short of that is failure. From a business perspective, this is the case; from the perspective of individual musicians and fans, not necessarily, especially as the environment for selling music changes and the possibility of disintermediating the media conglomerates becomes more realistic. The music business is generally terrible for musicians (exploitative—read Steve Albini’s classic Baffler article if you don’t think so), and not particularly good for music fans, even the ones who want new albums to listen to every month (a strange goal, by the way—as if the point were to consume novelty itself).

It could be that music isn’t meant to be stadium sized. It may have been an oddity prompted by the advent of mass culture, a flowering of the novelty of that social configuration that has now revealed its limitations and exhausted its novelties. The dearth of stadium-size acts, the death of the megaconcert will likely be a good thing, returning music to human scale—why would anyone (other than those drawn to the mass nature of the spectacle, the Nuremburg rally aspects) lament its loss? As Cohan notes, “Historically, the era of the megatour is an anomaly. Baby boomers have come to expect that their rock heroes will put on massive concert events, yet ten or 20 years from now, few heritage acts may have the stamina to stay on the road.”

Middle-aged people may prefer stadium-size events because these are essentially safe spectacles; they require no imagination or aesthetic effort to participate in, and the size of the audience supplies a soothing conformity, reinforcing that the whole thing was worth the trouble—after all, all these other people bothered. But the preferences of the current middle-age cohort may (we hope) be anomalous. When I’m old(er), I hope I won’t give up altogether on the intimate, risky experience of seeing bands in clubs and start going to see “heritage acts” for the mere opportunity to say I saw the legends in person. I feel like I have done too much of this already.

Baby boomers need to believe in the relevance of their megastars, and so does Rolling Stone, which is in the curious position of carrying water for the music industry; they have a vested interest in there being mass culture so that they can promote and comment on it in their mass-culture publication. So they are in the business of propping up the acts that allow for stadium shows,as this post demonstrates with the example of R.E.M.—every album is the redemptive comeback, in Rolling Stone reviewers’ view.

But as this LA Times article points out, no one cares much anymore about what Rolling Stone says. The internet has brought on the democratization of criticism, assuring that “no one is respected simply because of the authority of the institution they write for.” That’s a bit dramatic, but there is truth to it; aggregate opinions matter more than any lone voice, unless maybe it’s a friend’s voice. Many recognize that “criticism” is often marketing copy, especially in consumer magazines. And perhaps they see how arbitrary it all is in the case of pop music. The pleasures of pop can be very personal, very dependent on context. The zeitgeist carries many objectively sucky songs to reputations of greatness, like “Hey Ya” for instance. Often it seems the best critics can do is say give these 20 albums out of the thousands released a careful listen, and their criteria may be nothing more profound than “your friends or people who you imagine you want to be your friends are likely to be talking about them.”

At times when I used to write about music, it seemed to me that caring enough about pop music to write criticism of it was tantamount to caring about the music industry as a whole and wanting to prop it up. I was speaking with the same disembodied authority that is manifest in the A&R decisions that shaped radio playlists.

The democratization of criticism seems related to the destruction of the music business—no longer are either controlled in top-down fashion by culture-industry conglomerates—instead both serve niches and may be sustained in the future by meeting localized needs.

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