Like determined survivors of a terminal illness, the music industry’s major labels have outlived many of the life expectancies they’ve been given. They lie on their hospital beds, breathing in death rattles, but they’re still conducting their business. How much longer they will remain alive is hard to say.
The music industry doesn’t know where it’s going to be in one year, let alone ten but if it is going to prosper again, it needs to shift its focus radically.
A broad view of the basics: in ten years all of the major labels will shrink or go under. They’ll be replaced by DIY labels and self-publishing. As the internet grows and becomes even more accessible, the tools to do all of the label’s work will gradually shift to the hands of the people. This future can happen only if the music industry manages to re-inspire the feeling that music is valuable. Otherwise, being a musician will cease to be a paying job, and film scores and music-making computer algorithms will be all that will remain.
The modern sentiment that music is valueless comes from two things. The first is the overwhelming abundance of music that inundates the Internet today. The way music is priced, it’d be impossible for even the most avid listener to pay for even a fraction of the albums that he reads about or hears samples of on Pandora. This insurmountable abundance is what drives torrenting communities and keeps people consuming music through Pandora and Spotify, which suffer multi-million dollar losses every quarter and provide next to $0 return for artists.
Because there is always more to hear, and to listen thoroughly is either an expensive or illegal prospect, all albums carry less artistic weight and feel more disposable.
The second reason music feels valueless is the vacuous quality of popular music itself. Hit songs are chosen by executives at the top and trickle down to the people. These songs stay at number one for a few weeks, are awarded Grammys, and the business moves on to the next profitable song. Few songs receive widespread audience by emerging from the ground up because the system is no longer organized to facilitate that.
The trickle-down industry apparatus has to be flipped and reformatted to match the way that quality music is shared and spread on the Internet and in the blogosphere.
Ten years from now, blogs will provide all the apparatus for distributing and promoting music that an artist will need. Artists might need publicists if they don't have any flair for promotion, but they won’t need anything near the intrusive resources that are provided by record companies.
Another thing record executives need to understand is that music will never be as profitable as it once was. Never. There is simply too much music out there and too many means of sharing files. The industry needs to make albums cheaper. Guilt tripping people into supporting artists by buying their $10-$16 5-shares-encrypted albums on iTunes — while sharing only a fraction of the profits with the artists themselves — is not a sustainable business model.
The major labels’ decision to go public and enter the Wall Street game was a mistake, almost as bad as the one of creating the CD (a scam) rather than developing MP3 technology. The music industry has to start working for the artists, not exploiting them and turning them into commodities, in order to satisfy the bottom line.
Over the next ten years, the music industry should try to dissipate into a skeleton of itself: an Internet-centric apparatus that will let artists record, distribute, and profit from their own music. Record executives won’t be able to profit off artists as much, but they really don’t deserve to after all the missteps they’ve made and systematic exploitation they’ve employed. The new music industry will help artists to produce better music, by allowing them to stay closer to their artistic visions. It’ll also help people realize that musical artistry is something worth paying for, which is what will ultimately allow what’ll be left of the industry to become profitable again.