What if Cynicism and Mediocrity Killed the Music Industry?

In this article I propose to discuss some heresies.  I know they are not popularly believed or frequently expressed.  At least, I’ve not seen them discussed much.  However, I have a nagging feeling that this way of looking at the problem just might be true.

There is little doubt that the traditional music business is on its knees.  Despite more music than ever before being consumed, record companies and artists/musicians are unanimous in proclaiming that there’s no money in it, anymore.  The reasons for the demise are endlessly speculated upon, blogged about and proposed in various Draconian legislative proposals.

There seems to be a lot of blame to go around.  First it was the peer to peer network operators, then the pirates themselves, then fans were blamed for valuing the music they consumed so cheaply, that they would pay zero, if the payment was a voluntary “pay what you think it’s worth” arrangement, or when they balked at paying more than a fiver a month for unlimited streaming, to any device of their choice, from a galactic scale catalogue of available music.

I have a less orthodox view.  Perhaps, just maybe, the music made and sold didn’t deliver on its promise to entertain.  Maybe it just wasn’t a good enough product or satisfactory to the paying customers.  It could be that the customers felt short changed, abused or duped.  Let’s examine those ideas in a little more depth.

Entertainment means a lot of different things.  It can mean that the music engages the audience, or that the lyrics say something significant or widely shared and felt, or the music might have given you goose bumps and moved you emotionally.  It might have delivered feats of technical musical virtuosity, big stadium-shaking sounds and outrageous antics by the artists.  The music could be entertaining because it delivered enchantment, interesting arrangements, raw emotion and authentic performances.  Perhaps it made you want to dance.  Maybe the production values were high and the care taken in the production, aurally outstanding.  Entertainment could embody any or all of these factors and maybe even more.  Can it be said that everything the music industry promoted and sold was made to delight their customers and unfailingly entertain them?  Was that the industry’s primary concern, or was it something else (money, for instance)?

The music industry has been beset and arguably saturated by shysters on the make.  There can be little doubt about it.  Some of the commentaries about this phenomenon include “The Manual”, written by the KLF and subtitled “How to have a number one the easy way” (http://freshonthenet.co.uk/the-manual-by-the-klf/ ).   The late Malcolm McLaren’s participation in the mockumentary “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle” also suggested that the music industry was promoting junk music, more than punk music (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Rock_’n’_Roll_Swindle ).  While the music produced had some entertainment value, there was always a whiff of cutting corners, getting away with it, defrauding the public and pulling a fast one on the paying customers.  This odour was never far away from the music industry.

At some point, the technology of music making was seized upon as a way to reduce music production costs.  You didn’t have to hire an orchestra or session drummer, or the studio to accommodate them.  You could make a decent sound inside the computer.  Were the savings that came from using loops and sequencers, where the music was seemingly cranked out by machine (that’s how the technology was marketed, anyhow) passed on to the customers?  Not appreciably.  The idea formed that music making was now done by computer, for pennies and yet music CDs were still cripplingly expensive.  It wasn’t quite true, of course, but perceptions can be everything.

Sampling to make a musical, artistic statement can be a very good thing.  It can make a sound that has never been heard before.  However, replacing a real orchestra with an arguably inferior one is a more dubious use of sampling.  Sampling has to be very good (and very expensive) and the sculpting of the compositional elements has to be meticulous, if you are going to make anything nearly as good as a real orchestra, using samples.  The use of samplers, for a very long time, simply replaced good musicians with recordings that sounded like bad ones.  There’s still a lot of that about, despite advances in technology over a period of 35 years.

In the 1990s, Stock, Aitken and Waterman came to dominate the music industry.  Their works were surprisingly uniform, leading people to accuse them of mediocrity and formulaic productions, made in a music factory.  Again, the reality may have been different, but the public perception was of a sausage machine, producing masses of music that wasn’t very high in quality.  Cheaply made, but designed to rake in the maximum amount of cash.  That was how people saw it.

Famously, the music industry had to rescind a Grammy award, made to Milli Vanilli, when it came to light that the artists representing the music were not at all the people that actually made the music (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milli_Vanilli ).  The whole industry had been taken in by this elaborate deception, or had been complicit in it.  However, the consumer backlash was very real.  It was a disgrace and paying customers began to wonder how much of the music they paid for and loved was misrepresented.  Did the artist they thought had made the music actually make the music?  Was there some great lie in place?  Were they being duped and robbed?

The music press was once full of stories of inflated studio recording budgets, of musicians profligately burning through studio time, without the first clue about what they were trying to make (an example might be the time Pink Floyd tried to make a record by recording rubber bands and other household objects exclusively) and a lot of less than professional behaviour which nevertheless burned through excessive production budgets.  Maybe the bands thought they were sticking it to the man (i.e. the record companies and their corporate view of art).  What they were actually doing was sticking it to the fans (the paying public, who ultimately always had to cover the costs of all this excess, through their purchases).

The music industry was confused about what they were selling, too.  Was it a physical object or a license to the music affixed to the physical object?  They talked about shifting “units”.  A unit was a physical object which carried a license to enjoy the music, under strict stipulations, usually not stated on the package.  I remember well that if you bought music on a pre-recorded music cassette, you had to buy another one, if your tape machine chewed the tape up.  You couldn’t replace the media, while retaining the license to the music you had already purchased.  You had to in effect, buy another license to replace the license that you could no longer use, since the media had been destroyed.  That’s like having to buy your land again, because the title deed to it was in your house, which burnt down.  Your house is what you need to replace, not the land.

Famously, there was a habit of putting one or two really good tracks on an album, but filling the rest of the LP or CD with hastily recorded, cursorily performed, contractual obligation works, which were really not as good as the hits.  Through the magic of bundling, you had to pay for the junk as well as the gems.  Downloading has reversed that trend, but people have long memories.  Lots of album music was sold, piggybacked on one or two really good songs.  On its own, it wouldn’t have sold so well.  The paying customer, for the longest time, was not given an opt-out on paying for this lesser quality music.

The music industry has also, on occasion, attempted to sell audio quality that nobody can actually hear.  There have been high definition formats aplenty, the latest of which appears to be the Pons player, but in every case the customer was being asked to pay a premium for a largely imperceptible improvement in audio fidelity.  This kind of activity simply adds to the air of snake oil salesmanship that surrounds the travelling music show.  It reeks of knowing dishonesty, or of pseudo-scientific belief, at the expense of the consumer.

When rock and popular music was presented live, it was usually in shabby venues, with no seating or creature comforts.  The audience were greeted as criminal suspects or potential thieves, rather than paying guests.  As the audiences aged, they wanted to rest and listen, not jostle for position in the mosh pit.  Middle-aged, full-time employees were too exhausted to spend these precious few hours of relief straining to see or hear the band, while enduring conditions that rivalled slave transport ships.  Locked into the venue, they were fleeced for overpriced refreshments, abominable food and tatty t-shirts.

For my entire life, record companies appeared to be most interested in looking for new ways to squeeze more money from music consumers, without considering how they might serve up a better product and experience.  They discarded beloved artists prematurely, in the belief that these disposable heroes could easily be replaced by the next new thing and the stupid public could be sold those new artists instead of the old artists the audiences already loved.  This attitude was an insult to the intelligence of the paying customers.  If we package it, you’re stupid enough to buy it, seemed to be the attitude of record companies.  They failed to develop their artist roster and reneged on their obligations to provide artist and repertoire guidance, finding material and musicians to enhance the recorded output.  Record companies consolidated into huge, corporate monoliths, with almost monopoly powers that they frequently abused.  It became all about the money, not the art.

When CDs were first released, the pricing policies initially gouged consumers.  CDs were much more expensive than the vinyl LPs they replaced and the artwork was worse.  Record companies made huge profits from people replacing their entire vinyl record collections (the licenses for the music in their record collections having already been paid for), with new media (CDs), while insisting the consumers buy their licenses yet again, as part of each unit sold.

Digital re-mastering evolved as a cynical way to extend copyright coverage (a new work was said to exist and hence the copyright expiry clock was reset) and to make the consumer buy the music they already owned, yet again, but at an even higher price.  Short works were recycled and remixed to create twelve inch releases of seven inch singles.  The same song was simply extended, through clever editing and sold again.  The number of ways to sell the same song (often the same performance) over and over again proliferated.

Meanwhile, rock stars were in the papers spending their money recklessly and wastefully.  This misbehaviour was seen as disrespectful to music consumers, who were often working class and had spent their limited, discretionary cash on music products.  Their money was hard earned, yet rock stars rubbed it in by spending it like water, on fripperies.  The message was clear.  Rock stars were saying, in effect, that they cared so little about the people that had paid for their lavish lifestyles that they were prepared to burn the money, simply because they could.  The KLF actually did burn a million dollars.  The implication was that music consumers that forked over hard won, scarce money, which they had sweated to earn, were fools, because the rock stars had so much of the stuff, the only thing they could think to do with it was fund excessive drug abuse habits, or else waste it spectacularly and brashly.  They felt like their extraordinary incomes would never cease.  Who in their right mind wants to part with their hard earned money to fund this kind of thing?

Was this any way for the industry to behave?  Artists and record companies, alike, were simply abusing and disrespecting their paying customers in myriad ways and thinking they could get away with it indefinitely.  Does this business strategy work in any other product category, over the long term?  It’s doubtful.

It might be that the current low valuation of recorded music and the difficulty of making music as a profession is simply blowback for all the shabby treatment of paying customers, meted out over a period of decades, by the music industry – both artists and record companies.  They didn’t put their customers first.  They put themselves first and their fans last.

Maybe music consumers began to feel abused and so felt no qualms about lifting music for free, when they could, just like the rock stars had burnt their money, when they could.  The disrespect was returned with a vengeance.  Artists may have attempted to keep up the pretence of living lifestyles of the rich and famous, but their income streams were drying up.

A study has shown that 85% of consumers will retaliate against a company that serves them badly:  http://venturebeat.com/2013/11/14/85-of-consumers-will-retaliate-against-a-company-with-bad-customer-service-report/

Maybe the current state of the music industry is simply a playing out of this retaliation.  If you serve up cynical, mediocre product, at inflated prices, over a long period of time, karma is going to get you in the end, for sure.  To say this, of course, is a heresy.

So what’s the way forward?

If professional music was no longer made, people would miss it.  They’d miss it a lot.  The evidence for this assertion is that people listen to much more music than ever before.  Despite pretences, they actually care about music and want it to be part of their lives.  They don’t want it to become extinct.  They’ve spent decades forking over their scarce cash for music, even when they knew they were being taken for fools.  All that changed was that they were given the technology to retaliate and send a message.  And so they did.

For their part, the music industry could focus on serving their customers better.  They could concentrate on making entertaining, high quality products that deliver an excellent customer experience, consistently.  Artists can be patiently developed.  The best talents can be pooled.  Productions can be prepared with care.  Prices could be fair.  Licenses could be separated from their carriers.  They could put the fans first, at all times.

Maybe the music industry simply didn’t treat their paying customers well enough, with enough respect or serve them fairly, for the prices they charged.  Maybe the industry failed to surprise and delight its customers frequently enough.  Whatever the cause of the malaise, the solution is not to ban copying, or to restrict access to music.  It’s not to complain about piracy or to throw file sharers in prison.  The answer is to produce the best damned products they can, at the fairest possible prices and make those products easily accessible and entertaining, however that is fully defined.  The music industry needs to make better art and behave more respectfully toward their paying customers.

Only then will music and musicians be fairly valued.  Only then will the music industry find itself back on its feet.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to What if Cynicism and Mediocrity Killed the Music Industry?

  1. I don’t read articles too often lately, but given the industry I’m in, I was reeled in at the first paragraph. As an artist myself, I don’t find myself conflicted about created quality music, I find myself conflicted about producing mediocrity and wasting my time with people and artists who don’t realize that the skills I have obtained which have taken years to develop without formal education. I enjoyed reading your article because among other things I have read and watched recently, this is a sound way of explaining the turn of the music industry that I have witnessed. I have always felt that although there are artists that feel the same way about low-quality music and ways to push against mainstream mediocrity, in a lot of ways they can and in some ways have fallen on people with selective hearing or comprehension. One thing I know for sure is that my journey as a production company and artist is apart of an ongoing battle against what has been fed to us, some of us for a lifetime.

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