6 August 2003
A dash of empiricism
Regular readers will recall that much of this space over the past three years has been devoted to griping about the music industry. And while I think they've earned every bit of the criticism they've received, assuming that everyone in the business is some sort of villain is neither accurate nor useful.
Last night I had a fairly long talk with the head of a small record label specializing in pop/rock reissues, a chap who qualifies as one of the Good Guys. He's of two minds about the Big Five companies: they control roughly 80 percent of the titles available for reissue, so he has to deal with them, but once that deal is struck, they go out of their way to give him decent service. After all, they have an incentive too: tracks sitting in the vault aren't making them any money.
Unfortunately, they're not making him all that much money either; those license fees are stiff, and the drooling collector-geek crowd (such as, well, me) who can be counted on to buy almost every single release simply isn't large enough to make those releases profitable. As a music buff, he'd like to exhume rare and precious tracks; as a businessman, he knows he has to surround them with familiar stuff to maximize sales potential.
We really didn't get into the piracy question. It seems reasonable to assume that it's probably not doing him any good, but since his label has a reputation for high-quality sound, getting the same recordings as lower-quality MP3s is not likely to appeal to his target audience.
All in all, it was a useful discussion, and while I didn't have a pitch of my own to make, I think I held up my end pretty well. And I have the small comfort of knowing that somewhere in the monstrous, monolithic music industry, there's someone who is actually interested in what I might want to hear.
Posted at 9:20 AM to Tongue and Groove
cd's I've purchased after I "sampled" the goods:
Travis - The Man Who
Flaming Lips - Yoshimi battles the pink robot
Ben Harper - 3 disc set
Zero 7 - Simple Things, another late night
The Tea Party - transmission, splendor solis
Sparklehorse - Its a wonderful Life
Aimee Mann - Magnolia Soundtrack
Wilco - Hotel Yankee Foxtrot
Fiona Apple - When the Pawn
... and some others I cant recall right now. The point is that I (here in Tulsa) would have had a hard time being exposed to these bands without the internet and file sharing. Right now I'm thinking about getting Cake cd, and maybe something from the Beta Band.
As a Musician its given me lots of inspiration. I know not everyone buys like I do. But if I like an artist I wasnt them to be around to make more music... could care less about teh record industry, if I could I would give all the money to the artist as opposed to pittance they make now.
I think Bruce is right -- clearly the recording industry isn't thinking things through. But there's a business model at work, I think, that values control of the product in terms of limiting the number of acts competing for listeners' attention. Economics of scarcity.
In some instances that makes good sense -- for example, an extremely popular radio host refusing to increase the amount of ad time on his program because it makes the time that is available more valuable for him and for the advertiser -- but when limiting the number of acts leads to homogenization and causes people to get bored with what they're hearing on the radio, the demand for good stuff is going to search for ways to find what it wants.
As soon as it became an option, file sharing was the natural path for it. Those who do then turn around and buy music because they've sampled some of it that way, are not only doing nothing wrong (it's the 21st-century equivalent of the old practice of listening to a 45 in the record store before buying), they're actually improving the commercial viability of acts that can't get heard any other way.
And that should be regarded as a good thing for the recording industry as a whole, if not for the shortsighted giants.