I stumbled into this article today by Steve Guttenberg where he suggests that music has become unimportant and simply a soundtrack to other activities. He blames everything from the “loudness wars” to mobile devices being a distraction to fewer records being made (!?) for music’s lack of importance today. He argues that artists aren’t making money the traditional because of Napster and piracy, saying “Once paying for recorded music became a purely voluntary act the value of music plummeted. What’s potentially free is certainly worth less. How can bands survive and make record music when the old revenue streams are drying up?”
I think that’s kind of the point: the music industry got disrupted and failed to innovate. Music never lost its importance, the perception about paying for recorded music simply changed. There was no single event, or product that caused this turmoil. Not even Napster. Selling records is yesterday’s business model. Selling an experience is today’s.
One of the most important truths that became transparent falling out of this changing industry is that music is abundant. It always has been. It’s just that the music industry spent the better part of a half-century indirectly convincing consumers that music was scarce — only so many records could physically be stocked at a time, played on the radio, or promoted by labels. More importantly, the industry (also indirectly) taught consumers that the music was free (think radio) and you paid for the medium (think vinyl, cassettes, and CDs). A good example of this is the CD. It never cost $18.99 to produce a CD. You were paying for the medium, because it theoretically offered superior audio quality to the cassette, which (allegedly) offered better quality to the vinyl record before that. There were other value propositions, ranging from the CD being easier to listen to on the go (remember G-Shock protection anyone?) to it being more durable. We all know how these turned out.
Music is finally, truly part of our lives in every aspect, in every moment, and at every event. It’s become ubiquitous and more important than ever, really. That’s not without saying that the experience around discovering music, and later consuming it, sucks. It does. You have interoperability issues where platforms and services don’t talk to each other — I can’t share a Spotify song with an iTunes user, just like I can’t share my vinyl record with a guy holding a CD player. The abundance of choice on Spotify can make enjoying music hard. The question “what should I listen to?” use to be an easy one. You only had so many physical objects on hand — a perceived scarcity. Now you have the entirety of recorded music at your fingertips — an abundance; a commodity. It’s not that music lost its importance, it’s that consumer’s perceived value of recorded music changed as the medium evaporated.
Ultimately, fixing the industry’s woes will be about creating a compelling experience for music discovery and consumption where the consumer votes with their dollars.