04 May 2009
I've just published an extended version of an article I wrote for a general interest magazine recently. The article is about how the record industry can fight back at a time when sales of recorded music are falling, and the industry has lost its monopoly on reproduction and distribution.
The article uses examples from Marillion, Radiohead, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Oasis, Depeche Mode, Erasure and others to show how the landscape is changing, and highlights the need to create fulfilling experiences around the music.
I wanted to do something 'serious' using some of the research I gathered while writing University of Death, so this piece is a snapshot of the challenges the industry faces today and some of the recent changes and innnovations it's seen.
I guess it would have been difficult to fit in a discussion of what the alternative is to record labels rallying.
I don't think there will ever be another Beatles, U2 or Michael Jackson - acts that everyone knows. Even the big labels' products are now too fragmented for that. Even in the daytime, Radio 1 plays 'niche' music.
Meanwhile, recording equipment is cheap enough that amateur and semi-pro acts can make polished recordings without the support of a label. They can self-publish using the Internet.
Perhaps we can do without record labels, and music will still be made.
Yet labels provide a useful service - they filter the vast mass of talent that's out there, and spend marketing money to bring it to your attention. Without that service you have to wade through an awful lot of music to find something you like. What will arise to replace that?
Without record labels, music will doubtless still be made, but we'll lose the shared culture. Without the might of a record label behind it, it's unlikely any one band will be able to seize significant market share. How can any one good band be heard above the noise?
At the moment, the filter mechanisms are owned or supported by the record labels (including the music press, retailers, broadcasters). I haven't seen viable alternatives yet - the voting mechanisms on music portals lack the vision of a record label which might say "We believe in this band. We'll find an audience for them". There's a big difference between 500 people saying they like a song, and one person being willing to gamble thousands of pounds on marketing it.
There is still a role for the record company, but it's a question of how it can evolve to find new ways of adding value at a time when it has no monopoly on distribution and reproduction. 360 degree deals that include a cut of merchandising and touring might be the only way record labels can afford to gamble on recorded music.
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