Ramblings | January 6, 2014

Industrial Music

In a previous blog I finished up with the question:  Are musicians misguided to expect record companies to act in anyone’s interests but their shareholders?

My intention was to try to turn the tables on the usual question of whether the music industry exploits artists and instead to explore whether artists should reevaluate their expectations in a society where music is commonly viewed viewed as an industry rather than an art. To preempt the rest of this article, I believe the problem is at least partly down to our confusing the music industry, with its commoditised view of music, with music more generally.

What Is The Music Industry For?

The Music Industry, like all industries, exists because there is a market for its product, and the big companies that dominate it do so precisely because have become efficient at generating profit from that product. Industry is not generally interested in the deeper merit of the product itself in any sense other than it being the source of revenue.

Now the obvious question is, “what is the product of the music industry?” with the simple answer being “music”. Perhaps a more interesting question “What value does the consumer place in product?” That’s where things get a bit more complicated.

What Is Music For?

Music has different significances to different people at different times. Most musicians would, I imagine, see it at least some of the time as a form of art, existing for its own sake as a thing of beauty, or an expression of creativity. But music is also sometimes used more like wallpaper, unobtrusively in the background while you socialise or work. It’s sometimes bought and listened to as a political statement, or a badge of identity and belonging much like clothing, and of course it is an essential component of that ubiquitous social activity: dancing.

Going back to the Music Industry, these different ways of experiencing (or “consuming”) music are translated into market demographics. As the industry has matured it has learned which areas of the market are the most profitable, which are smaller, harder to service niches which can still turn a profit for smaller players, and which are essentially not commercially viable. For each of these areas it has strategies for targeting them, theories on what the next big thing will look like, and predictions on what will happen to their profitability in the future.

What Are Musicians For?

As far as the industry is concerned musicians exist purely to make products that generates the profit, and they are largely interchangeable. It is a numbers game, and while the music a band produces may be unique, there are countless other bands who are producing their own unique music which, in a fickle marketplace and without a crystal ball, stand a similar chance of hitting the jackpot.

A band trying to get signed by a label is essentially the equivalent of a entrepreneur seeking investment from the Dragons’ Den. They will be assessed primarily on a mix of recent demographic research, marketplace analysis and a small amount of gut feeling. They will be weighed up not in terms of the artistic merit of their music, but the volume which it is likely it to sell. Even if their music is a work of creative genius, it means nothing to the music industry if it doesn’t present a means to turn a decent profit.

Even if the band is self-funding, and is merely looking to people like iTunes or Amazon as a means of distribution, they are still up against that same financial imperative: these companies aren’t there to help you get heard, they are there to make money. Distributing your music still has to be profitable for them in some way, and if for any reason you don’t fit their view of how music works (say, for example, you produce albums which segue between songs, or contain a single 75 minute track) then unless you’re selling as many copies as Yes, you’re more effort than you’re worth to them as a customer.

But this is all about the Music Industry. Music existed before the industry that built up around it, and as I suggested at the start of this article, I think a lot of the problems for small artists are caused by both artists and listeners losing sight of this distinction.

The Musician As An Artist

On a superficial level I have no problem with the realities of commercial music. The music industry is there to make a profit and it owes me nothing. If I want my music to be heard, it is down to me to find a way to make that happen. If a company offers me some assistance, they will expect to get something out of it and they won’t want to risk losing money unless they think the odds are significantly in their favour.

The problem however comes with the effect that the industrialisation of music has on the ecosystem. As the industry, hungry for markets, has maneuvered itself into as position of gatekeeper or curator of our music, society inevitably begins to forget about all the experiences of music that are sidelined as unprofitable. Most of the time we just want easy answers and the music industry does a good job of providing those in many cases. Want to buy an album from that band you heard yesterday? No need to go find their web site, find out how to order it and provide payment and address details, just download it on iTunes, stream it from Spotify or order it from Amazon and you don’t need to think. As a result, if as an artist you’re not on iTunes, Amazon or Spotify, you risk becoming invisible.

But to return one final time to the point of this article: expecting anything else from the music industry is naïve because, emotive terms such as “evil” and “exploitation” aside, the bottom line is that anyone who hasn’t got a reasonable potential for generating quick and easy profits is irrelevant to them. Music is business, and business is money.

Sadly, with expectations the way they are musicians need to either make this Faustian pact with industry or they need to reject it and find themselves in the wilderness. Then begins the task of encouraging our potential listeners to step outside of what has become akin to a walled city and start to investigate what else there is out there beyond the realms of what the industry dares hope will be sufficiently profitable.


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