How To Live Without the Record Industry

"I don't much care if the music business collapses in on itself -- it won't affect me much, or anybody whose main mission is writing songs and playing them for people." -John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats

Letís say that two years from now, some hackers come up with an open source, freeware file-sharing program with anonymous routing. The RIAA is powerless: They canít sue users because they are anonymous. They canít sue the company that makes this program because there is none. They canít sue the sites that host it because they are hosted offshore. They canít sue the ISPs because the program uses the same ports as HTTP and canít be blocked by a simple firewall setting. For every hacker the RIAA hires to screw up the filesharing network, there are a thousand hackers working in their free time on making the system bulletproof.

At this point, the RIAA could attempt a compromise (stop fighting and beg congress for a bandwidth or cdr tax) or try to stop filesharing via a PR campaign (which will fail Ė people hate the RIAA because they spent the last two years suing 14 year olds) or they can continue to try to fight fileshairng by throwing around lawyers and hackers. The RIAA chooses the latter.

They are unable to stop filesharing, which only grows more popular as broadband enters more households. The filesharing network becomes so huge that it is possible to get any song in seconds. Itís the largest and easiest to access library of anything ever. People stop buying records and the whole record industry goes under. The retailers (record store owners), who already operate on a thin profit margin, are the first to go. Pretty soon the employees of record companies, entertainment law firms, agents and music advertisers are out on the street. The major media corps cut free the record companies they own.

So, the record industry is gone Ė does this mean a new dark age for music? No, musicians and music lovers will be better off than ever before. Hereís how:

How music will be made
Most music will be made in basements and garages (just as it is now). The hardware and software to set up a home recording studio will get cheaper. People will record music on a PC and mix it, edit it, mess with levels to their heartsí content. There will still be mom-and-pop recording studios where people will pay to record their music with professional equipment and experienced help.

How artists will get paid:
Most wonít Ė just as it is today. Most artists will make music and release it on the internet for the love of music itself. Some musicians will make money via voluntary donations, paid gigs, licensing music for use in videogames, webpages, movies, etc., and selling merchandise (e.g. t-shirts) at print on demand sites like CafePress. For many artists, the money they get only offsets the costs of instruments and recording equipment Ė they still have to keep their day jobs. A very few artists would have a fan base large enough and vehement enough to support the artists. At worst, instead of 0.1% of musicians being able to support themselves with their music, only 0.05% of them will. Oh god, the humanity.

Basically, the artist would be employed by the fans. If you donít think fans would play out of their own pocket to pay a musicianís rent, you contí know any hardcore music fans. Letís say a musician is so good that she gets a Yahoo Groups fan club with 1000 members. The volunteer who created and moderates the club would make sure that each member sends at least $2/month, which is collected and given to the artist. In exchange, the artist hangs out on the board and answers questions, takes suggestions, even records covers at the request of the members. The artist gets $2000 a month, which isnít enough for collagen injections and a mansion in Malibu, but itís enough to live off of.

Yes, the era of rich rockstars will be over. Is that such a bad thing? Does being rich make musicians better, or does is make it so they can surround themselves with yes-men and women who call everything they do wonderful even when it is pure shit? Or, letís put it another way: the musicians will be as rich as you, the fans, want them to be. If you think your favorite singer should be able to afford a Ďsummer homeí and if enough like-minded people feel the same way, you can all send 10% of your paycheck.

The music industry is not a real meritocracy. Some people do get wealthy due to their talent as musicians, but there are many more equally-talented musicians who die poor. What happens is that the music industry chooses a good looking musician and spends millions in advertising trying to fool teenagers in to thinking this is the cool artist that their peers are listening to. I say Ďfoolí because if the record industry (if they do it right) makes teens think that they elected this person their new idol of their own free will.

How will people hear about music?
In other words, if every dumbass with a guitar and pretensions of musical talent is putting music on the internet, how will people find the good music?

Some of it will be word of mouth. Your IM buddy will send you a message saying ďCheck out [song] by [band]Ē and you will right-click on it and select ďfind and playĒ. The truth is, though, that peopleís tastes in music vary greatly and you might not like that song.

For the most part, people will need to get recommendations tailored to them. They will do this in two ways: the decentralized way and the centralized way.

A decentralized program starts playing songs and as it plays music you tell it what songs you like or donít like. Songs you donít like are never played again. Songs you do like are played again later. More than that, your decisions are sent to some server somewhere, where they are mixed in with the decisions of other people, and it does some fancy statistics (factor analysis) to figure out ďyou like these songs, so youíre most likely to like these other songs youíve never heard before.Ē

One problem with this method is youíll miss out on those songs that you donít care for the first time you hear them, but become your favorite by the tenth time you hear them. The other problem is that in order for the system to work, listeners have to keep doing work, giving opinions on songs as they play.

In the centralized method, you subscribe to a music service and it gives you a quiz, asking what bands and songs you like or donít like. Based on your answers, you are matched to one of a thousand music reviewers whose tastes most closely match your own. The reviewer is paid to listen to music eight hours a day (and listens to songs more than once). The problem with this method is that itís not quite as accurate and it costs more (you have to pay a thousand employees).

One consequence of these methods is the death of the musical genre. Youíll get to hear your Johnny Cash, your Distillers, your Bach and your score from Star Wars without having to change channels. Or to put it another way: right now, I like about 2% of country music, so I never listen to the country music channel, but that means Iím missing out on that 2% I would actually like. And musicians will not have to conform to a musical niche. They can play whatever style of music they like, even if that style doesnít have a name, and the music will still find the people who like it.

Another consequence is that music will stop being a midriff-ocracy and will become a true meritocracy. A musician will get ahead because people like her music, not because some music industry exec thinks sheíd look cute in a pepsi ad.

A requiem for the music industry.
Once you were necessary, useful, great. You improved our lives by finding good musicians and making their music available to us. Society owes you a great debt. However, technology changed and you became as useless as lamplighters and carriage drivers. You were a parasite: you produced nothing, you only took. You stood in the way of building a better system of music distribution. We canít blame you for trying not to die Ė itís an inherent aspect of the capitalist system that companies will do whatever they can do avoid going under. However, now that you are gone we are all much better off.

The Future
What we do to the record industry will set precedence for how we deal with all the other industries that the internet will make obsolete. As the internet and creative technology gets better we will no longer need book publishers, retail stores, TV or movie studios. They will become completely useless and we will have a choice: Do we let them continue to sit around producing nothing of value and sucking up resources just because they can throw their legal weight around. Or do we put these dinosaurs out of their misery?

There are a lot of long, painful battles ahead, but the good news is this: once we get rid of the middle-men and middle-women, weíll be getting more for less, and the artists will get a fair chance at getting their stuff seen/heard/read by the public. We have the possibility to have an artistic revolution that will make life on this globe so much better.


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