Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The music industry’s unwinding

The unravelling of the music industry may have brought enormous change and disruption, but music still maintains an intrinsic value

The way things used to be

Tue, Jun 10, 2014, 10:11


By now, many of you will have read the piece by the reliably acerbic David Carr in the New York Times yesterday about his relationship with paying for music. As so often happens with pieces of this nature, it took off, flew around the place and caused a flood of reactions. As you’d expect, we’d even a reaction piece from the reliably grumpy Bob Lefsetz before the day was out.

To be honest, there’s little new in Carr’s piece, as the Times’ media writer traces how the growth of free means consumers are not paying for music in the same way as they once did. They’ll occasionally pay for a subscription to a streaming service or for a live show or high-end headphones, but few are buying vinyl and fewer still are buying CDs. As we’ve been tracking here over the years, sales of downloads are also dropping like flies now that people are moving to streaming services.

Like Carr, many people will happily pay top dollar for grapes from a fruit stand and then listen to music for free while munching said grapes. As he points out, music may have been free for decades thanks to ad-supported radio but streaming puts a different spin on this relationship as we now expect all our music to be free.

What Carr’s piece does is underline and emphasise in bold large print for the masses what the insiders already know. The old ways are gone, over, kaput, finished. Sure, there are pockets of resistance – it’s at this point that people will usually point to the vinyl resurgence, but that’s a micro not a mass movement and has only a minute impact on the bottom line – but the overall trajectory has been fixed for some time. If you want to see a definition of disruption, look at what has happened to the music industry.

It’s also not fixed to the music-making community or, indeed, any of the other cultural industries. I’m currently reading The Unwinding, George Packer’s fascinating study of the unravelling which has occured in the American economy from 1978 and its effect on everyone from factory workers to Washington-based lobbyists. It shows sharply how once widely accepted beliefs about a person’s place in the economy have been ripped asunder by bigger, more nebulous forces. It’s an international disruption because what happens in America has global knock-on effects.

The music industry’s unwinding has operated along similar lines with widespread change tearing apart the way things used to be for musicians and music consumers, though the timeline is a much shorter one. All of the recent changes have brought an end to or a severe curtailment of how the business operated from the 1950s to the 1990s, a period which is really a blip in the greater scheme of things. Music may have been around since the first time stone age man decided to pen a maudlin song about his broken heart (the stone age Damien Rice), but the industry around selling recorded music is a recent phenomenon.

What hasn’t changed in the widest possible sense is the value of music and what it means to people. You don’t need me to give you examples of how music has an effect on you personally as a music fan. It’s there for you when you’re in a good or a bad mood, it soundtracks your day, it’s a lifelong obsession for many of us. For those who can play music or write songs, it’s a talent, a skill, an art which will always be there.

And despite all the predictions of doom and gloom which abound, music still has a positive economic side. Yesterday’s report about the multi-million dollar value of the music industry to Olympia in Washington can be replicated in many cities and scenes worldwide, all of whom can point to money and jobs created from music. It’s a different way of monetising the sounds created in garages and studios and, especially when take the relatively short time span when recorded music sales held sway into account, it’s a metric with longer-term possibilities.

It would be interesting to see if there’s a way of showing exactly how the average musician can benefit from this metropolitan economic value. It’s easy and straightforward to see revenue accruing from sales, streams, downloads and gigs besides these are long-established sectors. Aside from providing a bump to the above, though, is there any other way of showing how the value a city applies to music can trickle down to the musician’s pocket? Now there’s a job of work for some academics looking for something to do.