A couple of years ago, a singer-songwriter friend of mine attracted the attention of one of the Big Labels. They offered her a whack of money upfront, plus a contract she could drive a truck through (her lawyer confirmed this). She signed on the dotted line. A few weeks later a big shot from New York graced our village with his presence.
He'd been in the scene since the 60s and had a million stories. I caught a few of them second-hand, the most amusing of which involved Paul McCartney. This was in the 80s, and Sir Paul was in NYC laying down some music for his yearly album. Things mustn't have been going as smoothly as he wanted, because he abruptly announced, "I think what this session requires is a large bottle of Jack Daniels." He signalled for the gopher, who trotted over. McCartney opened his wallet and fished out ... a five-dollar bill. "The largest bottle of Jack Daniels," he emphasized.
The gopher looked helplessly at the producer, who gently pulled the gopher aside and discretely told him to use the company credit card. Then off he went. Mr. New York's theory behind this episode was simply that it had been so very many years since McCartney had purchased anything with cash that he simply had no clue what a bottle of Jack Dans actually cost.
ANYWAY. It's been a couple of years since that contract was signed, and odds are the Big Label didn't quite manage to make my friend a spoken name in your household. I recently asked her what she thought of the industry. "The industry?!" She snorted. "The industry doesn't have a clue. It's in a complete free-fall."
Indeed. This is the record industry's worst year of sales to date. According to this Rolling Stone article: "The record companies have created this situation themselves," says Simon Wright, CEO of Virgin Entertainment Group, which operates Virgin Megastores. While there are factors outside of the labels' control -- from the rise of the Internet to the popularity of video games and DVDs -- many in the industry see the last seven years as a series of botched opportunities. And among the biggest, they say, was the labels' failure to address online piracy at the beginning by making peace with the first file-sharing service, Napster. "They left billions and billions of dollars on the table by suing Napster -- that was the moment that the labels killed themselves," says Jeff Kwatinetz, CEO of management company the Firm. "The record business had an unbelievable opportunity there. They were all using the same service. It was as if everybody was listening to the same radio station. Then Napster shut down, and all those 30 or 40 million people went to other [file-sharing services]."
I'd love to put the blame solely at the feet of record companies, but let's not forget that Metallica deserves some credit, too. Here's the notorious Napster Bad video (language warning). Non-metal-heads might require a little context: the metal scene of the 80s and 90s grew in large part from kids joining pen-pal lists and mailing each other mixed tapes of their favourite bands. There was a day when Metallica's Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield not only endorsed the practise, but did it themselves. Then Napster came along and performed this function with a vengeance. Ulrich and crew were clearly displeased with the way this cut into their still-considerable profit margin. They may have won in court and by some miracle retained their fanbase, but they loaded (pun intended) the torpedo which sank the industry.
I agree with the article's premise that suing Napster was a fatal tactical error. I also regard iTunes copy-protection as invasive and malign. But I make it a point to avoid file-sharing, choosing instead to pay for my music in the hope that the musicians will get a little coin for their product.
I'll bang the drum for eMusic, one more time. $10 a month gets you 30 downloads with no copy-protection or any other computer-fouling nonsense. And the sound quality of their mp3s is surprisingly fine.
True, I once lamented the "thin" sound of the mp3. I'd downloaded Beneath This Gruff Exterior by John Hiatt & The Goners. When I burned it to CD and played it back, I thought there was some sort of "space" missing in the overall sound. Could the bass have been richer? Was there some mid-range layering I was missing?
I loved the music, so I finally bought the CD and gave it a spin in the car stereo as I drove home. For the next 20 minutes I courted death by reckless driving as I fished out the official CD and plugged in the eMusic disc, then swapped them again, and again and again. There was no discernible difference in sound. At home I put them on the master stereo and did the same exercise. No difference. I put on the Sennheisers. Same as it ever was.
I performed another experiment: I extracted the first track from the CD and compared its file size as an OGG to the file size of eMusic's mp3: 4.4 MB to 5.6, respectively. I ripped the OGG to mp3, and the file size of that was 4.6 MB. I don't know what any of that means, except that I now discard the notion that studio CDs somehow possess a sound quality lacking in eMusic's mp3 files.
Lately I've been taking the greatest pleasure in rediscovering jazz music. Those jazz musicians -- particularly in the 50s and 60s, God love 'em -- sure didn't mind putting out albums with only four or five (very long) songs. For a subscriber, that's an incredible value. Take something like Miles Davis's Blue Moods. All Music says the disc set the standard for its day, but that at 26 minutes and 51 seconds, the CD isn't much of a value. So far as I'm concerned, that's just four downloads out of a monthly 30. That's less than $.60 a track. Consider me sold.
Alright, time to wrap this up. My aforementioned friend is Brooke Miller, and she's coming out with new music on Canada Day.