What an exciting time this is for music. In the information age, boundaries between artist and consumer have been reduced to rubble, and the armies of middlemen that used to line them have been reduced to bereft onlookers. With the tools presented by the internet and new music technology, any musician with a computer can produce and release their own music, and any consumer with a computer can hear it. Sure enough, there are more bands, more gigs, more songs and more haircuts than ever before. And yet, based on a continuous and demoralising stream of dissent from music professionals unwilling to embrace change, you wouldn’t know it.
The whinging is incessant. The Guardian ran a piece last week in which the owner of an indie label called Sonic Cathedral joined a chorus of labels and industry execs bemoaning what they see as a regressive ‘vinyl revival’, blaming nostalgic consumers for buying vinyl reissues rather than new records – surely a predictable state of affairs given that the technology itself dates back to the 1800s.
The same people filling the air with pessimism are guilty of their own nostalgia for a time when the music industry was teeming with professionals. In the heyday of recorded music – an extended heyday that lasted from the 1970s through the 1990s – the industry sustained a glut of steady paychecks for A&R men, producers, publicists, journalists, band managers, and so on – and the internet has cut many of these occupations out of the bargain.
What people often choose to forget is that, from the perspective of artists and consumers, the pre-internet industry resembled a crowded corridor of inefficiency that the internet has since simplified. Musicians don’t need to depend on the whim of radio djs, label execs, publicists, record stores, and so on, anymore. If your music is good enough, and you’re enterprising enough in the way you market it, you will gain a following.
The catch, of course, is that the music itself doesn’t guarantee any money. The blame for this often falls on consumers. ‘This entitlement to having music for free is really ruining a lot of things’, sneered veteran producer Tony Visconti in a recent interview with Forbes. There is more than a hint of entitlement about this attitude itself. For the past 60 years or so – at least until record sales began to drop around the mid-noughties – musicians have been able to rely on the sales of one-time recordings. Since the arrival of the internet, this comfortable presumption has boiled over into indignation.