Stop the press!
The pandora’s box that is digital downloads is well and truly free; let loose, out of its cage to fire the last few nails into a slow-build coffin with the names of the major labels carved on the lid.
Yeah, yeah… I know. This is hardly news.
It’s clear that selling music is dead and that soon the CD will be will be joining its ancestors in the graveyard of obsolete formats and ideas. ISDN, VHS, floppy discs, HD-DVD and so many more; they’re all here, buried together in the irrelevancy of the present.
All those illegal, free downloads. All that lost revenue. This is the lethal dose from which the majors can’t recover in their current form, and it’s doubtful they’ll adapt in time to survive. They had their chance before Napster was even a prefab fetus and it passed them by without so much as an ounce of recognition.
A world without record labels has become a serious possibility. Is this really the vaunted emancipation of the musical artist that some would have you believe, or the gutting of an industry that will no longer be able to invest in talent, take risks or support its employees and patrons?
Is this the cataclysm or the next evolutionary step?
Some have already started to work within business models where releases are for promotion rather than profit; their rewards being press attention (usually regarding such commercial shock tactics as democratic pricing, something which will fade as the practice becomes more widespread) and, occasionally, a financial bonus. Radiohead spring to mind here. They made more money on In Rainbows than any of their previous records with so many articles printed and posted about their “pay what you like” antics that a promotional campaign just didn’t seem necessary.
Radiohead’s improved profit margins were, of course, helped by the lack of record label middle men taking their slice. I wonder what will happen when the public become completely accustomed to free-on-demand music? Not even democratic pricing will penetrate wallets once we’re used to paying nothing and getting everything. For many, we’ve already reached that point with Spotify, YouTube and the obvious torrents and illegal downloads.
What if we took the idea of the consumer naming their price even further? What if the consumer benefitted financially from your release? An artist could release their music to a dedicated fan base and tell them they can do what they like with it; sell it on, remix it, spread it around for free… it’s their choice. Turn your audience into one huge street team and hope they all pay into your gigs, buy your merch and watch the movies to which your songs are the soundtrack.
Your music becomes a true advertisement with the product being your performance, your cross-media associations and memorabilia.
With this in mind, maybe the labels won’t so much die as change shape into live promoters and publishers latching onto the revenue streams of royalties, tie-ins and usage rights, with lucrative deals for huge tours and exclusive soundtracks.
The age of the majors is over, however, at least for the foreseeable future. If any labels make it through the apocalypse and emerge out the other side intact, it’ll be the indies, with their lower overheads and more clinical focus on the niches off which they feed. For all the labels, as businesses, big or small, it’s going to be brutal, and most won’t make it, at least not in the same form they were.
It’s going to involve some pretty radical and ruthless change to sales-based practices, upon which the system has been built since forever.