The Music Industry

A couple days ago, a friend of mine told me he was starting a record label; he wants to press a vinyl record. Almost as a reflex, I responded, “Don’t.” I think he was taken aback, so let me explain.

It’s odd that vinyl records are still in such high demand. Odd, and unfortunate. Dance music DJ’s have become incredibly reliant on old technology—technology which stands in stark relief against the tiny, software-based laptop studios of the artists who write the music. The Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable, introduced in 1979, has consistently dominated the DJ market—I own two, as do most of the DJ’s I know; conversely, in order to keep their music sounding original, most producers I know are using production software released within the last year. Somewhere between the cutting-edge production technology and the seventies-era performance equipment, the music makes its way to consumers, and a lot of people make a little money: Mastering engineers, record presses (as salvaged as a Chevy in Cuba), distributors, record stores, and the small agent in the middle—the record label.

Record labels with a reliance on vinyl these days make no sense from a business standpoint. Whereas CD’s, including packaging, cost less than a dollar to produce, and typically sell for fifteen dollars or more, vinyl records can cost well in excess of thrice that amount, and sell for under ten dollars. Take into account the relatively small—and shrinking—market for vinyl records (just because DJ’s have kept the Technics division at Panasonic afloat for 25 years doesn’t mean every sixteen-year old in America is buying vinyl singles), and you have a good solid reason to fold up and try your hand at accounting. The indie music label is a precarious perch on a crumbling industrial mountain; I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends or family, and when my friend told me he wanted to “break into” it, I cut his idea off at the knees.

But was I wrong?

Vinyl is, without a doubt, going to die off. It’s outlived a host of attempts on its life, from the reel-to-reel to the CD, if only because it’s easy to use and it sounds better than all of them (although only marginally). It has been able, until now, to retain a following in the niche market of dance music, but that’s changing, for two reasons: Cost and convenience. That vinyl is, per song, three times more expensive than CD, has mattered little to DJ's—a group that prides itself on being absurdly choosy; buying a CD for the two tracks you like ends up being twice as expensive as buying vinyl—fifteen bucks instead of seven. And even though most big-box music stores don’t carry vinyl, you can (ahem) order it online, making convenience a non-issue. Well, a non-issue until recently. Vinyl is finally going to die, along with the CD, and all the heavy boxes that carry them—cost and convenience.

Back to that massive disconnect between production and performance. When a producer is done making a track these days, it’s digital. It’s a file on a computer, without any analog enhancement. As often as not, record labels get their new tracks from artists over the internet—saves on postage, allows for quick decision-making. The same goes for the DJ; whereas DJ’s used to have to get their exclusive single-run acetate dubplates for $50 from a press in London or Philadelphia (after having been approved by the producer), many now skip the whole process, relying on instant messaging to receive all their new tunes, then play them, for free, from CD or directly from their laptops; I’ve been doing that for two years. All this has been great for labels, artists, and DJ’s alike. But consumers aren’t really locked out, either. Ten years ago, once a track was recorded, the highest-fidelity version of that track could be found ONLY on the vinyl that DJ’s bought in record stores, so long as the master made it directly into the hands of the label owner. As it was the only copy in existence, the master was usually pretty tough to lose track of. These days, lots of identical high-fidelity masters of a track can be found floating around, in the hands of the label, the DJ’s who are already promoting it, and the friends of the promoter. It’s not too hard to lose track of the file, and then it’s just out there, on Soulseek, or Kazaa, or AIM—the most convenient places in the world to find any piece of music made in the last fifty years (or fifteen minutes). The advent of widespread public networks have made possible a completely transparent and utterly convenient means of media dissemination. Peer-to-peer file sharing is a knife in the gut of the corporate dance music industry, but it’s not the killer—the industry is killing itself.

The so-called major labels are fighting file sharing, but I think it’s inevitable that they will lose. Traditionally-distributed music, once flush with dough, only has the market because the market is captive. Six years ago, I had to buy my music at a store because it didn’t exist anywhere else but radio. I used to record top-40 radio as a kid, but the quality of the signal and the degradation of cassette tape meant that if I really liked a song, I was going to have to go buy it at Sam Goody. Now that there’s peer-to-peer, It’s easy for me to find the Bjork track I love in ten minutes, in a quality reasonably approximating that of the eighteen-dollar commercial CD, which would take me two hours to obtain and cost me (in a sense) infinitely more than, say, “nothing”. It’s a no-brainer. Two bakers, same fresh bread, one’s free. The corporate baker can’t win on cost alone, because he’s losing all his dough anyhow.

As usual, the real option is for the mainstream to share genes with the underground. I am of the belief that artists should be paid for their art, if only because I think music benefits from musicians’ not being distracted by things like rent and desks. The answer starts with paying a little for the convenience. The rest involves reprogramming the cult of greed that emerged from the music industry of the eighties. In the process, the physical industry of music will slowly decompose; this is good and bad. Jobs will undoubtedly be lost, as music is liberated from boxes and shelves, and for myself and my colleagues who fill those shelves and pack those boxes, that is a little sad. On the other hand, the unmusical hacks at the top of the major labels will also lose their jobs, which seem largely to have involved condescending to society in exchange for mansions; they’ll be better off selling widgets. The real benefit to music—and to the industry—is that, rather than the few artists-who-appeal-somewhat-to-most-people making more money than one musician should probably have, many artists-who-appeal-a-lot-to-a-few-people can make at least a decent living at what they love to do and have worked hard to master.

Consumers, obviously, get a great deal. More variety at a fair price means listeners become better educated, with all the trappings of that cultural enrichment. If you, as I do, think a society of well-educated, discerning music listeners who can assert their own tastes makes for a better world, then this new arrangement rocks.

Labels, in this new musical economy, will naturally adapt. Musicians are notoriously bad at marketing, so labels can focus instead on advertising their own good taste—which is what most most music business types were interested in, I think, to begin with. In DrumAndBass, at least, listeners often associate a particular mood or sound with the labels they love, and will buy up anything those labels sell. That won’t change in the new music economy. Small labels, who make very little money in the current arrangement, can do as well or better once they’re relieved of the burden of physical media and can focus on talking rather than shipping—an altogether more creative enterprise than hustling bread .

And my friend, Laughlin, who wants to make sure his friend Kyle (who is, by the way, a fantastic producer) can have his music heard? Well, I think he should start a label.

tangentialism is David Yee!