A technological sea change. Profound paradigm shifts in both consumption and distribution. Free content. Hit-and-run attention spans. A triumph of fluff over substance.
The death of an industry.
The newspaper industry? So you might suspect from reading the papers. But the prognosis applies equally to the major-label music industry, which finds itself in the same predicament, facing the same challenges, for the same reasons – reasons that have as much to do with demographics as technology.
While I don’t intend to get too academic with y’all (as we say in West Des Moines), I have to admit that the spark for this column came from a classroom. Newspapers and music long provided me with a paycheck – I wrote about the latter for the former for almost three decades – before I retreated into the comparative security of a professorship.
Yet it wasn’t until I taught a large lecture course called Media and Consumers that I recognized how similar are the plights facing newspapers and major music labels, both dinosaurs staggering toward extinction. And while I feel the two are on parallel courses, facing the same challenges, my feelings toward their demises couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.
When newspapers die – maybe in my lifetime, likely in yours – the culture will belatedly feel a profound sense of loss. When the major-label music industry collapses – tomorrow? next year? whenever the insidious LiveNation picks its bones clean? – I will be happy to dance on its grave.
Not that there aren’t great people (and good friends) who work for major labels. And not because there isn’t plenty of great music (indeed, the majority of the music I possess and love) that has come from major labels. But I don’t know anyone really passionate about music who doesn’t feel disdain toward the way that the increasingly centralized and conglomerated majors have signed, promoted, marketed, trivialized and discarded artists. Within a society that has such a short attention span, the emphasis has shifted from artist development – a commitment which might take years – to the supernovas who burn out as quickly as they skyrocket.
But I digress, frothing at the mouth too quickly. As I mentioned, it wasn’t until I taught this lecture course that I realized that the music industry I loathe and the newspapers I love are in the same position, facing the same challenges with the same generations of consumers. From the printing press through the Victrola and the rise of cable TV, new media inevitably threaten old media. And old media must either adapt or die.
My students, so many of them journalism majors, don’t really care whether newspapers die. Newspapers are an older generation’s nostalgia at best, tree killers at worst. News over the internet is not only fast, it’s free. To paraphrase “All The Young Dudes” (who, you might remember, “carry the news”), “Why do I need the Trib when I got Twitter?”
Why, indeed? I can’t argue too much, for I also get most of my news from dozens of websites (while still reading four paper newspapers a day). Just as I lament the disappearance of the independent bookstore, while buying most of my books at deep discount on Amazon (not so I can save money on books, but so I can buy more of them with that money).
But here’s the problem: All of that “free” news comes at a great cost. And when the news is truly free, society will get what it pays for.
Because what continues to support all of those armies of news gatherers is print, which invariably shoulders the financial burdens that allow websites to turn a profit. For every journalist employed exclusively by a website, there are dozens to hundreds to thousands in the trenches drawing newspaper paychecks. So if you get your news from a trusted web “brand” such as newyorktimes.com or washingtonpost.com, you’d better hope that the braintrust running those operations can figure out a way to generate enough advertising or other income to support all those bylines (and all those editors assigning and editing those bylines) that the print newspaper currently subsidizes.
Or maybe you’re content to get your headlines on your Blackberry from Google or Yahoo or some other aggregator. What do you think they’re aggregating? Stories that originated with print reporters, whose work in the daily newspaper that nobody reads anymore similarly provides the daily agenda for the rip-and-read radio newscasts (for those radio stations that still even bother with news) and the evening TV news.
What we have here is a house of cards, with journalists doing the most substantive work generally employed by the journalistic institution whose future looks shakiest. I have no idea what the solution is (and I suspect no one else does either), but I know how much we’ll be losing once watchdog journalism, investigative probes, depth analyses, even the thoughtful cultural pieces that I’ve tried to provide no longer have newspapers to subsidize them. We’ll have fast-food news, all fluff all the time. We’ll have shoot-from-the-hip opinionating (like this column) rather than solid reporting. Rather than reading in depth, we’ll point and click, point and click.
The death of the major labels means even less to my students, who see music as a commodity transferred from computer download to iPod rather than a transaction at what we still quaintly call record stores. Just as news has shifted to the web, so has music, as artists and fans alike see how easy it is to circumvent the monolithic music industry, cutting out the middleman to establish a relationship that no longer requires inflated costs to subsidize promotional excess or to support an industry based on a few multiplatinum winners offsetting a plethora of stiffs.
Artists and audiences have somehow learned to find each other without the aid of that massive industrial infrastructure. The visionaries in this field were actually veteran artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and Steve Goodman, who discovered decades ago that sales figures which no longer interested the majors could provide a nice cottage industry for a private label, one that efficiently targeted a loyal fan base.
This is a crazy business, one where a band can sell a few hundred thousand copies on a major label and be considered a failure – in the perennial debt of indentured servitude – while an artist who sells 25,000 or 50,000 per release on a smaller or private label can sustain a successful career.
Where it was once the goal of even the indiest of indie artists to eventually sign with a major, you now see artists at all levels of success fleeing that sinking ship, discovering – as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails did, as David Byrne and Brian Eno are – just how easy it is to forge an internet connection without industry involvement.
Thus labels are scrambling to generate profits from ringtones and soundtracks and downloads and whoever’s the runner-up on American Idol. Who needs their promotional muscle when Facebook is easier and more effective? Who needs their distribution machinery when buying albums in record stores seems as much of an anachronism as getting home delivery from the newspaper boy?
We’re still sorting our way through all the repercussions. For it was music labels, major and indie, that long provided the advertising which subsidized the magazine that No Depression used to be. Now this website hopes that writers and readers can find each other just as bands and fans have, while the semiannual “bookazine” into which the magazine has morphed no longer relies on advertising.
A few years ago, terms such as “blogs” and “podcasts” (and “bookazines”) didn’t even exist. A few years from now, media will assume forms we can’t even predict. I’m betting that music and music fans will be winners in this ongoing revolution. And I’m hoping against hope that journalists and the society they serve aren’t the losers.