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Ideas to Help Save the Music Industry in 2015
by Alex Cosper (03/02/15)

The biggest problem with the music industry in 2015, besides a continuation of declining sales, is that it's not enough about music and too much about industry. But even as an industry, it's still a big flop compared to profitable industries with better leadership, such as the tech industry. The music industry has not been profitable since 1999, yet it still hasn't found real answers to its downward spiral. That's a sign of not only weak leadership, but lack of vision.

What's incredible about the fall of the music industry is that its leaders still won't admit the quality of popular music in general has steadily diminished over the past two decades to the point where almost none of the so called top artists make headlines anymore. If you take Taylor Swift sales out of the picture, most music news is stuck on negative. Whether it's lame behavior at the Grammys, falling sales, debate on artist royalties, women being mistreated in the industry or court cases about plagiarism, the music industry is in dire need of good news. Getting exposed for all those fake YouTube views and fake Twitter accounts a few years ago obviously didn't help fallen superstars like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.

In almost every other industry good news spawns from innovation. Apple became the most valuable company in the world mainly due to innovation, just as Google has climbed into the top five for the same reason. It remains a mystery why the music industry acts like the product it sells isn't really art and that the main goal - or perhaps the only goal - is commerce. Ironically, the results of this lack of artistic vision philosophy haven't paid off.

Imagine where Apple or Google would be today if they had the attitude that "we're not really about tech, we're just about commerce." So is music really art or is it not art? Why does the industry call the acts it signs recording artists? Are the industry's products really just artless recordings?

The justification for mediocre art has always been weak, at both the radio and label levels. Obviously, every business in every industry is trying to make a buck. True, most artists don't sell. In fact, over 90 percent of all music releases never see a profit. Does that mean that the only types of music that have sold well the past twenty years should be the focus for the next twenty years?

It's funny how the term "music industry" is viewed by different groups of people. Professionals who work in the music industry tend to believe that they are the industry, or at least the gatekeepers or promoters of music. But if you ask the common music fan who the "music industry" is, they are likely to mention their favorite artists or record label logos they recognize. Yet music that makes money extends much further than what is presented on radio and television.

There are actually plenty of musicians and music teachers or other professionals who fall outside the conventional definition of "the music industry" who make their living presenting music in some way. Many of these professionals earn even more money than signed artists that are low on the hierarchy of label roster priorities. Yet it's usually just the big names in the spotlight that most people associate with the music industry. Music therapy is now a growing career field being taught at major universities, yet hardly anyone would consider a music therapist, regardless of credentials or salary, to be part of the actual "music industry."

Looking at the big picture, it's not really music that is failing these days, nor is it other types of music jobs outside the major label world that are collasping. It's the three major labels that are sinking. The main reason they are sinking in sales and credibility is that they are not proud of what they sell, nor can they justify it in a meaningful way that relates to modern consumers. All we get are the same rehashed styles by "artists" who turn out to be offkey singers who don't play instruments, dressed up with expensive recording studio processing.

The current music industry business model still makes no sense. It costs about $100,000 or more to record an album. That's interesting since not too many albums sell enough to be profitable anymore. Why isn't the focus on songs and building song libraries one song at a time? If the music industry just quit making albums and focused on singles, then release albums once the artist has ten great singles, wouldn't that make more sense than the current unprofitable system?

The problem is really the money involved. Record labels no longer sign artists based on innovation. It's now based more on whether or not someone connected with the artist has a big stack of cash to pay a label to promote their music to radio. Most people outside the music industry never think about promotion costs, which is the biggest expense to releasing an album. It often costs as much as $1 million to promote just a single to radio. That's because the label has to pay its promotion staff money to call up radio stations to beg them to play the music. It used to be labels used their own money to pay their people. But these days it's expected that a manager or some type of investor put up at least some of the promotion money.

The result of this pathetic paradigm is that marginal talents with money beat out exceptional talents wlthout money in the filtering process that happens before the music is released to the pubic by the big labels.

A great idea would be for the music industry to figure out how to not rely on the radio industry for sales. Working with tech companies would help, but after iTunes all the focus on new platforms has mainly involved streaming, which is a redundant form of radio. Another idea would be for the music industry to lower its costs by using less expensive producers. Even though artists inevitably have to pay back producers before they themselves are paid, the labels acts as a bank and pays the producer upfront, with effectively borrowed cash from another bank or with investor money so that the label itself isn't risking capital.

One of the main complaints of former pop music fans is that today's music is overproduced anyway. This overproduction does not sound innovative or even like new technology. Autotune, for example, has been around since the late 90s and has become a very stale gimmick in pop music that rarely generates profitable hits anymore. The main reason it's probably used so much - and this is no joke - is to cover up mediocre singing voices.

Finally, the music industry needs to quit pretending it is king of the musical universe. There are so many other facets to music than just the music that ends up on the radio. By aiming for 100,000 downloads or even 10,000 downloads per song, the music industry will not have to worry anymore about 1,000,000 units being the break-even point for profitability.

If the music industry doesn't like these ideas, there's always the most sensible idea of all, which is to break up the cartel of three major labels hogging the music spotlight. After all, the music industry was much more successful and diverse when several labels contributed to the global music scene before all the failed mergers of the late nineties. There is no reason why three big money losers should get to control the world music scene. Demerging into 10 or 20 labels would create better competition, better music and most likely better sales.

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