Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The Future of the Music Industry Is Now
By Cory Treffiletti In case you missed it -- and you very well may have missed it, because it happened awfully quickly -- the Web has finally become a legitimate channel for the promotion and distribution of music, and the music industry is finally embracing this fact. Of course, this can be debated, since the Web also pretty much killed the record industry at the very same time.
This struck me while watching the Grammys this year. The award for Best Rap Album went to Lil Wayne. Wayne had the top-selling album of 2008, selling 2.88 million copies of "Tha Carter III," followed by Coldplay with 2.15 million. This is amazing in two distinct ways; first, because Lil Wayne built his reputation by giving away hundreds of hours of music through mix tapes and other online methods in order to establish a fan base, and followed it up with a whimsical array of beats and rhymes on a legitimate label release, netting the biggest, most ubiquitous album of the year. It's also amazing that for the very first time since tracking album sales started under the current model in 1991, the number-one album didn't clear 3 million copies.
The biggest single first week album sales record goes to 'N Sync (don't laugh), as they sold 2.4 million copies of "No Strings Attached" during its first week in 2000, but since then the numbers have fallen across the board. All that being said, way back in 2000 the music business was just plain different. When you bought an album, you were more than likely buying it for one single song -- or maybe a couple -- and the rest was filler. Nowadays, with iTunes leading the way for digital downloads, most artists are happy enough to sell singles. Artists like Smashing Pumpkins have been releasing single songs rather than albums, and in some cases they're giving them away (much like Hyundai's recent giveaway of the Smashing Pumpkins song in its TV spot during the Super Bowl).
What has finally happened is that some artists, if not their labels, are waking up to the idea that the Web can be used to hone their craft, build a fan base and promote their music. Lil Wayne gave away hours and hours of material for free, proving his own prolific status as a maniacal musician and allowing anyone who wanted to hear him to get a taste of his style. In doing so, he also perfected his craft and became a better artist by weeding through the process in public and inviting his fans to come along for the ride! By the time he was ready to put out another proper release, he'd become the self-proclaimed "best rapper alive" -- a title than can certainly be argued, but at least he makes a case for it.
Other artists focus on standard Web sites like MySpace music or their own official sites to get out their music. If you're established enough, you can do it, but it takes time and it takes effort and it takes a lot of arguing with the suits that still represent the labels. Artists like Pearl Jam (I couldn't go an entire article on music without mentioning them) are talking about emulating Radiohead and releasing their own music through their own sites. These levels of artists don't need a label anymore. The fan base is large and they have the wherewithal to get it done, so why not go this route?
This leaves the labels and the industry itself flailing a bit and testing out every new model under the sun (which is a good thing). They are testing paid downloads, subscription services, ad-supported streaming, ad-supported and ad-integrated P2P download services -- and in so doing, they're rewriting the rules for the future.
The rules for the future of the music industry are astonishingly simple:
If the industry pays attention, it will survive, albeit in a slimmer, more efficient model than the fat-cat days of the 80s and early 90s. I'm pulling for it and so, probably, are you! Now go buy a song and stimulate the economy!
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Cory is president and managing partner for Catalyst SF.
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