My Plan to Bail Out the Record Industry

Well, I guess Steve Jobs is going to save the world. Apple just opened up the iTunes Music Store. “Only” 99 cents per song download. I mean … this issue is getting old. People who have attended college in the last five years know that we will likely never have to pay for any music ever again. If you have a fast enough connection and a DVD burner, you soon won’t need to buy a DVD or a video game ever again.

Hmm. Video games. Maybe the music industry should change the music standards every five years or so. You know, how Nintendo, Sony (and Microsoft) release a new video game system every five years. Make the quality so much better that players released just five years previous become totally obsolete. So you can get all your music for free, but if you want to listen to it in your car or in your stereo, you’ll need to upgrade the critical digital audio component. Cost every five years? $200.

For this to work the technology would really have to innovate every five years. And that’s a problem, because will the average person really ever appreciate the difference between, say, CD audio and DVD audio? Probably not. I mean, if you compare the quality of a VHS movie to a DVD movie, you can tell the difference. They’re saying now that blue laser DVDs will bring an even greater leap in picture quality than DVDs brought. I’m not sure I buy it. To keep consumers buying, the collective entertainment industries are going to have to not just improve what’s already available, but actually add new features. Video games are very close to reaching the point where technical innovation no longer matters. PS3 games will look better than PS2 games, but will PS4 games really look any better than PS3 games? What then?

In Fahrenheit 451 households didn’t have televisions — they had video walls. People could have video on one wall, or two, or three, or all four. I think TV will eventually get to that point, and movies and video games will have the luxury of playing catch-up to technology for a while. Still, it’s taking forever to switch from NTSC to High Definition Television. And once we switch, no one’s going to want to buy Super HDTV or whatever ten years later.

This conversation could really go on forever. People are always going to want something better. And they’re not going to want to pay more for something that’s just as good. The problem with music is that it’s just audio. At the same time, that’s why people love it. You can read while listening to music, you can run or work out while listening to music, you can drive your car while listening to music. Music is separated from books, from video games, from television and movies because it is so portable. And because of new technologies, it is literally transportable for free.

I’ll bet you’ve heard an argument for file swapping that sounds something like this: “If you wanted Stephen King’s latest book, you wouldn’t want to buy a box full of his last ten books. But if you want Eminem‘s latest song, you’ve got to buy an album with is latest ten or so songs.” Eh. You know what? I don’t know if it holds up. You can buy singles. Still, they are usually on tape, which isn’t as good. But does anybody want to keep stacks of CD singles? No. One of the things I like least about CDs is the space they take up. Yeah, they’re flat, but stack ten of them and you’ve got a nice little bundle that will tip over pretty easily. In the digital world, buying a package of data is inconvenient. You don’t want the packaging — you just want the data. The problem is, you can get the data for free. It’s like the cow/milk line — why buy the package if you get the data for free?

I’ve read that Paul McCartney had the biggest dollar intake of all musical tours worldwide last year. Paul McCartney? The reason why? Because people who grew up with The Beatles now make up the wealthiest age division. People in their forties and fifties are generally the people who are the most financially comfortable but still energetic enough to leave the house. So Paul McCartney is the hottest ticket in town. And now, people in our twenties refuse to pay for music? What does that mean? Paul McCartney is going to be big for a while. Let’s face it, kids — There’s never gonna be another Beatles. There’s never gonna be another Michael Jackson (before he became white). Teenage and preteen girls will buy five copies of N*Sync’s latest CD because “Justin Timberlake is so hot!” Even Eminem appeals to that crowd. In one song Eminem even says, “I go on TRL/look how many hugs I get.” He may not have intended to appeal to that crowd, but would he be selling as many CDs if he didn’t? No way.

So now we look at current big artists like N*Sync, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears, and we all want to puke because they are so saccharin and so deliberately crafted to be money-making machines. But people who like those artists buy CDs to “support their artist.” Hey, I’ll admit — I bought Eminem’s last CD to support my artist. I don’t know if I’ve listened to The Eminem Show all the way through five times since I bought it. But if he comes out with another album, I’ll almost certainly buy that one too. But the record industry appeals to the 11-15 crowd because they buy CDs. (God, where am I going with this?)

I’m trying to make one big point here, but there is no one big point. It’s a big picture. Record companies promote artists that aren’t very serious because the biggest CD buyers are 11-15 year old girls, and they don’t like music that’s too serious. So 18-26 year olds think that the stuff plastered all over TRL is crap, and for the most part, we’re right. In turn, we’re more than willing to say “f— you” to a music industry that has largely abandoned us. Therefore, we download rather than buy music we like, sales for our music decline even further, and the record industry invests even less money into the talent we really appreciate.

It seems like the point I’ve reached is that to improve sales, the record industry has to appeal to the demographic with the most disposable income: 18-26 year olds. Hell, I bought all three of Eminem’s CDs even though I had more than enough access to file-swapping services. Lewis bought the Tool CD that had all the transparent pages in the liner (but let’s admit, he would have bought it if the liner was a one-page photocopy). I recall Morash buying Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water (sorry, Chino). Brown still buys NOFX CDs. (Never mind. NOFX sucks.) Of course, there will be people like Smiz … I don’t know if he’s purchased a CD in the last three years.

Anyway, I think the point is that the music industry has to appeal to the 18-26 crowd, and they’ve got to release CDs with 7-10 good songs instead of 2 or 3 good songs, and they’ve got to produce music that is honestly better. Sales might never be as good as they were, but if that’s the case, then cut costs! I used to listen to REM, but they never needed an $80 million contract. You want to talk about artists starving because the slump in sales is making it harder to get new contracts? How many contracts did Warner Brothers cancel after they spent $80 million on REM? It’s the same with US commercial airlines — not making a profit? Cut costs! Stop paying CEOs $40 million a year!


My Plan to Bail Out the Record Industry