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A musician friend of mine who releases his albums on his own label recently asked me, “What about the little record company, like mine? If people can get all my songs for free, then who will buy the CD?”
My heart just about sank when I heard this question coming from him. I didn’t expect it to come from someone who is a religious reader of this column, a personal friend, and frequent correspondent. But I wasn’t surprised, considering how much the major media has regurgitated the RIAA line that P2P file-sharing is killing the music industry. If you believe the often quoted line that sales are down 31% in the last three years, a period in which Internet down-loading of songs has become a world-wide phenomenon, it’s easy to make the assumption that P2P is the cause. And that the tough road which artists who are promoting and selling their own wares engage in will become even tougher. But is that a legitimate assumption? Or is that as big a leap as saying birds can’t fly because pigs have a monopoly on air space? Here’s a few observations from an unbiased observer.
The Single factor: A number of years back the major labels stated that singles weren’t profitable and made an (un)conscious decision to kill the format. They claimed that singles lost money and were only used as a promotional tool for albums. The truth of the matter was that singles weren’t as profitable, so why settle for 3 or 4 bucks when you could squeeze the public out of 17 or 18 for an album. After all, in CD format, the manufacturing costs of both were about the same. Tom Petty took his label at its word and said if singles were a promotional tool that lost money, then he would put his next one up on his web site for free. With no manufacturing costs, his label wouldn’t “lose” money if he promoted his album that way. This was several years before P2P technology. The label demanded an immediate retraction of the MP3 from his site and their true goals were exposed. Any customer that wanted the one song would just have to pay $17 for it whether they liked the rest of the album or not.
The Dumb factor: So what do the majors market in an era of few singles? Acts specializing in singles. Boy bands. Pop tunes. The most frequently named artist in the RIAA subpoenas by far was Avril Lavigne. The second was Michael Jackson. Let me clue the record industry in on something here. If you weren’t one of the 50 gazillion people that bought the Thriller album in the almost two decades since its release, you ain’t gonna buy it in 2003 just to get “Billie Jean.” Consider that Madonna, Pink, and Lil’ Romeo made the list. Now consider that Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane didn’t.
The Deaf factor: Aw hell. This one doesn’t need explaining.
The Blind factor: Downloads were in full swing in 2001 when industry wide sales of singles in the United States totaled a little over 2 million units. The pitiful showing was due to one thing and one thing only. The major labels weren’t releasing any singles. But the industry just wouldn’t budge when it came to entering the download market. A few more singles were released last year and sales doubled to over 5 million. Still no movement on the majors part other than a few over-priced and poorly configured download sites which were label affiliated and exclusive. Enter iTunes this year. In 3 months iTunes has sold over 10 million downloads at a dollar a pop. The thing to consider here is that iTunes is currently only available to MAC users, an infinitesimally small portion of the home computer market. AND iTunes isn’t part of the world wide net. Their sales are limited to customers in the U.S. I think what is illustrated is that greed will blind you from reality. Toni Basil, Kajagoogoo, and Hooked On Classics all made money for the industry. They didn’t do it by selling albums. People aren’t going to pay album prices for one-hit wonders or career popsters.
The “lie-through-your-teeth” factor: The RIAA says sales are down 31% as if the 5 major labels were the only record labels in existence. No doubt that sales are down significantly for them. They released 25% fewer new releases during the slump. Take into account that the economy has been in the toilet for much of that time and average incomes continue to slide and the other 6% doesn’t seem to be out of line for an industry that sells exclusively non-essentials. Which brings us to…
The youth factor: The first jobs to go in a sliding economy are the ones held by teens and young adults, the primary focus audience for the majors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that “in July 2003, the labor force participation rate for young men (16-24 years of age), which has declined steadily since 1995, was at its lowest July point on record, 70.0 percent. The July 2003 participation rate for young women was 64.5 percent, the lowest it has been since 1975.” So why is it that the majors, always looking at things in terms of “markets”, continue to ignore the multitude of older artists with followings ranging in age from 30-90 (save a stable of proven million sellers with major label careers dating back to the Jurassic age)? For one thing older artists have been around the block and don’t look at label contracts the same way a starry-eyed youth might. Either assume that those artists are too smart to be coaxed into slavery contracts or refer back to the dumb factor.
The Indie factor: About a dozen independent music stores were questioned while preparing this article. They were about evenly split on whether or not their businesses had increased or decreased over the last 3 years. But none stated anywhere close to a 31% hit. ALL stated that they had an increase in sales of independent releases during that period. Most stated that major label releases were moving in the direction of the Wooly Mammoth. The most successful operations stated community involvement, a move toward local talent and independent releases, and (get this) an increased focus on import singles not available in the U.S. as reasons for increased sales. In the most extreme example, Doyle Davis, co-owner of Grimey’s Pre-Loved Music in Nashville, states a whopping 250% increase in sales over the last year. A lot of the store’s success is attributed to co-owner Mike Grimes’ strong ties to the local music scene (he played in the Bis-Quits and Bare Jr and owns Nashville’s Slow Bar) and Davis’ extensive knowledge of music (he worked for the Great Escape, the leading used CD/comics store in town for 15 years). Plus a healthy stock of indie rock, classic funk (Davis’ fave) and reggae (think Lee Scratch Perry) along with local artists. With major label execs making tens of millions of dollars a year to steer their corporations into the dumpster, I wonder what a pair like Davis and Grimes would be worth to deliver just one year like that.
The price factor: You can buy a DVD of an old movie at Walmart for $6.88. A re-issued catalog CD costs twice that. If it has been re-mixed and re-mastered and some fluff thrown into the packaging it can cost three times as much. Tough choice when the consumer is contemplating where to spend their entertainment dollar? Think not.
All of this brings us back to my good friend’s concerns. He was on a major label at one time. He never made a dime off the deal. If he makes a dime on his own, he’s 10 cents ahead. He makes great records. He’ll never sell 500,000 copies of one though. There is a multitude of reasons for that and none of them have to do with P2P downloads. As Janis Ian has pointed out, there’s plenty of free water available but bottled water is still a huge industry.
That 12-year-old girl in New York that the RIAA sued last week lived in low-income public housing. How many 18-dollar CDs does the RIAA think she’s going to buy? Lost income? I don’t think so. Lost opportunity? You bet.
(Rev. Keith A. Gordon contributed to this article.)
Alt.Culture.Guide–The Journal of (Un)Popular Culture (Rev. Keith A. Gordon with BILL GLAHN, Anthem Pop/Kult Publishing) may be purchased online from Sound Products.