Alex Swain asks:
One of the historical purposes of record companies was to get an artist airtime on radio. As fewer people listen to the radio, it appears there is little future left for the record companies. People have merely transitioned to a new form of radio over the Internet. Pandora and similar sites allow listeners to custom tailor a radio station for themselves. What might this hold in store for record companies and artists alike? Is this a viable alternative to illegal downloads?
Back in the sixties, the postmodern record business was born from the marriage of FM Radio and 331/3 rpm albums; The Beatles were the superstars. The meteoric rise of "The Fab Four" combined with a rebellious mind set in the youth, to create a peace and justice counter culture in America. Everybody under thirty carried a chip on his shoulder about the government's failure to protect Kennedy. Every high school senior was vulnerable to getting drafted and sent to Viet Nam. The war carnage was all over the television news every night. An entire generation rejected the establishment, embraced the world of music and rallied around its message of peace and love.
When The Beatles offered to hold our hands, we took theirs. As they turned on, so did we; as they tuned in, so did we; and when they dropped out, we followed. The flag that inspired an alternate society to rise, fight and win a war against the Viet Nam war was music. The commercial exploitation of that music created the postmodern record business as we know it. By consolidating the record industry down to four music monoliths the major labels tightened their choke hold on AM and FM radio.
The radio airwaves will always exist and the broadcasters will always adapt to the programming that attracts an audience. Since the antiquarian record business, popular music has steadily advanced as a very important presence on radio. The cost of billions of hours of airplay were absorbed by the record companies and the artists. Broadcasters paid songwriters and publishers for the use of the music, but they got the records from the labels and artists for free. As radio loses the ability to affect CD sales, it will adjust its format in order to survive.
The business of getting a record on the radio is cold, cruel and expensive. Historically, the mechanics of record promotion have been corrupted by various forms of "payola." This is one of the least healthy areas of the business today. Radio & Records magazine, long the bible of airplay, announced they are shutting down their business. If the labels don't put out records, everything else collapses. This is acerbated further as the radio audience continues to shift toward the iPod.
The good news is that Internet Radio is a burgeoning business. There are several viable sources providing on line radio services. Rhapsody is particularly popular as a customized listening post for members who pay a subscription fee to create their own play lists. Satellite radio offers a wide variety of popular genre and niche sources for a monthly charge. The myspace.com and youtube.com systems allow millions of artists to present their music free of charge. There are newer forms of advertising based, on line methods of distributing music like Q-Trax.com where free downloads are offered in exchange for viewing a paid commercial announcement.
Many musicians who have advanced careers in the professional realm, provide their music as downloads and offer CDs on their personal web sites. Often this music is given away for free in order to attract a fan base. Some of the service providers will survive and grow into long term institutions. They will become cornerstones of the music acquisition practices in the digital age. Other systems will fall by the wayside and end up as good ideas that couldn't sustain a viable business model. Regardless of which methods dominate and prevail, Internet Radio will continue to grow as a primary source for listening, sharing and purchasing records in The Music Renaissance.
The transition from the finite world of terrestrial radio to the infinite resource of cyber-space is good for the artists and bad for the record companies. The ability to present one's music to a global audience at virtually no charge, puts record promotion in the hands of the bands and the fans. The best kind of advertising is word of mouth, or as in the current trend, texting. The record companies can no longer dictate what is going to be popular.
Music lovers are free to explore and discover the songs they value and appreciate from an endless supply. The challenge to artists and entrepreneurs is how to monetize a business where the purchase of the primary product is a matter of choice not necessity. Internet radio will go through many changes, as new distribution concepts come and go. Piracy and peer-to-peer file sharing will remain the most popular acquisition methods. Artists will depend on their personal appearance income to survive and the fans will decide what music will become popular.