Thursday, February 18, 2010

Digital Music Business FAQ - The Mainstream - February 18, 2010

The Mainstream

George Gavin asks:

Do you believe that as the recording industry continues to lose money, and may eventually fold, that a popular mainstream will be able to survive in the face of millions of bands and no superstar to represent them? I know you say that the music world is waiting for a superstar, but there is no guarantee it will come (I think).

Hartmann responds:

The postmodern record business is in a state of explosion. All the pieces of shrapnel are flying toward the perimeter at the speed of light. As the old reliable systems and mechanics break down confusion remains for the survivors. Massive staff cuts at the big four labels are justified by the revenues lost to peer-to-peer file sharing, a cultural phenomenon that is not going to go away.

The label A&R, publicity, promotion, video and marketing divisions barely exist. Most remaining employees are at the executive level. They are charged with "saving" the record business. But they don't know what to do and it cannot be salvaged by trying to revive the compact disk. The CD will be sold by artists to their fans and it will be more of a souvenir than a music source. Most hard copy record sales will occur as a gesture of support generated by fans at the band's live events.

When no genre is ubiquitous all genres become viable. There is no mainstream music market. Every artist must project his music and live act toward the core audience that follows his particular style and musical niche. If a band cannot dominate its genre, it will never generate crossover appeal to fans of other styles. This is actually a good thing. It means that if you are truly talented, you can market to the group most likely to embrace your music and build a following.

The record companies had their day and they abused their power. Now, neither the fans nor the bands care much about what happens to them. They will continue to shrink and eventually become licensing and downloading systems with very little infrastructure. The labels will continue to push the few artists they do sign into the radio system but as the buyers disappear selling CDs will not be a profitable enough venture to survive. Bands will sell directly to the fans.

Perhaps the digital sword will cut even deeper into the record business and all the catalogs of masters will be sold or licensed to the phone companies, ISPs or new ventures formed specifically to exploit mid level artists and old product. The superstars will probably avoid the big four labels altogether and deal directly with the distribution systems. The high cost of developing baby bands will make the labels second stage players who will try to buy acts that can succeed on their own.

Every major historical advance in the music business has revolved around a superstar emerging in synch with changes in technology. Nobody is debating that the influence of dgimodernization has had a profound effect on the music industry. The loss of a primary income stream has forced artists back to the drawing board. They must now survive the old fashioned way, by excelling at the symbiotic art and science of performing and recording. A universal star could still emerge.

It is reasonable to assume that many of the Guitar Hero fans will graduate to real instruments. With sophisticated music programs available at most universities it is logical that college kids will learn many more chords than the three Elvis Presley used to generate his career. These young musicians are not going to graduate from college and give up. Music business curricula will teach them how to market and brand their product. The realistic progression for the next era in music is that quality would rise to previously unimagined heights. From this collegiate rock movement a new universal star could rise, or not. Perhaps music itself is THE superstar of the digital age.


Greg Nisbet said...

"When no genre is ubiquitous all genres become viable."

Nice line. Genre bleed is for me one of the most interesting aspects of today's music business. Music's new influencers curate based on an entirely different set of standards from a much broader base of music, and, as you imply in the last line of your post, that can only be a good thing.

Suzanne Lainson said...

Combining the two trends of user-generated content and increased sophistication of technology (enabling more people to create, record, and distribute music), I think it is quite possible that more people will aspire to become musicians themselves and move beyond merely being fans. So we'll have the music money pie getting sliced up in to smaller and smaller pieces. If there are future music superstars, as this article suggests, I anticipate that their reigns will be short. There will be a steady stream of people we watch on YouTube for a few weeks or months, and then we'll be on to someone else.

The democratization of music will likely be better for society as a whole, though it will make it harder for individuals to make money from music alone.