At its most basic level, music is simply a series of amplitudes and frequencies that make human beings move and vocalise in diverse and strange ways. However, like all other forms of human expression and entertainment, it is now a commodity. This commodity is now packaged to be sold, streamed, licensed and advertised to us. The people who distribute the music define our experience with this basic human commodity. These days there’s very little you can do to hear music without interacting with a third party of some kind, short of listening to a friend play guitar in your living room (as long as he’s lot playing from sheet music, royalties abound). The distributors are gatekeepers, and we’re going to explore how drastically their power is waning in the modern age.
The History of Our Ears
I’m Coming To You, Wirelessly
The Golden Age of Radio was dominated by those broadcast corporations: NBC, CBS, ABC. Almost as soon as radio was an established consumer technology, a few corporations had control of the airwaves. Not unlike today, the broadcasts alternated between musical performance and news announcements. These broadcasts were often live at first, and they were expensive to produce as they were re-performed for multiple time zones. Bands and studios had to be paid up for long periods of time. In a move that seems foreign to us today, the broadcasters didn’t allow advertising for a long time. Instead, the broadcasters were paid by their partnership with General Electric, AT&T, and the Radio Corporation of America. These companies attempted to set up a self-sufficient monopoly. Consumers wanted the content that the broadcasters supplied, but to get the content they needed a radio; it was perfect. It’s easiest to wrap one’s head around the crux of the issue with a simple question: Who controls what I can listen to? In this case, there’s a very obvious group of companies who have utter control over what people can hear through the only available means other than physically standing in the same room as the performers. For everybody but the musicians and the fans, these were the good old days. There was little to no way to circumvent the quagmire of royalty management, licensing and regulations that the radio execs had set up.
Sign The Damn Contract
Radio’s Golden age declined with the rise of prerecorded broadcasts. As recording media got more affordable, and importantly, of better quality, networks were allowed to broadcast performances and even entire shows that weren’t being performed live. Ignoring the claims the this was the end of quality radio content, there’s a brand new category of content to be commoditised: recordings. Being far more manageable than the ethereal live broadcast, and therefore easier to monetise, the recording gathered a flock of executives figuring out how to control the situation.
From this attention were born the record labels. The labels set up the paradigm of music distribution that we know today. Any band who were ‘making the big time’ simply had to have recordings, and these were made through an agent: the label. The caveat that sums up a lot of what is wrong with this model is spliced into the process here. The label owns the recording, not the musician. This is something that accept today, that it is only right that the organisation who enable musicians to have their works known to world own those works. I want to be clear: it’s wrong.
There’s a phrase, coined by Adolf Hitler in his book, Mein Kampf that was often used internally in the government of the Third Reich, and later used to condemn the Nazis in the OSS’s psychological profile of the Führer. The phrase, as used by Goebbels goes something like:
Tell a lie big enough and often enough, and nobody will challenge its veracity.
It is this reasoning by hegemony that landed the record label a firm position as gatekeeper between the consumer and the music they sought. Artists no longer had any real ownership of their own work. There was a series of for-profit organisations that handled artistic commodities, which by their nature need careful consideration. However, as for-profit organisations are want to do, they squeezed every last penny out of the commodity, at the expense of both the artist and the consumer.
It is this behaviour that leads to the ten rereleases of classic albums, to deluxe editions that come with a poster. The same attitudes are why an artist receives, on average, half a penny out of the seventy-nine pence you’re charged on the iTunes store for a song. The many middle-men can’t be blamed for doing what makes their shareholders happy, but it is the system that is to blame. The arrangement of all the moving parts ensure that everybody who loves music suffers.
A Love Note to the RIAA
The Recording Industry Association of America (est. 1952) is the pseudo-judicial trade organisation that constitutes the co-operative efforts of the big record labels to ensure that their methods of distributive control are not circumvented. The RIAA and the organisations worldwide that it inspired have made it their job to suppress the organic expression and enjoyment of music by forcing consumers and artists into the paradigm that maximises profits for the middle-men of the music industry. The RIAA influenced important legislative in the country that leads the world’s intellectual property law, directly against music lovers’ interests.
As happens in every technology, time rolled forward, and the form factor changed. The advent of the cassette tape failed to budge the majority of the audiophile population, but gained incredible traction with others because of its compact form factor. Suddenly, people were shoving their glove boxes full of cassette tapes and driving their music wherever they wanted. They were buying Sony Walkmans and running all over the place, taking their music with them. This did little to bother the music industry oligarchs, they still had control over the manufacture and distribution of the tapes and the system had to do little to adapt to the new medium.
However, the pure simplicity and accessibility of the medium had a side effect that the music industry wasn’t ready for. The mix tape was a home-recorded cassette tape that contained a compilation of the creator’s favourite tracks, or perhaps a mix made for a lover or a friend. They could be made by hooking up a tape recorder to an audio source, most often the radio or somebody else’s tape or record player. Both of those options ruffle the feathers of record execs. People are now able to create new instances of a recording, almost out of thin air. If your friend comes round a loves an album that you’ve got playing, you can just record them a tape with their favourite tracks from it.
This was seen as a disaster for the record labels and distributors because they were losing their monopolistic grasp on the means of distribution. All of a sudden, any regular Joe could make recordings of music without paying Polygram a penny. The liberating sensation of this process lead to a kind of grass-roots remixing culture that was incredibly ubiquitous. Everybody was suddenly a disc jockey to anyone who wanted to listen.
To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. Rob Gordon, High Fidelity (2000)
What were the record companies to do? Nobody was stealing anything, the originals were still there, people had bought those. People had bought the radios they recorded from, they paid their taxes that in turn paid for radio licensing fees. The industry had to come up with a new vocabulary to persecute this behaviour; Piracy was born. We will return to the issue of piracy later on.
Video Killed The Radio Star
Television grew up alongside radio. The first devices to transmit images over the air weren’t far behind those for audio, and yet the television revolution didn’t come until much later. Like with radio, corporations were very quick to monetise the broadcast of music. The same strictures were applied to what could be broadcast, and what had to be paid to various parties in order to do so. Music came to ply the spaces in between moving image. Before the talkies, every piece of video was accompanied simply by music. Up to today, television shows use music to great effect — augmenting the emotional weight of their stories and even news reports. Despite this essential symbiotic relationship, true pairing of music and television didn’t come until MTV.
Richard Lester, the director of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love is credited with inventing the music video. However the music video lacked any real traction, lacking any channel to be distributed to the masses. The popularisation of cable television allowed for the founding of MTV, a channel dedicated to the broadcast of music videos, supporting by commercials. The music video revolution seemed to be a modern reboot of the radio broadcast. With the addition of exciting and aggressively edited video, streams of music were being piped into everybody’s lives once more. A redoubled emphasis was placed on ‘the charts’ as MTV programming was structured around sequences of music videos, ranked by arbitrary importance (in fact a puppet show performed by music labels). The execs were shaken, but had quickly readjusted to the new landscape; they maintained control.
The Internet Is Singing
I won’t bore you with the story of the creation of the consumer-facing internet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story if you read into it, but it’s just not the topic of this article. Suffice it to say, the internet blew the doors off pretty much every industry imaginable. Any commerce based on the packaging and trading of data through a physical means was shaken to the core in a new world where data moves faster and cheaper over cable than courier service.
The internet’s architects were scientists, concerned solely with the speedy, cheap, and accessible communication of data that could be free to the world. That is terrifying prospect for the music industry, as more and more consumers got online. They were given a couple of years grace as the technology raced to catch up with the potential of the internet (something it is still doing today). The first consumer-facing computers lacked an interface for compact discs, or the storage capacity to hold substantial amounts of data. But soon, the first clashes between the creativity of the masses and the profiteering of the few began to take place on this new battleground. Individuals making their first web sites were taken to court over rudimental imitations of popular songs that played on their pages.
These first court cases were an attempt to hang the pirates from the city gates for all to see. The effort was commendable from the record labels, but they had no idea of the storm that they were about to experience. It is at this point in history, in my opinion, that the music industry truly lost its stranglehold on the technologies capable of distributing media, and the audiences consuming it. Since the crucial moment that online music became a viable option for the average consumer, the industry has been playing desperate catchup, slicing heads off the hydra in a blind panic. The crucial moment? MP3.
MP3 is simply a file format amongst many others. The format is highly compressed, but retains an impressive amount of audio fidelity. The small file size of MP3 converged with the cheap manufacture of larger and larger capacity storage devices, and gave birth to internet music. Before full adoption, the ecosystem needed a third technology: CD drives capable of ripping songs from discs. Now people were copying their music from their CD collection and setting it free. They could listen to it on their home computers, or they could copy it onto any one of a new raft of portable MP3 players.
Soon, the companies caught up. RealMedia was among the first to seize the portable audio file and turn it into a profitable commodity. Their proprietary audio codec ruled the space for at least a couple of years, a long time for a company to hold on in the tempestuous early years of the commercial internet. The RealPlayer was, for many, the sole portal to the world of online music commerce. The average consumer was unlikely to even conceive of an alternative, a true hegemony on the commercialised MP3.
Enter Napster, to ruin everybody’s day — well, just the music industry’s day actually. A tiny software startup at first, Napster used the new technology of peer-to-peer filesharing specifically for sharing MP3s. This was a rebirth of those cassette mix tapes, but on an enormous scale. At its peak, 80 million people, many of them college students, were registered with the service. They were easily sharing music, and completely circumventing the control of the original distributors. In the ethereal, distributed network of P2P sharing, nobody was accountable. The music industry couldn’t stand for this. A series of suits were lodged by individual labels against the company, but they were easily settled by the incredibly successful startup. Eventually though, the full might of the RIAA landed on Napster and the service died.
1000 Songs In Your Pocket
January 9th 2001, sunny Cupertino, California: Steve Jobs speaks to an impassioned audience of press. In this keynote speech, he introduces iTunes and the iPod. Where others made inroads, Apple annihilate. All of a sudden, the MP3 player was a sexy item. Everyone and their mother was using an expertly walled ecosystem to browse and buy music. RealPlayer and its competitors, by comparison, looked like an amateur attempt at commanding the online music space. Apple’s breakthrough made it easier for the consumer to buy legally than finding and downloading illegally. To some extent, this is still true today. iTunes sales figures are incredible. To this day, no other online MP3 store has beaten their numbers. However, even the most convenient paid service could not vanquish the spectre of convenient and ubiquitous piracy. The growth of internet piracy has never faltered since its birth. Not through all of the scaremongering prosecutions and fines has the number of casual pirates faltered. The battle to extract money from people who have an easy and free alternative way to obtain the music they like, rages on.
A Brave New Dawn
Today, the focus of online music monetisation has split. The internet radio concept has grown and evolved into something far more palatable to the average user, and in doing so has claimed a good portion of the world’s ears. Services like Spotify, Pandora and Last.fm pay their royalties by play, rather than purchase. Users can participate in a noncommittal paradigm that allows them to listen to, but never own, an infinite library of music on the web. Make no mistake, the same record companies have managed to wedge themselves between the consumer and the artist in order to suck some money out of the stream. The real groundbreakers are the services that allow the artist to reach their audience directly. BandCamp allows an artist to record their music independently and sell it directly to their audience, with the tiniest cut taken by the service themselves. There’s no contract signing; no record label taking the lion’s share of the profits. SoundCloud allows for an internet radio-like service, but with an artist uploading their songs on one end, and users listening to them on the other — no cuts are taken by anybody. Sure, there is still a layer between the artists and their audience, but increasingly that layer is extraordinarily thin and transparent.
Many artists don’t even rely on the PR skills of record labels to ‘make it big’ any more. New music aggregators like The Hype Machine allow the crowd to make their judgement on tracks, pushing them into, or out of, the limelight. Gone are the days of the omnipotent puppeteers. I now have to really think hard about the last time I bought a track from iTunes, let alone in a physical medium. My library is full of music either downloaded for free from bands eager to spread love for their work (who have realised the real money is made in ticket and vinyl sales) or straight from PirateBay.
The systems of obfuscation that have allowed companies squeeze themselves between the music and its audience are falling away. Record labels have realised this, and until fairly recently, been able to keep up and adapt to the change. Now though, they are struggling. I don’t feel bad for pirating music. I don’t want to give any help to the badly beaten, old regime of big record labels. Besides, half the acts I go to see live now suggest that I get their music however I can. That has always been the true wish of the artist. Hear my music any way you can. I hope you like it.