Saturday, August 1, 2009

RIP Recorded Music Industry

In this morning's New York Times, Charles M. Blow describes the decimation of the music industry, noting in particular how teenagers are using streaming services rather than purchasing music. As he says, "They’re moving from an acquisition model to an access model."

I found this statistic truly amazing -- bordering on the unbelievable:
A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.
Really? 10 million songs that not a single person bought? (I did not look at the actual study to confirm the number.)

Where does the trend lead us? Will people be opting not to pursue music as a profession because they cannot sell albums or songs? Or will people continue to put out music but just be more oriented toward doing so as a hobby rather than a profession? (There are some pretty talented people that you've never heard of floating around YouTube, for instance.) The information age, after all, does seem to be about providing for free those things that people used to pay for (e.g. news, intelligent commentary on music).

One question that I have is when we will see ticket prices for live music rise to compensate for the fall in album and song sales. My stomach gets grumbly whenever I'm forking over more than $15 for a concert, but if performers are making money only through performing, then these prices will at some point have to rise.

But it really is a simple supply-and-demand issue. Insofar as there are a lot of people out there making music, then the equilibrium price for a concert given by the average performer is going to stay pretty low. (Also, there is competition from other forms of entertainment. Am I going to pay $30 to see a show if I've got a Netflix DVD arriving in the mail?)

So I'm still wrestling with the implications. Is the quality of music available going to decline? I don't think so. I think that the ego rents -- the non-monetary rewards to being a songwriter and performer -- are too great. People will want to play just for the pleasure of playing, even if the money is bad. But will the number of people who can do music as their full-time gig decline? That might be the case.

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