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The future of the music industry

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The music industry isn’t the same that it used to be. I am old enough to have bought new albums on vinyl and witnessed the rise and decline of the CDs, as Mp3s and other digital formats (and digital piracy) became the norm. With young people increasingly needing to be mobile and some living in smaller and smaller spaces, it’s no wonder that owning music as an object isn’t a priority for many these days. I’ve also seen vinyl rise again as a niche format for music lovers and collectors, some because they sound so much better, others as an aesthetical and lifestyle affirmation (aka hipsters). I remember the rise and fall of Napster and how Metallica brought it down in a much publicised lawsuit, and how that paved the way for the current preferred way for listening to music for most people – streaming.

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Streaming platforms were launched as an alternative to P2P file sharing (Soulseek, anyone?) and a way for people to access music online legally. What could possibly go wrong? When you go on Spotify or Pandora, you have thousands upon thousands of songs and artists at your fingertips, that you can access at any time, without getting fined or thrown in jail. It’s cheap and convenient – you don’t even have to pay if you don’t want to, all you have to do is listen to some adverts every now and then, as they do on Spotify. However, all this ease isn’t all that good for the artists, culminating with some artists refusing to share their catalogues on Spotify or criticising it openly – some examples are David Byrne, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Aimee Mann, among many more.

What seems to be the problem then? One would think that an innovation such as these services would be a welcome alternative against piracy. Some income is better than no income and some people wouldn’t pay for it anyway… The New York Post reported that Spotify, with their 60 million users, project that it will pay top record label Universal Music Group $1 billion in royalties over the next two years.). However, it seems that these figures are highly inflated and over optimistic as the “Ad-funded on-demand is not going to sustain the entire ecosystem of the creators as well as investors,” Universal CEO Lucien Grainge tells the New York Post.

It turns out this business model is only good for the customer and the record companies, as there isn’t enough money trickling down to the artists. If artists don’t get paid enough, how can we expect them to keep producing their art? Some argue that this kind of service allows for other more obscure or indie artists to be discovered by listeners, which would have otherwise remained unknown. This argument isn’t enough for the majority of artists as even the big guys don’t seem to be able to make ends meet on Spotify pay. David Byrne in particular even goes as far as saying:

Many musicians like her (St Vincent), who seem to be well established, well known and very talented, will eventually have to find employment elsewhere or change what they do to make more money. Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim. A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business. That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger. Many a fan (myself included) has said that “music saved my life”, so there must be some incentive to keep that lifesaver available for future generations.

So what is the solution? Some suggest selling merchandise, getting your music on adverts or just selling more live show tickets. While these suggestions are good, they’re simply not enough. The bottom line is, for an industry with different stakeholders, everyone in the crowd needs to be taken into consideration. Everyone’s interests have to be covered, otherwise it will eventually just fizzle and die and who wants to live in a world without music?

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