I pose the title of this blog post as a question because in researching this topic it is hard to know what to believe. I guess it all depends on who you listen to. According to The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) from their website “Since peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing site Napster emerged in 1999, music sales in the U.S. have dropped 53 percent”. [Citation] In another article RIAA states that album shipments in 1973 totaled 388.2 million units. [Citation] Contrast that with The Nielsen Company & Billboard’s 2012 Music Industry Report that states “overall music purchases surpassed 1.65 billion units in 2012” [Citation] and you can understand my confusion. I’m not sure I want the RIAA statisticians working on my books!
In all fairness, a direct comparison is difficult because prior to 1992 the only data that seems to be available is units shipped to retailers and not hard sales data. Since Soundscan began tracking actual sales, the ratio between shipped units and sold units is roughly 70%. In other words, 70% of the units shipped were actually sold so let’s take that into consideration for the 388 million units mentioned above. If the math is accurate and the public’s buying habits have not changed dramatically over the years that 388 million figure is more like 271 million units actually sold.
Putting aside for a moment the actual data, let’s accept the industry’s premise that sales have declined since the advent of peer to peer sharing. I believe the fault is not so much with the buying public as it is with the industry itself. Take Hollywood as an example. If major studios release a bunch of crap, box office receipts suffer and this gives rise to a vital independent film movement. Over the past 20 years or so, movies have become cheaper to make and real story tellers have had the opportunity to make art outside of the constraints of the Hollywood system. The film industry adapted and learned very quickly how to monetize the indie film movement. Why has the music industry been so slow to adapt? My belief is that once accountants and hard core business types infiltrated the music business, their aim was to squeeze every dime from it and as a result the end product suffered. Talk to serious musicians today as I have and the lure of a major label contract is not what it used to be.
Back to actual sales for a moment, I like to make this comparison: In 1971, Carole King released her second album “Tapestry”. By all accounts, it is a great album and within a few years had sold close to 25 million copies. In fact, it is 41 on the list of all time best-selling albums in history. 40 years later in 2011, Adele released her second album “21”. By all accounts, it too is a great album and here two years later has sold about 25 million copies as well. In fact, “21” ranks as number 39 on the all-time sales list. [Citation] It is interesting to note that in the top 50 on the all-time sales list, only 2 were released after 2000 (Norah Jones’ “Don't Know Why” being the other).
My belief is that if the music industry will stop bitching about sales and concentrate on nurturing new, quality artists, sales will follow as Adele has proved. The biggest problem with the music industry in my view is the industry itself.
"When artists get together, they talk about money. When entrepreneurs get together they talk about art." —Oscar Wilde
Actor Charlton Heston once said “The trouble with movies as a business, is that they’re an art; of course, the trouble with movies as an art is that they’re a business.” Thus has been the dichotomy of the art world for centuries. Back in the day (way back in the day) artists depended on the patronage of wealthy families or the Church for their livelihood. That was fine to a point but can you imagine what the likes of Michaelangelo and da Vinci could have or would have created without the yoke of the Catholic Church or the Medici family?
There was a time in the music business when art was created with minimal constraints of commerce but as in all artistic endeavors, once left brain thinking people realized music’s commercial potential they began to put pressure on artists to conform to the realities of the marketplace. Don’t get me wrong, there is a balance. All artists desire a larger audience and the way to get the larger audience is to produce works that a larger audience will consume monetarily. Artists can and do follow their muse and be true to themselves without “selling out”. We don’t remember Beethoven as being a gifted piano teacher or a particularly virtuosic performer but that is how he supported himself while he wrote the music for which he is remembered.
The problem in our modern society is the fact that the film industry, the music industry, and most artistic concerns have been overrun with Harvard MBA types who only look at the bottom line of an artistic undertaking. Art cannot be judged by the amount of dollars it brings in. That stifles creativity. Often times, progressive art movements flounder economically before they are finally accepted and revered.
One question I have always struggled with is this: does marketing respond to the public or does it create the market. American Idol is a hugely successful television show and by all accounts, the singers it has produced should have had a tremendous impact on the music business but that impact has fallen woefully short, Carrie Underwood notwithstanding. I am reminded of Thomas Kinkade who was probably the most successful artist (monetarily) in history but reportedly suffered from depression because his art was not viewed as seriously as he had imagined it should have been in serious art circles.
The balance both for artists and businesspeople is a delicate one and once the pendulum swings in one direction or the other, either the art suffers or the ability for people to profit from it does.
We leave you with this quote and welcome your comments.
“When nations grow old, the arts grow cold and commerce settles on every tree.” --William Blake
If you know rock and roll history, you are probably familiar with something known as “the 27 club”. The 27 club refers to musicians who have died tragically at the age of 27. The club did not receive much recognition until the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 when Kurt’s mother was quoted and referred to the 27 club. The club includes the likes of blues legend Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Ron “pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead and most recently, Amy Winehouse. All died tragically and well before their time.
Back in the late 60’s before such time as the 27 club was really a “thing”, one musician inadvertently stumbled into a hoax and should be included as an honorary member of the club. It should be noted here that this musician is still alive and well and at this point can be regarded as the Dean of the rock and roll movement being named by The Guinness Book of World Records as “the most successful composer and recording artist of all time”.
I am referring, of course, to Sir Paul McCartney. According to published reports, back in the mid 1960’s The Beatles knowingly perpetrated a hoax on their fans, circulating a rumor that Paul had died in a car crash and played along with the rumor with visual clues on their albums and clues in their music. Who could forget the immortal line from A Day In The Life off of the Sgt. Pepper album “He blew his mind out in a car; he didn’t notice that the lights had changed” or John Lennon’s lines from Glass Onion “Well, here's another clue for you all, The walrus was Paul” and later from his song How Do You Sleep “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead”.
This is all well and good and the hoax is well documented in books by Andru J. Reeve, R. Gary Patterson and Steven Radice among others but the reason I am nominating Paul for honorary membership in “The 27 Club” is one “clue” on the Abbey Road album cover. Much has been written about the Abbey Road cover with its symbolic positioning and garb of the band and what it represents but what I am referring to is the license plate on the VW bug in the left side of the picture. The license plate which was reportedly made by Paul and Alistair Taylor (Brian Epstein's personal assistant) reads “28 IF” referring to the notion that in the hoax, if Paul had lived, he would have been 28 when Abbey Road was released. In other words, Paul inadvertently and fictitiously fixed his death at age 27 well before “the 27 club” was even imagined and several years prior to the deaths of Jimi, Janis, and Jim.
Coincidence; or just a thing to make you go hmmmmm.
If you asked ten people what is the greatest rock song of all times, you would probably get nine different answers. [Two people would probably give you the answer that Rolling Stone Magazine has told them.] It begs the question; what makes a great song? To answer that question, I go back about 2300 years to Aristotle. Aristotle said (in not so many words) that great art was defined by having the ability to arouse emotions in the audience. That premise is simple enough. Asking one to name the greatest song is certainly a subjective question. There are no right and wrong answers. Music is a personal experience for each individual. How does a particular song make you feel? If it makes you feel nothing, chances are it’s not a great song. That is why you will get different answers from different people. For me personally, my moods change, my attitude changes and I can hear a song five or six times but it makes me feel nothing but then when I am in the right mood and right frame of mind, I’ll hear the song again and it will hit me; it will create an emotional response. From then on, every time I hear that song, I will remember the mood I was in and the song brings back that frame of mind.
Here is where I begin to have an issue with commercial radio formatting but maybe it’s just me. I like a variety of music. Sometimes I am in the mood to listen to classic rock, other times I might be in the mood to hear something a little more raw and other times, I might want to hear something a little lighter. Just because I eat steak every day doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good chicken dish on occasion. Does it? For the life of me, I can’t understand why commercial radio formats are so narrow in their scope. In all honesty I believe most people want variety; they want to be exposed to music that they have not heard before. When I was growing up, we were exposed to new and interesting music; by way of the radio. Now days, I tend to be exposed to new music through television shows, commercials, and NPR which does a pretty good job of highlighting new and interesting artists. If you stopped listening to music in high school or college, as a lot of people do, it’s not because you lost interest in music, it’s because you lost the time, effort, and desire to seek it out. It’s still out there but it takes more of an effort these days to find it.
The bottom line is, there is an intimate relationship between the artist and the listener. No one should be telling you what you like it’s a personal decision. How do you know if a particular song is a great song if you’ve never heard it? If you like music, make an effort to find it. Make the effort to enjoy it.