The Uncertain Future of Music

music sound boardCenturies ago, music was used as an expression of cultural customs or commissioned by the wealthy for the purpose of entertainment. That is still true today, however, at the turn of the last century, thanks to inventions like the phonograph and radio, music became much more than personal art, it became business–a largely successful one, to be sure. By the mid 20th century, musicians like The Beatles, Elvis, and the gamut of stars on Barry Gordy’s renowned Motown Records roster, had made recorded music a billion dollar business. That trend continued decades later (though peak of music sales as experienced in the mid-century had never again be captured), with mega stars from Whitney Houston to the Backstreet Boys moving tens of millions of records and cassettes at a time. Then, the internet.

Early into the new millennium, music had moved online, accessible to everyone in every part of the world, sometimes even before physical copies left the warehouse. Almost immediately, entire catalogs of music were readily available online, to be consumed at the click of a button–for free. That changed everything, as we all know. Nevertheless, the music industry has regained some ground. Pirating is down significantly, and leaks don’t occur as often before a standard release as it did just sixteen years ago. However, the habit of accessing music without investment or purchase remains, and it doesn’t seem to be addressing the sales problem. In fact, it appears to be making it worse.

Instead of illegal downloads via the now defunct Napster, the music industry, late to the party, has thrown its support behind streaming services, which enable users with internet access to listen to music without actually owning the material, though many offer an option for downloading within the platform, for offline accessibility, as a benefit to those who pay. The current problem that the industry is facing, however, is that many aren’t willing to pay at all. That is not to say that subscription plans haven’t grown in the last year; they certainly have as more choices have entered the market, and strategies involving exclusives have inspired interest in particular services. Yet, with unlimited data plans and increasingly ubiquitous internet access via wifi, users have little need or reason to have offline music content. Furthermore, ad-supported disruptions are normal, following years of the same on radio and television.

Thus, according to the New York Times, sales are declining and revenue has remained stagnant, with paltry growth to the tune of less than 1% in a year over year comparison. There is some money being made from streaming, and not just in the United States, which boasts the largest share of the music business. Rather, reports from last year showed that streaming revenue surpassed sales revenue in some 24 countries around the world. Yet, that’s not saying much compared to the amount of money acquired just a decade ago–and not everyone is receiving compensation proportional to the popularity of their product online, based on the way royalties are distributed. Thus, many artists and experts have grown weary with the concept as a whole, and believe it’s in need of reform.

In the article, pundits lament this strategy as a sign of failed promises from the past. On one hand, money is being made–more than would be if the trend of piracy had continued, but not as much as when CDs were in vogue. I agree that streaming alone is not the answer to the industry maintaining its dominance. Something needs to happen, and I’m not sure anybody knows what it is.