Contrary to popular belief, file-sharing didn’t destroy the music industry. It didn’t even change the industry. It was people’s assumptions about the industry that changed the industry. All file-sharing did was allow for these assumptions to become more apparent.
You see, before the Internet, before file-sharing, before software that allowed people to record and produce their work — all people needed to become rich and famous was to come out with a few hit songs. Record sales were the most important stream of income for artists and record companies, and thus record companies focused most of their resources on writing, recording, producing, and promoting albums and hit singles for artists to sing. Of course, having a hit single or album was a very difficult thing to do. To cover the costs of producing, distributing, and marketing the music, you had to fit a strict commercial model, one that had been proven over and over again to generate lots of sales. For this reason, the odds of becoming a recording artist was extremely low.
It’s important to consider what this commercial model was and why it was effective. There is one simple truth in business: the only way to effectively add value to a market is by challenging the assumptions of that market. The main assumption behind the market of the music (and entertainment) industry is that fantasies, dreams, archetypes of the past can be remade and brought to life in new, disruptive ways. The big concern people unconsciously have is, “How can this new artist bring to life some past archetype in a different way?” The history of music is all about disruption, about new ways of doing things. And yet, it always seems to follow the same cycle: a new, exciting, challenging artist comes on the scene only to be replaced by another artist. What the music industry did was simply create a model that allowed them to profit from this cycle — by distributing and selling objects (vinyls, then CDs) that challenged their market in that specific way. It was almost perfect.
Except one little thing: in order to get something of value, you must give up something of value. For people to receive a vinyl or CD that challenged them, they had to give up more than just money. They had to give up (at least temporarily) on the idea of not supporting people who haven’t really “earned” the money. For despite whatever skills artists develop in singing, recording, and performing music, in the end, for most people, artists (and the music industry in general) simply engage in fantasy-play. They don’t “contribute” anything economically, politically, environmentally, etc. Instead what they do is allow people to create fantasies, thoughts, ideas that, for most people, will also not contribute anything. It’s simply entertainment — a diversion or distraction from reality. And as valuable as it is or can be, people must also give up something valuable to engage in it.
One can now see why, once the Internet and file-sharing became popular, the music industry changed, with record sales decreasing at an astonishing rate. If people can steal and share products of entertainment for a little enough chance of getting caught, they will. Why? Because file-sharing allows them to have their entertainment, their fantasy-play, without making them give up something equally as valuable — their sense of dignity in not being dependent on entertainment.
So what now then? What do we do with record sales? In my opinion, there are two moves that record companies can do. Forget about record sales and focus on other streams of income like live performances and merchandise (as many record companies are now doing), without focusing on changing the type of music they release.
Or they can change their mindset and stop looking at music as entertainment, and look at music as art. Art, first and foremost, is about showing the truth. It’s about using lines, colors, spaces, words, pages, sounds, rhythms, time, movement in order to express and communicate fundamental truths about reality. It’s about challenging people to give up only what is holding them back, and in this way allowing people to contribute to their world in new, unforeseen ways.
In my opinion, an industry based off of expressing truth through art will be much more rewarded than one can ever imagine.
Mark Blasini writes about music, art, and creativity at www.DarkLion.com. He is the author of the free e-book Light the Fire: Six Simple Principles for Creating Art That Inspires, downloadable if you subscribe to his site. You can find him on Twitter as @TheProfMusic.