If the industry execs had it their way, we'd be still be buying albums on vinyl.
Late in the film Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane sits for an interview with the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and he’s told that it’s always the first through the wall who suffers the bloody defeat. Baseball’s elite weren’t angry with him over fear he’d destroy the game, a laughably impossible thought. They were afraid that he was going to eliminate their livelihood, as they’d put decades into winning the game a certain way. Get in the way of that set-in-stone attitude, as Beane had done with the Oakland A’s in 2002, and you were asking for trouble.
As I watched that scene unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way the music industry has treated nearly every technological evolution in the last forty years. Any change in the way people chose to partake in music affected the way the industry executives who sat atop the mountain were able to secure their paychecks. Whether it was the advent of cassette recordings — which many feared would destroy the vinyl record once fans realized they could tape albums and share them with their friends — to the creation of mp3 recordings and the genie-less bottle which is the Internet, the industry has forever been behind the curve, fighting to sustain soon-to-be-dead sales models.
It’s a process as old as time: new products come along which challenge profitable products which have provided job security across the spectrum of an industry. Those who already have achieved success don’t want change; they want profits to continue to pour in with as little outside interference as possible. New ideas involve risk, risk involves potential loss, and potential loss means failure. And few industries are as risk-failure averse as the world of music executives.
Myth #1: “Thanks to iTunes, we’ll never have another “Dark Side of the Moon”!”
I hear it every day that the mp3 player and eventually the advent of the iTunes Store are responsible for killing off the album as an art form. Supposedly, thanks to the inventors of the mp3 codec back in the late ’80s, illegal downloaders in the ’90s and ’00s, and Steve Jobs in 2004, we’re now back to 1964 and the era of early Beatlemania, when singles ruled the roost and albums were an afterthought.
The problem with this false reasoning is that though singles are certainly alive and well, so are albums. We’re just not purchasing them on CDs. Just because casual listeners can go and buy random tracks off the latest Arcade Fire album doesn’t mean that anyone at iTunes is telling such bands not to record full-length albums. Rather, fans simply are being given a choice. Rather than having to shell out for a full album prior to hearing any of the music, we now have the opportunity to graze first, discover if an artist is producing music in which we’d like to further invest. If we like what we hear, we can buy the full album — and many do.
Furthermore, bands on the cutting edge are able to use campaigns through sites like Kickstarter, which go directly to fans to help fund the production of albums in a setting akin to the idea of commissioning a work as a patron of the arts. If a band wants to work on a concept album akin to “Dark Side of the Moon” and they fear there’s perhaps not as wide an audience for it as there could have been in the past, the band can recruit like-minded listeners to help fund the release. If successful, the album can then go on to the wider audience as a whole, allowing such a concept album to flourish.
In other words, comparing CD sales to full-album sales on iTunes and then saying that the sales of singles are cannibalizing the album as an art form is delusional. You’re comparing apples to oranges and perpetuating the idea that the only way an album can be an album is if it’s produced in hard-copy and sold for $18.95 MSRP.
Next: Captain Jack Sparrow Vs. Record Industry Executives’ Paychecks.