Aural Assault: Is The Music Industry Dead?

Welcome to my new column, Aural Assault.  I’ll be using this to discuss various topics regarding the current state of the music industry and music consumption.  I’ll try to post as often as I can and if you like it or have any ideas for future topics let me know.  Also, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the majority of my observations and critiques have to do with metal and independent music.  An article tackling the entire music industry would be far too long and, let’s face it, metal is kind of my specialty. 

One of the most debated topics amongst die hard music fans is the current state of the industry as a whole.  With sales rapidly declining over the past 15 years and the advent and growth of online distribution and illegal downloading, the thought on everyone’s mind is “How much longer will music remain a commodity?”  Is there no hope left for independent artists?  Are record labels becoming obsolete?  Is the term “Rock Star” even applicable in this day and age?  I will tackle these and a few other questions in this article and try and give some insight as to why this is happening and what we might expect in the future.

The most outrightly affected proponent in the industry is the massive increase in downloading, illegally or otherwise, in place of CD’s and records.  I will agree there is something about a physical, tangible album that is very special to me and a lot of people out there like me.  I’ve been a collector all my life, and seeing my numerous shelves lined wall to wall with CD’s is awesome.  You get the cover art, liner notes, lyrics, a kick ass CD and on top of that, it’s a statement of pride; a token that represents your devotion to certain bands, artists, or albums.  It’s the ultimate affirmation of a die hard music fan.

But what constitutes a die hard fan?  Naturally, as generations grow older and are replaced by newer, younger fans, the landscape of how entertainment is consumed is changing.  For someone like me, born in the mid-eighties, I grew up in the tail end of physical media and the art of collecting.  When my generation was young, our only option to listen to music was to buy a CD or go to a show.  The only outlet for promotion and singles was the radio and TV and consequently you had to buy an album to hear the whole thing.  Anyone born in the mid to late nineties or later, however, has grown up with a whole different perspective on how and where music comes from.  They’ve had the internet almost their entire lives, and a physical item is practically foreign to them; an outdated product that takes up space.  They have iPods instead of Walkmans, computers instead of boom-boxes.  Their musical libraries consist of files stored on a hard drive rather than shelves lined with CD’s, and whether or not us bitter and jaded oldies like it, the industry is following suit, grasping at straws and doing whatever it can to stay afloat.

I hear people griping constantly about how the music industry is dead; there’s no money in it anymore, you’re doomed to working a 9-5 job while you’re not recording, or touring incessantly for the rest of your life so you can continue to do what you love.  This kind of stuff irks me but it’s not entirely wrong.  Yes, the age of the rock star is over.  The days of multi-million dollar Rock Gods are gone along with the lavish and lucrative lifestyles that came with it.  There will never be another KISS or Motley Crue; Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana; Korn or Limp Bizkit.

So what do we have instead?  An unbelievable amount of talented and hungry musicians who, because of technology and the internet, have a chance to make their music heard and get it out to the world.

It has NEVER been easier to record and mix an album on your own than it is now.  Everyone has a computer, and softwares capable of handling multi-track recordings and mixing (ProTools, LogicPro, AudioDesk) are available everywhere and are relatively cheap (comparatively).  Don’t have a decent amp?  No worries, those programs allow you plug straight into your computer and choose from virtually thousands of amps and effects that would cost thousands of dollars to buy on their own.  No drum set?  Again, don’t fret, programs like Toontrack‘s Superior Drummer offers an incredibly easy to use drum programming software that mimics the sound of live drums so well that, if done right, it’s very hard to tell the difference.  Even if that doesn’t strike your fancy, Reason also has an array of electronic drum kits that are easily programmable.  And those are just two examples.  Your options are limitless.

But say you want to record the drums live and can’t get that polished sound you’re looking for.  Well, Toontrack programs also offer a software that, once the drums are recorded, will detect the individual drums and replace them with their electronic counterparts, giving your once garage-level recording a little more credibility while still allowing you to say “I recorded that”.  Nothing is free, of course, but with a little know-how and determination it is possible to get a professional sounding recording for a fraction of what it used to cost.

It’s not just the recording and mastering that’s become easier and more prevalent in this day and age, but distribution as well.  CD’s and records have become novelty items; something sought after only by collectors.  Should you decide to put out a physical format of your product make sure it’s something special.  Offer up limited edition packages with custom artwork, bonus tracks, signed liner notes, free posters/shirts/hats/sweatbands, anything that will make your record more of a commodity and something to cherish for the fans.  Take note from bands like Revocation, who are offering a free music lesson with a pre-order of their album, or Devin Townsend, who custom made 2,000 copies of his album Addicted, each one with its own personal touch.  These are the things that will convince the fans to shell out the extra bucks for your CD rather than downloading it for free.

This is where the internet really comes into play.  Even for a band just starting out, there are tons of venues for distributing your music online.  Whereas we used to just have MySpace, now there’s Bandcamp, ReverbNation, LastFM, and many other sites that allow you to upload and distribute your songs to millions of prospective fans.  In my opinion, Bandcamp is the best way to go.  It’s essentially free and you can offer up your albums/songs for free, for a set price, or by a “name-your-price” model.  On top of that, you can put up multiple versions of your songs in MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC, and even a physical product.  Bandcamp will take 15% of each sale which, though it may seem like a lot, is nothing compared to what a record label will take from you.  Plus, there’s no up front costs involved.  Bandcamp won’t offer you an advance for your record, which you are then expected to pay back (but will have no way of possibly doing.  It’s the brilliantly vicious cycle of the modern record label).  It’s the best way to make a little bit of money in the increasingly volatile music market right now.  Hell, even record labels are hopping on board the Bandcamp bandwagon, recognizing its versatility and profitability.

I honestly think that, as far as online sales go, your best bet is to offer up your album for a free download or at the very least, the “name-your-price” option (which, according to Bandcamp, typically accrues 50% more profit than flat rate sales).  It may sound like career suicide, but it’s actually the exact opposite.  Even semi-major independent labels such as Earache Records and Relapse Records have begun to realize this and have offered up countless releases from their artists for free, recognizing that it’s more important to get the product heard than to make money off of it up front.  Giving the fans this option essentially gives File Sharing and BitTorrent sites the middle finger, bringing the fans right to the source for their music, and in my opinion also earns you heaps more respect as an artist or distributor from the fans.  I will ALWAYS give a free album a shot, even if I know nothing about the band; and if I end up liking it, I am ten times more likely to buy a shirt, concert tickets, or one of their records to show my support and I know a lot of music fans are the same way.  We’re not criminals; we’re not out to steal everything and rip off the artists we love, we’re just not in a position to spend a bunch of money on records we may or may not like, and downloading, whether illegally or not, is the most viable option.

When you set out to make an album don’t expect to make any money off of it, especially if you’re just starting out.  This is something you must realize and remember if you don’t want to be blindsided by the “lack of visibility” you’ll be getting at first.  Even bands with large followings nowadays see very little return on their album sales (mostly because they’re still on labels with an antiquated distribution model).  The album should function as a tool to get your name out there, a way to grow your fan base and increase your potential to play shows, which is where the real money is (though it’s still not very much, don’t kid yourselves).  By putting your music up for free download, you automatically increase the chances of weary fans giving your album a shot.  As I said before, no one wants to spend any money on something they’re unfamiliar with, and a band or label who refuses to adapt to this model is essentially digging themselves an early grave.

As I referenced before, what money there is is in touring or, more specifically, merchandise sales.  No, you’re not going to make millions being in a working and touring metal band; it’s the reality of life right now.  Unless you throw out all pretense and play wiggercore in the vein of Suicide Silence, Born Of Osiris, or Oceano, you’re doomed to a life of (relative) poverty and hardship.  But who am I to judge?  As much as I can’t stand those aforementioned bands, they’re obviously doing something right.  Even so, those guys aren’t making millions upon millions of dollars, they’re just a little better off.  Be prepared to get a job when you’re not touring or recording, because there’s almost no way you’re going to make enough money to support yourself or your family in the off times.  It’s sad and doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s not supposed to be.  Just as the music typically conveys, the life of a metal musician isn’t pretty and is usually grim.  But they do it because it’s all they know, and it’s the only thing that makes them happy.

Like I said earlier, the music industry is not dead.  It’s more alive than ever.  With the internet and services like iTunes, Spotify, AudioGalaxy, Rhapsody, etc. it’s never been easier to acquire new music and make a name for yourself.  Yes it’s no longer the glamorous and sought after lifestyle that everyone once wanted, but it’s still very much alive.  Though record sales are still down and illegal downloading continues to run rampant, there’s one thing that will never die among music fans, and that’s a good old fashioned show.  There’s no possible way to replicate a concert experience other than actually going to the show yourself.  You can watch all the live DVDs or bootlegged footage you want, but it doesn’t come close.  And that’s where all the (albeit small) money is in this day and age.  There will always be the bandwagon fans, the ones who only download music and never support the artist, but the majority are not like that.  They still go to shows, buy merch, and a good amount still buy CD’s or vinyl.  It’s not that people don’t care anymore, it’s just that the preferred method of acquisition has changed.

So grab your guitar/bass/mic/drumsticks and make some music.  Or buy tickets to a concert near you (this Fall’s got some killer tours) and help keep your idols alive and well.  Music, especially metal, is a force to be reckoned with, and no matter how hard anyone tries it will never die out entirely, only the landscape by which it is consumed will change with time.  The fans have spoken, physical formats are old news and digital is taking over.  And you know what?  I’m excited for the future.

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  • Awesome article David. You really touched on a lot of notes. I too grew up with the boom-boxes and walkmans! good times for sure, but those days weren’t going to last. I’m kind of 50/50 when it comes to getting music. Sometimes I buy the CD from Amazon or sometimes I download the MP3’s through Zune Marketplace. If its a few songs I use the Marketplace, but sometimes I want the music asap so I buy the whole album that way. Although I find myself coming back and rebuying it on a physical format, because I too am a collector!

    I like that the current state of music is suited towards “indie” bands and pretty much anyone that wants to make music. If you have talent then there is absolutely NO way you can’t be heard with online sharing.

  • Cort

    At this point illegal downloading or just giving music away can only help artists. They make the majority of their profit from merchandise and touring nowadays. I’ll always believe “try before you buy” should be the standard. Music and films are especially difficult to just go ahead purchase on the fly because for some it’s a real time investment just to try to understand or “get” whatever album a band is putting out or the total artistic vision of the filmmakers. I love the fact that artists are really getting more connected to their fans through social networking services and because of this new DIY attitude. Major labels no longer raise artists like they used to; they find an image, squeeze out a hit (with plenty of miss), and dispose their waste off the side of a cliff. The problem is when music became a “business” or “industry”, the original artistic and founding goals began to become lost and forgotten.

    The sad thing is that the majors are still trying to market the aesthetic with “indie”, “_____-core”, and “emo” just like they’ve been doing in the old days with radio station examples like “classic rock” (seriously, what constitutes as classic?), “alternative” (as opposed to polka, mainstream, spoken word?), etc. They like to slump everything into one category, when it’s much more complex with that. If you do some research on emo, you’ll find that its beginnings are with hardcore punk and that it isn’t even the same thing as what a majority of people think when they hear about it. Fashion, whiny pop-punk, self-mutilation, melodramatic poetry, and popular metalcore. I blame MTV for brainwashing us into believing “the look” was important when “the sounds” were only thing that really mattered.

    Just a little history lesson for those unfamiliar and my opinions on a few things in the state of music.

  • Very good article David. I will admit, I am an EZDrummer user. Pretty much because I am not a drummer. I dont think like that. EZDrummer/Superior drummer make it easy to use templates and grooves to get your ideas moving.

    The internet is the new way of gettingyour music out there. I wish I knew the right way, because this soundcloud thing isnt working for any publicity for me.