Have cheap delivery formats destroyed music's value?
As any record producer who has been in the business for the last few decades will tell you, the recording industry is in a bad way. When I interviewed Marius de Vries back in 2008, he went as far as to say, "The business of making records and distributing them, as it has been understood up to now, is over — it's finished! No one's buying records so the whole infrastructure upon which the record industry is based has eroded or subsided.”
I've heard similar statements from other producers and, while each one has their own theory on what the future holds, none seem to have a solution.
It may turn out that the thriving and exciting music industry that many of us grew up with and took for granted was just a passing moment in history, soon to be forgotten by all except social historians. But it's my belief that the future depends on the delivery format. If we get that right, everything else will follow.
At the start of the 20th century, the record industry did not exist at all because recordings were not widely available and, more importantly, no one had anything to play them on. Things really started to change when affordable gramophones came on the market. Portable models could be carried into the country to provide musical entertainment on a day out, making them the Walkman, or iPod, of their day. Various technologies were introduced over the years but, essentially, the record was king for 50 years or more. An industry grew up around the format and it eventually became every artist's dream to produce a vinyl classic.
When the compact cassette became a popular, and cheaper, alternative to the vinyl disc, the idea of 'home taping killing music' started to appear. There was a fear that people would use their tape recorders to make copies of their friends' cassettes rather than buy their own. I'm not sure how big this problem was, but I suspect that the physical size of the format was equally damaging to the industry.
Part of the thrill of buying a record was having the 12- by 12-inch sleeve artwork, complete with production notes. Think of a classic album, like Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the artwork immediately leaps to mind. But once it's reduced to fit a small oblong cassette box it loses its power, and the perceived value of the object is diminished. Even the fact that a cassette can be thrown about without damaging the tape, whereas a record has to be handled with care, affects our perception of their relative values. If we have to care for something, we value it.
Then there were music videos. Rather than sitting and eagerly reading through an album's credits while a record played, we watched a movie! The message here is that the music was not interesting enough in itself.
The CD introduced another problem. Suddenly we could skip to the hits, re-order tracks and, through that empowering process, disregard any album continuity or concept that the artists may have conceived.
And then came the dreaded download format. Not only did the MP3 show no regard for the quality of recordings, it also severed the link between music and its creators. Once it became possible to have a player full of tracks, ripped for free, and divorced from albums and production notes, the value of the product hit rock bottom.
Of course, the technology we have today also allows us to create pretty impressive home productions and load them up onto social media networks for all the world to hear, but 'Likes' on Facebook are worth little if no one buys a download!
Strangely enough, though, people will still spend money if they think they are getting something valuable, and they are prepared to go to great lengths to do so. For example, it's easy to cook an instant meal, but celebrity chefs and cooking programs presenting complex dishes are more popular than ever, demonstrating that people will put in huge amounts of time, effort and money if they perceive the outcome as adding value to their lives.
The challenge for all of us who are interested in the music industry is finding a format of delivery that will give it value again.
Tom Flint is a freelance music technology writer based in Norwich. He also writes and produces his own music and from time to time draws and paints things.