I recently read a thought-provoking book about the music business called Appetite for Self-Destruction by Steve Knopper. The book, sub-titled “The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age,” attempts to explain why the music biz went to hell so quickly and what, if anything, can be done to keep the industry from totally imploding. The author takes the major labels to task for failing — or rather, waiting too long — to take advantage of Internet technology and selling downloads of music to customers. Instead, of course, many people discovered the ease of free downloads and got hooked on that “service” instead. Naturally, the author cites the dramatic advances in technology and the equally dramatic rise in illegal downloading as the biggest reasons for why the music labels saw their profits evaporate nearly overnight. But he also cites the obliviousness of the executives at the major labels as another factor.
Let’s face it; what we are seeing now is a generation of thieves who don’t have the slightest bit of remorse about obtaining music for free. These kids have grown up with the Internet and think nothing of downloading songs and not having to pay for it. Thanks to the wide availability of free files, music has been devalued to the point that most of the kids nowadays would never think of paying money for it. They might think that they are “sticking it to” the big, bad corporations, but what about the artists who make the music?
Of course the advances in technology and Internet access created an entire new culture of bootlegging, but I think that’s only part of the problem. In this digital age, not only is there a mind-numbing variety of new products to spend your money on, but the whole culture and the way that people spend their free time has changed. The masses are now more mobile, and are easily distracted; constantly multi-tasking and not really taking the time to focus on things like they used to. Attention Deficit Syndrome is all the rage. How many of these people have time to sit at home and listen to an entire CD without interruption? Oops, gotta check my e-mail; gotta read this tweet; gotta send this text message; gotta download this file; gotta attach this photo; gotta update my Facebook page; gotta check out that video clip on YouTube. People are all over the place. Sadly, I think that listening to music is not as important to people’s lives as it used to be.
The author of this book also trots out the old tired argument that consumers got tired of paying $15 for a CD with only one or two good songs on it. Really? What sort of insipid music were there idiots buying? Maybe a Britney Spears album or some other disposable Top Forty crap has only a few decent songs on it, but any serious artist is not going to put out an album with “only one or two good songs.” I own over two thousand CDs and I don’t have a single one that has “only one or two good songs.” Most of them are wonderful from start to finish. Sorry, but that “only one or two good songs” argument simply doesn’t hold up.
But there certainly are some consumers who only WANT to hear one or two songs by an artist. These types of listeners were never real album buyers in the first place, but without the availability a CD single, many were forced to buy the entire album to get the song they wanted. Obviously, with their short attention spans, they don’t have the patience to listen to unknown songs that aren’t certified “hits.” But hey, now they can download all the songs they like with wild abandon.
But what about the serious music fans and collectors who prefer listening to entire albums and will gladly pay money for quality product? I’d much rather peruse the albums in a well-stocked shop and buy real CDs than surf online or download digital files. We are the consumers who were burned by over-priced CDs for far too many years, but we’ll gladly still buy CDs, and buy lots of them, if the price is right. It’s not just the technology; it’s also the greedy business practices of the major labels that have created this situation. It’s sad for legitimate consumers, but especially crippling for the musicians who make the music we love to listen to.