Friday, November 16, 2007

I Want My MTV -- For Free

In the ever-fluctuating music industry, I am probably safe in making the following two predictions:

1. In 10 years, people will still listen to music.
2. The chief methods of delivering that music will look much different in 2017 than in 2007.

The current methods favored by the music industry, which would be an almost pre-internet delivery using CDs, cannot sustain itself. Even as the RIAA tries to crack down, it can only nab a few thousand people out of the millions who illegally share music. No one ever believes they will get busted and statistically speaking, it is highly unlikely that they ever will. While a small percentage of people might be influenced not to pirate music because of the threat of being sued, most people fall into the two traditional camps: "It's stealing" v. "Who cares? The labels and artists make enough money as it is." We've heard the arguments before, there is no need to rehash them.

SMALL TANGENT: I don't truly fall into either category. While I will admit to having pirated some music, I generally don't because I don't trust most music available via download programs. There are enough Trojan horse viruses lurking in MP3s that are put out there on LimeWire, BitTorrent, etc., that it is safer to get the music through trusted sources. I suppose it can make me feel virtuous, but if there was a program that gave me absolute certainty that the files were safe and of a high-quality, I can't say that I wouldn't regularly use it. END SMALL TANGENT

The music industry can continue to use a kids' sandbox bucket to clean up a raging flood or it can adapt. The situation is probably most analogous to the dotcom bubble. For all of the hype of different programs and methods, the music industry is still sorting out what works and what doesn't. The Radiohead "In Rainbows" experiment is a perfect example. If the new listeners and buzz about the album gets it increased radio play and brings more people to the concerts and helps pad the bottom line, you will see other groups dipping their toes in the water and following suit. But it is going to take continued trial and error to find a new method of delivery that recognizes that many music consumers aren't willing to pay for music anymore -- at least not the type of music they can store on their computer. Personally, I think the future will lie in giving away most music and utilizing some current forms of delivery into a hybrid system where the free stuff is a loss-leader. An artist/label will give away the music online, but the CD version might have some terrific liner notes and an extra track or two that isn't given away online. You use the free music as a way of promoting a concert tour, etc. This much is clear: instead of fighting the uphill battle to make consumers pay for digital music, the industry will need to recognize that it is not going away and use it to its advantage.

This story in the Wall Street Journal about the new music blog Rcrd Lbl (pronounced Record Label) illustrates how some artists/labels are doing just that.