Music is the soundtrack to our lives. Every part of our existence is affected by it. If you walk down any street in any city, people have earphones in, and they’re listening, most probably — judging by their bopping heads and tapping feet — to music. If you get married, you pick a song for your wedding. Music soothes us when we’re mourning the passing of a loved one. And songs evoke memories — of that great party in the ’80s or ’90s or your favourite TV show.
The ’70s was known as a golden decade of music. Albums flew off the shelves, and concerts and tours sold out. No band or artist was bigger than Led Zeppelin. They put the “star” in rock star. Their albums sold in the millions, their tours sold out, and they lived a life of excess on the road. There were no compact disks (CDs) and no MTV — just cassettes and long-playing records (LPs). It was the era of The Album.
Music was consumed very differently then. I remember going to the local music store, buying a couple of LPs, going home and sitting down and listening to these albums in their entirety. There was no shuffle function, no iTunes, and no phones in our back pockets. There was no file sharing and no illegal downloading.
The artwork and the inner sleeve of the record were as important as the music. You simply had to spend hours going through the geeky details: the band members, the lyrics, examining who wrote which song, and who produced the album.
I still remember being caught by surprise when my favourite bands released new albums. There was no social media to let us know in advance. And when bands were on tour, we stayed up all night in a queue outside the venue to ensure we got tickets. Musicians made their money from album sales, and their tours broke even.
Now it’s the opposite. Making and selling albums is a loss leader, and bands and musicians make their money on tours. In the early 1970s, the Rolling Stones were playing to 20,000 fans, for $4.50 a ticket. Today, their ticket prices range from $300 to $1,500. In 1983 and at their peak, the Police’s concert tickets sold for $12 a pop. In 2008, at their reunion tour, the minimum ticket sold for $250. Even so, artists make a fraction of what they did 50 years ago. The tale of how this decline happened is one of a slow decay.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
It started to go south in the late 1990s, around the time that Napster launched. It was the first network that specifically focused on facilitating music-file distribution over the internet, making it relatively easy to download copies of music tracks that were hard to obtain. But it made the waters very murky in terms of copyright infringements and downloading illegal material.
Napster produced a generation of listeners whose relationship with music changed because they were able to download any track they wanted free of charge. (Much the same as happened in the news industry: that journalism became freely available online from the early 2000s contributed to the decimation of newspapers.)
Even though Napster was shuttered in 2001 after a lawsuit from the Recording Industry Association of America, it had sealed the fate of an industry. File-sharing sites continue to exist virtually unchallenged, and premium streaming services — including Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — have continued the trend of servicing a demand for always-on music with infinite choice.
Streaming has allowed consumers to discover music they might otherwise have not known about. But it hasn’t solved the problem of finding a new model to sustain an industry. Music has shifted from being a product-based business (vinyl, CDs, and individual downloads) to becoming a service-based business (streaming), yet no one has been able to create a model to support the transition adequately.
These streaming services, which charge about $10 a month for a subscription, are basically giving away music at a loss. Until that price point rises, there’s no reason to expect any of them to achieve profitability. The artists themselves make less than a penny a stream.
In a first step to fix this in the US, the Music Modernization Act is sitting with the US Senate to try to change the way musicians get paid. The hope is that an archaic remuneration model will be replaced and music rights and licensing will be brought into the 21st century.
Concerts and tours continue to put food on the table for a select few musicians. Others are simply the hook for events, such as Coachella, which are really about selling an experience that also includes glamping and gourmet food and other drawcards.
This is, arguably, why artists such as the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and even Guns N’ Roses are still among the top-grossing live acts. They’re playing their catalogues and trading on nostalgia, instead of releasing new material.
That’s a problem. In the past, record companies gave bands or artists three to four albums to build a body of work and to tour and develop a base. U2’s Bono often says that if his band had started out today they would probably have had their recording contract cancelled after two albums. U2 hit the big time only with their fifth album, The Joshua Tree.
Today, it’s all about the singles and less about the albums — much like the ’50s. Artists in the US and UK are lucky if they’re able to sell a million units, which was the norm in the ’70s and ’80s for a success. Nowadays, talent is discovered on YouTube. Once-legendary venues, such as the Marquee Club in London or Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles are fading memories.
As a result, creativity is suffering. Concerts once formed an informal incubator that continually bred new artists. Major headlining artists — themselves once support acts — took new bands on the road with them as opening acts. Without revenue streams, musicians will in time have no practical way to stay afloat and be forced to give up.
ON THE RECORD
But vinyl (and CD) sales are growing. In fact, in 2017, physical sales of records outstripped digital downloads once again. There’s a marked increase in shops selling vinyl exclusively. And it’s not just older folks buying LPs — millennials are discovering vinyl as a format in a big way. Could it be that they’re increasingly looking for something more tangible and real?
Music changes and evolves. But sometimes it also harks back to our nostalgia for the music of our youth
Putting on a record and dropping the needle is unlike any other musical experience. It offers a connection that a digital stream doesn’t. It’s like the difference in experience and appreciation between a book and a Kindle. You might use a Kindle for convenience, but you still want the book on your shelf.
I use all the streaming services. They’re convenient and available anywhere, anytime. However, if I like an album or an artist, I buy the vinyl version, so I can have the physical copy.
I think vinyl offers the best listening experience. It’s neither compressed nor contrived like digital. A vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound’s waveform. This means that no information is lost. This also means that the waveforms used to create a vinyl recording can be far more true to the original. The sound is rich and deep.
Still, vinyl sales made up only 7% of total album sales in 2017. Growing sales of vinyl records won’t change the current trajectory of the music industry: vinyl is simply a medium to listen to music, not a silver bullet.
My son recently made me a playlist of music he was listening to. I can appreciate the music and genre, and getting into the poetry of Post Malone or Kendrick Lamar, but I feel what the music or songs lack is melody or a hook. What he likes is essentially catchy poetry laid over a computer-generated beat or sample of a riff from an ’80s or ’90s song, reminiscent, in some ways, of the beatnik poets of the ’60s. I guess that’s the point. Music changes and evolves (as do the mechanisms used to deliver it). But sometimes it also harks back to our nostalgia for the music of our youth. At the end of the day, there are two types of music: good and bad.
I’ve just discovered a young band out of Michigan called Greta Van Fleet. They’re pretty much 2018’s answer to Led Zeppelin, playing all their own instruments and with proper musicality. So all hope is not lost. And with a return to quality and tangibility, perhaps newspapers are in for a revival too.
LISTEN | Greta Van Fleet's Safari Song which reached no.1 on the Billboard Charts:
- Andrew Bonamour is the CEO of the Tiso Blackstar Group, a music lover, and a keen vinyl collector.
- From the October edition of Wanted magazine.