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The sad old business of music

The music industry all over the world seems to be galvanising for another assault on “piracy” (AKA sharing). Lawyers and police are being employed to pursue disobedient music fans into the dirt. One would think the music industry would have learned by now that treating your own market like enemies is no way to win hearts and minds – with every prosecution of a single mum or pimply child who’s downloaded an album or two, the music industry gives birth to a thousand music fans who hate the industry more than anti-smoking activists hate cigarette companies. No wonder they illegally download with a clear conscience.

Back when CDs were introduced in the early 90s, many of us didn’t want a bar of it. We had thousands of dollars worth of vinyl in which we’d invested a lot of time, care and money, and none of us were keen on the idea of replacing our record collections. For a long time we resisted it, refusing to update, holding fast to our old stereo turntables and convincing ourselves we couldn’t hear the alleged difference. The record companies, we declared, were “crooks” who’d worked out a great new way to make music fans pay all over again, and this new epoch would signify the death of music – people would cease to care, surely, about little plastic discs with bonus tracks squeezed on to the “value-added” product by craven record companies. The grand art of the album was dead.

But when the record industry told us that CDs were virtually indestructible – that you could drag them behind your car for miles and they’d still play, and so on – we began to listen. Whether compact discs sounded better than vinyl records ceased to be the issue – they were here, we’d never have to replace our music again, and there was no point in kicking back the surf. So we surrendered to the change, not simply because we had to (there was, and still is, plenty of vinyl about, for those so inclined), or because demanding the world slow down for you is a pastime for the tired and the ignorant and the selfish. We changed because we loved music and, ultimately, were willing to follow wherever it went.

Of course, CDs weren’t indestructible, as everyone would eventually discover. What’s more, when a CD went screwy, it wasn’t just a case of flicking the needle past the scratch and onto the next track – the whole CD was ruined and there was nothing you could do about it. It was, by any standard, a huge and successful con.

It’s undoubtedly a gorgeous irony that the monster came back to destroy Dr. Frankenstein – the very digital technology that was forced upon consumers back in the 90s would eventually open the window to P2P, and, ever since, the music industry has behaved much as we luddites did back in the 90s: we’re crooks, they say; music’s dying, they say. It’s rubbish, of course, and sounds very much like we did back before we got conned out of our money in the 90s. I fact, you can bet they sound just like the dancehall operators back at the beginning of the 20th century, who doubtless railed against the new phenomenon of recorded music, which would rob them of their monopoly on the music from which they profited.

There are arguments that say the record companies aren’t doing as badly as they’d have us believe. We don’t know, exactly, of the relationship between file-sharing and music sales – whether the former erodes the latter or enhances it. There is anecdotal evidence (which can be found by turning on the television) that says music can still be a mighty lucrative career choice. I’d be interested to hear from any record company employees who have not been overseas in the last few years. The music industry, it seems to me, is as good a place to be as it ever was.

And there are some in the music industry who seem to see the current scenario as a challenge rather than something to be thrown to the lawyers. Some are embracing the return of vinyl, with covers and gatefold sleeves conducive to art. Others have cottoned on to the music lover’s need for special editions and box sets – collectibles you just can’t download from the internet. But, for the most part, the music industry has remained curiously free of creative minds outside the studios where the music is made.

It’s a pity, for there’s a serious challenge to be met, a wonderful opportunity for anyone in the engine room with imagination to match the stuff that they sell. The question does not seem a difficult one: how to sell the most stirring thing ever invented to a market whose loyalty to their chosen god is only matched by apostles of religion.


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