Music Is Over.Posted: April 13, 2007
The Catch 22 of online commerce, when it comes to buying music, is that it makes things easier to find once you know you’re looking for them, but much harder to happen across accidentally. That’s what made Tower Records (and stores of that ilk, like Virgin) so great. They were grand intoxicating bazaars, in which you never knew what you would find, but in which you knew you’d find it. These stores, which are gone or going (Tower is dead and Virgins are closing nationwide), served an educative function as well as a commercial one. With their huge displays of new releases, their in-store CD play, their label co-op ad deals, they weren’t just where you went to buy music—they were where you found out about it.
I don’t see any online merchant or download source filling the “intoxicating bazaar” role that Tower, Virgin, and others before them (like Rose Records in Chicago) filled so well. And without that, I wonder why the record labels even bother to continue to release anything. New releases now (unless they are by the very most popular country and hiphop artists carried in Walmart, Target, and Best Buy) redefine what it means to be a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. My bet is that in just a few years more time the labels will have realized the futility of releasing anything new. Most labels, in fact, will have ceased to exist.
But Amazon and iTunes aren’t just failing to fill the void in terms of the educative function; they’re also not filling the void in sales. A recent article on the BBC’s website reveals that CD sales in the U.S. fell 20% last year, and even with the gain in album sales from digital downloads, overall U.S. album sales were still down 10%. People aren’t interested in buying music anymore, and partly that’s because there’s no place real to buy it.
For an analogy, let’s stroll momentarily into the world of books. Let’s imagine that the Barnes & Nobles and Borders have vanished from the face of the earth, just as Tower did and Virgin is doing. Would the major book publishers survive that? I think not. And the reason wouldn’t be just the loss of sales that Borders and B&N account for. The reason is that the existence of these stores is what creates an interest in books among the public. Those stores, those buildings that actually exist every few blocks and that you can walk into, create a “there” there that puts books into the public mind. People want books partly because there’s a Borders or a Barnes & Noble every few blocks to remind them that they do!
Sometimes to occupy mental real estate in the consumer’s mind, there’s no substitute for real estate.
If one thinks that book publishing could survive in a world in which the only places to buy books were Amazon and digital downloads, then one might think the music business can survive, too. But I don’t think the former, and I don’t think the latter.
So—let the record labels die, right? They were corrupt, and they foisted a bunch of crap on us for years anyway, right? Yes. But they also did something else, something that won’t be possible without them. They presented us with iconic stars of undeniable greatness. Sinatra. Peggy Lee. Ella. Elvis. The Beatles. On and on.
They searched the nation for talent, and then they functioned as a filter, or a funnel, so that only the very greatest talent came out the other end. We had a national audience, then, too, that financed this effort. Today, we have 250 million audiences of one, each at his or her laptop. And 250 million artists, all as capable as the next one with their Korgs and their ProTools of uploading their music into the national mix.
But where can the feedback to artists come from? What can be the source for the inspiration and the soul-sustenance an artist needs when there is no cohesive audience? The artist will know she made a sound only because $4.50 showed up in her paypal account when two kids in Vermont and one in Utah downloaded her song. But paypal is the only way she’ll know. And so, without soul-sustenance, and the mass approval (and the hope for mass approval) that fuels ambition, we won’t have any great, iconic artists. Just an infinite number of mediocre ones, reaching an infinite number of tiny audiences. When the great artists have disappeared (because nobody would be crazy enough to put in a lifetime of work to achieve great artistry in order to reach three people), all we’ll have are the kind of artists who are satisfied to reach three people.
Peggy Lee was born Norma Delores Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. I’m trying to imagine a young Norma Delores Egstrom growing up on those lonely plains today. Instead of thrilling to the sounds of the big bands coming in over the radio, knowing she’s listening to the same broadcast that people are hearing coast to coast, knowing this connects her to that larger world, one which she is determined to be part of some day, she is in her room downloading tunes. And she stays there.