As I ponder the tumultuous past year in the music business, I have to wonder if the business is as broken as all the pundits claim it is. When I drive down Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles (aka "The Strip"), I spot an obvious sign that the music industry is not broken. True, Tower Records is gone. Virgin Megastore, where I used to take my kids to listen to new music, is gone. Perhaps, the nearest record store (please forgive this archaic reference) is miles away on Melrose. But not too far away is Guitar Center. In fact, there may be more GC's in LA than record stores.
I regular visit music stores like GC and my local, indie store quite often. What I see is an immense amount of activity. There are always people busily trying new equipment or taking music lessons or both. The quest to produce music seems unabated by all the discussions about transparency and fairness to artists and songwriters. Regardless of their financial fortunes, more people are making more music than ever before. While some may decry the ease at which an album can be made as being a major cause of our troubled industry, I think it is the saving grace.
It is completely true that it has never been harder to make a living thru the sale of recorded music. Even very well-known celebrities are not pulling the numbers that they used to see for their big releases. The ongoing challenge between streaming services' rate negotiations and the public's slow adoption to pay for the music they consume will likely continue for years before a good compromise or solution develops.
So then, why are so many people buying music gear at unprecedented rates? It seems that the desire to create endures with or without a fiscal incentive. Of course, it would be wonderful to compensate every good artist (I'll leave the definition of "good" to your own senses). But the lack of financial rewards hasn't slowed down the creation of music for better or worse. As every digital distributor can attest to, the flow of content is not slowing down; it is increasing without an end in sight.
The gatekeeper to the Tower Records of the world is also completely gone. I fondly recall the days when my band would beg to have our vinyl EP in the consignment bin of our local record store. Now, the bins are practically infinite and it only takes a few bucks to be in music stores worldwide. And there is no record label exec or store manager that can say "no". Simply amazing.
Want to find new music? Easy. Between curated services like Beats to playIist services like Songify or radio services like Pandora, music consumers have never had more tools and choices at their disposal to find music that they want. It may be a bit cluttered out there. But the musical shmorgishborg is certainly out there and ready to be scooped onto your plate.
If you ask any teenager out there if the music business is broken, they will likely say "huh?" To them, it's never been a better time. And most of these are not downloading from bit torrent sites. They are using structured and legal services albeit usually free ones. They are loving the diversity of music made available to them and we, in the biz, should never lose site of their perspective. The days are long gone when we can quote Steve Jobs and dictate how music should be consumed.
Don't get me wrong. I recognize the inequities in the system. I feel very strongly that we still need to come up with a workable royalty structure that could benefit more artists. However, the music industry never has been able to support every musician, artist and songwriter. It never will. But when you think about how many artists make some income now versus 15 years ago, the numbers are much greater than under the "old" label system.
We have to accept the reality that there were no salad days for the independent artist. It was always a struggle to make a living from the sale of recorded music and that certainly has not changed. Without minimizing the role of companies like YouTube or Spotify, one oft-forgotten factor is that the barriers to entry are now completely gone. That inevitably results in more people sharing a pie that is being sliced thinner and thinner. This would be true even if there was a level playing field (which really doesn't exist due to such things as equity deals, advances and marketing clout).
The same situation is already at play in the book world. Authors, too, no longer have any barriers to self-publish their ebooks. I wonder how many of these are making any appreciable money. At least with musicians, there are many other revenue streams to cultivate.
I'm not ignoring the great challenges that lie ahead for both the music services and artists alike. I am totally confident, however, that the desire to create great music will continue despite these challenges and that the endless thirst for music will always find a way to be quenched.