The BBC’s global tech news show Digital Planet reports from Belém in Brazil on a rootsy version of the new business model that’s likely to supersede the traditional music industry. It’s musical sneakernet.
Since the invention of sound recording, musicians (and to an even greater extent, record companies) have made their money by putting out recordings and controlling who could copy them. In the analog era, this was fairly easy, as sound quality degraded with each successive copy generation. Whoever had the master tape of a hit song easily made money off it. Also, song lyrics and other sleeve notes were hard for pirates to copy and distribute well.
This system is now in an advanced state of collapse because of digital audio and the internet. Why pay for music when you can get it for free over the net? And song lyrics have effectively become free poetry on the web.
But at the same time, recording equipment has become cheap enough that any band can have better gear than the Beatles without the involvement of a record company. And music fans are still happy to pay for tickets to live performances. So for the past decade unsigned bands have been doing their best to reach non-paying listeners over the net. If they succeed, they draw a bigger paying crowd at their gigs. That’s where the music business is going.
In Belém, apparently there’s a large music-loving, party-happy audience that doesn’t download music — most likely because people don’t have broadband. Instead they buy cheap pirated CDs in the street. What the city’s musicians do, then, instead of uploading mp3 files on the net, is they burn CDs and hand them out to the street vendors to copy. The musicians make no money off of the sales. But they build a reputation that allows them to draw a paying crowd at their gigs — largely dance-centric sound system affairs.
So the lesson is this: illicit copying is not a threat to artists. It is the new distribution system. Recorded music has gone from an exclusive high investment, high returns business to an inclusive low investment, low returns one. Measured in turnover, it has gone from a non-existent business (19th century) to a huge one (20th century) to a rapidly shrinking one (21st century). But no natural law says that a musician or a holder of record-company stock must be able to become insanely rich. Talented musicians aren’t driven to make music mainly by the prospect of a jetset lifestyle. And music lovers don’t measure the art’s vitality in terms of turnover. We look at the amount of good music being made, and music is alive and well and innovating, thank you very much. The people decrying the ongoing development are record company representatives and musical has-beens who are living off their back catalogue — not the next generation’s Beatles. They’re busy putting free mp3s on-line or slipping CDs to their local street pirate and building a following.