Is media worth the trouble?

The always provocative Norman Lebrecht, in his latest column for La
Scena Musicale, thinks that the real economic value of recorded music
is… zero.

It is generally accepted that the dog-and-horn type organisation that
has controlled the distribution of music for 110 years is on its last
legs. A decade ago, six labels held 77 percent of recorded music sales
worldwide. Today, those six are down to four – Universal (31%),
Sony-BMG (25%), Warner (15%) and EMI (9.5%)– and none has got to grips
with the internet revolution that has ravaged their complacent and
often collusive dominance.

In the first half of 2007, CD sales slumped 19 percent in the US, the biggest marketplace, and paid-for downloads fell far short of prediction. EMI is not alone in its turmoil. Warner Music has lost 72% of its peak share value, Sony and BMG are either splitting up or going for full merger depending on the day’s mood and French-owned Universal is a heartbeat away from its next convulsion.

There are two points in time when it all went wrong. At the first internet wave in 1997, record moguls took up a Canute pose and ordered it to recede.. A marketing man of my acquaintance asked the heads of all major labels what they were doing about the internet. The response was: ‘we’ve put the lawyers onto it.’ There was no B-plan. So set was the biz in its ways, so wedded to the physical object, that it did not recognise the download culture until too late.

The lawyers, for their part, shut down or seized swap sites like Napster, doing more harm than good. As they prosecuted peer-to-peer home users – 20,000 so far, most of them teenagers – public opinion turned against an industry that criminalized its customers. Attention is presently focussed on the state universities of Washington and Oregon where deans, citing academic freedom, have refused to pass on threatening letters from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to students in their care. The RIAA is talking of suing the universities. Altogether 4,400 students at 158 US campuses are facing demands to pay $3,000 to $5,000 for alleged piracy. No industry has ever devised a more conclusive way of destroying its fan base.

The second point of downfall was October 2001 when Apple launched the i-Pod and made light (and legal) work of downloading on i-Tunes. More than 120 million I-Pods have been sold, along with other portables. In the process, music lost its gift status. Where, for the whole of the 20th century, you could have gone to any dinner or birthday party with a shrink-wrapped record for the host, music on the i-Pod is not giveable (except as a pitiful voucher). The loss of giveability represent a loss of objective value: if you can’t give it away, what’s it worth? That may explain why downloads are growing so slowly.

In recent months major labels have changed their tune, dropping anti-copying DRM chips and building their own sites to claw back custom from I-Tunes. But for every major launch, 100 websites spring up overnight to offer music direct from the artist or from some non-music enterprise, often for free.

He might well be right. It’s interesting (and refreshing) that the dinosaurs in this scenario aren’t orchestras but rather the entire commercial recording business.

What’s frustrating for orchestra musicians is not only the fact that recorded music had commercial value not very long ago, but that it’s still pretty demanding to produce it. The long-running debate within the community of orchestra musicians about whether making electronic media is about money or audience development reflects both those facts, as well as the current realities.  (The March 2002 issue of Senza Sordino is devoted to this debate.)

And unfortunately there’s no good current model on which to base the arguments We know that orchestras that recorded back in the day were generally orchestras that did well and paid well (by the standards of the time anyway). So there seemed to be a correlation between doing recordings and broadcasts that had commercial value and having a successful institution. But no one knows what the correlation is between institutional success and doing media with no commercial value, especially on the kinds of shoestring budgets and staff resources that most orchestras can devote to media.

There are a goodly number of orchestras that could produce very fine recordings (whether plastic discs or downloads). The idea that doing so actually builds audiences or financial support is, at this point, much more an article of faith than a real fact.

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