If I read one more gratuitous click-bait headline that says, “Streaming Is Saving The Music Business,” or “Blockchain Is Going To Save The Music Business” I think I’m going to scream. The recorded music business surely is facing many problems now, had them in the past, and will have them in the future, but to say that it will be saved from them by a technology is ignoring its rich history with technology.
Look, the “music business” is about the distribution of music, but music now and forever is the product. As long as people want to hear it, there’s going to be a business built around it. As I’ve stated many times before, the business is extremely good at adopting new technology, and almost every time that happens it prospers (yes, there are a few exceptions like the mini-disc and SACD). When it does suffer a contraction, there’s almost always an element of greed on the part of either the industry or a technology company involved (like introducing a new format for the sole purpose of replacing a perfectly viable one when the patent runs out, or overpriced CDs with only one hit on them).
Convenience Is King
What most people forget is the thing that consumers respond to most when it comes to music (besides the music itself) is convenience. Let’s go back to the beginning of the recorded music business one more time and work our way through:
- In the beginning there was sheet music. That was the only product, and music publishers ruled. It predates the modern music business.
- The introduction of the piano roll meant that you could have music at any time without having a piano player on hand (obviously no Musician’s Union to protest back then).
- The lacquer record meant that you could listen to a whole host of musicians any time you wanted, as long as you owned a Victrola.
- Vinyl records made it easy to make and transport those recordings with less fear of breakage. It also made radio syndication possible, which helped grow the business.
- The 8 track tape, and then the cassette, meant that your music was finally portable. You could take it with you anywhere you went, and even play it in your car.
- The CD provided random access so you didn’t have to fast forward or rewind through a tape to find the song that you wanted to listen to.
- The MP3 provided even more transportability where you could have your entire library available on your computer and easily share the music with your friends (obviously a feature popular with consumers but not the industry).
- Streaming means that you don’t have to dedicate personal hard drive space to your music files, plus you have immediate access to millions of songs virtually anytime and anyplace.
Notice what you don’t see? There’s nothing about sound quality (it was a byproduct at times but not the main feature) or value-adds like videos, lyrics or graphics.
Streaming is just another way to get music into the ears of people that want to listen to it. The industry was certainly in the financial doldrums before it came along, but it happily limping along selling analog and digital products and wasn’t about to die, hence, no saving. Streaming will also eventually be replaced by some new technology that’s ultimately more convenient to the user because that’s how the cycle works. Make it easy and the consumer is all in.
When Blockchain Is And Is Not Useful
Which brings us to blockchain. Yes, the blockchain technology may be useful in a host of backroom data applications within the business, but most presentations that I’ve seen go something along the lines of this – “Blockchain is going to allow artists and record labels to be able to charge high prices again for music because people will have to pay to get access to it because it can’t be cracked.” In other words, it’s usually presented as a sales device instead of a data tool, where the technology could actually do some good.
When it comes to a sales-based blockchain, first of all the cow is already out of the barn when it comes to price. People are now used to getting their music for free and are just becoming accustomed to paying a monthly fee for it. Getting them to pay a flat fee again for an album (a format quickly declining in popularity by the way) or a single is just not going to happen on a mass scale unless there was a feature or a value-add involved that no one has thought of yet. That shoots down the whole “blockchain is going to save the business” argument right there.
The next argument presented in favor of blockchain is “It will eliminate the middleman,” as if that’s a good thing. Does the artist or songwriter receive a large enough piece of the gross revenue for their efforts? Definitely not. Do most artists have the expertise to exploit their music? I’d venture to say that 99%+ of them don’t, and given the choice, almost every artist would prefer someone specialized handle that exploitation so they could just continue doing what they do best – creating music. Middlemen play a necessary purpose in all of this, but they come at a price and in many cases it’s too high.
Even so, blockchain wouldn’t eliminate a record label since that’s who does the grunt work of promotion and marketing (and they’re really good at it). A chain isn’t going to do that for you.
If it sounds like I’m standing up for big business at the expense of the little guy, think again. It may be unfair and as a result we’re always trying to cause the pendulum to swing back a bit more in favor of the artist, but the system itself has evolved the way it has because it also works. Inefficiently, yes, but it serves a real purpose.
Now undoubtedly a new technology will eventually come along that will revolutionize the way we consume our music once again. That won’t save the business either, because as long as there’s music being made that people want to listen to, there will always be a music business.