Too Little, Too Late?

I hope so, though I've learned to never underestimate entrenched power and unimaginable sums of money. The traditional music industry is seriously reeling now, thanks to their ham-handed manner in dealing with their consumers and their unwillingness to accept the realities of the digital age, and I can't say I feel sorry for them.

Part of their problem is that they refuse to acknowledge that their primary format is dying, even though sales figures have shown it to be so for years.

Despite costly efforts to build buzz around new talent and thwart piracy, CD sales have plunged more than 20 percent this year, far outweighing any gains made by digital sales at iTunes and similar services. Aram Sinnreich, a media industry consultant at Radar Research in Los Angeles, said the CD format, introduced in the United States 24 years ago, is in its death throes. “Everyone in the industry thinks of this Christmas as the last big holiday season for CD sales,” Mr. Sinnreich said, “and then everything goes kaput.”
And anyone who has paid a modicum of attention for the last five years has seen what killed the CD. Convenience.

If you're a person who listens to music a lot, who buys it and goes to concerts, who wears band logos on hats and t-shirts and the like, the bane of your existence for the last 30 years (if you're that old) has been making your music portable.

The Walkman was an incredible jump because it made your music personal, and because cassette tapes were easier to carry around. The loss of music quality from LP album was acceptable because you didn't need a turntable to hear your songs, and the recordable format made it possible for music lovers to not only share music, but to make their own "best of" albums. The only drawback, though we didn't really see it as a drawback at the time, was that it was a pain to carry more than a handful of tapes at a time (and replacing batteries every day got expensive).

The introduction of the CD changed that a bit--the music quality got better, and once portable CD players got cheap enough, they really took off, but until the rise of Napster and the inexpensive CD burner on the PC, the music industry had their control again. But even then, carrying more than a handful of CDs was a pain.

But now there's a generation of music lovers who have grown up with control. Napster (and all the programs that rose as it died), CD burners, and now especially the MP3 player, have given this generation full control over what they'll listen to and how, and all packaged into a machine that you could nearly swallow with a glass of water.

And yet, the music industry might have survived, even thrived, if they hadn't gone after users with lawsuits. Right now, among the people I know under the age of 22 (and as a teacher of college freshpeople and sophomores, I'm in contact with a number of them), there may be no greater bogeyman than the RIAA. Those four letters inspire hatred and venom at an unbelievable level. Even politicians who talk smack about video game violence don't get their blood as hot as the RIAA does.

Other cultural critics have said that part of the problem is the quality of the music coming out, that there's nothing exciting or new, that it's all been corporatized to hell and back, and that may be accurate, but that's the same criticism that's been leveled at music companies for decades. You always have to search for new and exciting music, because the major labels didn't get to be major by taking chances--they got major by following the herd and smoothing the rough edges off of exciting music and thereby blanding it for public consumption.

But in the end, it's the RIAA that will have killed the music industry, if indeed it dies. Lots of people warned that the Napster lawsuits would backfire, but few listened. Maybe that will wind up being a good thing.

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