The End of the Music Industry

New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow not only writes for the paper, he produces stunning infographics. This time, he gives us visual proof of the decline of the music industry in the infographic below. Read the article here. The statistics he cites are fascinating, particularly the suggestion that the Long Tail is actually quite short:

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.

Again, a chapter of Networked Publics, this time the chapter on culture is worth taking a look at. Here, we surveyed the changes in consumption and production of cultural artifacts in the last decade. The trends in the book that we identified are all still in play, albeit even more so. 

The other day a student was fined $750,000 for downloading music. In theory, this financial death sentence should deter other downloaders, but its too late, as meaningless a gesture as the East German government's assassination of Chris Gueffroy, shot to death crossing the Berlin Wall in January 1989. Blow finishes his piece by mentioning Apple's efforts to bring back the album and concludes "It’s too little too late."

I know that my thesis that network culture is distinct from postmodernism is controversial, but the change in the music industry is an example of how different things are: where under postmodernism, capital colonized culture, and in turn culture colonized capital, today we watch a massive collapse of the culture industry. Instead of culture and its products (which were still physical), capital sought to trade in the next horizon, information and its delivery. In doing so, however, capital ran across the difficulties of capitalizing on that condition and is now faced with a crisis.    

My sense is that there's also more to this than rampant piracy and a shift to legal music downloading. I'd be curious to find out if our consumption of music has shifted to other fields.

One possibility is that our attention has shifted elsewhere. If teenagers spend their time in online forums, on YouTube or surfing for pr0n, that's less time devoted to music.   

Another, more prosaic possibility is that it is far easier to preview music than ever before. Since my tastes are far more esoteric than FM radio, I used to blindly buy albums based on recommendations from stores or previous work by the artists, but now I can decide if I like the music before I buy it. Much of the time I don't. 

Moreover, there's always the dark possibility that given the global continuum that the Internet has brought us, the production of the new has been inhibited. On a personal note, I find very little from the last decade worth listening to. Maybe that's a broader problem? The fact that there are no major new movements to compare with New Wave, Hip-Hop, or Electronica in this decade (surely not Emo?) points in this direction as well. 

Likely, its a combination of these changes. But its clear to me that Network Culture is not the same thing as postmodernism.  


The Biz's Death Knell

Another great post, Kazys. As a music consumer (and musician), watching the sea change in music recording and sales for the past decade and a half has been, for lack of a better word, terrifying. I used to like the idea that anyone could post mp3's of their music online and control the means of distribution ... but for what price? The culture of music listening has been irrevocably altered (as you point out), and one of the most visible aspects of this is how music consumption has been transformed from a type of educated-purchasing to pure impulse buying. The iTunes, emusic,, models all encourage this. Go to Starbucks. Bet you never thought you'd leave with copy of Wilco's latest album, right? And you thought you only wanted a Frappucino.

I may be channeling Adorno here, but I think that this culture of impulse buying has actually affected the sound and quality of the music that is being sold. Everything is mixed and mastered very loudly. Everything sounds like a single.

I do feel lucky to have been a rabid music consumer in the 90s. Those were the times. This is not nostalgia. This is grieving.

Thanks, Enrique. I think that

Thanks, Enrique. I think that the problem with loud mixing and mastering is in part also due to the medium on which it is played iPod. Even musically-educated friends of mine have dumped their CD collections and stereos for iPods and powered speakers.

Now, I'll be the first to recognize how awfully limited the CD format is, but most digital files out there are much worse and the quality of sound reproduction on an iPod is abysmal. Instead of a golden age for Hi-Fi, the way it is for photographic reproduction, its a debacle. 

When I was a teenager, we had ambitions to own real stereo systems. If our idea of good was 500 watt receivers, plastic turntables, and big, floorstanding speakers at least there was some idea of progress. The iPod effectively puts an end to that and, given the damage that listeners sustain to their ears listening over the crappy white iPod headphones, today's youth won't ever be able to even understand high quality sound. 

The same can be said for video. The artifacting on DVDs is easily noticeable in comparison to Blu-Ray, but the latter format is struggling because its easier to download a tiny video on YouTube rather than make the effort to obtain the Blu-Ray disk.

hey now!

I think the fact that over the last decade you've found nothing to listen to is more indicative of your personal musical taste than it is of any change in relative musical quality. Maybe it's just because I'm in my 20s and the music currently being released is music made by people in my own generation, but I feel confident that if you reached out a bit you'd find a lot of new music right up your alley. While it's true that there have not really been any major new musical movements, I think that a lot of music right now is concerned with taking elements of old movements and re-interpreting them in conjunction with other types of music. It doesn't seem like a very good assumption to make that just because we can't fix a nice label to new musical genres (which are, after all, largely arbitrary) that the current crop of new music is somehow worse than older music.

There is, however, definitely a difference in the manner in which music is consumed today because of the influence of the internet and the immediacy of means with which we can sample music before we purchase it. I'm not convinced it's a negative change, though. I would argue that while you're correct in saying that music consumption has transformed from educated buying to impulse buying. However, I think it's important to point out that people who impulse-buy songs on iTunes are probably the same people who went out and bought the latest single or album that they really liked on the radio. Individuals who read about and sought out music similar to music they liked didn't change their habits with the advent of the internet. The only change here is that they are more likely to find music that they like (and, consquently, less likely to buy albums they don't like) because of the availability of sample tracks and the proliferation of music criticism on the web.

Enrique, the trend of increasing mix volume has been continuing every since the 1970s and isn't really related to the culture of single-track purchases. People tend to rate louder songs more highly than those played quietly, but until CDs were adopted as the music medium of choice, the physical limitations of vinyl records kept engineers from being able to master albums at too high a volume. Since then, of course, the average loudness of new releases has been increasing, peaking around the year 2000. You can read a lot more about the whole controversy here:

The claim the everything sounds like a single strikes me as rather disingenuous. Maybe every track sounds like a single to you, but to make the claim that every new track on every new album sounds like a single only highlights your apparent lack of knowledge concerning contemporary music. As with Kazys, I encourage you to seek out new music and give it a serious chance. There is a lot of fantastic music being made even as I type this, though I concede the point that it may not appeal to your ears.

I'm disappointed that the normally enlightened dialogue on this site has degenerated into "why, when I was a boy" declarations with implicit negative value statements. The presence of the internet has certainly decreased the fidelity of the artistic media available, but at the same time it's proliferated it far beyond its previous analog boundaries. New music isn't worse than old music, it's just different. MP3s may have lower audio fidelity than your vinyl LPs, but I can fit 3000 albums on my iPod and I don't need a moving van to make sure that the acoustic session from Blood on the Tracks are there when I really need a hit of "Idiot Wind." It may be the end of the music industry, but let's not confuse the industry with the artists. It's not the end of awesome, inspiring, entertaining music.

Ian .... Worthwhile points!

Ian .... Worthwhile points! Additionally, I'd like to point out that I am still in my 30s, so I am not much older than you (at least not old enough to classify me as part of an older generation). Also, a couple of years ago, I worked at a very large talent and literary agency in Los Angeles (which is, by the way, one of the biggest players in terms of music bookings out there) ... I also used to tour with bands up until the early 00's ... which is to say that as a dedicated music consumer, and former entertainment industry exec., I do consider myself pretty knowledgeable about contemporary music. I am also aware of the loudness wars, but I feel like the issue of mastering volume has everything to do with impulse buying as anything else.

And you are right ... there will always be awesome, inspiring music. It's just that (for better or worse) the channels, avenues, and structures of connoisseurship once provided by the music industry are now gone. Think about it, how has the role of A&R changed in this current age?

Good points, nevertheless!

I hope I'm proved wrong!

Hi Ian. Well, I hope I'm proved wrong! But I do try to make an effort to follow what not only what my friends are listening to but also what students are listening to and it seems like people are listening to the same old thing. Still, a few great things have happened in this decade. I'd rank Schneider TM and the Knife among them. And, on a more positive note, DIY online videos at sites like YouTube can be compelling, like this brilliant literal video of REM's "Losing My Religion." This is something that was wholly unavailable except in the form of mass market music videos until very recently.   

Thanks for the great link to the loudness wars. It seems to me that blobitecture is the architectural equivalent. But couldn't the loudness wars be attributed to increasing deafness on the part of the recording engineers? I'm not kidding. 


I recently wrote...

Very intresting, I recently wrote an article on my blog about the future of the music industry it can be found at

kazys, an article elaborating

kazys, an article elaborating on loudness and mastering engineers: