I was idling at work in between finishing one piece of documentation and starting the next, thinking of a Loveline episode I heard some time ago that featured Gene Simmons as a guest host. He was fielding music industry questions, and while in the middle of a possibly heated rant, (to paraphrase wildly) he cited the internet, and specifically peer-to-peer filesharing, as being part of the reason the music industry was failing. That opinion appears to be shared by a few other people:

Streaming music's effect on dropping album sales

Mariah Carey lashes out at major record labels for not adapting to new Internet business models, resulting in lost revenue

Cracks show in music industry over P2P enforcement

And the funny thing is, they're all correct, as far as I can tell. The music industry appears, by all accounts, to be losing money with regularity. Opinion is divided over whether this is because of music piracy or because consumers hate current distribution models. I personally lean towards the latter; there are many people, myself included, who feel that the marketing machine that the RIAA represents is abhorrent, self-serving, and consumer-unfriendly.

The internet has brought the wonder of choice to every person on the face of the planet who can get to a computer. Previous music marketing models relied on things like radio and television, where your choice of what you hear is limited by what the producers choose to play. Outside of local venues, you had to know people in indie circles, the music underground, in order to hear anything else. As music recording technology evolved, and the ability to record music both better and easier, the amount of available music began to grow with it. Your choices expanded; no longer were you limited to just what was available locally or through a major media outlet.

Then the internet hit, and we got things like Usenet and BBSes. Music piracy grew, but so did your music choices; you could, with a little effort to get connected, hear music from anywhere in the world. The technology expanded and changed: now the focus was on content provided by the consumer, rather than the company responsible for distribution of that content. Youtube, free music sites like mp3.com, the rise of the blog, all of it supports that same DIY grassroots type of motivation that indie musicians had been making a living from for decades. The major difference is that the bar to entry, once placed somewhat high for the average garage band, plummeted to almost zero-cost levels. All it takes to get your music on the internet these days is a computer, a net connection, and a microphone.

This leads me to my original point: the music industry is, in fact, failing. Revenues to major labels, all of them nominally responsible for distribution and marketing, are dropping and have been for quite some time. Consumers prefer choice almost more than they prefer quality; our entire economy is based on the idea that anyone should be able to compete with anyone else in a given industry. The internet's given the choice to anyone who can get near it, and with the ubiquitousness of internet connections these days, you'd have to be living in a tent in the forest to avoid it. Since we are no longer bound by what major record labels decide to promote, we are free to listen to whatever the hell we feel like.

This scares the everliving shit out of the music industry.

Since their general marketing practices were based on the concept that the consumer had no other easy choices, they were free to promote whoever they wanted and make Scrooge McDuckian amounts of money from things like advertising and licensing fees. The rise of the group band is a direct result: even today we have longstanding groups like Menudo and Morning Musume who freely swap members in and out as they move on to other projects, don't appear to actually play any instruments, and don't write any of their own material, yet make ridiculous amounts of money because the members of the group all look fantastic and are marketed directly at teenagers, who have nothing but disposable income.

Now that we are not bound by major labels into what we can listen to, they are losing revenue. Rather than try and adapt to new distribution and marketing methods, they have decided that we don't deserve a choice. Digital rights management (or DRM) is explicitly about making sure that the things you pay for are not shared with anyone else in ways that major corporations do not approve. They do not trust you to do the "right" thing and follow copyright law. And why should they? After all, they're people too, and if they know anything, it's that having to pay more money means less money in your pocket. It's their job to reduce costs and improve profits, and so they do it by choosing the only things that would keep them from ripping off corporations: by removing your choice to do anything else.

The catch here is that it isn't really working like they want. Encryption schemes can be broken, even if the only option is brute force. Peer-to-peer distribution technologies like Bittorrent make it easy to get a lot of data out to a lot of people without relying on a single content distributor. The internet is far, far larger than they are, and to all appearances they've only recently woken up to the idea. And yet! And yet! Major record labels still persist in trying to enforce old, outdated marketing and sales models:

Music: Too Expensive to Be Free, Too Free to Be Expensive

Ashland restaurants warned about music copyright infringement - on live, original music

SESAC Hit With Class Action Suit By Local TV Broadcasters

That's not to say everyone is still in the dark:

(Phil Ramone) says recording industry shouldn’t resist online revolution

50 Cent: “P2P is Part of Music Marketing”

(MC Hammer) points to future of downloads

So yes, for the time being, the music industry is failing. They are losing money compared to their previous sales records. I am personally of the opinion that it will never reach previous sales levels; the internet's too ubiquitous and the technology too easily circumvented. The music industry's "golden age", as it were, is over. Oh, it'll never totally go away; marketing is still lucrative if you're smart about it, and the media's too tied into advertising to ever get rid of it.

Now, you may think, why does he keep emphasizing "industry" like that? Well, it's easy: the industry might be failing, that is, the machine that makes all of its money off of advertising and distribution and what-have-you. However, the global music scene, the production of music by musicians and their ability to be heard by fans, is getting more and more impressive at a remarkable rate. Here's something to think about:

Every single day, for the rest of my life, I can listen to a band I've never heard before, with nothing more than a few minutes in a search engine.

I don't have to check out a record store, I don't have to hear it on the radio, I don't have to wait for someone to hand it to me. Before the internet, this was impossible, unless you worked in the industry or in a record store and had the same sort of access. Arguments about copyright and price aside, the ability to make music and get it to your fans is fantastically easy. No longer do you need to cough up ridiculous amounts of money just to get your records out so people can hear them. If people like you, they will let the internet know. If enough people like you, it suddenly becomes impossible not to be popular: your music starts to show up in odd places, passed from person to person.

However, there's a caveat to this. Since the bar to entry is far lower, the pool of competitors is much larger. Since everyone's got the same tools, the emphasis on talent (both raw and trained) is much higher. A report from the Times bears this out. Record sales are down across the board, but live show revenues are rising. It's more important than ever for the new band to get out and be heard, to make sure their live shows are tight and well-done, and to make sure they can actually deliver. In a sense, it's the punk DIY aesthetic taken to a major extreme: if you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you'll never be heard.

I'm convinced that music piracy, while breaking established copyright laws, is an unstoppable force. There are too many people in too many places with too few scruples. However, major record labels are nearing the end of their lifespan. They're being forced to compete with independent labels who readily embrace digital distribution models and are willing to offer reasonable pricing. They have to compete with musicians who dislike having to pay money to a major corporation who sucks the majority of their profit right out of their effort and talent, and now have the tools to bypass them entirely. Innovation and variety in music is growing fast, and there's nothing to stop you from getting your feet wet.

I'm not going to tell you to not listen to certain music. That's wrong and a discredit to both you and the band. But there's no reason why you should let your music choices be fed to you instead of going out and really looking for new music. There are so many people doing so many cool things that you can find something to enjoy in any genre, from anywhere on the planet, even if it's something you normally don't bother with.

Stop letting other people dictate your choices and make sure you're listening to the bands you really want to listen to. Don't support ridiculous business practices and companies who don't really deserve any of your money. Support the artists and the artists only - they're the reason you're listening to music in the first place. There's no excuse not to any more.

last.fm - Music discovery and ranking system based on what your friends listen to (The E2 last.fm group)
Sellaband - Fundraising coordination site for independent musicians: contribute money directly to a band so they can release!
Hype Machine - Music blog spider
Blip.fm - Music discovery system based on recommendations by friends
ccMixter - Free music remix site that only allows submissions released under the Creative Commons license
/mu/ - 4chan's /music/ board; despite the rest of the site, maybe they can be well-behaved
remix.vg - Remix/cover/mash-up trade website
SoundCloud - Free alternative music distribution system, targeted at musicians and recording labels
Pandora - Ad-driven internet radio, makes recommendations based on technical similarities of songs to ones that the user prefers or dislikes
thesixtyone - Peer-recommendation driven music discovery site, has a much more game-oriented system than most other sites

Let me know if I missed a good site.

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