By Rod Bastanmehr
Alan Ellis died twice.
But more on that later, because if Ellis has learned anything, it’s that the music always comes first.
It’s no secret that the music industry has been going in a downward slide since early in the new millennium. In 2000, record sales were at a high with nearly 10 million sales per year. Now, eight years later, three million seems like a benchmark, garnering applause and pleasant surprise. So what exactly happened?
“The future happened,” said Evan Serpick, a contributing writer to Rolling Stone Magazine’s music division. “There has always been a constant evolution of music formats. From vinyl to eight-track and cassette to compact disc, the medium has been evolving for ages … it’s no surprise that at a certain point the industry would evolve to the point where it made itself obsolete.”
Serpick’s statements are anything but radical; industry insiders themselves are admitting to the possible end of the road for major record labels. And while those same labels struggle to reinvent their methods and adapt to new business models, some wonder if, frankly, it’s just too late.
“The fact of the matter is that the [record] business is over,” said music attorney Peter Paterno. Representing artists ranging from Metallica to Dr. Dre, Paterno doesn’t fault the talent behind the labels — rather, he attributes this “end of the road” to a change in times. “The labels themselves really do have wonderful artists under their umbrella … the simple truth is that they just can’t make [any money] off of them,” he said.
The year 2007 saw a meager 500.5 million albums sold. While the number seems substantial, in comparison to the 1.35 billion sold just three years ago, it’s not hard to see what Paterno is calling “the end of the business.” Since 2003, 2,700 record stores have quietly closed their doors, while big chains like Tower Records and Sam Goody’s have gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy. In 2000, the 10 top-selling albums of the year sold a combined total of over 60 million copies.
But in 2007, the top 10 barely sold a combined 25 million copies — less than half of the 2000 sales records.
But again, the question remains: what happened? How did the music industry get here? While times do indeed change, mediums have typically been able to adapt. As Sirpick states, maybe the sad fact is that the labels were simply not prepared for the drastic shift in consumer expectations.
“It really caught [the labels] off guard,” Serpick said. “The sudden rise of digital music downloads really came out of the blue … there was no grace period for them to prepare.”
But for Paterno, this is more than just a sudden economic change for the industry — the entire medium of music itself is changing. “The way we listen, the way we digest, the way we acquire, everything is changing,” Paterno said. “The industry is so busy trying to fix the financial pratfalls, that they’re ignoring the fact that this is more than just a sales drop — this is a shift in the entire music experience.”
It’s true that the factors leading to the drop in sales have greatly affected the corporate labels. But what’s really making a splash is what this means for the medium of music as a whole. Three distinct branches of the music world are directly feeling the effect of this change, and for once, the artists, the fans, and the industry are agreeing on something — times are indeed changing.
“It’s not the same ballgame anymore. It’s barely even the same sport,” said Brian Joseph Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, American producer and one half of the Grammy award-winning music duo Gnarls Barkley. “Back in the day, you would release a record when you were done, and people would get excited, and hopefully buy it. Nowadays, you’re lucky if a quarter of your fans don’t already have the album by the time you’re ready to set a release date.”
The problem that Danger Mouse is referring to is the notorious album leak, a situation that is both dire to the music world and enormously advantageous. But regardless of the ever-growing list of pros and cons regarding the leaks, there has always been a general consensus to fix the situation — something that has proven to be easier said than done.
Within the last year alone, Madonna, the Raconteurs, Arctic Monkeys and many other artists became victims of the dreaded album leak. But while the industry continues to find ways to prevent the premature online release of albums, many artists have just learned to go with the flow; among them Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay and especially Radiohead, the band largely responsible for the sudden trend of new albums being available for free download. But at the end of the day, this may be more an example of damage control than creative regimen.
“I mean, can you really control it? No. Is it the absolute worst thing that could happen to an artist? No. But it’s really just further proof of the shit going on in the industry,” Danger Mouse said. “It’s no longer on your own rules.”
Danger Mouse himself felt this firsthand when Gnarls Barkley’s second album, “The Odd Couple,” found its way to the Internet in early March, nearly a month before its planned release date on April 8. As a result, the duo was forced to make the album available for digital download on March 18, still a good three weeks before the initial release.
“We had a schedule, and we were working with the schedule, and that just threw everything off,” Danger Mouse said. “I remember Cee-Lo [the other half of Gnarls Barkley] telling me that the record is out, and me saying, ‘Oh yeah, but it’s not out-out yet,’ you know?”
Danger Mouse reluctantly tried to phrase himself correctly. “I didn’t want to put it out [on iTunes] before the physical release … if I could, I would have them all come out the same day,” he said. “Some people like it online, but I guess I’m old-school. I’ll always prefer it in my hands.”
But while the tangible nature of the album may seem like a simple preference, Danger Mouse himself raises a good point. Creative decisions made by the artists are more than just superfluous requests — often, they are an extension of the art form. And with hands-on musicians such as Gnarls Barkley, listeners can rest assured that nothing is done by accident.
“It’s all very carefully orchestrated,” Danger Mouse said. “[Albums] are like books — you have the chapters in a specific order, and you read them in that order. There is a specific structure, and it’s there for a reason … there is not a single album that doesn’t have track listings in that order for a reason.”
It’s statements like these that show the shift in the music industry as more than an inability to prevent album leaks, or a dip in album sales. Our generation has become a new breed of listener — one that doesn’t abide by the conventions of traditional listening. In fact, one of the biggest catalysts for musical change lies in a simple button: the shuffle. The option, which allows listeners to have their music played in a random order, has systematically destroyed the idea of linear-based concept albums.
“It’s really changed the way we digest music,” Danger Mouse said. “There is no real order, no story. The experience has just been altered.”
Many concept albums follow a specific, if vague, storyline. The idea of the shuffle is more than just changing the way we listen — it’s also changing the way artists will continue to structure their albums. With the jagged and erratic listening technique of our generation, the artist will for once see themselves not as a catalyst of change, but a victim of it.
“It’s weird, because usually [the artists] spark change in the industry,” Danger Mouse said. “This is one of the first times I can remember that the fans are causing us to change our ways, the way we work. … It’s nuts.”
There is no doubt that the success of the music world is completely indebted to the fans. But those same fans are rapidly changing, and it seems that their message remains in a state of confusion.
“Our goal isn’t to destroy the record industry,” said third-year Peter Runton. “I don’t think that was anyone’s goal. We want to share music, it’s simple as that.”
Runton’s statements are exactly why the industry, which has recently been trying its hardest to crack down on file-sharing, is beginning to look less like an authoritative conglomerate and more like a big bully.
But not all music fans are spreading music love through illegal downloading. Justin Ouellette, creator of Muxtape.com, has found a loophole to the illegal connotations that come with sharing music. The free site lets members create their own online “mix tapes” from the site’s MP3 library. The “tapes” can then be accessed by simply clicking on the site’s array of playlists, which then stream the songs for free, and even give you the option of buying the MP3.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” said Daphnie Wyman, a member of the site. “If the goal is to simply share music, then [Muxtape.com] does that. You can access everyone’s playlist for free, and listen as much as you want. You get to find new artists, connect with new people … and best of all, it’s free!”
The site is the kind of retro throwback to the days of yesteryear for the online generation that music buffs have always been clamoring for. “It brings back a sort of innocence,” said Jonathan Landis, another Muxtape member. “It’s a more classic approach to music sharing, but it’s obviously updated for today … it just reminds you about how uncomplicated [music] used to be, but how important it’s always been.”
“I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said third-year Rachel Grasoir, a friend of Runton. “Music is something that everyone should have the ability to appreciate and experience … in essence, that should be the goal of the artists anyway.”
Grasoir makes a good point; after all, these are the same artists that pride themselves on doing this job “for the music.” This radical change in distribution may be hurting a chunk of the industry’s income, but it’s through this mess that the majority of their works (not to mention their names) are getting out.
“It still doesn’t fully justify what’s going on,” said third-year music major Jack Harrings. “Regardless of whether or not artists are doing this for the money, what it really comes down to is artistic ethics … I mean honestly, how can you justify an album leaking online weeks before the planned release?”
Indeed, the leaks seem to be a concern on all fronts, but over the years, it has become the source of music’s availability that is changing the way we listen. One music fan in particular took the idea of mass music accessibility to a new high, creating a small BitTorrent website that allowed for members to seed albums to other members. The site was small, with few members, and was promptly shut down, and its creator given a stern warning about illegal music distribution.
This was the first time Alan Ellis died.
For the sake of anonymity, his name has been kept hidden, with many suspecting “Alan Ellis” to simply be a faux online tag. Ellis eventually conceived an even bigger website — one that reached cross-continental bounds, connecting music fans from all over the world, with every kind of music at their fingertips. The catch: you had to give as much as you got, so for every download of music you got off of someone else, someone else needed to be able to get music from you. It was the illegal equivalent of paying it forward, and on May 30, 2004 OiNK began.
And three-and-a-half years and 180,000 members later, it all came crumbling down. Dutch police confiscated the OiNK hosting service located in Amsterdam, while British police arrested Ellis on counts of illegal pirating of music and pre-releasing of albums.
This was the second time that Allan Ellis died.
Except this time, he took fan accountability with him. In short, fans who had previously been understanding of the downloading issue were now simply angry.
“There were all these misconstrued facts about [OiNK] and that entire ideal,” said Runton, a former OiNK member. “They were blaming OiNK for the leaks of these albums. But the members weren’t the ones leaking the albums — in order for us to get them, they would have already had to have been leaked … we were literally sharing music we found … OiNK was the easiest target, but arguably one of the least guilty.”
When asked if the death of OiNK will prove to be a large catalyst in the war between fans and labels, Runton pauses for a second before looking up.
“Without a doubt.”
Yet the question must be asked — are the labels really the bad guys? The authorities are the ones behind the various arrests and takedowns of illegal music operations, and the only thing that the industry has gained has been the unfortunate after-effects. Over 5,000 record industry employees have been laid off since the outburst of online archives in 2000. The number of major record labels went from five to four, with a merge of two still being discussed. While the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) cites the “Big Four” (EMI, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group) as the remaining largest and most influential, as many as 1,600 labels are under the RIAA representation. If followed through, by 2010, there could be as few as three major record labels.
One senior music-industry source, who requested anonymity, went even further: “Basically, we have a business that’s dying … there won’t be any major labels pretty soon. It’s as simple as that.”
But even labels are out of ideas on how to handle the recent outburst of music availability — namely the constant leaks.
“Quite honestly, there really is no proper marketing strategy,” laughed Julie Greenwald, president of Atlantic Records. “It’s absolute chaos … anytime we catch wind of an online leak, it’s like Black Tuesday … everything just flies out the window.”
But even through all the smoke and rubble, Greenwald seems to see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “Many are predicting the labels will become obsolete,” she said, “but this isn’t necessarily the end of us.”
Indeed, at the end of the day, the collapse of the current music scene may mark a rabid rebirth in business standards. In short, it may be chaos that saves the music industry after all.
“People think that large amounts of marketing are what sell these albums,” Greenwald said. “But it hasn’t always been like this — this is our mass-media era’s take on how to make something popular.”
Greenwald makes a strong point. Guerilla marketing is a relatively new approach; in the 1960s, bands like the Beatles would take their completed works to the market with little or no fanfare. The result, for them, was becoming arguably the greatest band of all time. For Greenwald, it’s that exact combination of business tactics and fans’ hunger for bakery freshness that may fix the industry, leading us back to the spontaneity of yesteryear.
“We’re not done yet,” Greenwald said. “People seem to think that the labels are the essence of the industry. It’s the music. Sales go up and down, trends and formats come and go. Nothing is ever certain — maybe that’s what makes it exciting. But things won’t always be like this.”
Greenwald contemplates in silence for a moment before looking back with a confident smile and a simple statement.
“It always comes back to the music.”