Saturday, November 2, 2013

A World Without Music

The meaning of music has been a lifelong meditation of mine.

When I first heard The Beatles Across the Universe, I was only 7 years old. My mind started to drift and I started seeing things only music could show...imagined dreams.  I’d later get the same feeling listening to songs during a night drive or playing vinyl records for hours. Every time Across The Universe plays, that feeling I had at 7 still lingers. 

* * *  

Music, at its best, invents a new genre. And suddenly, new identities form for a new generation. It's been said many times, music saves lives and  gives people purpose. We are reminded of the human spirit and its power through music. 

Music is present everywhere, every minute. No business is as omnipresent. And it's probably the most taken for granted art, just because it's everywhere. 

So when tasked with  making a business out of music in the modern era, it’s baffling why it’s been such a struggle. Unlike any other business, music is everywhere. It would be hard to find a product people love more than music. Music is also behind some of the most successful technology businesses (Apple, YouTube etc). So why isn’t music as successful as a cellular service? Or a computer company? 

I’ve long blamed copyright. 

Not because I don’t want Artists to be paid, but rather,  the format for copyright is from Elizabethan times and cannot cope with modern behavior and distribution.  It takes years (more than a decade sometimes) before copyright has new laws for channels that never existed before. That's a pace for bankruptcy.

I've listened to a CEO of the world's largest music label tell me just how hard it is to have 2 songs sold together from 2 different artists. He spent years trying to get the rights. Ten years later, it's still not allowed.  If you wonder why Canada doesn't have Pandora or Spotify, look no further than copyright. The laws are different country-to-country. So when you try to make a global business for music, it's impossible. Copyright is about building impenetrable walls between territories. 

Copyright was designed to be geographical and mechanical in nature. It works in a paper world that is internet-less where the product is physical. Copyright works in a music world with boundaries that no longer exist. The industry nobly protects copyright with good intentions for the most part. But it clearly doesn’t work anymore. So keeping copyright  is in essence a slow suicide for the payment of Artists.

Let me illustrate. 

There’s long been a model of having every household pay $5 a month for all-you-can-eat music. Doing the math, that’s already far more than what a household pays for albums today. It's a guarantee of  6-12 albums a year bought by every household.  You can then also easily see how music can charge like a cell phone with premium music services. But copyright cannot accommodate new digital channels. The rights are not there to be given. There’s no geographic border or penny-counting mechanism copyright loves to enforce. And so, this is yet another feasible business model that just dies before birth. Almost every new model for music dies just like this. It gets the axe from copyright. 

I once bought 3000 downloads. But I stopped willingly buying downloads when my machine died and, along with it, the songs were gone. Sure, I had rights to re-download them again…but who has the time to download 3000 songs?  

The pain of losing so many songs has never left me. I loved each Artist. 

* * *
Suddenly, I wondered if music were ever to become extinct. What would that be like?

The radio would only have spoken word – all news, all day long. Talk shows. Movies would only have the grating sounds of the city and human dialogue. Elevators would be quiet. So would every phone, every iPod and every computer.

Phones would no longer ring.

TV commercials would be mostly silent.

You would no longer be able to walk into a bar with music. There’d be no dancing.

Music is the only creative genre where you can walk into any town and see a show. It’s the last daily community on earth in urban centres. There’d be no more community without music.

Long work hours or jogs would be silent or filled with noise.

Baseball stadiums and hockey arenas would only have the din of the crowd.  No more marching bands at football games. 

Video games would only have gunfire and sound f/x .

No choirs would fill a church. No more Christmas caroling.

Many Apple products would be out of business. I actually can't see anyone wanting to use a computer without music. Music is a machine's creative soul. 

YouTube would be would be out of business. 

The awesome spirit of life can no longer be represented in sound.

* * *

But this is far from reality. Today, the opposite is happening. We have more songs released in one year than all songs combined in music history before the internet.

It got fixed by copyright at 99 cents a song without requirement to recommend or rank 1 song admidst 28 million other songs. The odds of being found are miniscule unless you personally know the Artist.  An Artist is a small fish in the world’s largest creative pond, making less than buck if discovered.

So the net math is…great undiscovered music is buried.  Few musicians make money. Copyright rules. And there’s oversupply (by a lot). Today there are more songs released in 1 year than 25x the entire back catalogue of music before downloads. 

We have plenty of music but great music is dying.

Everyone has the tools to make a song fast. Few have the wherewithal to make a great song last, and if so, be found. 

In some years, Top 10 songs account for 80% of the revenues.