Technology Killed the Record Industry

It’s 1950 and the only media you can consume on your own schedule are printed words and records. You have no accessible way to take control over any other cultural artifacts that you may hold dear. You may have thought Gone with the Wind was an excellent picture–as I’ve been lead to believe people once called movies–but you have to wait for a showing to see it. You may like the radio stylings of Amos and Andy, but when they aren’t on the airwaves you have nothing but your memory to relive that glory. And maybe you’ve even taken a liking to this television thing that’s just breaking onto the scene, but that too is staunchly controlled by others. The only cultural products we can realistically say you have control over are the books and vinyl records you own.

It’s 2010, and in your pocket you have a small device the size of a paleolithic hand axe that contains all the cultural products we mentioned in the previous paragraph. All your music and podcasts–as they’ve taken to calling radio programs today–are MP3s, all your movies and television are MPEGs, and all your book are (probably) EPubs. And all of them are instantly accessible in a device smaller than either a book or record were in 1950. Oh and this thing also has access to some newfangled “internet” thing. There’s even a chance it’ll make phone calls.

This, in short, is why the music industry will never be as large a cultural force as it was in the second half of the twentieth century. Just as people today read far fewer books than we’re led to believe they did in the past, people listen to less recorded music. When other cultural forms become more accessible, ones that previously reigned because of their accessibility are bound to suffer. New things don’t replace old things, they fracture the old market.

Music only became truly portable with the arrival stateside of the Sony Walkman in 1980, but it had a personalizable form before that. The falling price of turntables, as well as the arrival of reasonably priced headphones meant that in 1970 you could reasonably listen to a large selection of music alone in the way you chose.

If we jump forward twenty years, the advent VHS–and far more importantly, the release of motion pictures on them–meant that around 1990 you could reasonably have amassed a personal movie collection. Television also became a little more customizable–by virtue of home recording–but the gymnastics required to amass a meaningful collection by personal recording meant that almost no one did.

No, it took until 2000, when television studios realized that they could make money on more accessible versions of their content that they began releasing their shows on DVDs. Then you could really, for the first time, personalize an array of television programs that you could call your own.

And though it started in 2004, it really took until just about today that people might reasonably be expected to realize that they could easily receive the audio-only programming they loved from the radio in much more controllable podcasts. It’s only once that happened that we had a form identifiable as personalized radio.

It’s really not until you have full control over something that you’re able to fully engage with it. I’m sure some–likely older people–will disagree with that statement, but the personal power over the way people define themselves that recorded music had until VHS cassettes arrived is certainly never coming back. And though I wouldn’t deny the potential effects that piracy has had on the music industry’s profits, its problem is far far deeper than that.

200 years ago you were able to assert complete control over materials issued in the printed word. 50 years ago you were able to assert complete control over two universally recognized types of culture. Today you can easily control five–and if we’re willing to count video games, six–unique and interesting types of cultural products. (This is obviously to say nothing of the new things constantly arriving on the internet.)

This possibility for control and deep interaction has remarkable social and cultural impact. In the 1970s, one of the primary ways people would define themselves to each other was their taste in music. Most people knew music, and if they didn’t know your favorites you could play or lend them your records. But if you loved a movie made in 1963, and you were listing it as a favorite to a friend who hadn’t seen it in 1972, it would likely have taken them years to find a way to see it.

This is no longer true. Today a simple trip onto Netflix and they can either stream it in seconds, or receive it on video disc in days. Like records in the 1970, you can show it to them yourself or lend them your disc. Also like the ’70s, they can probably even go buy it in at least one brick-and-mortar store that stocks it. And if none of them do, they can certainly buy it on the internet. This is a revolution that allows people to have deeper ongoing conversations about all manner of cultural products. They’re no longer limited to just music and books.

The quintessential example of this is the enduring popularity of the television show The Wire. Though most of the show’s run happened in relative obscurity on a channel a modest number of US households receive, the show gained some prominence and much critical acclaim as it ended. Since then–when it stopped being available in its original medium of distribution–its popularity and profile has grown. This would have been unfathomable in that half century of the music industry’s cultural dominance.

In 1980, I’d venture that 90% of young people would profess to have a favorite album. Today, I’d venture that 50% might. And this isn’t due merely to the ease with which we can free ourselves from the imposed construct of the album, but also because young people are as able to spend their free time and money becoming movie buffs, television buffs, podcast buffs, video game buffs, as they are to be book or music buffs. This fracturing is the essential problem facing the music industry, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.