Sunday, December 24, 2006

Music -- The Collapse Of An Industry

I've seen several Time/Life commercials for music collections lately. The problem is that while these collections don't really solve a problem they do tend to point out just how awful the quality of music has become. Somehow, music producers have slowly disconnected from their own customers. Today, the quality of music is so bad that there is no strong incentive to buy it. However, at the same time the channels for delivering classic music are so poor that this is cost prohibitive. Today, there exists a huge demand for music that is not being met while music producers are either unaware or unable to meet the demand. According to the recording industry's own data, music sales are down 33% by volume.

I've recently seen commercials for Time/Life's 70's collection. This is 10 CD's with 150 songs for $150. The problem is that this pitiful collection doesn't even scratch the surface of 70's music. The minimum collection would be 200 songs from each year which would amount to 2,000 songs and presumably 134 CD's for $2,000. This is not an offer that is likely to appear from Time/Life. I doubt though that anyone at TL even realizes or cares how insulting this notion is; 150 songs just does not and cannot do justice to a decade of music. 200 per year would be a bare minimum. A more reasonable number would be 10 new songs per week and about 500 songs total per year. This would give us 5,000 songs total for the 70's and would take over 300 CD's. This just isn't practical. How many people are prepared to fork over $5,000 at $1 per song to have a genuine collection of 70's music? And, what about the 60's and the 80's? How many people have a spare $15,000 for music? And, my estimate of 10 songs per week is just a ballpark figure; we could still be scraping off some very good music with this number. Perhaps 10,000 would be better but this of course would just make the disparity even greater. And, TL is not unusual on its pricing. Assuming that a 10,000 song 70's collection would even be available at iTunes the price would basically be the same at 99 cents per song. It is clear that cost is a prohibitive problem with delivering classic music.

I can identify with music from the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's however, it appears that there is a definite deterioration starting in the 90's. This trend appears to have bottomed out and has now stayed at the same low level since 2000. To put it simply, the quality of music today is only a fraction of what it used to be. I wondered what could have happened to throw the music industry so badly off the track that it had followed for half a century. It appears that the problem is radio. Although music producers create and distribute the music it has been up to radio stations to make buyers aware of new music. This was never a problem in the past as the great number of independent radio stations were all too eager to cater to many different tastes in music. However, during the 90's these independent radio stations were bought up by media conglomerates and the process began to short-circuit. Rather than having independent programming, the play schedules became homogeneous across dozens of stations from city to city. As consolidation continued the number of choices became less and less. This had a chilling effect for music producers since there were fewer and fewer independent radio stations to promote new music. In the past, a good song would always be picked up and played by a disc jockey somewhere and there are many examples of hit songs that started from just one station. With independents gone it became important to music producers to have music that was acceptable and this has led to drastically reduced risk taking by producers both in terms of style and in terms of costs.

The rise of rap music was not so much due to embracing a new genre by music fans but rather a genre that has been pushed by producers due to cost considerations. With typical music production studio time is very expensive and requires long hours laying down multiple layers of instrument and vocal tracks and then many more hours mixing and adjusting the sound until it's right. However, rap and hip hop typically use pre-recorded music so this removes the studio time spent recording and mixing the instrument tracks. Rap and hip hop also typically do not have as many vocal layers. For example, a traditional song might require four music layers for percussion, rhythm, lead, and solo instruments using half a dozen musicians. If instruments like saxophone or trumpets are used then it will take more layers because these instruments tend to have different volume levels than other instruments. These layers can be much more elaborate as when The Eagles used symphony music for Wasted Time and Fleetwood Mac used a marching band for Tusk. The vocal tracks can also run to many layers since there will be verse, chorus, and backup vocals and sometimes multiple layers of the same singers for self harmonies as was common with The Carpenters, Air Supply, and Janet Jackson. One album can involve several song writers, many musicians and vocalists. In contrast, A rap album often involves pre-recorded music with one song writer and one vocalist. Even when these are stretched it doesn't usually involve more than a drum or rhythm loop and one or two other vocalists. With much less effort involved, the cost of producing a rap or hip hop album is only a fraction of the cost of a regular album. This has made rap and hip hop much more attractive to music producers since the up front costs and therefore the risks are much less.

It isn't difficult to tell that radio stations in general have declined. When I was in high school there were two local radio stations that played popular music. These are both gone. Popular music was also available on AM however the AM band has almost entirely been replaced by talk radio. Judging from what I have heard on country music stations it is possible that country music has fared better. It is clear, however, that both variety and quality of popular has drastically declined. I am just not seeing bands today of the caliber of The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, ELO, Foreigner, Chicago, Steely Dan, Moody Blues, Temptations, The Doors, Spinners, Beetles, BeeGees, Air Supply, Reo Speed Wagon, Styx, Duran Duran, Jefferson Airplane, Herman's Hermits, Queen, Hall and Oates, Heart, England Dan and John Ford Coley, Credence Clearwater Revival, Crosby Stills and Nash, Police, etc. This list is just a tiny sampling of very good groups and their replacements are nowhere to be seen.

The need to contain costs has led to fewer bands in favor of solo artists as well as the rise of rap and hip hop. Likewise the strong need to reduce risks has greatly curtailed variety in music that is produced today. This drastic reduction in both quality and variety has caused a sharp drop in demand for music which has in turn created a downward spiral for music producers. With less demand, there is less chance of having an investment payoff and this in turn leads to less risk taking which leads to less variety and quality and ultimately even less demand. The demand is actually there and as strong as it has ever been; it's just that the demand is not for what is being offered. The present situation is incredibly strange as there are both a vast number of talented songwriters, musicians, and singers who want to fill the demand along a huge pool of consumers who badly want good music. Supply and demand have become so out of balance that it is a bit like New Orlean's being below sea level. The only thing currently holding back supply from demand is the unnatural damning effect of the radio conglomerates and the ever more conservative music producers.

The traditional mechanisms of radio involves commercials and advertising support. However, with less variety and quality there is less reason to listen to a given radio station. Consider that while the radio conglomerates are trying to scrape by with less variety I can listen to 70's music with no commercials on my cable all day long for only about $10 per month extra. This is drastically less than it would cost to purchase the music outright from iTunes or to buy a TL collection. The music industry seems to be stuck with the idea of total ownership rather than temporary use of a song. When I listen to music on cable it's only temporary; I don't keep or own the music. I'm not sure if it is the idea of piracy that prevents the music industry from a more reasonable temporary pricing rather than outright pricing. With 1,000 songs per year and 4 MegaBytes per song this would require about 120 GigaBytes of storage to have a good collection of 60's, 70's, and 80's music. This is certainly within the range of common harddrives today so storage would not be a limiting factor. However, organization would be. Having the artist, song title, albumn title, and year of release for 30,000 songs would be no minor task. Without some type of database to keep track of all this information it could be nearly impossible to find the songs that you want to listen to even with your harddrive stuffed full of mp3's.

However, if the music industry were actually doing its job then this wouldn't be a problem. The music industry could easily maintain records of music titles, artists and groups, year of release, along with much more more information such as lyrics, band members, songwriters, covers, etc. It should be possible to find a band by knowing the name of one band member or to find a song by knowing some of the lyrics and it should be quite easy for individual playlists to be compiled for each listener. Perhaps this will happen at some point. Perhaps we will have distribution via some type of WiFi, and music will bypass broadcast radio altogether. This could allow more tailored advertising and sampling of new music based on your established tastes. I'm thinking that something like this will have to happen because I cannot see this vast gulf between talent and demand continuing forever nor can I imagine that music producers will be dumb enough to leave themselves cut off from their source of income indefinitely. However, until something like this happens presumably music production will stay at the low level of quality and variety that it is today and radio conglomerates will continue to choke off supply.


Greg said...

Your arguments on the simplicity of Rap make a lot of sense, as early rap was also much more complex than the contempary models we see today.

I believe contempary country music is following the same trend. Country music has been much more complex, and while there are many complex and high quality country songs, they are much fewer and further between than they once were.

We see some examples of groups that have are simply finding small groups of fans and trying to grow their fanbase through tv ads and word of mouth.

Wise lnvestor said...

What? You pay for music?

That's most of the replies if you ask todays teenagers.

Oh btw Scientia some of todays music are good, like house music. And if you could, sample DHT - Listen To Your Heart. Its a good remake of roxette listen to your heart.

Happy holidays. ^^

Scientia from AMDZone said...

Oh, I'm not saying that all of the music today is bad. I'm saying that when I would have expected the volume of music sold to have increased perhaps 20% we've actually seen a 35% drop. I'm certain that there are not fewer talented artists and I'm certain that there are not fewer consumers. However, there does seem to be a problem getting the two connected.

I believe that what is being promoted and sold by the recording industry today is of lower average quality and less variety than what was offered in the 60's, 70's, and 80's.

Dan said...

It's true. Being in my mid-20's, relatively young, I can't stand 95% of new music that is released now. I find myself going back and listening to a lot of 60, 70, 80's music. There is definitely a huge difference in quality. I was very surprised in Sept at the crowd for The Who concert, it was actually a well mixed age group. I feared I would be one of the younger people around, but that wasn't the case.

george said...

I Can not stand the modern music i basically have a hard and fast rule when it comes to music it is it must pre 1990 the music industry is in such bad shape no wonder there pushing drm, i say they are a bunch of greedy you know whats. DRM will only accelerate there demise. i really like this band Machinae Supremacy

sharikouisallwaysright said...

All i have to say is:
Till the mid-seventys the qualitiy of music declined steadily.
I will never pay only a cent to buy todays crap.