I have a playlist that I’ve maintained since the day I started at Warner Bros. Records. It’s called “DEAD”
It served a practical purpose for me. You see, when an artist was signed at a label, there was a lot of celebration. Nice emails went around, artists came to meet with us. There were parties. But when a band was dropped, nothing. Often I wouldn’t find out until an artists brother was calling to get access to the domain again. As the guy that ran the sites, I was often the last or first to know, but never from official channels. The artist just faded.
iTunes proved to be a great way to track who was on roster and who was off roster, or DEAD.
Sometimes an artist would go On Roster to DEAD within the same year.
When you talk to label executives about “what happened” in terms of the cliff that recorded music fell off of, one of the things they’ll tell you is “music became disposable” or “music lost any value for people.”
It’s easy to see how this conclusion could be come to. The value chain got pushed down toward free; it became not only the baseline but the norm. Paying for music was an option reserved for some sense of permanence, but even that lost resonance as taste evolved quicker than any concept of “ownership” of a music library.
Radio was the baseline, free was the new one. But “free” replaced both radio and records. Obviously something that had value losing it so fast was as a catalyst for the loss of sanctity. Obviously.
No one wants to mention the word “disposable” in regards to music.
It’s not so much that disposability is new. Outside of the physical longevity of the generated artifacts, disposability is and was the norm.
Let’s look at the life cycle of an artist being signed and moving between my playlists:
- Artist is signed
- Big party, parades around the building
- Lets make a record!
- Record stiffed?
- Good bye, have your brother call Ethan for the domain and email list.
Music on the business side is a series of failures with the exceptional success. It is oriented toward disposability and transience. A business built on disposability and devaluing while using a self imposed scarcity and the artifice of such to inflate value when it could be exploited.
In reality music was currency in a barter mechanism between those who married content and audience with advertising, and those that held music as an asset to be exploited. The big power cluster in the music business: promotion, A&R, marketing and licensing – all depends on music not being sacred, but being a unique combination of taste and value, with value winning. Especially now.
Through this, people liked music on an emotional level, and had those emotions tapped and manipulated not to drive joy, but in the extraction of maximum value. That included those that worked on the label side. But as the industry contracts, the mechanisms of tapping into emotions became more about value extraction than emotional resonance.
Consider the product development pivots from the business in the last ten years: MVI, DRM, Plays For Sure, Comes with Music, exclusive windowing, etc. These were all categoric failures on the user-experience side, but extracted some additive value and thus were allowed to evolve into even worse permutations.
The fan, and hell those on the front line with the (justifiably) pissed off artists were flinching abused animals.
Where was the next boot falling? We avoided pain and looked for ease, only to have it eliminated. In return we got lock in at the mercy of back room negotiations between the biggest companies in the world, and those that sat on top of the biggest artists in the world.
The Makers of Representation (Apple, etc) against those that Represent the Makers. Who gets caught in the middle? Those that consume and those that make.
All things in technology are by default ephemeral. Transience measured in refresh rates, data rot and entropy, time stamps and archives. The representations of binary are by default subject to the speed of the technology that represents. Things get better, sure, but in the end its all dumped to the ether, to drive or to RAM.
This transience and ephemerality lead to many amazing things. No longer was quantity proportional to physicality. Data sets both large and small were surmountable given algorithms and systems good enough to handle them.
Disposability was a feature. The products around music reflect this.
One of the best of the music technology services could easily be a photo search engine without a fundamental UX change. Music is a carrot for the largest company in the world into an ecosystem of physical goods. For others its the white whale of discovery and monetization of time and attention.
Where the disposability of music used to be a conceit that was used to leverage the actual placement of value, the conceit is now broken. The value placement – artificial scarcity and access controls – dissolved. The consumer is now the radio PD using adds and spins in exchange for exclusivity. The consumer and artist now control the release windowing at will. The services, and their machine learning algorithms dictate discovery and promotion.
Don’t bemoan the lack of value in recorded music. Rejoice. 50 years of effort finally had an effect.