|Does music have a future?|
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I lead a dual life. By day, I am Interaction Director, my time embroiled in the technical intricacies of the Internet. By night I leave it all behind, strap on a bass guitar, and morph into a musician. When acquaintances link these two strands of my personality, the first question they ask me is almost always a variation on "will the Internet kill music?"
The question is one which never ceases to annoy. Reminds me of equally trite lyrics, along the lines of "Rock & Roll will Never Die" or "Long Live Rock", which by their very existence admit a possibility which, let's face it, is never going to happen (can you imagine some 14th-century monk intoning "Gregorian Chant will Never Die"?) The fact is that people love music, it is in their nature to do so, and as long as this is the case then there will always be those happy to supply the rhythm of life and bring pleasure to the masses.
The question is, of course, wrongly phrased; it should read "will the Internet kill the music industry and, if so, what will happen to music?" The answer is not hard to find, as there are precedents in most other service industries. It's usually referred to as "cutting out the middle man", and is also usually seen as a good thing, but then I guess most of us don't get quite as passionate and personal over our insurance arrangements as we do over our collection of early 60s rockabilly-soul-jazz rarities.
Music is different from insurance in other ways. If you don't pay for your insurance, you don't get cover, simple as that. But digital technologies such as MP3 and file-sharing distribution systems such as Napster have created concerns over an Internet free-for-all. If nobody pays for this stuff any more, why will anyone continue to produce it or, perhaps more pertinently, where will the money to produce quality recordings come from when there is no nurturing, caring music industry giving new musicians their breaks.
If this is truly what you believe, then I would respectfully suggest that the music industry has you suckered. The music industry rarely gives breaks to anyone except the music industry, and the artists who benefit from the status quo are few and far between (and often sound a bit, well, processed. Like the cheese).
More representative of the musical masses is Roger McGuinn, former frontman for the Byrds, performer of a couple of tunes you could probably hum, and not a rich man. In his recent statement to US Congress he said that, despite being a relatively "successful" musician since the early 1960s, it is only during the last few years that he has received a reasonable income for his trade. His salvation came not from the traditional industry, but from the upstart forms of music-sharing which the industry are trying to crush. His present fans, most of whom discovered the Byrds via Napster, can buy his CDs from the MP3.com site. Profits are split 50/50 between McGuinn and MP3.com, the kind of royalty deal undreamed of offline.
There is a precedent for this type of payment system: shareware software. The shareware developers may not have access to the marketing and PR spend that keeps the Microsofts and Oracles of this world in our line of vision, but they have produced many excellent products and attracted enough grateful customers to earn a living. There is also a precedent for free music attracting interest and, ultimately, driving sales; it's called radio.
The benefits to a musician of having direct contact with their audience extend further than immediate sales. Once a musician has established a following, many fans will be willing to pre-order new material, paying the musician's recording costs up-front in exchange for a personalised thank you from the musician delivered along with the new works.
Meanwhile, Napster itself is desperately trying to change from a free radio station into a money-gathering middle-man. No prizes for guessing how successful that will be. But despite the imminent demise of Napster, its legacy lives on - peer-to-peer protocols such as Gnutella and the prospect of anonymous untraceable music-trading over Bluetooth are part of an inexorable tide that, despite its Canute-like protestations, the music industry can do little to reverse.
The Internet will certainly not bring the death of music. What it will more likely spell is an end to record-company excess and multi-million pound boy/girl-band fads. My daughter and her friends may be upset (if only for a short time until they discovers something new to listen to), but I for one will shed few tears. In the meantime, I'm off to the studio to record my new corker "Internet music will never die".
© Dan Sumption, April 2001
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