Scott Tennent makes an emotional plea for music fans to ignore leaks over at Pretty Goes with Pretty. We’ve all seen variations of this argument before. The MPAA even made spots that echoed this sentiment. It’s heartfelt, but hopeless. Countless cliches could be used to describe what’s happened, but I’ll use this one: you can’t get the toothpaste back into the tube.
What lies ahead will be painful, without question, but that doesn’t mean that no good will come of the demise of the record industry. You know all those CDs that are largely being ignored on store shelves these days, while kids snap up Fallout 3? It’s costly waste. Think about the piles of plastic junk that will be lounging for lifetimes in landfills all around the country for a moment and then tell me it won’t be a net positive when CD manufacturing stops.
Most industries force consumers to adjust when a newer, cheaper method of delivering product is discovered. The music industry hasn’t. Instead of seeing an opportunity to shift consumption to a purely digital market once the iPod was released, the music industry continued to produce CDs, even though they are increasingly being ripped to hard drives and discarded anyway.
I saw how long and difficult it was to get consumers to move to DVD while I worked as a video store clerk. It’s tough transition, to be sure, but it did happen. The video industry weaned consumers off of VHS. The music industry has done the same frequently throughout its short history, moving consumers from one format to another, usually to protect its profit margin. Why doesn’t that still hold? They too are living in the past.
Is the music industry’s demise encoded in the CDs DNA? Chris Ott alluded to it in his 2005 Stylus feature, “This Click’s for You.” He might have called it “Death by 44.1kHz.” The changes fomented by the digital revolution were simply too great for the music industry to counter. They underestimated their consumers and now they’re paying a high price for it.
You’ll have to forgive me for seeing karmic retribution in what’s happening in the music business today, but it’s hard not too. Whether they’re ripping off artists or consumers, we’re talking about an industry that commodified art at a handsome profit for generations, only to beg for forgiveness on their deathbed.
Unfortunately for the music industry, the engine of innovation isn’t a spigot that can be turned off. The democratization of technology is a net good for society. More people are toying with ideas that make our lives more convenient through the sheer ease of digital files. It’s a phenomenon affecting many industries today. It will probably kill the newspaper as we know it. It just hit the music industry first.
Tennent’s plea asks us all to put our heads in the sand. No amount of cultural amnesia can fix this problem. Men in black can’t wipe our memories back to a time before Napster’s existence. But I know it’s not that simple-minded. This sentiment is common among critics, most of whom have no stake in the music business selling music. It’s a noble, but ultimately pointless exercise. I think our time as critics is better spent sifting through the ruins of the music industry to uncover the treasures they leave behind.