Every time someone is bemoaning the dying state of the record industry, I get in trouble.
I get in trouble because I point out that it’s not just the record industry — it’s also the publishing industry and the movie industry.
What do these have in common? They’re entertainment. And also, since the 1980s and even more 1990s, they’ve become democratized. It’s easy for almost anyone to write a book, record an album, or make a movie.
And how well has that turned out for the industry, I ask. Did it make more Hemingways, Beethovens and Hitchcocks, or did it make more of a mid-1980s punk scene, where every fan had a band and none of them are good?
Because if it’s the latter, I tell people, you’re going to run out of money. You need real out of the ballpark smashes to make it in entertainment. You need a handful of names people can know, and buy, and always get quality. That’s how you build an audience.
If everything’s about as good as everything else, they’ll just download it, listen to the radio, or go without. Because there are no keepers. There are no names worth remembering. It’s sort of like a faucet, you turn it on and stuff comes out, and it’s about the same from one day to another, so it just serves a function. It doesn’t, you know, touch your soul or anything.
The usual suspects — hipsters, Democrats, religious fanatics, addicts of dangerous drugs, denial fiends, scenesters and emosexuals — turn on me at this point and say I’m being severe. No, they say. The reason the record industry is in deep doo-doo is file sharing.
O really? I say. Then what about the publishing industry? Everyone downloading their copies of The Lovely Bones now?
Of course they aren’t. Of course the usual suspects are wrong. Of course the most direct (not to be confused with “simplest”) answer is correct:
The industry is declining because it’s pumping out mediocre material.
…[H]ere are a few tidbits of information shared by publicist Ariel Hyatt about U.S. album sales in 2008: More than 115,000 albums were released, but only 110 sold more than 250,000 copies, a mere 1,500 topped 10,000 sales, and fewer than 6,000 cracked the 1,000 barrier — further evidence that sales of recorded music are not the way of the future for artists. Instead, it increasingly appears that recordings will be more like advertisements for opportunities that actually do make money: live performances, merchandise, licensing to movies, commercials and video games, ring tones, etc.
Yeah, somehow, I don’t think so. If it were that easy, they’d be doing just fine already.
More likely, they’re running into trouble selling their music, movies and books because they have been democratized: there are too many, and they’re too similar.
It works like this. In the old days, getting a script/book/album out is hard. That filters out most of the crap. Even more, you have editors and A&R guys to filter out more crap. Yeah, sometimes they get delusional with trends, but in general, they filter out most of the goo.
Then those go away.
So now anyone can make a record, book or film… so everyone does.
An upcoming artist looks at this and thinks: you know, whatever movie/book/record I make is going to get lost in the flood. I’m going to business school, getting into performance art, or participating in another type of art to make my name known. Because if I don’t make my name known, I starve.
And that’s the bottom line for artists: everyone you know is telling you you’re a moron for doing it, so you need to avoid starving or they’ll cluck “I told you so!” over your emaciated carcass. Having no ability to immediately separate yourself from the crowd and win on the basis of quality drives away quality artists, leaving the average ones. That means no great big awesome hits but lots of OK-not-great.
There are too many favorites of the day and not enough standouts of a lifetime, and that’s why the music, movie and publishing industries are choking themselves out.