I love music. I devour it. I blast it when I write; I sing along to it when I drive; and I let it wrap me up in a bubble when I’m wandering through airports, being jostled by strangers on their way to far off destinations. Music feeds my soul.
When I was young, I had records. I played them on this toy turntable that sat against the wall of my bedroom. I danced around in my underwear to Michael Jackson and Donnie and Marie. I cried when my records got scratched but I loved putting the needle down on the groove and listening to that first scratchy hum before the actual music began.
I don’t remember when I got a tape player. Christmas maybe. It was this black boombox with detachable speakers that ate C batteries like I ate music. I lugged it up to my fort, still listening to MJ but having added some heavy rock and whatever played on the radio. I giggled along to Salt N Peppa’s Push It, was shocked by George Michael, and strangely enthralled by Phil Collins. I was a master of fixing tapes that had been mysteriously swallowed by the strange toothy mechanism inside the deck.
When CDs came along, I couldn’t afford them. I had a CD player, given to me by my father for either my birthday or Christmas, I can’t remember which. But I do remember its diminutive size and being awed by the technology. On weekends when I’d go visit him, we’d all go to Peaches music store and search for new music. Both of my parents inspired my musical adventurousness. My mom was into Motown and the BeeGees while my father listened to Pat Benetar and Fleetwood Mac. I had started listening to Guns N Roses and 10,000 Maniacs and REM.
CDs were when I began collecting. I had hundreds. I spent more money on music than on anything else during my adolescence. I know I wasn’t alone in that. When I moved out on my own, I didn’t take much, but I took my CD’s. I lugged them around in boxes, even the scratched ones. I took them to Orlando and Atlanta and Rhode Island and then back home to Jupiter.
Finding music to listen to wasn’t always easy. As I grew up, I realized that my tastes were wildly different from mainstream. The radio didn’t appeal to me. I loved indie music and rock music and singer-songwriter stuff. I loved great music. But finding it was difficult. I’d hear it in movies or on TV shows or friends would tell me about this great band I had to try. It was word of mouth mostly. But the problem was that record companies controlled the distribution channels. Radio stations controlled exposure. And there was no way for me to find the musicians I wanted short of moving somewhere like Seattle or Austin or New York.
Then the Internet happened. MP3’s and Napster and Audio Galaxy. Even Myspace. I didn’t care that the audio quality of a lossy MP3 was slightly inferior to a record. I loved the music. The words. The connection to the feelings. Bitrates didn’t mean jack to me. I didn’t care if I listened to it on a computer or a CD player or a fist sized digital player. I just wanted my music.
Suddenly, finding music became easy. Artists could interact and sell directly to their fans. I used to spend hours browsing the music pages on Myspace just to find one unsigned band that I loved and could support. I downloaded thousands of tracks from Napster back in the day to find that one diamond. I was finding and loving bands months and years before they become popular, if they became popular at all. And the thing was, that the metrics for success were changing. An artist like Amanda Palmer, who has no major label deal, isn’t rich, has probably never been played on the radio, is (in my opinion) successful. She’s doing what she loves with the direct support of her fans and she’s able to support herself as she does it.
There was a tipping point for the record labels. A moment at which they could have embraced the paradigm shift before being rendered irrelevant. It was right around the time iTunes came onto the scene. They ignored the fact that people in general like cheap and easy over difficult and pricey. They thought that they could continue to sell CD’s for $20 when you could buy the whole album in digital format for less than ten dollars without having to drive to a store or even deal with physical media. One click gets you what you crave. They ignored the signs and instead of adapting, they sued their customers, fought iTunes, and tried to hold on to the old ways of doing things.
The old ways no longer work. They’re not logical.
As a consumer, I don’t give a shit about the internal politics. I care about getting the music I love at a fair price. Sure, when I buy an album from an artist like Amanda Palmer, I feel good knowing that because she’s not on a label, that she’s making most of the money, but I’d buy her music either way.
The reason record labels fell is because an artist alone will meet the customer wherever they are. They’ll even give their music away for free if that’s what it takes. The record labels forced customers to come to them. For years, customers did it because they had no other choices. Times changed, the labels did not.
Record labels will always exist. There are audiophiles out there who will pay a premium for records. Nostalgia will keep bands putting out their music on CDs and vinyl for many years to come. But the days of big record labels being able to control every aspect of a musician’s career are over. Some will still choose to go that route, and some will be wildly successful. But a lot will take another road. And some of those will be wildly successful too. Just like some will fail and fade into obscurity and some will manage to make just enough to keep their career going on and on and on.
Records or CDs and distribution channels and labels. None of that matters to me though. I just love the music.