It was a big week for music, y’all. We celebrated the would-be 80th birthday of soul king Sam Cooke and the 123rd of O.G. folk singer Leadbelly. Coachella released a lineup for a summer music festival that is quite unbelievable, as it lists almost every decent band to walk the earth in the past five years. Lil Wayne announced a release date for Tha Carter IV. And the cast of “Glee” broke a Top 40 record previously held by Elvis Presley for 50 years.
And yet among these feats and spectacles — which, while notable, by no means mark a truly exceptional week in music — the Sunday New York Times ran an article with a compelling headline: “Music Industry Braces for the Unthinkable.”
What, exactly, is the unthinkable? By the third paragraph, the article decried the digital music industry as a system on the precipice of total destruction. Labels aren’t making money. Nasty mergers and buyouts among record companies seem inevitable. There’s no consensus towards stricter enforcement of illegal downloading versus trying a new, consumer-friendly purchase model. One analyst even declared: “As things stand now, digital music has failed.”
I don’t have the resources, the brainpower or the allotted word count to go into what it might take to build a profitable, sustainable music industry in the digital age. I think if someone had the answers worked out, we’d have heard about it by now. But I take issue with the Times’ doom-and-gloom angle. If anything, I’d say the digital age has enhanced both how, and how much, we listen to music. It’s been said before, but this generation has the benefit of instant, easy access to music and a driving thirst to acquire it,– whether through purchase or streaming – and music is consciously and deeply embedded in our lives on a daily basis.
It’s ironic that the Times would declare the monetary failure of digital music when the struggles of the music industry so clearly resemble those of print journalism. The Times announced last Friday that they would begin charging non-subscribers for online content, another stepping stone on the road to successfully warding off the perfect storm that has been facing newspapers for the past five years. Good for them. Lately, we somehow got it all wrong in our young heads, deciding that both music and news are our God-given rights, made for easy public consumption — and for free — when the truth is that someone, somewhere, has to pay the bills. It’s a dangerous road to go down when the public decides to stop paying for a responsible news media, and the same can be applied to music.
But what the Times, and the record labels, and the naysayers and the charlatans and the old folks all overlook is that people do continue to support musicians, in a myriad of ways, even though none of them are album sales or MP3 purchases. The signs of success are everywhere. Ask Amanda Palmer, who independently made $15,000 in three minutes by selling her album of Radiohead covers on Bandcamp.com. Ask DFA, the successful New York- based record label — their roster boasts LCD Soundsystem — who runs one of the biggest music scenes in the country through their commitment to throwing events and parties. Ask every artist using Kickstarter.com to raise funds through microloans, or the countless music blogs that post constantly about new music because the audience for such writing is simply insatiable.
It is a more democratic playing field than ever before, for both artists and listeners, and it’s way too early to label digital music sales as either a success or failure. Let’s take a little perspective, a more panoramic view of the age we inhabit, and remember that this is only the beginning of a long journey towards making a sustainable sales model for music (and news, for that matter) — and it’s not over ’til it’s over.
Caroline Klibanoff is a junior in the College and General Manager of WGTB Georgetown Radio. City Maps and Handclaps appears every other week in the guide.