The Big-Money Record Industry? That Was Just a Historical Blip–And I Can Prove It

There’s been plenty of laments about the death of the music industry, especially how both artists and labels have seen revenues plummet since the beginning of the millennium. And yes, it’s been a seismic shift for everyone involved and a lot of people have been hurt by the economics of it all. The fact is, though, is that we’re just returning to the way things used to be.  Life is going back to normal.

The modern music industry really began about 1965 when albums started to supplant singles as the the format of choice for popular music. As the industry consolidated and became more sophisticated (or as some would say “run by accountants and lawyers”) and as a vast cohort of Baby Boomers and then Generation Xers lapped up galactic quantities of vinyl, cassettes and CDs revenues swelled.  Outside of a few recessionary periods (early 70s, early 80s), the record industry enjoyed a decades-long bear market.

During that run, everyone forgot what it was like before 1965.

  • Artists released singles. If they had enough big-selling singles, they might collected and released on an album or in elaborate box sets. But for the most part, albums were the format of “serious” music: jazz, classical and Broadway show tunes.
  • Recorded music sold in modest amounts. Gold records were rare. The platinum award hadn’t been invented yet.
  • Those who didn’t wish to buy singles and albums streamed music for free from the radio.
  • Artists made most of their money from playing live. They strove to be working musicians.
  • Some artists were able to work because of the generous support of patrons or donations from fans.

Any of the above sound familiar?

I don’t mean to minimize the effects of the catastrophic shifts we see in the industry today.  It’s just that the last several decades have been a blip in the long history of music industry.

To prove my point, I refer you to three books, all of which will give you excellent perspective on how the business of music works.

Amanda Petrusich - Do Not Sell at Any Price

Petrusich gets deep into the world of the obsessive collectors of 78 RPM records. In the process, she discusses how music was made and marketed through the decades.

Cowboys and Indies - Gareth Murphy

 

I didn’t want this book to end. It’s filled with all kinds of stories about how the music industry developed over the last century. Highly recommended.

 

Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay - Simon Naper-Bell

Another book that will open your eyes to the truth behind the music biz. “Dodgy” doesn’t begin to describe this industry.

And if you still need more, check out this read from Medium.com:

The world was abuzz this week with reports that Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify. She called the service “a grand experiment” and said she wanted no part of it.

Music writer Bob Lefsetz said it’s just a PR stunt. 80’s rocker Sebastian Bach (who looks kinda like Taylor Swift) said that fans appreciate music more when they have to pay for it.

Who knows.

But we’ve all been told a million times that the old music industry is dying, record stores are gone, and labels are closing.

More specifically, record execs who were around in the the 90’s miss the good ol’ days when albums went platinum.

But here’s the thing.

Those who made a killing from the record business of yesteryear, should count their lucky stars that it ever happened in the first place.

The record business as most people know it, was just a short hundred-year blip in the 40,000 year history of the music business. A stopgap to solve a temporary problem that existed between the invention of sound recording(1890’s), and the invention of the internet (1990’s).

In other words, it’s a miracle that the music industry as we have known it to have existed at all. I rest my case.

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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