Industry insiders speak on music business in crisis

caitlinhardee

“I didn’t invent the rainy day, man. I just own the best umbrella.”

Spoken by big-time A&R rep character Dennis Hope in “Almost Famous,” these words have resounded throughout the years. Major record labels have historically been seen as safe havens, bastions of wealth and influence, with pockets deep enough to support their artists through patches of rough weather. However, in the midst of the relentless erosion of music industry revenues since the advent of online piracy, the number of big umbrellas just dropped from four to three. On Friday, Nov. 11, it was announced that EMI Music would be acquired by Universal Music Group for $1.9 billion, while EMI Publishing will be absorbed by Sony for $2.2 billion. Meanwhile, the storms are only getting worse. The Pioneer spoke to a range of industry insiders and music lovers on these developments and their implications for a struggling business.

Andrew Harms, music director and DJ at major Seattle radio station 107.7 The End, spoke via email on the record industry’s slow decline.

“The recent break-up/sell-off of EMI is further evidence of an industry model struggling to survive,” said Harms. “As one giant falls, the rest are there to scoop up the pieces. Eventually they’ll all be gone because they’ve been either unwilling or unable to adapt to the new reality of the ‘business’ of music.”

If the deal passes global antitrust regulators, Universal will control over 40 percent of the music market, sparking complaints from independent labels and their international coalition, Impala. Electronic musician and owner of Fateless Records Dean de Benedictis discussed the historical conflict between major label monopolies and the interests of smaller labels.

“I don’t see [the merger] as being that much different than the monopoly that maybe a handful of them had before that,” said de Benedictis. “Before the internet made music so much more accessible, these companies were actually trying to figure out ways to cut out the independent artists. This was in the late 90s, they were trying to figure out, ‘How do we crowd them out, how do we make more business for ourselves?’ Then when the internet explosion happened, it definitely turned everything upside down. All of a sudden they were losing money and going out of business. They had a new concern: ‘How do we stay in business?’ So they left that whole agenda behind because obviously the independent artist was going to suffer anyway. We’re not raking in millions, we’re raking in barely enough to make a living before the internet comes along, and now it’s like we’re knocked out of the game. We have to make it like a well-paying hobby at this point. That goes almost as far up as labels like Sub Pop, which is still considered indie, but that’s famous, their audience is huge. So the way that Sub Pop was, maybe just before Nirvana hit big, is the kind of label that’s being decimated, not even given a chance to get to a certain point where they can make a decent living.”

With increasing numbers of artists espousing the do-it-yourself approach, some might say that the decline of major labels poses no obstacle to musical creativity. Senior Adriel Borshansky, frontman of campus band Dabbles in Bloom, spoke on the decreasing dependency of artists on major label support for album production.

“As a general rule, I would really love to see, and I think it is heading in that direction actually, an increased focus on smaller, more artist-focused labels,” said Borshansky. “Nowadays it’s much easier for artists to do things without their labels. Increasingly, anyone can just go to the store and buy some recording equipment, get some applications and do it themselves. There are plenty of examples of people who climbed the ranks that way. So I’m hopeful. Especially with Youtube, I think that smaller, lesser-known artists who are doing really inspiring things are getting more of the attention they deserve.”

Harms expressed similar optimism for the long-term viability of new methods.

“Is this consolidation bad for music? Long term, no, because eventually this bloated model will fail. It’s simply a last gasp of a billion-dollar industry correcting itself,” said Harms. “Not often does something this big wipe the slate clean and start over from scratch with a new business model. The possibilities of THAT are both refreshing and exciting.”

While anyone can record a song, throw it on Youtube and hopefully get some views, making an actual living as a musician is another matter. Even musicians signed to small labels can have difficulty getting any support in the realms of promotion and touring. As the big labels dwindle, dreams of world tours and radio play become increasingly remote for most artists. Recording artist and Whitman Assistant Professor of Music Doug Scarborough discussed his own experiences working with smaller record labels.

“My first two albums were rock and pop. The first one was [through] a label called Paisley Rhino, a pretty small one in Mississippi,” said Scarborough. “The second one was through sort of a regional label called Hapi Skratch. They had the northern Colorado indie scene going for a while. But they didn’t do anything for me; that’s why I was kind of burned out on that. They really dragged their feet, they had just minimal advertising and never booked any shows. One of my previous bands back in the early 90s, we were on Warner Brothers. They’re major money; they sent us all around the country. I thought that was what I was in for with indie labels, they’d pay the tour and put you in front of the right people, advertise in magazines. I thought that was going to be coming, but it really wasn’t.”

Since 2005, global music sales have contracted from $29.4 billion to $18.4 billion last year, according to research firm Enders Analysis. The primary reason for the decline? Online piracy. The Whitman community is no exception––in an online survey, 31 percent of respondents said they download music legally or buy physical copies. 29 percent listed their primary means of listening to music under various methods that fall in a legal gray area, such as Grooveshark, Youtube and getting music directly from friends. Meanwhile, 21 percent said they download illegally.

“A lot of musicians don’t mind that,” said Scarborough. “A lot of musicians who put out their music want their music to be spread around. I don’t know, that’s hard. I have to ask myself, would I want my music to be just spread around, or would I want everybody to buy it for a buck a track? Well, of course I’d want everybody to buy it for a buck a track.”

De Benedictis addressed the increasing indifference of habitual music pirates to the plight of musicians.

“In one of these generations recently, we got stuck on this idea that music is a right, a free utility that we have a right to,” said de Benedictis. “Which kind of goes hand-in-hand with the American culture because we get so gluttonous. These people who love to get free music, they have tons of it, they have way more than they care to have, way more than they’ll ever listen to. It’s just the idea that they have it; it’s kind of a digital greed. It’s a general lack of knowledge about the music world because they’re not musicians, because they’re not trying to make a living doing this. I had two friends of mine who made that leap recently: They decided to become musicians and now they understand, and they no longer preach about free music.”

In a desperate effort to stem the tide of copyright infringement and the accompanying decline of music revenues, legislators are currently considering the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have the potential to block infamous filesharing sites like Swedish website The Pirate Bay––a move that has sparked cries of censorship and excessive governmental control. Senior Daria Reaven, general manager at KWCW, addressed the issue in an email.

“SOPA, as it is currently drafted, not only implicates law-abiding Internet companies with strange restrictions (which could cost them both innovation and jobs) but it is also a policy driven by censorship,” said Reaven.

“I think that something has to be done,” said de Benedictis. “People who could make a difference, people in charge, seem to have failed to do anything until this point. I feel like it couldn’t hurt to try.”