Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Music Industry Reaps what it Sows

Today Statistics Canada reports that “The Canadian sound recording industry experienced its worst financial performance in six years in 2003 in the wake of bleak sales, declining new releases and a huge drop in profits.”

The report from Statistics Canada’s The Daily goes on to say:

Between 1998 and 2000, music sales in Canada fell 3.4%. But in the subsequent three-year period between 2000 and 2003, they fell at a much faster pace of 17.7%.

This overall decline in sales raises questions about factors such as illegal file downloads and swapping song files. Other possible factors in the decline include competition for the consumer's entertainment dollar from an array of media, ranging from computer games to movies to cell phones.

I usually make an effort to watch music awards shows, because it is an excellent opportunity to see who can really sing and who is a product of sampling and other digital trickery. (Have you noticed that there seem to be more and more awards shows, but less and less talent? But I digress.)

In recent years, many of these shows have included a brief segment in which some fifty-ish industry exec comes on stage in a brand new tux and lectures the viewing audience on the evils of downloading and how it is the same as “stealing,” because music is intellectual property, and the record labels have to pay all the folks who played on the record, and if there are no record sales and legitimate downloads then there’ll eventually be no rock and roll, fer Jim Morrison’s sake!

Unfortunately, rock and roll spent its first three decades dumping on the concepts of work, intellectual property and getting paid. They eliminated the concept of the single (which I remember being able to purchase at Sam the Record Man and other outlets for around a buck in the 70s), replacing it with an album containing two or three singles padded with seven or eight lesser numbers. Then they’re genuinely surprised – surprised! – when kids steal and swap only the songs they want to hear.

In his tribute to nihilism “Imagine,” John Lennon wrote “imagine no possessions.” Well, the kids are just making like Uncle John taught them, while over there Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono bicker over whose name should appear first in the song writing credit on Lennon/McCartney compositions.

In recent years so many artists have “sold out” it’s hard to keep track. The Rolling Stones allowed “Satisfaction” to be used in a Snickers commercial and “Start me Up” to promote a new version of Microsoft’s Windows software. Paul McCartney is shilling for investment firm Fidelity, while another commercial for the same firm features Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

To this has been added the phenomenon of established artists cannibalizing themselves and others, releasing covers of other people’s hits and/or “unplugged” albums (e.g. Alanis Morissette releasing an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill – pre-released only in Starbucks outlets).

Rod Stewart is now on, I believe, his third album of the “American Songbook” (correction: his fourth) What a waste of talent, but in the man’s defence, he does have a lot of kids and ex-partners to support. Michael McDonald has now done two albums of Motown songs (I’ll cop to having the first one – which I love). Bette Midler has done an album of Rosemary Clooney hits and is now releasing one consisting of Peggy Lee’s hits.

Some guy named Kanye West is the hottest thing in hip-hop these days. I don’t follow that genre, but every video of West’s that I have seen is based on some riff or beat stolen from somebody’s else’s song. This is the cutting edge of music?

Finally, there is the promotion of performers with little or no talent (Hello Britney, Jessica and Lindsay!). Did anyone see Ashley Simpson on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live? She has no talent. None. It was embarrassing to watch someone with even less shame than talent, which I guess is a prerequisite for the preteen music market these days. I would say that Lorne Michaels should be ashamed of himself, but that would be redundant.

As the owner of very few albums, and someone who’s never downloaded or owned an MP3 player, I’m admittedly not an expert on this field. I’d be interested in hearing what other music fans have to say about why record sales are in decline.

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