Recorded Music Is the Most Valuable

by David Newhoff


David Newhoff

The response to the devaluation of recorded music in our times seems to be that a musical artist simply has to tour more in order to make up for the revenue stream once generated by sales of recordings. The assumption seems to be that the production of recordings wasn't much work in the first place, and that the actual costs, logistics, or wear-and-tear of playing live gigs for artists other than mega-stars are no big deal. Nevermind that there were songwriters, producers, and others involved in creating the recorded song, which first attracted the fan long before he or she ever considered attending a live show. In reality, as fans, we care way more about recorded music than live performances, and it is in our own self-interest to want a market that supports recorded works in the future.

There's an assumption that recorded music will always be available and that it will never be compensated more than it is right now. Then the conversation turns to these often-fanciful proposals for alternative revenue streams, even supported by dubious applications of data by various pundits. But even if the numbers added up—and they do not—I can't help noticing what a tragically cynical story this has become. Because after 15-plus years of piracy and rationalized predation by major corporate players vying to be lords of the stream, as consumers we've undervalued the one musical experience that most of us cherish above all.

Live performances are great. But we generally form personal relationships with songs because they are recorded, because they are portable and are, therefore, with us in our day-to-day lives. That's how certain songs become the soundtrack to our most visceral experiences—good and bad. That's why songs we may not even technically like or consciously choose to associate with certain moments become part of a unique playlist that only means what it means to us individually. Songs are hardwired to my biography with absolute precision, and I assume this is most people's experience with music.

At my house recently, we were in the mood to play a bunch of hits from the days of A.M. radio—those years when as kids we rode around in the backs of station wagons without seat belts, and all the good music played on tinny, monotreme speakers in the center of the dashboard. It's cool that a streaming service now enables us to tap into these memories on-demand.

I hadn't heard Linda Ronstadt's rendition of Roy Orbison's “Blue Bayou” since those low-fi days, when I was too young even to appreciate it. But in surround-sound to my adult ears, it really is a gorgeous version of a classic that should be treasured. And if you look at the names of the professionals who played and/or sang on her platinum album Simple Dreams and think for a moment that a new Ronstadt somewhere out there will ever produce songs of a similar quality without the investment model we call labels, you simply have no idea how recorded music is produced. But I assure you it has almost nothing to do with the affordability of digital tools. The real investment is in labor, skill, experience, talent, and time. Just because a great recording can be made by one person with some low-cost digital gear doesn't mean that we, as listeners, want the range of available recorded works to be so universally limited. To put it another way, yes, a filmmaker can produce a feature with a few friends and an iPhone, but he cannot produce Game of Thrones that way—or almost any of the films you want to see.

I thought about what a streaming subscription costs and how the singles I had cued up in a matter of minutes would have cost about $25 in 1973, which is nearly $143 in 2016, factoring for inflation. But a subscription to a near-global catalog of music that turns my sound system into a home jukebox costs about $10 a month. There's no way that adds up; and no amount of magical wordplay from the Internet industry can make it add up, especially for the next generation of recording artists, and quite possibly for their fans.

The personal relationships my kids form with the music they're listening to right now will be the basis of their own nostalgia in 20 years. Yet, despite the fact that this personal interaction with music is as meaningful as it ever has been, the market in which artists are working today insists that their recordings aren't worth anything. These products are just loss-leaders, which must be made in order to generate a fan base, which might be convertible into revenue by some means other than direct sales of the product itself. No business model actually works this way. When recorded works themselves cease to be a commodity, when they're only made for the purpose of selling something else, they cease to be the basis for investment. This can limit the range of creators' options to collaborate and produce a richer universe of sounds.

Tech-industry pundits say, “We have a greater variety of music out there than ever before!” It's true, but in the bigger picture, we are witnessing very early stages of market transformations. The switch from digital downloads to legal streaming is just a few years old; and it is far too early to conclude what the results will be over the next decade or two by looking at how creators are trying to respond right now. Certainly, there are a lot of creators making all kinds of music, but if a lot of that music is being produced by artists under age 30, and they cannot build sustainable careers over the next decade, we don't know what the results will be. We do know that when people invest in the recordings themselves, making bets that their products will be valued, this model produces a great variety of content for listeners.

My teenaged son is into metal and punk and recently introduced the whole family to an artist who, by all appearances, is what we might realistically call a rising star, though not likely destined to be a mega-star. Her sound is original, her guitar playing has been critically praised, she's touring, selling merch, she's hot, and she fits the profile of an artist who would traditionally have a 10-plus-year career with an indie label. As a colleague of mine with 30 years experience working with indies told me, “Under the old system, I can say with confidence that this artist would have 10 times the recording sales she does today. And that would be enough for us to have invested in her career and provide all the support she needs to develop and produce her best work and to support her with marketing, booking, openings for bigger acts, videos, etc. Today, we can't make that investment.”

The counternarrative to this indie-label model is that the Internet offers a free platform for promotion, the artist can be her own support system, and therefore, “keep 100 percent of the recording sales” rather than share any of it with that grubby label. The way this translates in reality is that the artist gets to do the work she knows (make music) plus a lot of the work she doesn't know (marketing, booking, producing, etc.) and “keep 100 percent of recorded music sales and license fees,” which are now quite low. By comparison, the “outdated model” was based on a business strategy in which the indie label says to an artist like this, “You may never make us millions, but we see a way to invest in your career and make that work over the coming decade or so.”

The potential loss to fans just might be that kick-your-ass, break-your-heart, can't-live-without-it album that she never produces. By 35, this hot, punk artist will be a different person than she is today. She may be a little burned out on constant touring, or get married, or want a kid, or want to have a personal life beyond producing music for her fans not to pay for. And wherever life leads her, this narrative will produce new music in her; and there may be some masterwork lurking in the alchemy of 2022. But because there were never record sales or sustainable license deals for streaming to properly support her, there's no way of knowing what she won't produce in the coming years as a result.

On the other hand, if we assume that she'll produce anyway—because that's just how artists are or because artists “do better” when they struggle financially—then as so-called fans, we really have become cynics and leeches. We have no reason to presume that we deserve recorded music for free, or next to nothing, just because digital technology makes it possible. Those are just excuses for our cynicism. Many of us could not imagine a world without recorded music, so how can anyone so dismissively say that it is of little value? Probably, the most cynical belief of all is that recorded music—let alone complex, distinctive, and experimental recordings—will always be widely available no matter what market conditions prevail. This may not necessarily be true. As long as the product we value most of all is the one for which we are least willing to pay, it seems reasonable to say that the future is anything but certain.

David Newhoff is a writer and consultant living in New York. This article is an edited version of an entry he published on his blog at illusionofmore.com.