When Napster hit the scene, I was living in the heart of technological change in Silicon Valley. My drum teacher there, who had been playing since the 1960s, regarded it as one of the most wonderful things ever invented. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” he said of his experience, “All these songs FOR FREE.”
The last part of what he said was what set off alarm bells in everyone’s head. One day I argued with a musician friend about the future of music. He thought Napster was a harbinger of doom – if artists couldn’t make money making it, music as we knew it would be wiped out.
I took a contrary view. Music wasn’t doomed, I said, but everything was about to change. Yes, CD sales were about to plummet to nothing but musicians would make up the difference in live shows and selling t-shirts, stickers, and the like.
This made basic economic sense to me. People only pay for things that are scarce and live shows are, by their nature, scarce. In the old model, bands toured to promote their new album but, in the age of free music, this would be flipped – bands of the future would use their free recorded music to promote attendance at the money-making tour.
Over the years as music got more and more available, I started to question if my prediction was at all accurate. I read so many accounts of musicians getting fractions of a penny from streaming services for songs that would previously been huge money makers that I began to doubt everything I said in 2001.
So it was a relief to read this article from the New York Times. According to the data, there are now more people earning a living making music than there was in 2001. The live show industry has gone from $10 billion in 2001 to $30 billion in 2014.
While so busy fretting about the potential consequences of technological change, a lot of musicians didn’t see the advantages. Recording and distributing music used to require massive amounts of cash, now it can be handled with a laptop and an internet connection. As the indie producer and musician Steve Albini said: “When I started playing in bands in the ’70s and ’80s, most bands went through their entire life cycle without so much as a note of their music ever being recorded.”
The way I see it, when technological change is imminent you can either fixate on using it to your advantage or cry about all you stand to lose. It’s your choice but given these forces won’t be stopped, it’s clear which one is the wise course.