When I was much younger in the mid-80's I was into punk rock and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of the original 70's and 80's movement. For me, that was when punk rock was vital, authentic and made its most lasting impact on the music world. Everything that's come since then has spirit, value and meaning, but I don't see punk after 1990 in the same light. The big bands for me included The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, The Misfits and Social Distortion, to name a few.
Obviously listening to and buying music back then was a completely different process than it is today, it was more of a tactile and connected process in the sense that it was a bit more work to find and explore new music when it wasn't spoon fed to you like it is today on the internet. It was a more humanized process where the brick and mortar record store was the preferred drug dealer of choice in the music world, and the place you had to go to find those obscure and hard to find golden nuggets of the recording industry. It was a time when 12 inch cover art meant something when you held it in your hands.
It was a time when recording artists could actually create and sell their art and make a reasonable life for themselves despite the thieves at the top of their label keeping a disproportionate amount of profit for themselves. Or, like many punk rockers, they could do it themselves and create their own record labels like BYO, Alternative Tentacles or SST and print their own vinyl records and spin their own cassettes. Sure, cassette copies happened and friends made copies for each other, but it was nothing like the wholesale theft that occurs online with mp3 files.
I remember how difficult it was as a 13 year old kid trying to learn about punk rock while growing up in a small town of a couple thousand. Getting driven 35 miles into the city to a small independent record store was a magical field trip and you never knew what you would find in the record bins on any given day. I had heard of The Sex Pistols' "The Great Rock N Roll Swindle" but it wasn't until one lucky day when I found what was probably a bootleg UK import on vinyl that I got to hear the double LP for myself. It was an interesting album to say the least, full of warts and gems alike.
That was part of the risk and reward system of buying music back then, you didn't always get to preview the tracks or understand what you were going to get. Many times purchases of music were made based on cover art. The experience was part mystery and part gambling, especially when you were a kid from a small town. I didn't realize it back then, but I was swindled by buying that Sex Pistols album, because for a while, until I knew better, I thought the title track was sung, at least in part, by Johnny Rotten, but the reality is he had nothing to do with the track. As I would find out years later the album and film were created after Johnny had left the band. For years I felt swindled.
These days with the advent of the internet it's an entirely different landscape and environment in the music world, one where information is easy to come by, albums stream for free to preview before they're for sale, and with a few clicks and google searches most music can be downloaded illegally for free. It's hard to say these days that anyone is swindled before they buy music.
Or is it ? The swindling is different, but it's there. One of the greatest rock 'n' roll swindles these days is the digital delivery of music in the mp3 format. For the same price as the physical copy, or more, the consumer is given a fraction of the sound quality of the WAV file found on the CD. For anyone who doesn't have significant hearing loss and has a halfway decent stereo system, you know what a difference there is in sound quality between an mp3 file and a CD or vinyl record. Let's not forget the cover art either, which is an important part of the package. In many ways it defines the contents before a single note is played.
Maybe that's why we've come to a point in music history where the sense of value has diminished so much so that many music listeners of this generation feel so swindled that they have a perverse sense of entitlement that is crippling the ability for truly creative people to enjoy the justified and deserved fruits of their labor. Live shows and merchandise only offer a band so much, and with the high cost of recording a new album many bands might simply begin to wonder if the whole process is even worth it in the long run. The bird will sing and the monkey will dance only for so long without a reward for their efforts.
David Byrne of The Talking Heads wrote and published an interesting article recently titled 'The internet will suck all creative content out of the world' and while Byrne's article is intriguing in it's approach to understanding the music business today, even more so intriguing was a comment made about the article that said, "If you are only being creative as a means to get rich, then I don't want your crappy creation and I hope you go bust. Truly creative people are delighted to share their work and ideas for free."
I don't even know what to say about that, but I'll take a stab at it. While a lot of creative endeavors are shared for free these days, it's disturbing that some people feel entitled to enjoy the fruits and labor of creative individuals because of some imaginary right they feel they have to free artistic content and entertainment. Creative people deserve all the compensation they can muster from their creative output. As a concert photographer myself, and someone who has spent not only 22 plus years honing my craft but untold thousands on education and constant gear upgrades, I take more than a little offense to someone who is telling me that artists should be happy enough, in fact they should be delighted, to gift their creations to the world for free. Throughout the history of man artists have needed the support of patrons to continue their artistic efforts. There's nothing free about art, whether it's form is sonic or two or three dimensional. Truly great art has a cost, and more importantly it has value.
Somewhere along the way respect has been lost for the products of rock n roll that are the essence of the band itself - the music that defines the band and the photographs that define the band in concert. Both have become by-products in the marketplace, seen as cheap and dispensable to the masses to be consumed and forgotten in the buffet style smorgasbord that is the norm today in the music industry. The effort to monetize musical art seems like a losing battle except for an elite few in the marketplace that have the numbers in their favor. Is the internet to blame or is it a human problem ?
I'm slow to simply blame the internet. It's like arguing whether or not guns kill people, because we all know in the end it's the human with the gun that causes death. Ultimately humans are the cause and solution to all human problems. The feeling of entitlement is a human condition and emotional response to the social conditions of the current music industry. Theft of music, digitally or physically, and theft in general is an age old problem. Even when used CD's are 99 cents at Goodwill I see people steal music. The empty CD cases they leave are evidence that some people, no matter the price, no matter the consequence of being caught, will take what they want.
Like Byrne, I'm simply not sure what the solution is to repair the music industry so that artists feel they're getting justice for their creative efforts and rewarded fairly with a compensation plan that allows them to feed themselves, their families and continue to create in an environment that isn't artistically hostile. Maybe it will help to take a step back and crunch some numbers. While the music industry and it's problems are bigger than America, let's focus on the numbers there.
There are currently around 313 million Americans. For a record to be consider platinum it must sell 1 million copies. Michael Jackson's album "Thriller" is perhaps the best selling album in America since it's release in 1982 and is considered 29x platinum, therefore it's sold 29 million copies. Rounding up a bit let's say that 10% of America owns "Thriller." Nirvana's "Nevermind" is considered 10x platinum with roughly 10 million copies sold since 1991. This translates into roughly 3% of America owning "Nevermind."
Let's get a bit more current and look at Taylor Swift's "Red," one of the best selling CD the music industry has seen in years. Released in October of 2012, "Red" sold 1.2 million copies during it's first week. Fast forward a year later and Taylor has sold 3.83 million copies of "Red" in America, and worldwide sales are over 6 million strong. Still, with 3.83 million copies sold Taylor has only captured 1.22% of America's interest in her CD to the point where they opened their wallet and forked over money for her art.
When you consider that selling a million CD's is a rarity these days, most smaller to mid sized bands are dealing with a fraction of 1% of America that will actually pay them for their music. Gold record status is awarded for 500,000 copies sold. A gold record these days means 0.1597444089456869% of America bought your CD. Music is popular, I think everyone would agree, and interest in pop culture is high, or so one would think. Logic would dictate that album sales would be higher in general across the board as the relative value is there as far as entertainment options go in America. But in the end the reality is that musicians are struggling to fight for the same entertainment dollars from a very small fractional percentage of Americans who will actually pay for their music.
A big part of the solution might simply entail being a better fan, and being a better educated fan, which is pretty easy to do in the age of the internet. There's little excuse to swindle or be swindled any longer. The dark age of information is gone. Given a good product at a reasonable price I think most music enthusiasts will buy and support bands that they love and believe in. I know this is the case for me. I prefer to buy CD's directly from the band at the concert merchandise table where I know where my money is going, usually directly to the artist. I feel comfortable with that scenario, although it's not always an option if the band doesn't tour or doesn't come to my town. I don't buy digital downloads because I refuse to buy digital products. Call me old fashioned, but when I buy media I want a physical copy. I think a lot of people that grew up in my generation feel the same way.
There's nothing wrong with creating art for the sake of art, in fact it's healthy and often the way it works. There's also nothing wrong with making an honest buck from your art. Those who would begrudge an artist payment for their art are the worst kind of fans an artist can have because without their support there is no hope for a career in the business. Make no mistake, all art is a business. Money must be exchanged from fan to artist for the cycle to be complete. It's that simple. It's that black and white. Artists need money to survive in this world just like everyone else.
So maybe a compromise is needed so that fans don't feel like the record companies are swindling them with an inferior product like the mp3, the artists don't feel like the record companies, streaming services, the fans and the thieves on the internet aren't swindling them by taking too much of a percentage, not paying a high enough percentage, or simply aren't paying any percentage at all for their art. What that exact compromise might be is unknown, it's X in an algebraic equation that no one knows how to solve right now but, like all complicated math, surely there's an answer. If everyone can simply stop trying to swindle one another long enough maybe reasonable humans can come up with a fair solution that treats everyone with the respect their art deserves. Or so we can hope.