At a speech last week I was asked a question that has come up every day since the Radiohead (and Madonna, NIN, Prince, etc, etc) announcement: What's going to happen to the music industry?
To which I answered "Which music industry?" You don't mean just the one that sells CDs, do you? Because it's a big mistake to equate the major labels and their plastic disc business with the industry as a whole. Indeed, when you stand back and look at all of music, things don't look so bad at all.
Indeed, it appears that every single part of the music industry except the sale of compact discs is up.
Concerts and merchandise: UP (+4%)
Digital tracks: UP (+46%)
Ringtones: UP (+86% last year, but probably just single-digit percent this year)
Licensing for commercials, TV shows, movies and videogames: UP (Warner Music saw licensing grow by about $20 million over the past year)
Even vinyl singles (think DJs): UP (more than doubled in the UK)
And, if you include the iPod in the music industry, as I'd argue a fair-minded analysis would: UP, UP, UP! (+31% this year)
Only CDs are down (-18%). They're around 60% of the industry not including the MP3 players, but just around 25% if you do include them.
So the problem with the music labels is not that music is an industry in decline, but that they have a too-narrow view of what business they're in. Madonna's switch from a label to a concert promoter should be a clue. This quote from an excellent article (it's worth reading it all) in Entertainment Weekly says it all:
''Soon a lot of these companies won't define themselves as record companies,'' says Steve Greenberg, the former head of Columbia Records who now runs the independent record company S-Curve. ''They'll define themselves as artist development companies. If you're involved in an entire career with an artist, then everyone's interests can be aligned."
I think most music will soon be free, as artists give away the product as marketing for their performances and licensing, and as a celebrity accelerant that creates more opportunities to make money than just from the sale of a record.
And for those who say that this avenue is only available to artists at the head of the curve, such as Madonna and Radiohead, I'd point out that the other group poorly served by the labels are those at the bottom of the curve, the many thousands of bands who fall below the radar of the hit-driven majors. I'd argue that they, too, have nothing to lose by letting their music go free, nothing to lose but the prospect of becoming indentured to companies stuck in last century's model of monetizing music.