Saturday, 29 January 2011

More essential music

Over recent years we have been witness to a breakdown of what was once a major industrial sector. The beast is not totally dead but it is in its final throes. This sector is the recorded music industry. 

As I've claimed earlier, music seems such a crucial part of our make up that we, as humans, will go to remarkable trouble to find ways of making and, now, reproducing music. The first part of the 20th Century was the time of mechanical music playing and the second part was the era of sound recording and reproduction.

In 1950 the vinyl record was introduced but it took a little while for it to really hit the big time. By the 1960s recorded music suddenly became a major industrial player and vast numbers of vinyl albums were sold to that newly empowered youth market. Music has always been a vital part of our leisure time, see elsewhere in this blog, but the combination of the baby boomers reaching their teenage years, the invention of cheap vinyl LP records and cheap record players suddenly produced a big new industry. All that was needed was the right sort of product.

This new product came from America but got a British spin when bands like the Beatles created a genre with wide appeal to the new, teenage audience. Vinyl LP sales were such big business that the rock groups of the day spent, typically, a few weeks in a studio- if they were lucky, and then, when the album had been produced and was ready to hit the shops, several months on tour promoting it and generating sales.

The required infrastructure to manufacture albums, the pressing plant, packaging and distribution made companies such as EMI and Decca, previously better known for esoteric electronic systems, newly household names.

Although groups like the Beatles were popular enough to feature in a few low budget movies their main reason for being was to generate those album sales, everything else, the tours and the TV appearances were all in aid of promoting those sales. Admittance to rock concerts was relatively cheap, they were a promotional device for the albums.

But technology doesn't stand still and for the vinyl album the first big competitor was the compact cassette. Devised in the late 1960s by a company that was more interested in selling tape recorders than music, Philips. This new technology allowed copying of albums. Philips had devised a way to tame the magnetic tape deck by containing the twin spools and the loose tape ends within a plastic cassette. The quality was rather limited, on account of the narrow and slow speed tape but soon got better with improvements in tape technology and electronics. Strangely enough, the magnetic cassette soon became yet another way of selling pre-recoded music. The new cassettes were ideal for cars and the original perceived advantage, free home copying from existing media, was not hugely popular. Although there were a few enthusiasts who liked to compile tapes the loss in quality of an analogue to analogue copy and the copying time - a 45 minute album took 45 minutes to copy, all this seemed to discourage widespread copying. For home use the tapes had a disadvantage of albums, especially for short rock tracks, accessing a particular track required a lot of shuffling to find the start of a particular number. 

In any event, the record manufacturing industry fought back hard and introduced a new disc technology, the Compact Disc (mid 1980s), a technology that gave a significant quality improvement over the older analogue systems and the quick access to different songs that vinyl discs had given. Eventually it would also permitted home copying, but that would have to wait for another revolution, the home computer, but by then, for music reproduction, the CD itself had been superseded by a further technology. 

Bootleg CDs containing an artists' entire catalogue started appearing at what the British called 'Computer Fairs' in the early 1990s. These were meetings where you could shop for computer hardware and they existed for a brief time while the home PC was still mainly in the hands of the computer hobbyist. (The relationship between important new technology and the hobbyist is something I shall blog about on another day). Save to say that the Computer Fair provided a venue to bring together copyright thieves and their potential customers, and was largely ignored by the law. Later, of course, the internet would make these opportunists redundant but briefly they flourished.
The bootleg CDs were dependent on a new data compression system called MP3 and it was not long before it entered the legal mainstream with the introduction of the MP3 players. Falling prices for semiconductor storage and the introduction of  the IPOD made the manufacture of permanent media to carry music around on obsolete. With this has come the redundancy of the manufacturing infra structure.

Of course, the music industry still wants to make sales, even though the jobs that were once a part of the album manufacturing/distribution industry are long gone. Setups such as ITUNES are there to make music buying so convenient that finding a pirate version to copy is just too much trouble. Regardless of the long term fate of copyright the linkage between a physical object and particular music is long gone. 

Clearly, now, the marginal cost of reproducing the music is so tiny as to be barely measurable. In the 1960s record companies could point to their set-up and tooling costs as a means of justifying the prices charged. From a social point of view it was possible to point to the number of jobs produced by the business. 

The advertisements placed by the owners of copyright, the attempts to strike a parallel between illegal file copying and shoplifting are more than a little flawed. The resources that are displaced in order to copy a digital file are trivial. Moreover, the thief, should he choose to, can point to an actual reduction in environmental impact of the reproduction of a file copy compared to the manufacture and the manufacture and distribution of a legally produced disc. This knowledge will, I feel, in the long run remove the prejudice against so called copyright theft. 

Sony, who are the copyright owners of some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, are trying to hang on to their piece of the action, in the not too long run they will be joining the dinosaurs.

Changes have already come to the business model of the music industry. Rock music concerts still exist but they are no longer promotional vehicles for disc manufacturers. Nowadays concerts have to be revenue producers in their own right. 

But The Man, as 1970s hipsters were inclined to call big business, has lost his monopoly. With new technology all musicians and bands can distribute their music world wide.  Decca records rejected the Beatles, if EMI had done the same much of the soundtrack of the mid 20th century might not exist. These days there are numerous  opportunities to record and distribute music, anyone can do it - world wide. And in the long run this can only be a good thing.

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