Authors, be glad you’re not writing music

by | Aug 2, 2009 | Blog, Memoir | 0 comments

My head is spinning after reading some statistics on the sales of music over the past decade. From their peak in 1999, the value of record sales has halved in ten years, according to the Recording Industry of America and quoted in this op-ed by the New York Times’ Charles M. Blow. He quotes other statistics on teenage music-buying habits to conclude that the media consumption of young people is “moving from an acquisition model to an access model”. With so much music available for free streaming on-demand, why would anyone pay for it? The death of the novel has been predicted for a long time, but the starvation of the songwriter may well be upon us sooner than that of the fiction writer. (Or perhaps it’s just that I haven’t yet come across any comparable statistics for books.)

In December 2008, a study by the MCPS-PRS Alliance, the UK’s non-profit royalty-collection service, determined that an extraordinary 85% of all albums available for purchase online did not sell a single copy. This frightening statistic seems to contravene the theory of “the long tail” espoused by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and author of the 2006 book The Long Tail. His hopeful theory championed the internet as a creator of niche markets in which sellers would make money from sales of unique or uncommon products because there would be sufficient numbers of buyers. These statistics seem to confirm, however, that offline patterns of consumption are simply being echoed online, and that neither the creators or sellers of niche products are any better off – certainly not in digital music sales.

What is it about music that makes people – young people in particular – feel that their access to it is a right, and not a privilege for which they ought to pay? I cannot think of another art form in which this is the case. Anyone can go to a museum to view paintings and sculpture, but more often than not you must pay (if not directly, then through some kind of tax). Anyone can read a few pages of a book still under copyright (such as my own) via Google, but they can only read those few pages once. Individual works are still protected in a way that music is not, despite the best efforts of copyright lawyers. I despair for anyone trying to make a living as a songwriter or performer. Is this situation only the result of the replicability of electronic files, or are there more complex cultural factors at work? I’m not convinced that it’s a simple matter of technology, and I wish Walter Benjamin were here to theorise on the work of art in the age of free-streaming audio.

UPDATE: Letters to the NY Times in response to Charles Blow’s original column.

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