The slow death of what many envision as the “music industry,” began with the launch of Napster back in 1999. I’m sure there were other inclinations that the RIAA would start crumbling long before 1999, but Napster really sparked the revolution where the people aimed to take back their works of art. Where music was no longer something you could hold. MP3s meant that music could now be shared infinitely, and with anyone around the world. The RIAA and music industry just became too focused on keeping a stranglehold on what music would be distributed, and how.
Former Talking Heads’ front-man (and successful solo musician), David Byrne, reflected on this change in an article for Wired Magazine as a good thing.
“What is called the music business today, however, is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that’s not bad news for music, and it’s certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed, with all the ways to reach an audience, there have never been more opportunities for artists” (Byrne, 2007).
Byrne sees it as musicians taking back what’s theirs. Between Radiohead releasing In Rainbows on their own, through their website, and allowed people to pay whatever they wanted, to Madonna leaving Warner Bros. for Live Nation, musicians are seizing new opportunities to pave their own way, without a giant label holding them back. And with the advent of donation-based sites like KickStarter, bands and artists can ask their fans to donate money directly to them! If a band needs $10,000 to record their new album, they can start a KickStarter campaign, and give incentives to fans who donate over X amount of money (free CDs, autographs, T-shirts, even “Executive Producer” credits). (Caldwell, 2010)
But back to Napster. Initially, the RIAA took offense to Napster’s free-for-all music sharing, and sued the pants off the company, and many of its users. It took a few years, but the RIAA eventually gave in to the fact that people thought digital music was just easier, so they compromised and began working with Apple on licensing copyrighted music to be sold through the iTunes store. And since the early 2000s, iTunes has been the reigning champ of selling digital music.
Then, there’s YouTube. There are millions of user-generated videos on YouTube, many using copyrighted material without the copyright owner’s permission. How does YouTube get away with it? Especially when only a few years earlier, Napster was sued into bankruptcy. First, YouTube insists that it does as much as possible to keep unsolicited copyrighted material off their site, but even so, I think a big part is that 1) YouTube is strictly streaming, so no downloads and 2) the RIAA and musicians realized they can use YouTube to their advantage. If you notice, almost every artist imaginable has their own YouTube page. YouTube will pay money if a video gets over a certain amount of “hits,” or “views.” This can keep a revenue stream coming in for your typical pop chart-topping videos, even when album sales are tanking (Kulash, 2010). On top of that, YouTube has a sidebar for “recommended” videos, which can lead users to hundreds of other, similar, videos that may all be copyrighted by the same company. This also falls back on the concept of the Long Tail. Through a single “hit” song on YouTube, the recommendations can lead users to hundreds of not-so-well-known artists.
This idea of streaming has lead to yet another shift in the paradigm of how consumers get their music: subscription-based services that only STREAM music. This is a completely new idea. People will no longer actually own ANY music. Granted, there is still money to be made here. These streaming services pay the copyright owners money for every time their copyrighted song is listened to. But still, the idea that people will pay money without actually getting to own the music is revolutionary (and a little scary). (Pollack, 2011)