I’m currently in the process of updating my website to include some of the work I did as a student journalist. This piece originally appeared in The Cord Weekly on 12 March 2008. Please click the article’s title to view the PDF.
The Future of Music
12 March 2008
Special Projects Editor
As record sales continue to plummet, this year’s Canadian Music Week became a venue for industry insiders and visionaries to share their thoughts on the future. The Cord was there to listen and speak to the people involved and to try and map out where the industry is headed
It has been a little over a decade since the North American music industry was in its prime. In the mid-to-late 1990s, album sales were buoyed by pop megastars like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, ’NSync and the Spice Girls, and the numbers indicated it: in 2000, sales reached their peak, as approximately 940 million copies were sold across the continent, according the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Canadian Recording Industry (CRIA).
However, that was before Napster and the Internet changed the way that fans could access music.
In 1999, Shawn Fanning, a student at Northeastern University, wrote the program for a file-sharing service that allowed users to access the digital music catalogues of people across the world over the Internet. With Napster, the means of obtaining music were forever changed, as the recording industry no longer held a monopoly over the distribution
Almost ten years since the rise of Napster, the music industry is still struggling to come to terms with the way that the Internet facilitates access to music. With albums sales falling to about 620 million in 2006, the industry is now beginning to seriously probe how to best utilize the Internet and other new media to ensure its own sustainability.
“It’s fundamentally changing the way people access, consume and distribute media – period,” said Alan Cross, program director at the Edge 102.1 (CFNY-FM) in Toronto, of the Internet during an interview following his appearance at a panel discussion at last week’s Canadian Music Week (CMW). “All you have to do is look at the Internet: that’s revolutionizing the way that people are accessing and discovering new music, through Myspace, through Facebook, through PitchforkMedia.com, or whatever,” said Cross. “There’s just so much more out there, and so many more ways to find it and so many more ways to tell other people about it,” he continued.
Much of the focus of this year’s CMW, an annual event that mixes industry conference discussions and a four-day, city-wide music festival, was set upon how to deal with new media and the Internet and to try to envision how to proceed. While many media outlets predict doomsday scenarios for the music industry, many of the speakers at this year’s CMW were optimistic about the future.
“It’s a really exciting time in the music business,” said Jack Ross, a vice-president and agent at The Agency Group in Toronto, during a panel discussion entitled “Artist Development: Building Tomorrow’s Classic Rock Today”.
“The fan is in charge,” said Ross, commenting on the ability for music fans to dictate how they listen to music and when.
Similarly, Steve Kane, president of Warner Music Canada and another member of the panel, pointed to the rise of digital media as a way of allowing artists that have been previously overlooked to reach the spotlight. “With the fragmentation of media and the localization of media,” said Kane, “I think one of the things we’re seeing is the rise in regional music and local musicians.”
An example of this trend can be found in Laurier’s own Will Currie & The Country French, who made their debut during this year’s festival.
Having honed their musical skills by playing shows at the WLU campus as well as in and around Southern Ontario
for the past year and a half, the six-member band, made up primarily of students in the school’s Faculty of Music, served as an opening act for Sloan at the murderecords label re-launch party.
The group has recently been signed to murderecords, a label that was first founded by the members of Sloan in the early ’90s. In an interview outside of the Supermarket following the band’s performance, they expressed their excitement about having opened for one of Canada’s best known rock acts.
With their hard work and commitment to playing shows and honing their performance, the band exemplifies
the work ethic necessary to get noticed and signed. While this may be the traditional means of establishing any music career, the band has also employed the use of new media to help gain attention. “At first, we just gave tons away. We just a put a pile of CDs at the front of the stage and said ‘come get them’ and people just stormed the stage to grab free music,” explained vocalist Amanda Currie, of the band’s use of inexpensive and easily burnable demo discs.
Having used free as way of establishing a fan base, the members of Will Currie & The Country French also looked to the Internet as a means of reaching an audience outside of people who were able to attend their shows. “It’s the cheapest promotion that you can do for your band. Anyone can sign up for a Myspace page, you can put your recordings up for free, they can get all the way around the world and you don’t have to pay for those costs,” said percussionist Steve Wood.
And while many in the music industry bemoan the Internet for making songs available to download for free, the members of the band feel that this ability has a positive impact on their career and the careers of other musicians from small or independent groups. “Because we’re not Jay-Z or something, we really don’t care how many records we sell,” said Will Currie, the founder and vocalist for the band. “But the Internet is really useful for indie bands because you’ve got Myspace and you’ve got these podcasts and things – that’s what gets your name out there, that’s what plays your songs,” he continued.
Like the members of Will Currie & The Country French, Toronto-based pop-musician Lights has turned to untraditional ways to get her music heard. Having recently signed a deal with Old Navy to have her songs featured in an advertising campaign, Lights has become a fast-rising star in Toronto’s music scene. After her buzz-worthy performance at the Rivoli on Friday night, Lights explained that because of the changing landscape of the music industry, bands are forced to market themselves in innovative ways. In her case, rather than release a traditional full-length album on CD, Lights has looked to iTunes as a way to distribute her first EP.
“One of the big things is that I think the need for a full-length album, and the hard copy in your hand, is becoming a little bit obsolete,” explained the 20-year-old pop singer. “It’s just more accessible to everyone all across the globe. You can, with a click of a mouse, get the song that you want and you don’t have to buy all of them. I think that’s just a more practical means of finding new music you like,” she continued.
While Myspace and iTunes are becoming industry standards for both new and established acts, Lights is also looking to explore further distribution methods in other ways. “I’m really open to experimenting with a lot of cool ideas in the coming years. Maybe an EP after an after an EP, or even USB bracelets with songs on them – just cool ideas. I think the market’s changing so much and no one knows where it’s going to go; it’s time to experiment,” said Lights. As more and more bands begin to drift away from the traditional means of producing and distributing music, the industry itself has also begun to find ways other than the CD or hard-copy format as a way of selling music.
At the “Digital Music & Media Futures: New Business Models” demonstration, music futurist, author and CEO of Sonific LLC, Gerd Leonhard discussed the problems facing the music industry and the ways in which they can be turned into opportunities instead. Stating that the major record labels have forever lost the “control” that they once held over the means of distribution,
Leonhard argued that it is time for the industry to embrace the changes that are occurring. “What we see right now is basically wasted enormous potential,” Leonhard said during his keynote address.
Rather than turning to distribution models like iTunes, which essentially attempt to transfer the old model of selling tracks or albums to a digital world, Leonhard advocates an entirely different business model. Under Leonhard’s model, publishing and distribution agreements will be re-written in order to allow music fans and consumers to access music without having to pay for each song or album.
Under this approach, music will be used as a form of content, which is licensed to various websites, who will in turn use advertising money to pay for the licensing fees. “Consumers will pay with attention,” said Leonhard, as he argued that advertising will offset the costs associated with producing and distributing music.
However, in order for a networked approach to selling music to work this will take “collaboration and agreements
to get the music out there,” said Leonhard. While these approaches have yet to reach the mainstream, they are already
being developed and are set to launch.
Online portals – such as Kanoid, which allows users to send friends song recommendations directly to their cell phones; Slacker, an online radio station with pre-programmed stations as well as stations that are automatically tailored to the preferences of the individual user; and Project Opus, which is an online music community that allows users to share their musical preferences
with friends – offer a glimpse of where the music industry may be headed.
The president of Arts & Crafts Records, Jeffrey Remedios, said that while digital media offers some drawbacks, it also presents opportunities to further expand the industry. “Music, digital technology becomes the great curse but it’s also the great liberator, so we’ve tried to take the great liberator approach to it and embrace it widely, except that it’s not up to us to decide how people consume their music,” explained Remedios, who is the president of the label that helped use Apple’s iPod to give Feist a new level of commercial success.
In essence, he said, the onus is on those involved with creating and distributing the music to accept the digital
revolution and ensure the sustainability of the music industry.
As Remedios explained in an interview following his participation in a panel discussion, “It’s up to us to make sure that our music is available to them where they want to have it consumed, how they want to have it consumed.”