The new "old" music industry
A recent article in the NY Times highlights a potential major shift currently ensuing within the music industry. As the article reports, while in the past most musicians depended on the support of a major record label if they ever hoped of gaining access to a large audience and becoming financially successful, today many artists have the potential to achieve the same goals independently courtesy of digitalization and online distribution. If this trend continues, it may be possible that we will witness the music industry return to what Raymond Williams referred to as an “artisanal” cultural industry system.
Traditionally, music labels earn the majority of their revenue from physical album sales. However, technological innovations such as digitalization and the Internet have led to a massive increase in music piracy, significantly cutting into the profits of music labels. As the NY Times article writes, physical album sales fell 20% in 2008 alone. Furthermore, these same technological coupled with such massive online distributors as MySpace, i-Tunes, and the Zune Marketplace have made it so many musicians no longer need to rely on major record labels to promote their work or distribute it to a wide audience.
As the article illustrates, today many successful artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have created their own artist-run record labels, promoting and distributing their albums themselves. For those artists less established than such acts, investment firms such as Polyphonic have emerged which will provide musicians with the resources to produce and distribute their own music online. As opposed to the traditional model of the music industry, under these new deals musicians will take a significantly larger share of record profits and will maintain ownership of their own master recordings.
In his book entitled Culture, Raymond Williams identifies three separate eras of cultural production. According to Williams, the cultural industries in Europe from the Middle Ages up to roughly the 19th century consisted largely of a patronage system or an artisanal system where artists sold their works directly to their audience. This system began to change in the 19th century, as such intermediaries as book publishers entered the field, purchasing original works from artists and then selling these workers in a market system. The number of intermediaries and additional occupations involved in the production of a cultural text today led Williams to refer to the current period of cultural production as the “complex professional” era. As the NY Times article indicates, it may be the case that at least the music industry is moving away from such a system into a new technologically advanced version of the artisanal system, where musicians can sell their works directly to their audiences online. Social scientists interested in popular culture and cultural production certainly should be watching these ventures, observing the degree of their success, the response by major record labels, as well as how they may influence additional cultural industries.