Don't take my word for it that the major labels and the system that propped them up for so many years are dead. John Mellencamp, who sang a string of rock hits back in the 1980s and '90s, thinks the business is dead as well. In an articulate and passionate essay on the Huffington Post, he argues that the long slide started well before the rise of file sharing, back to when the business started relying on SoundScan and Broadcast Data Systems (BDS).
With SoundScan, instead of relying on surveys from record stores, the labels could see exactly how many units were being moved in any given week, and where those sales were happening. With BDS, instead of relying on phone calls to radio program directors, the labels knew exactly how many spins a song was receiving in each city. Shortly thereafter, the Billboard charts began relying on these automated systems as well. The result: labels ignored the vast majority of the country and focused on a few hits that were getting airplay in the largest cities, and allocated their A&R and marketing budgets accordingly. We ended up, according to Mellencamp, with No. 1 hits that most of the country had never heard, and the rest was a long downhill slide to today's hyperfragmented and piracy-ridden market.
It's a great essay, and I particularly like his side note that the CD was created out of pure greed, as a way to get users to replace their collections of perfectly good vinyl records. (Remember how CDs were supposed to offer clear sound forever? Funny, my CDs from the early 1990s are already wearing out and skipping, but I have records from the 1950s that still play adequately.)
But like the folks at Idolator, who called Mellencamp old and dumb, I completely disagree with his conclusion. Mellencamp says that the irrelevance of radio and fragmentation of the market means there's no organic way for music to find an audience and grow. That's completely wrong--there's more opportunity for smaller bands today than there's ever been. Yes, beginning artists might have to do more work themselves, but recording, manufacturing, and distributing an album has never been cheaper or easier. From ProTools to Disc Makers to CD Baby and Tunecore, and more recent competitors like Routenote and Audiolife, these are tools that anybody can use and master. Sure, online marketing through vehicles like MySpace can't compete with mass radio play in 100 cities, but it's available to anybody--not just the companies' chosen few. When you get a bit bigger, you can enlist services like Topspin to hype your product in the digital realm, for far cheaper than an old-fashioned media blitz. Even getting gigs no longer requires a booking agent, thanks to services like Sonicbids.
In one sense, Mellencamp's right: if you're in music to become a rock star, now's a bad time to be a musician. But if you want to have your music heard as broadly as possible, there's never been a better time.
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