The Future of Music

Broadcast 1/19/2007

Listen to this piece at 88.9 FM Serious Jazz Radio Rewind -- scroll down when you get there, please. Available up to one week after broadcast.

When you buy a compact disc from your favorite music performer, chances are that performer earns a royalty of about eight percent. If the artist wrote some of the music or had a producer credit, then the cut might be a somewhat larger. But, generally speaking, if you spend $12.50 for a CD, the artist makes a buck. The other $11.50 cents go to retailers, wholesalers, distributors, marketers, manufacturers, manager, and recording industry middlemen. If you’re in the recording business – that is, the right place somewhere in the middle – without playing or singing a note, you stand to make an awful lot of money. But the full feeding trough is going to be emptier in the years to come.

We are moving, after all, into the digital age – in text, in audio, and in video. In the age of digital content, some providers will adapt, and some will wither away and die. The recent string of lawsuits and increasingly extreme tactics from the Recording Industry Association of America are sure signs of an industry that refuses to change in the face of current trends of how people prefer to find and listen to music. Some business models just don’t work any more. Everybody remember Tower Records?

Maybe you listen to music like I do. I have a portable MP3 player and I legally download music, but mostly I have a real-world CD collection several hundred strong that sits on several shelves in the living room. If you’re old fashioned, by degrees, you might just have the CDs, or some combination of CDs, cassettes, and records. We won’t, however, dwell on the 8-track cartridges. But although I am new member of the old school – or maybe an old member of the new school – I am a music listener of the past.

All these things and more were made much more clear to me after reading The Future of Music by Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, published in 2005. Actually, I listened to this book after downloading it to my iPod.

The future of music lies in the hands of its future listeners. When I talk to people under the age of 18 – from all kinds of backgrounds -- about how they listen to music, many things are clear. First of all, the laws go out the window. As far as digital music is concerned, it’s finders keepers. And it’s not like, in many areas, the laws make that much sense or are even fair.

As to the listeners of the future, they believe they are asked to pay too much for music. Even at 10 dollars for a CD, or a dollar for a song, the prices are too high -- especially if most of the money doesn’t go to the artist.

They do not have a problem with downloading music for free over file sharing networks.

They do not make an issue with ripping music from friends’ CDs, with burning disks for friends. Sharing and trading music is just what you do.

They rarely own more than a dozen CDs. Pretty much everything is stored on a computer or portable player.

More importantly, they listen to far more and a far more diverse range of music than I did at their age. They have collections of between 1000 and 3000 songs – and they are always looking for new and unusual music. The homogeneous mix on commercial terrestrial radio and even satellite radio doesn’t interest them.

As far as I can see, this musical curiosity is where public radio and podcasting can play a role – in guiding and informing their developing taste far from the influence of commerce or profit. In the end, it’s always just about the music.

The future of music lies in listeners and artists connecting with each other, with as little interference as possible. Musicians upload, listeners download. The technology and the law will work themselves out sooner or later.

I need only point to the legendary tenor Sonny Rollins and his latest release, Sonny, Please. In the material world, it goes on sale January 23, but it’s been officially downloadable from sonnyrollins.com since November 21 of last year. I downloaded the whole album – plus a bonus track – for $10 on September 1.

I have the tracks on my laptop, on my iPod, and burned onto a disc I listen to in the car. And while it’s been great to know that I had the music before almost anybody else, it’s even better to know that my man Sonny got most of my money.

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