Music History  

Last week I had a bit of a frustrating experience buying a new record. The movie "Across the Universe" had just premiered in limited distribution. Having seen it at my local theatre in Harvard Square, I decided to buy the album.

I checked on the iTunes web site, and saw that the double album (31-track) version of the soundtrack was available for $14.99. But I prefer to get a real CD, which I can import into the computer to play on the iPod and re-import later if some new file format comes along. I had recently heard (via a Steve Jobs presentation in which new products, including my "3rd-generation" iPod nano, had been announced) that Best Buy was the 2nd-ranked seller of music in the U.S. market. Since I had never bought anything from their web site before, I decided to try them.

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In the fall of 1984, I went back to my high school to work for a few months as an intern. During that time I had a conversation with my music teacher, who played night gigs with a local blues band and would later release an album of his own. I told him about some trends in computer technology that could easily be predicted well into the future. "Within about ten or fifteen years, computer storage capacity will be large enough, that people will be able to store all of their music in digital form on the computer, and it will be just as easy to copy that music from one computer to another as it is to copy text files today." I further speculated that this would have a significant impact on the recording industry and record stores. He found this all a bit hard to believe.

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The Best Buy website was very easy to use (if a bit cluttered), and I found that the album was available from them for only $9.99, with free shipping. This was even less than the single-disc version, despite the fact that Best Buy was an exclusive retailer of the CD version of this double album. After going through the checkout process (again very easy) I was offered the choice of picking up the album at a local store. Great, I thought — I can get it sooner that way.

What followed was a bit frustrating, and somewhat amusing. The order was confirmed, and an email told me to wait until the morning when store staff could verify the item was in stock and put aside for customer pickup. The next morning that email arrived, and I went in to the store that afternoon (a Monday, the 17th) with printouts of the emails as requested. The staff were very friendly, and set about looking for the item. After about a half hour they came back to me and said it was not available yet because it was not scheduled for release until the next day. I understood — being quite familiar with the common practice of new music releases on Tuesdays — and came back the next day.

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According to the recent Rolling Stone article, over 2700 record stores closed in the period from 2003 to the article's writing in June 2007. Harvard Square still has as many record stores as it did when I moved to the Boston area 20 years ago. During the intervening period, the big chains Tower and HMV came and went, but the old shops are still there. {Note added later: A couple shops actually did close, but mainly due to the economic downturn. In early 2010, a couple of the small independent shops that I remember from the 1990's are gone, but there are stll 4 of the original 7 shops. -RM, 20100126}

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On Tuesday afternoon, I returned to Best Buy to try again. This attempt took even longer and involved about 4 or 5 people. They were certain the item must be somewhere, but couldn't find it. I thought it should have been put out that morning, and indeed I found the single-disc version of the soundtrack (with its inexplicably higher price). Their inventory system clearly showed two different SKUs, and the one I wanted should have been there. Three sales associates spent about 20 minutes going through boxes in the music area of the stock room. I walked out an hour later, still without the album. They suggested I could call ahead to make sure they have it before I come in next time.

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The next morning after my trip to the land time forgot, my radio station of choice (WERS, the student station from Emerson College) was playing Radiohead all day. They repeatedly announced that the long-awaited new album In Rainbows had just become available early that morning. The station was playing tracks from the album more than once per hour (presumably this was just about as frequently as they were allowed.) The D.J. explained that the band, now no longer under contract with any recording company, had chosen to sell the album directly to fans, in the form of a download from their web site. Furthermore, fans could choose to pay "whatever they want" — 10 dollars, 5 dollars, or even nothing at all.

As Telegraph blogger Shane Richmond noted:

"None of the things Radiohead are doing with this is unique. All of them have been developed and used by other artists for quite some time. But this is Radiohead. When one of the world's biggest bands does something like this, it will get noticed and it will start people thinking. [...] [Recording labels] no longer add any value to the [music buying] process. In fact, they act as a barrier between fans and musicians. It's time to move them out of the way and Radiohead have just showed us how."

Even though the band no longer has a record label, they surely have people working for them in similar capacities, such as manager, accountant and producer. How do they justify spending money on an internet distribution? The answer is clear and easy to find: they've been on the road. As many writers commented, concert tours generate plenty of revenue and an album release just helps get more fans interested in seeing the band in person.

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My next step in the Best Buy purchasing adventure was to change the pickup location. The store I had chosen originally seemed to make sense because it was on the way home from work, but after the troubles I had been through, I decided to switch to one close to home. Changing the pickup location cannot be done via the website, or in the store. It requires calling the national customer service center at their 800 number. They were very friendly and cooperative, but I kept thinking about how much this was all costing them.

I went to the new location the next day, where they actually had the album. I thanked them, drove home and imported the album into iTunes.

Comparison of Oldstyle vs. Internet Album Purchases

Best Buy Radiohead
Albums Purchased 1 1
My money 10.49 11.57
My time (man-hours) 3.0 0.2
Live Phone Conversations 1 0
Store Visits 3 0
Employees involved 8 0
Employee time (person-hours) 3.0 0


Here is what I wrote back in 2000:

Much controversy has emerged lately about the distribution of music and content (information, data, etc.) in general. Many people seem to think that the developing technology and recent trends, such as peer-to-peer copying of digital music, will lead to the failure of the music production and distribution industry, and that such failure would be a disaster. Unfortunately, they're missing the big picture. Viewed from the perspective of the entire history of the human race, the existence of an organized economic (money-making) music industry is only a very brief event.

Before Classical Civilization

Music was distributed from one person to the next and each performer made his/her own mark on the music. All performance was live, and most was free. Most people sang along, clapped, danced or at least got into the beat. If you sang the same song ten times in a month, you might do it ten different ways.

There were millions of experienced, talented performers and each knew hundreds of popular songs. Everyone personally knew a few of these musicians (today called "folk musicians") who would play the best and favorite music anytime they had an audience, usually once a week or more.

Classical Civilization up through the Industrial Revolution

Folk distribution and performance continued to dominate, but in addition, a few performing artists were financed by wealthy members of society or managed to make a little money from an employer. A very few famous musicians were paid well enough to live a little better than the average standard of living, but that was still very low. None were widely heard.

The Twentieth Century

When recording technology became practical, all that changed:

- High-quality performances (Beethoven instead of folk) became available to the middle classes.

- "Rich" artists — ones actually living better than most all other people — became possible. A few artists could be heard by large numbers of people. Artists of either of these two new types became celebrities, (no longer able to stay at home and focus on their art — the celebrity is a servant of the masses.)

- The majority of musicians, even thouse affiliated with the new production and distribution companies, still made little or nothing.

- The total number of musicians dwindled, because purchased recordings replaced live folk music. There are far fewer talented performers in "industrialized" countries like the United States today than in the early 20th century!

- The majority of the population lost their folk music tradition and had to settle for the radio, enduring the DJ's voiceover chatter and advertisements.

While this was happening, we also experience a great proliferation of technically sophisticated music styles. Popular classical supplanted folk, and then many other even more technically elaborate musical styles ensued (ragtime, jazz, etc. right up to today's techno and conscious hip hop). Most people today believe that more and better music was available to Americans in the 1970's than in the 1870's. But it happened at great expense — listening to music had become a very impersonal and passive experience.

The Inevitable Future

Standing in the year 2000, it appears that "freedom" is gradually prevailing over "control" when it comes to content (information, data and its distribution). New techniques of distribution keep emerging, each quicker than the previous one, and for better or worse, each newer one does a better job of avoiding "control" and enabling "freedom". The result in this case is that, if the RIAA's fears are accurate, no-one will be able to make money from recording music.

Of course, hardly any musicians ever made money from it anyway, at least not enough to have a happy life by their country's standards. The artists who stand to lose aren't very numerous, but they generate what little profit their labels and associated indistry can manage. Without any profitable artists, the industry will have to cease most of its operations.

With this music industry gap, it will be hard for people to get music from centralized paid sources. Music will once again be passed along from one person to the next, just as it was before the onset of centralized control. Once again, the best creative musicians will be those who, like Mozart and Beethoven, lived and died for their art and nothing else. As a musician, composer and instrument builder, I know that music is only worth creating when it motivates me enough to do it for free.

Of course, we'll retain the convenience of not having to perform it ourselves. Imagine a personal DJ that takes requests and automatically figures out what you'd most like to hear next.

More about the future


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