The economics of the music business have never been worse, the Wall Street Journal tells us today in a front-page story. CD sales in the first three months of 2007 have "plunged" 20 percent compared to last year. The top-selling albums, as measured by SoundScan, are only moving 60,000-65,000 copies a week, totals that wouldn't have been able to crack the top 30 as recently as 2005.
It's all the Internet's fault, of course. And the music industry isn't alone in singing the blues:
The music industry has found itself almost powerless in the face of this shift. Its struggles are hardly unique in the media world. The film, TV and publishing industries are also finding it hard to adapt to the digital age. Though consumers are exposed to more media in more ways than ever before, the challenge for media companies is finding a way to make money from all that exposure. Newspaper publishers, for example, are finding that their Internet advertising isn't growing fast enough to replace the loss of traditional print ads.
Oh, woe is media. The dread Internet will kill all business models, and then where will we be? Left with nothing to read, watch or listen to, I suppose. I mean, haven't you noticed that happening? As the music industry implodes, aren't our choices of tunes to listen to shrinking drastically?
Balderdash! This will not be the first time I've made this observation, but an article as bleak as the Journal's requires revisiting the paradox once again. As it becomes ever harder for newspapers and movie studios and record companies to make a buck, I have found myself exposed to more varieties of entertainment and a wider selection of information sources than I ever imagined possible, back in the day when my only option was driving to the mall to see what the nearest Tower Records store was stocking. We aren't just exposed to media in more ways than ever before, as the Journal concedes, we are exposed to more musicians, more writers, more video artists, and more creativity.
The Journal notes that a top seller in recent weeks was an album by "American Idol" runner-up Chris Daughtry's rock band. I guess it is truly a sad statement about the music business that a reality TV show loser is topping the charts. But my most recent purchase was the album "Escape From Dragon House" by Dengue Fever, a fabulous cross-cultural mash-up of psychedelic surf guitar performed by Los Angeles musicians that features vocals by a Cambodian pop star singing in Khmer. I heard an amazing tune, "One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula," on a college radio station, I looked up a review on Pitchfork, and I bought the album on iTunes. And my socks have been knocked off ever since. Life is good.
I have no doubt that file trading and the ease of CD-ripping are making it harder to make Big Money off of Big Hits in the music business. And I am quite familiar with the trickle-down theory that says if the record studios can't make a profit, then who is going to give new bands the recording contracts to make new music and distribute it to the public? I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the current moment is a period of transition, a last gasp of bewildering cultural variety before the economics of the Internet crushes the music industry once and for all.
But so far, I see zero evidence that our cultural productivity is seriously threatened. Quite the opposite. Profits are down, but choice is up. How long this will continue, I have no idea. But for now, viva la digital revolution.