The Shrinking Music Business

Did you know the music business is shrinking? You wouldn’t think so from watching the Grammy’s, Glee, Smash, American Idol, X Factor, The Voice, and the Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, would you?

The truth is, the music business is not what it was for all sorts of reasons. People don’t need to buy CDs anymore, so they don’t. The people who would buy them (old folks) can’t, because the stores that sell them are, for all intensive purposes, gone. The machines that you play CDs on are also no longer available. What you have has to last because when it goes, good luck trying to replace it. It is soon to go the way of the cassette player. (Dad, what’s a cassette?)

If you want music you can go to Amazon or iTunes and purchase it for a price much cheaper than the CDs had gotten to be in their heyday. The artists don’t get much money (unless they produce their own music, in which case they are pretty much unknowns and don’t have many sales), even though the big fuss a decade ago was how Napster was “robbing” all the artists of their “livelihoods”. Sony, break my heart! Even touring is getting very costly, except for the dozen or so megastars who can sell out huge houses at high prices. Mostly, folks don’t tour because it doesn’t make much money.

Young people are exposed to very little by way of music if all they listen to is the top 40 stations and the internet. Without musically literate parents who have some influence over their children’s exposure to and interest in the kind of music they hear (how likely is that?) the only music the kids hear is pop, R&B, rock, rap and maybe some alternative stuff. No folk music, certainly not of the protest variety, no show tunes, no jazz, no classical, no comedy songs (if you are old enough to remember “Purple People Eater” you will know what I mean).

Classical music is struggling. Opera stays alive because of the deep pockets of the few people who donate money to keep it going. The idea that you can pull in young people by featuring modern works and modern approaches isn’t doing very well. The idea that you pull in directors from TV, Hollywood and theater, whether they know opera or not, and you commission all manner of composers, even if they have never written a classical song in their lives, to “freshen up” opera, has been a failure, for the most part. The people at the top do not want to hear that people DON’T LIKE this stuff. They keep waiting for the magic bullet of “newness” that never comes. This problem, after all, is 30 years old and counting. Hello, Met Opera? Are you listening? Get people who sing really well, with emotional conviction, and keep the productions in the realm of SANITY. Spend oodles of money on audience education and get into the schools. Hello, NY Phil? Find some WOMEN composers, find some people who like to write using MELODIES and HARMONIES, like, you know, in the old days. How bad would that be, really? If it filled all your subscription seats? Tunes, Mr. Gilbert. Hummable tunes.

How does all this effect the number of students turned out every year with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in music or voice in the colleges each year? Not at all. They don’t do a “market watch”. A lot of the time the kids are interested in fame, not in skill, and in glamour, not in artistry. There are enough of them out there that at least a few of them get hired and succeed. Over time, it pulls whatever expectations there may have been about quality down. Sadly, there’s hardly anyone in the audience to notice!

The further away we get from singing in day to day life, for fun, for personal enjoyment, for communion with others, the more we forget what it’s like to sing from a natural, spontaneous, joyful place. In return for this loss, we look outside to others in the world to do our singing for us. We want singing to be special, exciting, different, amazing, stupendous, spectacular. In order for it to live there, it has to be enhanced, manufactured, produced, manipulated, stretched, squeezed and doctored up and the  people who sing it have to do the same things to their own voices in order to have “star quality”. Doesn’t have much to do with being human or with the human condition? Doesn’t have much to do with the power of music to heal us when we make it with our own bodies.

All this is killing the music business, whether we admit it or not. It’s also killing us.

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2 thoughts on “The Shrinking Music Business”

  1. Such a moving and insightful post! I often think that we have become a society of consumers who have no idea how to produce anything. Everyone eats, but how many people can grow food with skill and care, or even cook it well? How many people can make a bookcase, or sew a skirt?

    This applies to music to. We can consume music, but as a society, we can’t make music. The value of making your own food, furniture, clothes, or music has completely been lost. As you point out, the point is not to be on Top Chef, or the Top 40, but the pleasure that comes from sharing in the work of creation, in our own way that’s beautiful not because we are the best singers ever, but because that music is from deep within us.

    P.S. By the way, it’s “for all intents and purposes.”

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