Once upon a time, musicians could make money selling records.
Of course, the majority of recording artists—as has been true of artists in virtually every field ever since artists were invented—never sold anything, and even among the select few lucky enough to find an audience for their work, the business suits behind the scenes, such as management and record companies, generally siphoned off the lion share of the profits.
Even so, money, and boatloads of it, could be made just from selling canned music, simply because buying recordings used to be the easiest and often the only way for people to be able to listen to their favorite music whenever they wanted.
Courtesy of the Internet, this particular gravy train, it seems, has come to a screeching halt.
These days, musicians reportedly generate most of their income from touring, i.e., from ticket sales and merch revenue, as compared to the peanuts they make from CD or iTunes sales. The Rolling Stones probably rake in more jack from peddling tongue mugs at their live shows than from retailing their recordings, digital or otherwise. (Given the advent of 3D-printing, I predict that mug sales will eventually go the way of the landline as well.)
Although the Internet has made it easier than ever to sell music, it has also eroded the public’s incentive to purchase music—for why spend money on something that’s widely available for free?
For instance, because I happen to dabble in music myself, I have some recording software installed on my PC. This enables me not only to record my own compositions, but by flipping a simple switch on my sound card, I can also use it to capture anything that comes out of my computer speakers and turn it into a CD-quality mp3 file in a flash.
And since nowadays every piece of music ever recorded by anyone seems to be up on YouTube, if I want a particular song, why should I fork over a buck if I can easily snatch it off the Web literally “for a song”?
This, of course, goes for any place online that features sound, not just YouTube. Not providing a download function guards against uninvited downloads just as disabling the “Save image as…” function guards against SnagIt. It’s a joke.
Bottom line, if you can listen to it on your laptop, you can songjack and put it on your iPod, your iPhone, your iPatch, or whatever other iWhatchamacallit you carry around with you in no time and at no charge. That’s just the way it is. When it comes to recorded music, the Internet has become a global free-for-all, plain and simple.
Is it illegal to grab and copy sound waves emanating from one’s own personal property for personal use? I don’t know. If it is, any desire to enforce that law seems as delusional as the dream of making money selling music online. (If I ever put my own music up for sale on iTunes, my excuse will be that I never said I wasn’t delusional.)
When I was a kid, at a time before Al Gore invented the Internet, whenever an Elvis movie played on TV, I would grab my little tape recorder (yes, that’s how old I am) and record the songs by placing the recorder close to the TV speaker and hitting the Record button as soon as the talking stopped and the music started. That way, I made myself a whole tape of Elvis songs. Not exactly CD quality, but it worked for me. Was I committing a crime? I have no idea.
For the record, no pun intended, as far as the present, I’m not confessing to anything except to having the technical capacity to record everything that comes out of my PC speakers. I’m not saying I’ve ever employed said capacity in the manner I described, just as confessing that I own a large kitchen knife which I could use to slash people’s throats is very different from confessing that this is what I’ve ever used it for or am planning to use it for.
In any event, whether I, personally, am in the habit of swiping any or all the songs and sounds I want off the Internet for the price of scratching my head, the technology, alas, is out of the bag. Even if I don’t do it, millions of others do. How do I know? Because they can.
And even if you feel like neither buying a particular song nor yoinking it off the Web for free, given 24/7 Internet access and the proliferation of all manner of mobile devices, you know you can go on YouTube or wherever and listen to it at any time. What’s the point of buying—or stealing—something that’s always readily available anyway?
Other than CD collectors, concerned consumers that consciously wish to support individual artists or the recording industry at large, and individuals either too busy or too technologically challenged for any exertions beyond one-click-shopping on iTunes, who’s actually purchasing music these days? Are you?
Unless and until sites like YouTube stop providing every recording under the Sun to the public at no charge—and I don’t see this state of affairs reversing— the only way to profit off recorded music in the future will be indirectly, either by essentially giving it away as promotional material for other products and services, such as live concerts, that people might be willing to pay for, or by way of ad revenue from popular YouTube channels and the like.
Until about a hundred years ago, no one made money selling recorded music. In this area, it sure looks like we’re headed back to the way things were for most of recorded history.