It is important to remember that disruptive technology cannot kill art. There is a great deal of doomsday thinking in the music industry when it comes to the effect of tech. While it’s important for musicians and their advocates to remain vigilant against abuse, it’s also worth reflecting on how advancements in technology, on the balance, have created far more opportunity for musicians than detriment. Just as those who have gone before, today’s artists and advocates need to learn to surf on the wave of new technology, rather than swim out against it.
A large disruption was created by the invention of audio recording in 1887. While it was a stunning technological development, classically trained musicians were initially trepidatious. Many opera singers and symphonies felt that recorded music inadequately captured performances, and were concerned their careers would be ruined if these recordings were heard by the public. Additionally, the first recording devices could hold only a few minutes of music. Musicians scrambled to navigate all of the new possibilities and limitations. The first musicians to successfully exploit the new technology were members of the lowest musical caste: common folk entertainers. In a way, they were the original punk rockers, spitting out three minute songs where the message and the melody were more important than the fidelity. The initial disruption to the music industry eventually gave way to empowerment for musicians. Music which would have only been heard by an elite minority was made available to millions, becoming a new revenue stream.
Another invention that initially caused tension for musicians was radio. First used in military and business communications, radio was adapted for commercial purposes enabling consumers to listen to music for free for the first time. Combined with the effects of the Great Depression, record sales plummeted from $75 million in 1929 to $26 million in 1938. However, after initially boycotting radio, musicians and labels became savvy at using it as a marketing tool to boost overall sales. Additionally, ASCAP (with help from legal rulings) became proficient at leveraging the opportunity, collecting royalties and transforming the medium into a source of income for artists. A technology first regarded as a threat to the livelihood of musicians became a powerful tool.
The current tension in the music industry stems from advancements in computing. Once recording was invented, the album became a commodity. This was a wholly new concept. Earlier, all music was consumed in the form of live performance, whether it be in a concert hall, a barroom, or a family home. The only physical form music took was in sheet music. With recording, an entire market was manufactured around captured moments in time. These recordings were copied onto physical objects, so they acted like any other tangible good for sale. However, computer storage, processing power, and networks have become sufficient to practically drop the cost of replication to zero. If your market is based on the supply and demand of physical goods, but the supply of those goods suddenly approaches infinity, it’s not hard to see how that would have disastrous consequences for those heavily invested in the old system. So, once again, musicians are learning how to inhabit this new space and make it work for them. Performing Rights Organizations are learning to adapt. Musicians are utilizing YouTube and Skype to maintain fan attention through online performances. Additionally, releasing music in the form of apps offers the potential for dynamism, updates, interactivity, and a new channel for connecting to fans.
It takes time for artists to fully understand how to harness new technologies to magnify our impact. Perhaps static, recorded music won’t carry much weight in the marketplace going forward. Musicians may need to adapt how they create revenue. Maybe we will return to songwriters thinking more deeply about compositions and unique performances, and putting less emphasis on traditional recording. After all, recording has only been around for a little over 100 years. We might not really understand how to use it, yet. Regardless, technology cannot kill music. Artists will always evolve, bending and twisting technology to serve human expression. As long as babies smack two blocks of wood together to hear the sound, music will flourish.