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July 1, 2013

Killing The Noise: Technology And The Rebirth Of Record Labels

Mobilized fans and the ease of music publishing has spelled doom for the music industry. But there is a way it can mount a comeback tour.
Nate Lanxon is an editor for Wired UK

"It is clear then that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable."—Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, July 11, 2000.

 How right he was.

On April 13, 2000, a warm morning in California, Metallica issued a press release announcing its war on Napster. A barely-20-year-old Sean Parker, Napster’s founder, had drawn the ire of some of the biggest recording artists in the world. It was all-out war: bands were suing fans, music industry bodies were suing entrepreneurs.

This was the traditional music industry's final act in a highly profitable, massively choreographed and century-long performance. It was suddenly collapsing under its own weight like a star going supernova.

Fast-forward to December 6, 2012, and Ulrich takes the stage again, this time to announce his band's music is available for streaming on Spotify. Sitting opposite his old adversary Parker, Ulrich explains, "When I was trying out Spotify for the first time, I was stunned at the ease of it," Ulrich said. "This was so easy and set up for the fans."

Go Your Own Way

The incredible change the music industry has seen in the intervening 13 years cannot be understated. Mainstream record labels are merging with each other or simply dying. Their function is no longer needed, because it's never been easier to publish music. But as a result, there has never been a greater amount of noise, duplication, "me-too" artists and copy-paste songs. And it's only going to get worse.

The accomplices in this new paradigm are DIY services CD Baby, TuneCore and Ditto Music. TuneCore, for example, publishes the music of over a quarter-of-a-million artists. Anyone can sign up, upload his or her song or album, and pay for it to appear on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and others. Ditto Music boasts about its numerous releases that have hit the popular UK "Top 40" chart. And CD Baby played home to artists such as Ingrid Michaelson, a singer who self-published only to go on and be picked out and included in shows such as ABC's Grey's Anatomy.

Finding the Fans

With so few barriers to entry, the noise will eventually drown out most of the signal. But what or who will be the tastemakers of the future, with a veritable tsunami of choice and access? The answer still is the fans. "Click to share," "Recommend this," and "Tell a friend," buttons can turn all media viral, from bands to GIF images to news articles. This will always continue to be.

But within the next ten years, the sheer mass and volume of music will render impossible even this method of discovery. Charts will simply score songs based on streams and downloads, but with the power of going viral, these charts will be easily manipulated. 

There will come a point in which the music industry will need to take talent and move it beyond a self-funded, ad-supported platform.

The Industry Phoenix

This is where the major record labels will rise again in a new form. Once they exhaust their current fuel (traditional contracts, studio cost advances, physical media distribution), they will regain prominence thanks to one key ability: spotting talent before it has a chance to go viral. The new music industry can then use its finances and contacts to push those artists towards the mainstream outlets of the future.

It may sound similar to the A&R model of today, with talent scouts scouring clubs and bars for hot acts. But bands don't need any of that in the Internet age. Bands can record and publish themselves. All they need is a way to be heard over the noise, and in ten year's time, when we're fatigued by the relentless monotony of sound-alike bands and copycats, it'll be up to a new form of music industry to give them a helping hand and share in the profits. And this time around, it'll be far more fair to the bands. It will be more like a shared business.

This may not be dissimilar to a future version of Amazon, which is both the publisher and point of sale for books. Perhaps Spotify or a future competitor will acquire the likes of Warner Music and become the first in a new breed of major label.

"We have to find a way to welcome the technological advances and cost-savings of the Internet," Ulrich later stated on July 11, 2000, to the Senate Judiciary Committee. By sitting on stage with Spotify in 2012, perhaps we finally have. What we need to find next is a way of making sure signal isn't lost in the noise.

 This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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