Unsound – a film about the modern music biz

Music Industry, Technology Comments (0)

What does everyone think about this film? I’m of two minds. On the one hand I’d like to believe there’s a silver bullet that will allow artists to make a living and create art, but I don’t necessarily believe that such a thing exists.

I think a civilised society should have a responsibility to maintain a flourishing art culture, for its own good, just as it has other social responsibilities like health, education, looking after people who need help. And for the record the modern world seems pretty crap at all of these things in favour of selfish/economic interests. But I still don’t see how to undo things like the devaluing of the recorded music business – we can’t just sit around and say “it’s not fair”. It’s been a business that’s done well for several decades, but the music industry didn’t create the market, they just identified it. Phonographs were invented, and then people paid for the means to be able to listen to music – the value is in the enabling of this listening, not in the music itself. Of course, people have to like the music to want to hear it, and that means that the music has (non-monetary) value to the listener, but the business value was in the access to the music. Labels were the gatekeepers of music to the listeners.

Prior to the phonograph, this market didn’t exist (although printed music and pianolas came a little earlier than records). There must have been people making some money from music, or even a decent living, but it was really this new business of access to recordings combined with the the rise of the celebrity in the second half of the 20th century that really got things going. Thanks to new technology, the market is different now, like or not. The access to recordings is no longer a problem that needs to be overcome (unfortunately we’re left with the MTV-on-steroids nature of pop stars.. but at least now there’s a lot of interesting independent music too). If that barrier has been removed by modern technology, there’s not much we can do about it – perhaps it is the end of an era. Music still has value to individuals and to society, but that’s not necessarily a monetary value.

There’s never been a better to for musicians to be able to make recordings, and this is a great thing. It’s also our downfall – at a time when when sales are down, the market’s been flooded. But this is only a bad thing from the point of view of the business. As an artist, it’s great. But when you try to monetise your art, it sucks balls. But would you exchange the situation today for one in the 70s/80s where most bands were just playing local gigs, and only a select few were elevated to the prized position of recording artists, and had a shot at getting famous, while being ripped off at the same time? Hmm.

Short story, I’m not sure if there’s a divine right (or if there’s ever been) that any artist can make a living out of their art. Of course some will, and there’s many reasons for that, but it’s never easy, and luck/fate and other factors are often involved. We devalue art by just talking about it in monetary terms – it’s worth so much more in other ways. The point now is that we should be thinking about what the intrinsic value of art to people is and focussing on that, and then maybe we’ll find new ways to monetise it.

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On November 19, 2013

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