Has Music Piracy Killed the 'Recording Artist'?

After hearing The Beatles again last month I was reminded of a time when the songs mattered more and great recorded sound was the focus.
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After their world tour in 1966, The Beatles quit touring as a group.

The interviews have stated that they were tired of trying to perform when they couldn't hear themselves over the screaming audience and were increasingly interested in producing more progressive and experimental music in the recording studio.

The recent release of The Beatles' catalog by iTunes has given the public a chance to revisit a period of pop music in which each new Beatles album was a potential advance in the art of recorded pop music. The Beatles were constantly searching for new sounds and new techniques that would deliver their songs in innovative ways to an audience that was eager to hear the newest sounds on the best audio equipment they could afford.

Album sales allowed The Beatles to retire from touring and devote themselves full time to writing and recording. By focusing on albums as a unified musical statement in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Abbey Road," The Beatles raised the bar for all the albums that followed and changed recording quality and technique worldwide. They also helped launch the Album Oriented Rock radio format and spawned a rash of 'concept' albums that continued into the 1990's.

The Beatles, by abandoning touring and focusing instead on writing, recording, and selling albums, invented the "Recording Artist."

Today there are few, if any, examples of true recording artists left. In the digital age of music when we listen to severely compressed recordings through tiny earphones, the quest for better fidelity is quixotic at best and a complete waste of money at worst. The big recording studios are quickly fading into the past and the studio musicians who were able to devote their lives to improving their sound and their technique are a dying breed, replaced by home recording studios and sample-looping software.

Today's music artist is focused on image and brand development because the money is made on ticket sales for live shows. Album sales are an after thought since music piracy has obliterated the ability to support an act through recorded music sales alone. Recorded music is given away as a promotional loss-leader, sold as an adjunct to a new tech device, or as an impulse buy at big discount stores. Gone are the record stores of old.

Damian Kulash of the group OK Go said it best in a Wall Street Journal article about the "New Rock Star Paradigm", "We're just moving out of the brief period -- a flash in history's pan -- when an artist could expect to make a living selling records alone." He touts the fact that his band has prospered by leaping across treadmills, dancing with a dozen dogs and building the world's largest Rube Goldberg machine to operate in time with music all captured on video to promote the live performance, licensing, and sponsorship opportunities of his band. Oh yes, and you can buy their recordings as well, but they are not the focus of the band. Nor could they be. It takes a LOT of time, energy and creativity to do the videos they do. Why devote that time to the largely unprofitable enterprise of focusing on the writing and recording of the music? In Kulash's new paradigm the recording is free goods to get fans to come to the live show and buy the T-shirts. Obviously, his band is focusing on the only revenue streams that piracy has left them. That's smart on the one hand, but sad on the other.

If music piracy continues unabated I am certain that Kulash's vision of the future of the music business will prove correct. The reason I am certain is that this is not the future of music, it is the ugly past repeating itself.

In the 19th century, British, Scottish, and Irish music were not protected by US copyright law. This lead to US songwriters having to compete with a flood of free music coming in from overseas. Our native-born composers like Stephen Foster were reduced to writing the only type of music that the British weren't producing, i.e. minstrel songs. The traveling minstrel show was the only place that Foster could eke out a few dollars. The focus of the Minstrel shows was most definitely not the music but the comedy show instead, mostly racist in content. History shows that Foster did not enjoy writing this type of music and was capable, when given the opportunity, of writing much better work. But it wasn't until 1909 and the new US Copyright Act, that protected the work of foreign writers, that US songwriters no longer had to "compete with free." This led to an explosion of new songs in what we now refer to as the Golden Age of American songwriting. Damian refers to it dismissively as a "flash in history's pan," but as a songwriter I prefer to think of it as a shining moment when great American music captured the imagination of the world.

But now widespread theft of music has returned to wipe out the creative and financial gains made by 20th-century songwriters and artists, and as Damian points out, "Without records as clearly delineated receptacles of value, last century's rules -both industrial and creative- are out the window." The incentive is no longer there for creating a great recording. The money, just like in the Minstrel days, is now in putting on a show.

We can all see that future every time we watch the music videos on YouTube. But music can, and should, do more than simply catch the eye -- it should please the ear and hopefully move the soul as well.

After hearing The Beatles again last month I was reminded of a time when the songs mattered more and great recorded sound was the focus. I remembered what it was like when records were indeed "receptacles of value." And for a brief, luminous moment I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, and enjoyed receiving some very extraordinary value.

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