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"The Death of the CD-Release Complex"

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Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

Introduction

In his seminal release Purple Cow, marketer Seth Godin declared, “The Death of the TV-Industrial Complex.”  Explaining that, over the past fifty years ever-growing companies had built huge economic engines around the idea of a system that’s going away, because the symbiotic relationship between consumer demand and TV advertising could no longer be relied upon to churn out seemingly endless profits.  This process of spreading ideas through interrupting people with ads to get more distribution, to sell more products, which makes you enough profit to interrupt that same person again, was over. 

Twenty-seven years ago, a similar system was built when the CD was introduced into the market. Promoted as “perfect sound forever,” music fans were told to trade in their tapes and records for the robustness, durability, and quality that the new format offered.  In droves, people would go onto replace their collections. Demand was at an all time high and the Recording Industry boomed.  Born into a different world than its predecessors, the great success of the CD would forever change the role that record labels played in people’s lives and how future releases would be promoted.

"These mediums, when utilized together, formed an abstract system
that record labels used influence people..."

Through marketing campaigns that encompassed radio, television, print, and big box retailers, commercial music reached its intended audience of the masses.  These mediums, when utilized together, formed an abstract system that record labels used influence people and regulate the flow of culture into their lives.  This in turn, has caused previous generations to develop a strong relationship with specific delivery mechanisms and rely on them for new music.  Once primed, these mechanisms fired off structured points of interaction that lubricated a single into rotation and stimulated demand for the album.

“What developed,” Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, elaborates, “was a concentrated, commercial industry, based on massive financial investments in advertising, or preference formation, aimed at getting ever-larger crowds to want those recordings that those recording executives had chosen.”  With this, the shift from selling music to units began and increasing quarterly earnings to please investors in the short run replaced pleasing fans in the long run.  Systematically, as not to compete with each other or confuse the budget of the individual, these recordings were pushed out regardless.  Based on whether or not they would sell, rather than the quality of music or the artist’s abilities.

Music for the Masses

Previously, I’ve referred to this abstract system as “The CD-Release Complex.”  It is the backbone of the modern Recording Industry, one built around the idea that music fans discover music through the same mediums that records labels use to promote new music.  Often times, this resulted in a bond between the mechanism and the individual that grew stronger than their connection to the music that it delivered.  Through this, Major Labels learned that they could influence a person’s behavior with a combination of emotions and impulses that had been rejected from awareness of the individual.

"Meanwhile, a huge marketing push, consisting of
guest appearances and interviews would build anticipation..."

Three months before release, reps sent the single to radio stations for promotion.  If the record label needed big hit that quarter, favors were exchanged with Disc Jockeys to guarantee extra rotation.  Shortly after, they over spent on a music video and shipped it off to MTV.  About a couple phone calls and a few more ‘personal favors’ later, elaborate press kits were sent to big media outlets and select music publications.  Even though no one had even heard the album, it arrived under the assumption that a favorable review would be given.  Meanwhile, a huge marketing push, consisting of guest appearances and interviews would build anticipation and prepare the album for its Tuesday release.

For this process to produce desirable results, it required an individual to be reliant on specific delivery mechanisms.  Without reliance, a song isn’t able to as efficiently circulate through the system and grow on the individual in a short period of time.  Slowly progressing onward to the next single wherein the artist can begin to develop a relationship and connection to their story.  The system is designed to garner a high-level of familiarity and to incrementally expose a person to new music that lands just outside their worldview. Essentially, this amounts to browsing within mediated contexts and when everyone else involved is exposed to the same music it becomes the sociocultural superglue of that generation.

"it becomes clear that we essentially miss the effect of
their structural influence and how it's used to develop
our tastes subtly, over long periods of time..."

Throughout the mechanization of this industry, what used to be “extensions of fan” undoubtedly transformed into the “extensions of man.”  In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan proposed that, “The Medium is the [Music]," meaning that the forms of specific delivery mechanisms have embedded themselves into the music, creating a symbiotic relationship by which record labels influence how the music is perceived.  When you concentrate on the mechanisms and how they convey commercial culture—rather than on the specific music the record labels have used them deliver—it becomes clear that we essentially miss the effect of their structural influence and how it’s used to develop our tastes subtly, over long periods of time.

Conclusion

Over the past ten years, what the Recording Industry has found out is that The CD-Release Complex stopped working.  The artists they throw at pop radio no longer stick and sell the five million copies that were required pay for the other ten attempts that failed.  Music fans no longer rely on the mediums that labels use to promote music, because by the time the music actually gets there, it’s not new, it’s just popular.  The hardest lesson of all is that fan-artist relationship isn’t a buzz word.  It’s the very reasoning behind fans carelessly ‘stealing music’ from artists they have no connection with and believe to be rich.

Contrary to popular belief, the CD isn’t dead.  What’s fundamentally changed is the way that we think about how to build sustainable careers and promoting music.  For aspiring artists, the question used to be, how do I get on radio, a video on MTV, or a write up in The Rolling Stone?  The answer was simple, but the pursuit to actually get signed to a major label wasn’t.  Today, the question is:  How do I get on that person’s iPod?  The problem is that if individual relies on the Internet to find and listen to new music then record labels can’t use multi-million dollar marketing campaigns to help you answer that question.

 “We built a huge economic engine around
the idea of this system, and now it’s going away.”
 

What’s happened, Godin addresses, is that, “We built a huge economic engine around the idea of this system, and now it’s going away.”  As we’ve been told, the primary financial troubles that record labels have had are caused through people file-sharing and stealing music that they would have otherwise purchased.  It’s not that there isn’t some truth to that statement, because there is.  However, I believe that by clinging to that idea we’ve greatly ignored the changes in the media landscape and consumer behavior, which have been far more subtle and sophisticated than anything we could’ve ever imagined.

Bringing me back to the assertion I made in Communization And The Rise Of The Music Fan, that the cultural inversion that professor Mike Wesch speaks of is a perfect example of how the way people interact with music has changed.  Music fans are becoming increasingly individual and the more individualized they become, the more they value this sense and want for community or ‘tribe.’ They become more independent yet long for stronger relationships.  There is commercialization all around them; therefore, they now seek out music that is real, authentic, and meaningful.  With that, one by one music fans have left the complex and it no longer plays as vital of a role in their lives.  For up-and-coming generations, they don’t even know what the complex is, because many of the things that created its illusion are already gone.

(Screencap taken from the Day of the Longtail video)

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