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Killing Itself to Live: How the Record Industry Conceived It’s Own Demise

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Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

Throwaway culture, while, perhaps, not limited to commercialized music, appears to stem from highly and quickly popularized songs that are file-shared and listened to for a short period of time.  And are, then, later deleted or ‘disposed of’ from the listener’s computer or MP3 player, typically, once the song starts to fade into obscurity or has grown tiresome to the user, due to circumstances such as novelty, over-exposure, or a ‘change of taste.’

As I’ve argued previously, this can be partially attributed to what file-sharing changed about a music fan’s dynamic relationship with the culture that they consume and the numerous paradoxes of choice that are encountered within the realm of the Internet.  Most predominately, file-sharing has allowed fans simulate decisions not yet made, or economically ‘committed to’ rather, and has, in turn, caused them to become ever-more passive about their deletion.

"tastes which quickly increase in popularity die out faster."

Yet, up until this point, what has largely remained a mystery is why things become unpopular and what affect adoption speed has on the abandonment of cultural tastes.  Throughout their research of over 100 years of data on first-name adoption trends, Jonah Berger from the University of Pennsylvania and Gaël Le Mens from Stanford University and Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona found that tastes which quickly increase in popularity die out faster.

More interesting still, the researchers also noted that similar outcomes have been observed in the music industry, wherein, artists who shoot to the top of the charts may be perceived negatively and realize overall lower sales in comparison to those who’ve made a more gradual climb.  Simply put, people may avoid buying music from an artist that they see as being short-lived, because the attractiveness of the music has decreased and lost its uniqueness.

“This seemingly counterintuitive finding,” they wrote, “has important implications.  It suggests that faster adoption is not only linked to faster death but may also hurt overall success.”  How these findings relate to the ten years proceeding and following the rise of Napster and file-sharing is where the big picture becomes clearer and new insight is added into what Steve Knopper deemed ‘The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.’

2.  Music as a Unit

During the CD Boom, which lasted from 1984-2000, music became increasingly pressured and scrutinized, because executives started to demand that it act like every other unit.  This mindset became one of the many catalysts that caused the Record Industry to change from the savvy executives who nurtured talent and developed careers to the corporate types who relied primarily on the infrastructure established through MTV, big-box retail, and commercial radio.

By the late 1990’s, Greg Kot argues in Ripped that the acts dominating the charts were marketing triumphs more than creative ones.  And, with these numerous successes, ranging from Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, the Back Street Boys, and Ricky Martin, the major labels began to abandon organic growth, their long-range, career-building view, in favor of the mass-mediated, commercial music, which could provide stronger quarterly growth and profits.

"cast a divide between themselves and a
wired generation of fans far more subtle and sophisticated
than anything they could’ve ever imagined."

However, what the hit-factories couldn’t create is loyalty and their practices would go onto cast a divide between themselves and a wired generation of fans far more subtle and sophisticated than anything they could’ve ever imagined. Every time the labels used commercial radio and MTV to spike an artist’s popularity, they had risked, as the researchers noted, realizing lower overall sales, because fans may avoid investing an artist if they perceive them as a fad.

Consequentially, once the teen pop bubble burst in 2001 and the performers that had become the Record Industry’s godsend could no longer sustain their success, the labels began the wake up to the harsh realities that file-sharing seemingly induced.  But, no one could forewarn them about the vicious cycle that would be created as a result of their drastic misconceptions and how the very convoluted system they spent years supporting would spiral out of control.

The mass-marketing practices that the Record Industry adopted and mastered in correlation with file-sharing’s rise into predominance may have, in turn, created the ultimate paradoxWherein the more the major labels focused on producing music that could be highly and quickly popularized, the more expecting  fans perceived these artists negatively, perhaps, avoided buying their albums, and preceded to file-share their potentially ‘short-lived’ songs instead.

3.

But, the more the music fans file-shared, the more the major labels were almost forced to produce lowest-common-denominator music, which fed into ever-more vicious cycle.  With every new release, every hot new artist that they used their marketing muscle to spike in popularity, it could be said that the Record Industry was killing itself to live.  Achieving sustainability and profits the only way these music executives knew how.  There simply was no turning back.

The CD-Release Complex, the backbone of the modern Record Industry, built around the idea that fans discover music through the same mediums that major labels use to promote new music, had become so engrained into very fabric of their business, that, without it, they would be lost.  Still, they were blind to the fact that the very abstract system they created and used to commercialize culture and bring music to the masses had since become their mental prison.

"the allotted time table for an artist to be deemed successful
shortened and expectations were heightened."

Previously, artists were established through word of mouth and constant touring, which gradually built a following and allowed an artist develop their creativity and hone their craft.  Yet, every year, for the last twenty years, the allotted time table for an artist to be deemed successful shortened and expectations were heightened.  With advent of file-sharing and the advances in the Internet, that window of time has considerably shrunk to almost nothing.

On the contrary, digital culture has proved to be as unforgiving as the media landscape that preceded it.  Due to the instantaneous nature of the Internet and how it amplifies word of mouth, the growth curve for an artist has compressed from a few years to a few weeks.  “Now,” as Jordan Kurland, manger of Death Cab for Cutie and Feist, commented in Ripped, “you run into this phenomenon with people propping things up that shouldn’t be propped up quite so soon.”

“It is a society of instant gratification now, and bands are built up and torn down before they’ve had a chance to create a body of work that represents who they are or what they can do.”  In other words, what we’re seeing within every spectrum of the Music Industry, from the top-down corporate media of major labels to bottom-up participatory culture of the Internet:  artists that quickly increase in popularity die faster.  And, within a climate that supports disposability, the file-sharing community will only continue to thrive and feed on the throwaway culture that is created as a result of it.

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