The Digital Dilemma: Finding a Path to Salvation


Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor

With the rise of corporatism in the record industry throughout the 80’s and 90’s, executives disconnected themselves from what used to matter the most to them:  the music.  As the business evolved from the long-range, career-building view that artist development allowed to the short-term, hit-making machine that mass-media provided, they grew dependent on a business scheme that was never intended to serve music fans as actual people, who had a personal connection to their culture, but as mere consumers, who were free to make meaning together, as long as they did so as identity seeking individuals.

Yet, by adopting the ethos of MTV, commercial radio, and big-box retail outlets as their own, to create an speculative, abstract model that supported the creation of blockbuster artists, they had disabled the mechanisms through which they might address and correct the collapse of the “real” music industry that had once operated outside the walls of these media conglomerates and multi-national corporations.  This “real” industry is now slowly starting to re-form itself on the Internet, but the social ecology of music culture that took decades or more to develop offline, isn't just going to reappear overnight online.

"their salvation lies in offering services that are more in step
with the emerging social norms of Digital Natives…

“But make no mistake,” Law Professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser forewarn in Born Digital.   “We are at a crossroads,” they say.  And, “There are two possible paths before us—one in which we destroy what is great about the Internet and how young people use it, and one in which we make smart choices and head toward a bright future in the digital age.”  For major labels, famous stonewalling technological innovation, their salvation lies in offering services that are more in step with the emerging social norms of Digital Natives, without hindering the development of the culture that could, one day, be their savior.

However, even if the record industry has seen the light and now wants to do the right thing, it will be hard, because so much of the structure that holds together music culture has disappeared and their audience has become fractured to the point where executives can’t simply spend money in hopes that the social ecology that corporatism destroyed will re-form from the ground up.  “The stakes of our actions our very high,” they continue.  The choices that the record industry is making now will preside over how future generations create meaning, understand, and interact with their cultural objects in the digital age.

2.  Money to Burn

To comprehend the importance of the choices that lie ahead and what effects they may have on the development of digital ecology though, we must understand how the structure that held together music culture formed and why it started to disappear in the first place.  That structure, by and large, for many years, consisted of a vast network of local, specialized record shops and home-grown radio stations that had developed over slowly over the course of close to a century.  But it would only take a single decade for corporatism to dismantle the audience for buying recorded music and scatter them throughout the Internet.

In both cases, corporations would emerge and cause the social ecology of music culture to become detached from the aesthetics of the local scene.  Once detached, the corporations began monopolize the market, because they had more money to burn, rendering local record shops and radio stations incapable of competing with them.  As their competition went out of business and the community became dependent on large retailers and commercial radio stations, they began to extract value from the community.  As opposed to the local shops and radio stations that worked to create value for their community.

"songs were chosen for their ability to influence ticket sales,
and the culture of radio deteriorated…"

Under the premise of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, wide-scale industry consolidation happened in radio over the next five years and Clear Channel, having spent about $30 billion in the process, gained ownership of over 1,200 stations nationwide.  With that influence, they began to exercise “highly centralized control over what had been a highly local form of media,” Douglas Rushkoff writes in Life Inc.  In turn, “Diversity of music decreased by every measure, stations lost their local character, songs were chosen for their ability to influence ticket sales, and the culture of radio deteriorated,” he says.

Furthermore, “The centralization of record companies and labels under a few corporate giants,” he argues, “favored the rise of large distributors and retailers and the decline of local, specialized shops.”  During the CD Boom, which lasted from 1984-2000, “labels had shifted their resources away from these steady music-only chains and towards mega-sellers such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Target,” Steve Knopper explains.  But the problem with having corporations, instead of a local scene, is that they “are not dedicated to creating new kinds of music and entertainment in order to promote a richer culture.”

No, Rushkoff continues, “Corporations depend on understanding trends so they can sell people whatever it is they already have.”  Familiarity, rather than “adventuresome music chosen for reasons of taste,” would become the mainstay of commercial radio playlists and big-box retail shelving for years to come, making it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between stations and stores across the country.  Since they all essentially played and stocked the same music, they perpetuated the exact same message.  That to succeed in the record industry meant wishful artists had to fit themselves to the mold set forth.

 3.  Second Chances

Except, we forget that the record industry, as we know it today, was built from the ground up and those involved in this process watched it change “from small-time guys who packed their products into the crates themselves to an international network of distribution executives with MBAs.”  Still, its evolution came at the expense of other social mechanisms.  Mainly, the local, specialized record shops and home-grown radio stations that helped in grow into a “nearly $15-billion-a-year juggernaut.”  Then, once file-sharing tipped, they used their very existence as evidence that this is the way our music culture has always been.

"we work to prop it up by any means necessary,
so incapable are we of imagining an alternative…"

Truth is, “We are deep in thrall of a system no one really likes, no one remembers asking for, yet no one can escape.  It just is,” Rushkoff says.  “And as it begins to collapse around us, we work to prop it up by any means necessary, so incapable are we of imagining an alternative.”  For a century the record industry has controlled almost all aspects of virtually every album that was created.  So why change?  “Corporations,” he further notes, “can’t help but resist any maneuvers that threaten the status quo, even if it means sacrificing long-term profitability in order to protect the authority through which they operate.”

In the place of the commercial radio stations and big-box retail outlets that the record industry favored and the local culture that was left for dead, a new, more chaotic digital ecology is emerging, fueled by the audience that scattered throughout the Internet and gained a deep enthusiasm for the music that they didn’t even know existed.  But the social ecology of music culture that’s starting to reappear online is often confused the pirate community that grew up right alongside it.  Sometimes those people may be one and the same, but, regardless, they are rebuilding what decades of corporatism saw fit to destroy.

“Behind the bad news, there is much to look forward to,” Rushkoff writes about the publishing industry in a way that rings true to the spectacular crash of the record industry in the digital age.  “Our industry has for too long favored those skilled at negotiating the corporate ladder and punished those who simply [write] great [music.] Now that [music] has revealed itself to be a bad growth industry, it is free to rebuild itself as the vibrant, scaled and sustainable business the [listening] public can support.”  This time around though, if corporatism and bad choices dismantle the music culture that’s slowly starting to re-form itself on the Internet, there may be no bright future for the record industry in the digital age, because if they hinder the development of this social ecology, there are no second chances. This is the only one that they’ve got left.


  • 2.4, Greg Kot, Ripped 
  • 3.1, Steve Knopper, Appetite for Self-Destruction
  • 3.1, Greg Kot, LA Times

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Get In Touch:

  • kyle(dot)bylin(at)gmail(dot)com

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  1. So poignant again, such an honest piece. I love the back to basics approach that the music industry is moving towards.

  2. Great essay. I love the quote “Corporations depend on understanding trends so they can sell people whatever it is they already have.” So true, and such a missed opportunity.
    Thankfully, I think that there are still risks being taken on fresh music outside the major label system. New music is being written and people are finding out about it.
    It’s a shame that the incredible resources of the traditional industry players are being spent on fluff, but if it weren’t for the struggle the independent music scene probably wouldn’t have the depth it has.

  3. Does anybody really care if the labels finally get on board, other than people who work there? Most of the stuff they produce is auto-tuned drivel anyways. 🙂
    We, as musicians, are all free to post our own music online (free or paid via creative commons licences) on our own websites, build a relationship with our fans and create great music with a label of any kind. 🙂

  4. Exactly! I am not the richest man in the world but I have Ableton Live, Carrara, Quicktime Pro, a very simple Flip Mino HD camcorder, a tripod, a rigged $40.00 DIY dolly, and some musical instruments. With that I can compete on the Internet DIRECTLY making and publishing my own music, indie films, music videos, animations, and put it out via myspace, facebook, and youtube, available as downloads through E-junkie. NO MORE LABELS or record companies are needed. Ever.

  5. Refe, that quote struck me as profound too, if you have a chance pick up Rushkoff’s book, its such a great read. Your right, there’s lots of risk being taken on interesting new music and its great that theses bands are finding fans outside of the old system. Great observation about the struggle of the indie scene too, as, I believe that’s the reason such depth exists too.

  6. It’s a really good point, but, in order to cause real social change again, the whole catalog will have to be available. Maybe, it’s to your advantage, if they don’t entirely get on board, but they still ultimately have a large amount of say over what apps live and die.

  7. All you said is so true. The problem lies with how music acted as a social catalyst for young people. The direct emotional experience has been interrupted and replaced with cyber connections that can hardly substitute for human face to face interaction. More people are connected now but they are connected in cyberspace. Music is mostly an emotional experience that people can share. Music over the net doesn’t quite cut it.

  8. This comes off sounding like a critique of corporate structure, not really explaining or acknowledging one of the biggest shifts in the music industry: the huge surge of music supply. I have heard this critique of radio consolidation as a cause of music sales constriction. Everyplace i have lived in, mainstream radio played lowest common denominator music, back then and now. Eclectic local radio plays eclectic local music, back then and now (in some markets local radio is thriving: KCRW, KEXP, The Current, etc.) And this critique that large music corporations made A&R decisions separate from local community scenes; that they shove their choices down the ear holes of consumers… I don’t see the evidence of that.. And that MBA types in major labels were not connected to the technological shifts in cultural consumption. How is it that everyone has a critique of “the majors” now, but few can actually articulate and implement a model that actually makes a clear profit for musicians? The shiftscould have eas

  9. Will listen,I just happen,to see this post and your comment,and I must say you are on point,I saw this 9yrs ago,with the internet and technology taking over the music industry and it already has.Music is a gift and the price can never be measured in man made paper dollars and cents so,with that said those of us whom are choosen that did not sale our souls in the past shall be 1st and the rest shall be last its all universal spiritually divine it was all ready written the egyptian pyramids,did not just build themselfs it was advance intelligence godbless us that can relate and know about the great “Iam”(gods) numbers…..DaTraxman “Iam Bless Like Dat”

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