Brian Eno: “Recorded Music Equals Whale Blubber”

image from www.zbrushcentral.com"I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time…"

"It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber."

"Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it."

Brian Eno in The Guardian

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  1. I think he’s absolutely right. People have been making music since the dawn of time. They did it because it was meaningful to them, and others managed to find ways to make money at it (from concert hall orchestras to traveling minstrels). It’s only relatively recently that recording technology (and the record biz) has been around. However, I don’t think recorded music will just go away. #1 it’s important for musicians to make a document of their creations and #2 recording music is an artform in itself. But recorded music as a business model, yeah, pretty much like whale blubber as a business model.

  2. I see a lot of whaler’s out there – iTunes, YouTube, MySpace, Spotify, LastFm, Anazon, AOL music, UMG $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………Moby……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  3. Sure, let’s follow the implications of his analogy. If recorded music is really like whale blubber and the demand goes away (people stop paying for it) then, like whale blubber, people will no longer make it. Does Brian really think that a future without recorded music is a pleasant one? I love recorded music and don’t fancy the live show as much as I once did. So, personally, I think a future without recorded music is a dismal, loathsome one.

  4. Once again binary thinking undermines the thoughts of a great musician.
    His analogy breaks down when one looks at the resurgence of vinyl, collectibles and the fact that people are still selling lots of cds, just not as many as they used to.
    Perhaps it’s the human death wish to want everything dead but this all or nothing thinking is unproductive.
    By the way, does anybody have any figures on how many cd’s are being released in comparison to cd sales?
    In hip hop people are doing so many mixtapes that they’ve undermined themselves and I don’t think are releasing as many studio albums.
    Less CD’s Released = Less CD’s Sold
    Which kind of speeds up the process but also makes the situation a bit more complex.

  5. Recorded Music will NEVER be replaced. The format will change as it has has since the dawn of recording. Wax tubes, vinyl disks, tape, CD, flash, digital,… but as long as there is music and the ability to capture it .. music will be recorded and traded

  6. @clyde
    yes, i agree it undermines them to a degree. But then you have to look at hip hops top artists: Drake, Lil Wayne & Gucci Mane…they consistently drop mixtape material for free. (sometimes 3 mixtapes in 1 month)
    A mixtape or a “street album” is basically hip hops version of the EP. Its cheaper to make, trendy and some retail figures suggest that people in that genre prefer buying them.

  7. The price of music is falling and the CD sales industry isn’t living as high on the hog as it once did. However, I still see some people getting fat on the sale of this musical blubber.
    Sure, the raw materials have changed (vinyl to tape, to CD to MP3) but there’s still some fuel left here and their producing real revenue for musicians. A dip in profits does not outline the total failure of an industry. Music will live on. It will be monetized, in some recorded fashion. The industry waters maybe warming but the whale is still swimming. Maybe it will swallow Brian Eno 😉

  8. Danny, I hear what you’re saying and I didn’t mean to imply that anything you’re putting forth isn’t true.
    But Balance, from out in the Bay Area, pointed out a while back that, for a lot of young artists, they put the energy that used to go into a first album into initial mixtapes and then when they finally get a deal or get a more traditional studio album together, they often hit that sophomore slump.
    So many of my favorite albums are the initial releases of bands and many of them continue to make decent albums but some never go beyond that first album.
    But, you look at 50 Cent or Lil Wayne and it’s pretty clear that mixtapes can be a powerful thing. No disagreement there.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this a bit today and it hit me that it must be a trip to be someone like Brian Eno who profited greatly from the old system and is now watching it collapse, never to return.
    It’s starting to reminding me of meeting cranky old hippies in California who entered Paradise only to have it disappear and now nothing anybody does will ever be as good.
    I tend to be unsympathetic to that sort of thing but, then again, I’m sometimes glad I missed the 60s cause getting cast out of Paradise must really suck!
    Note: I know it wasn’t all good back then either but from what I can tell, it was a pretty amazing time, especially if you were in the right place.

  10. I agree with Brian Eno except for the part about “recorded music” – that will always be achievable but NOT necessarily in a professional recording studio.

  11. Did you grab all of that off of my blog? Come on man, some props would’ve been nice…I attributed who I got it from…you should’ve done the same!

  12. I’m still waiting for photography to turn watercolor into ‘blubber’. Not to mention, didn’t overall sales of recorded music just *increase*? It’s a safe assumption that people listen to recorded music now more than any point in history. What is becoming obsolete is the social and economic structure of music recording:
    Yes, fewer people are making less money selling recordings, but that has to be balanced with the converse: more people are able to make better recordings for less money. Spending $100k to record an album may be a losing proposition, but conveniently, it’s also no longer necessary. This is why professional recording studios are in trouble right now, and producers, session musicians, etc are soon to follow.

  13. My kids band is only 9 months old and already built up a an online fan base of 3000 emails, are averaging $350.00 a month off Tunecore downloads, played at top venues in Toronto, New York, Seattle, L.A. and San Franciso, put together a distribution deal for the U.S. and Canada plus have a 25 day tour of the U.K. and Germany setup for May – all this in only 9 months and no album.
    By all indications, I’d say they are having a WHALE OF A TIME with this new model.
    Oh by the way, they passed on the EMI offer

  14. Yes, the number of CDs (and digital albums) released internationally has gone down. But the total variety of album releases has increased since basically everybody can do it themselves now with the technology widely available. But the largest chunk of these albums get released in small quantities – and in ever fracturing small regional markets as well. So to find a real great record, a needle in a haystack, you need to search for much longer now since the haystack has gotten so much bigger. It’s not easy tracking down albums these days when you want them in lossless sound quality like I do, but if they are not available lossless, I’m not buying.
    Anyway, I need to find out about them first. And with small quantities being released in tiny regional markets, albums can be out of print before a potential national or international audience get the chance to find out about them and they basically stall on a regional level.
    And when you don’t have the time to search for those elusive independently released pearls of sound (read: don’t have the time to be your own A&R man), that’s tough luck because then, all you experience is the product of the major labels that’s strategically designed for the large chunk under the center of the bell curve of taste: the music that sounds like it would appeal to everybody, the boring music. All the self-released stuff is not listed with musicians credits on sites such as allmusic.com, and the credits are completely missing from digitally released albums, so the number 1 source for new names to look for (for people who are their own A&R men) seems to be on the way out. For example, I love to expand my musical taste by following the career of a few favourite producers, who have their unique sound. But these days, it’s really hard to keep track of what they have been up to, because album credits are AWOL – and google always puts the most popular searches first, the albums that you already have when you are your own A&R man. It’s kind of like the 60s when you had the Beach Boys on the cover but the Wrecking Crew playing the songs, but the album jacket didn’t mention them.
    The musical pearls though, are often produced by musicians’ musicians, artists that were labelled with the term “musical middle class” a while ago on this blog.
    How are the musicians’ musicians going to get popular with the next generation of listeners when there are no album credits? If they don’t, less albums are sold.
    But of course, the real amount of albums sold is not measured more accurate these days than at a time when charts were being tipped since the likes of Nielsen don’t measure the sales of self-released albums. They only measure the sales of their clients.

  15. I like Brian Eno. His comment about “whale blubber” and “recorded music” is more understandable if you know where he is coming from and indeed what he is doing at the moment. His work area is now forming more deeply around art installations. Slow shifting light paintings with sound and tonal audio experiences surrounding and enveloping them. Check out his work around the Sydney Opera House. I believe that the application and possibility of music is changing but I also see that traditional presentation of music is also still very much evolving. I run my label, I release music. This will continue to happen but how, where and in what form is still changing. My distributor The Orchard have just redesigned their interface and release process and I no longer have to send CDs to New York for their encoding on vast multi-disc machines. It’s all now done online. This is an enormous leap. I feel that Brian Eno senses his place present focus on installations is a powerful one. It is. He invented the ambient genre with the classic album Discreet Music. However, I concur that the “whale blubber” and “recorded music” comments are somewhat disheartening and alarmist for any young artists that are just still hoping to get to first base and burn a CDR and maybe actually sell some online. Brian Eno still “records and cuts discs” to my knowledge.

  16. It seems many of you missed the point of Eno’s musing. A lot of people made very good livings selling records for 50-60 years. In case you haven’t noticed, not so much anymore. Unless you are one of few, ordained-by-the-masses superstars, you are gigging your ass off for next to nothing, and desparately trying to get 1,000 people to buy your CD so you can break even. And to imply Eno is some sort of hippocrate because he made millions selling records is ridiculous. Its an observation. And a funny analogy at that. There are 500,000 bands on MySpace. How many of them do you think have sold 100 copies of their CD?

  17. The bloke’s a thief. Nicked all his ideas off of the germans (Harmonia/ Cluster). Nobody likes a smart ass… what a smug twat.

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