“The Death of the CD-Release Complex”


Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor


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.


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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  1. Excellent piece Kyle. However, I believe that a certain segment of the music listening population wants and needs to be a part of whatever is left of the music mainstream. How we discover music has become increasingly fragmented forcing it to be more of an individualized process than a group oriented one as it has been in the past. Like it or not all you have to do is watch American Idol and you can see that a large number of people want choice and control over a small amount of music and when they choose which artists and songs they want to emotionally bond with they also truly like the idea that they are sharing this emotional decision with millions of others who have the same belief. Clearly more people than ever want music that is real, authentic and meaningful but far more than that still want larger than life artists they can emotionally bond with and and share with many others. The trick is to find a process or system in the digital music discovery age to emotionally bond some of these more authentic and meaningful artists with a larger portion of the music listening masses.

  2. I recall reading a post on Hypebot a few months ago on the psychology of choice…I was reminded again of this research yesterday.
    Although people tend to say and believe they want more choice, the study findings suggest that having more options to choose from actually increases stress and uncertainty. People with too much choice also don’t feel satisfied as much with the final choice they ultimately make.
    Perhaps this concept is playing a role in what you are observing with audiences.

  3. trrue says!
    promote LOCAL talent for life
    buy what u want
    top 40 isn’t ALLLL s*** , but
    definately you tube your favourite classical composers and find a new-artist who “covers” it… thats my new missions… and DJs…and all local forms of metal; be it regional or national…keep it local! Thats what r gov’ts are doin to our goods, so lets show’m who’s BOSS!

  4. They want choice and control over a very small amount of music. Look at the Laermer/Simmons book, Punk Marketing, one of the great books on marketing I have ever read. They have a whole chapter on choice. One great example dealt with Godiva chocolate. At an outdoor market on one side was a table selling 30 kinds of Godiva chocolates and on the other side was one selling 10 kinds. By the end of the day the table with 30 attracted many more people but the table with 10 far outsold it. People are great a choosing what they want but only if their choice is limited. Too great a choice is too overwhelming.

  5. @ MusicBizGuy
    First and foremost, I want to demonstrate that Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, has said previously that, “I think there are reasons to regard culture as a special domain, and I also think that the profusion of cultural options has positive externalities that make it good for society even if, at the same time, it adds to the frustration and confusion faced by individuals.” Therefore, although a good example, one fails to realize that chocolates and people may not operate in the same realm as digital teenagers and their expanded cultural options. As I argued previously in The Paradoxes of Choice in Digital Culture, it appears as though physical CDs may not operate in the same realm as MP3s either.
    Also, you’re right… There is quite a large portion of the masses that need to be involved with The American Idols of the world. However, as a counter example, if they appear to do so, than in early 2007, why the average number TRL viewers who regularly watched the program dwindle to a mere 373,000 and it got cancelled in November of 2008? Clearly, everyone watched TRL because that’s what “everyone else” did and not entirely for the ever shorted music video clips. This, is, as Seth Godin pointed out in his interview with David Hooper, because the entire definition of what “everyone else” means is changing.
    “The music listening masses…” When you say that, you honestly resemble Gene Simmons talking to Bob Lefsetz. To whom, will this “music for the masses” be addressed to and how would you reach them? “They are sharing this emotional decision with millions of others who have the same belief.” This is very 1995 concept of you to try and mention. Of course, people go out of their way to belong to groups and their ideologies. But, this isn’t like Journey being released in your day. There aren’t just a million of people waiting around to for the new release. The main contention I have, is that you can’t want something that isn’t there anymore. Kayne might be big, but he can’t be bigger than life because he has a Twitter account.

  6. Follow-up research, to the research you speak of.
    “If the arguments in [The Paradox of Choice] were correct, people shouldn’t love Amazon; they should be tortured by it. I hadn’t resolved my puzzlement when a study appeared, by Alexander Chernev (2003), showing that large choice sets are preferred to small ones when people know what they like and thus know what they are looking for. “Preference articulation,” he called it. If you know what you like, or what you want, then you just keep searching until you find it, and the larger the set of possibilities is, the more likely that one of those possibilities will match your preferences.”-Barry Schwartz, Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?

  7. On choice: The choice to pay or not to pay is not a stressful one. It imparts a sense of freedom from obligation and eventually, altruism.
    On American Idol: Does anyone believe that model can be applied to meaningful artists with the goal of career longevity?…if you say Kelly Clarkson you will go to internet jail.
    On the masses: only unhealthy ambition would ever drive someone to want for control of the masses. I’d be happy with a career like Fugazi’s, or Ani DiFranco…in fact I’m happy now and I don’t have half that…I think if you are an artist driven beyond that then there is something wrong with you…. that, or you can’t actually create music so you seek to control it some other way (a n’r, manager etc…) to reassure yourself that you in fact were not a total pussy when you failed to take the stage at the 6th grade talent show.
    Twitter: as long as it’s safer (no RIAA Death Squads) and easier to follow big artists on Twitter, then big artist’s twitter hits will continue to exceed their sales.
    Let Them Choose To Pay You,

  8. I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it’s an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio

  9. No, amazon doesn’t torture because you must enter a seach string into their search engine. The vast amount of possible choices is below surface, and you can only find something if the string you entered into the search engine applies. So it’s way different than having to click through endless lists of icons of different products. So I guess it’s nothing to do with how much choice there actually is, but with how much choice that the individual customer is actually aware of.

  10. Awesome article. Quite honestly, people want to hear great music, but making full albums isn’t the key anymore. History repeats itself. Motown was built on singles, and the only way to get those singles was to either go to the live performances or visit the local mom and pop store and beg for them to get it in stock so you could buy it. Becuase the radio only played the song(s) you wanted to hear, just a few times a day! There were no home made vinyl burners hahahahahaha!!
    When Sony teamed with Phillips in the late 90s and created the first CD burner, they were in essence beginning the Death of the CD before it even got started good. In an attempt to monopolize the entire CD market, SonyPhillips made the media and the burners to use the media, and then Sony put out albums. Knowing from previous experience how much money there was to be made in people having the ability to create their own copies of the music Sony Records was releasing. But I think an added bonus in Sony’s eyes, was the fact that it would kill CD sells for the other major labels in the market.
    Furthermore, they created the cassette tape recorder and then realized they were losing money on the actual cassette music sales. So they created the CD to avoid a loss of revenues because, like vinyl, you couldn’t just burn CDs when they first came out. Then Sony, once again, tried to create a double cash cow by creating CD burners. Sony Records deserves the death it’s receiving!!!! And all other majors who followed Sony’s lead…deserve the same death!
    AND…radio needs to go back to playing a variety of songs by not so popular artists. That way not only do people get options, but new artists are broken into the mainstream, AND it makes people have to wait longer to hear their fav songs instead of hearing the same TRASH on the radio over and over again! In our microwave society, peoples’ desire to hear their fav song will lead them to buying the music because the radio will only play their fav song only 4x a day! Stop putting their catalogs on Myspace! lmbo
    I digress…….

  11. Good analysis, Kyle. You have hit the nail on the head about the goals of the marketing strategies finally becoming inconsistent with the production of good, meaningful, listenable music. An apt metaphor is over fertilization of soil, pretty soon you end up with dead soil. So now new mechanisms are being developed to nurture the independent creation of art. Sony actually missed the entire opportunity when they started to design players, by not considering how to transmit the listener’s choices to a central data bank, that could be used exactly like that: A music bank. Now the genie is out of the bottle, and people have become quite honestly sick of the over-fertilized media hype dependent on “favors for favorable reviews.” Keep going for the jugular!

  12. One thing that has not been mentioned is that in the last ten years there has been a seismic shift in the sonics of music. Parallelling the decline of the music industry has been an increase in the loudness of records. By loudness I am talking about the increase in rms (average) volume of a disc in comparison to peak volume. The difference between the two is the dynamic range. The smaller the difference, the louder a disk will sound when compared with a disk with more dynamic range. The music industry thinks this will make a record stand out when on a playlist or in a cd changer.
    Up to about 1996, dynamic range was almost always 12 dB or more. Between 92-99, isolated releases began reducing their dynamic range in an attempt to sound louder. Starting in 1999, this isolated trend became generalized. Today, we see major releases with a dynamic range of 2 dB (Metallica). Virtually no major release today has more than 6 dB of range. And just like listening to a monotone speaker is dull because no emotion or sense of dynamism can be transmitted without fluctuations in volume, so too music has become increasingly boring and unengaging. I am not talking about the type of music or the quality of the music itself, but the type and quality of the sound. Musical qualities are things like lyrical content, chord structures, beats etc. Sound qualities are things like volume, dynamic range, distortion, etc. So I am not saying that the music is worse or somehow less creative than it was 10 years ago, only that the sound quality is worse.
    It’s not that people are listening to less mainstream music, it’s that they are listening to less music period. And those that do listen to music, do not listen to it with the same degree of attention or emotional involvement. Music has lost it’s passionate followers, and become sonic wallpaper to most. And I think part of this is because the music released today contains little to no dynamic range, and has digitally induced distortion and clipping from the process of dynamic compression.
    To my knowledge, the music industry has not acknowledged the lessening of people’s emotional engagement with music, nor have they sought to find an answer to it. And without being able to captivate and emotionally involve their listeners, their customers won’t buy their products.

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