“The Death of the CD-Release Complex” (Part 2)

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor — (Read Part One)
At its peak, the CD-Release Complex drove sales and represented the symbiotic relationship between the fans and the specific mechanisms they relied upon to discover new music.  Everyone involved benefited from the structure of the system that was in place and could be counted on to do their part.  The Recording Industry financed and produced music that they in turn promoted through these particular mediums.  Then, those who paid the closest attention to these mediums received crucial information relating to when the single, music video, and album would be released and were later rewarded with the music they had anticipated to receive.

Quickly, the labels learned that if their music reached enough of the masses, human nature would take care of the rest.  Inherently, it appears, individuals are hardwired to be curious about what everyone else is listening to.  And, although they may be independent in thought, their buying habits and behaviors are susceptible to the influences of their external world.  This was great for labels, since they were the sole gatekeepers and regulators of culture into people’s lives.  From the radio stations to the best shelving space, even the copyrights to the creativity they financed, their interests were completely protected.

“But the bigger and more profitable the industry became, the more
they realized that they didn’t have to make meaning to make money.”

If fans wanted to hear a song or watch the music video, they had to wait.  Succumbing to the programming schedules of radio stations and MTV was an understood and accepted circumstance for those whom were the most willing to participate in the system.  In the beginning, ‘the machine’ that the Recording Industry created and the specific mechanisms that it used to circulate culture, operated within the interests of fans.  Mostly because, those in the field were fans themselves.  But the bigger and more profitable the industry became, the more they realized that they didn’t have to make meaning to make money.

No, they could release just about anything and it would sell, as long as it was marketed the right way, but that didn’t mean it would stick.  In order to make a small artist big, labels had to keep repeating the same process over and over again.  Even if they were operating at a loss, one big artist could cover the costs of a dozen failed attempts.  This ‘collateral damage until platinum’ approach to breaking artists was what they specialized in.  With so much money risked on each investment, they almost had no choice, but push their content regardless of its merit, which resulted in an ever more convoluted and unreliable system.

Thus began the systematic breakdown of the symbiotic relationship between the fans and the record labels that they actually relied upon to discover new music.  According to Umair Haque of Havas Media, what caused this to happen, is that the record labels began funding music based on business efficiencies rather than listener preferences and pushing risk onto fans.  These executives were willing to spend as money as it took to turn their artists into megastars, regardless of whether or not there was an audience ready to embrace them.  Due to this, the opinions of fans throughout the world became insignificant, if not invisible.

“Instead,” Professor Barry Schwartz illustrates, “the tastemakers and gatekeepers, constrained by both ideologies and economic realities, made decisions for everyone about what would be available.”  These executives would decide, based on their platonic notion of what should be popular at the time, which kind of artist the masses were ready to embrace.  Without question, they became the final say on what style of music should be produced.  Thus, they were accountable for an artist’s success or failure. But as their companies grew, they had to be more conservative, because there was more money to lose.

“Since organic growth consisting of constant touring
was unpredictable and took more time,
it was, in many cases, abandoned.”

After awhile, they started growing the businesses faster than they could grow the artists.  As executives of publically traded companies, they became pressured by investors to produce profit and measurable growth from quarter to quarter.  In an attempt to synchronize their success rate, they began to focus heavily on sensation and commercial viability over talent.  Since organic growth consisting of constant touring was unpredictable and took more time, it was, in many cases, abandoned.  In its place, artificial growth through mass media and tabloid coverage of public drama was used, because it could be planned out.

Once this publicity strategy was combined with using radio stations and MTV as their primary promotional tools, a new breed of artificially grown artists was born.  This temporary solved their problems, it drove sales, and sometimes, success happened ‘overnight.’  But these executives would continue to create strategies based on moving units rather than producing moving music.  With that, their flash in the pan success rate was able to please investors quarter to quarter.  However, these actions catalyzed the turning point of the relationship between fan and medium, because the songs that were played most often radio stations and MTV weren’t necessary an accurate or even a close reflection of fan requests or votes.

“It was no coincidence, then,” Steve Knopper speculates in Appetite for Self-Destruction, “that Napster, the free file-sharing service, popped up on the Internet at precisely this time.”  Because, “All these companies did,” Lylor Cohen of Warner Music Group explains, “was try to find fabricated shit so they didn't go through having to let people go. Then, you go into an era of fabricated, highly advertise stuff—it’s very flimsy, it sells very quickly, and we’re also hurting our credibility with the long-term music lover.”  Therefore, in a sense, for the long-term fans file-sharing became as Umair Haque further states, “as much about risk-sharing as it is about the 'theft' of value.”

“At the end of the century, by contrast,” Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone, “the gradual merger of the massive telecommunications and entertainment industry had become the very foundation for a new economic era.”  From this platform, artist’s careers were catapulted from obscurity to the next guests on TRL and the posing for the cover of Rolling Stone.  In turn, due to this mass-marketed music, “We,” as Lawrence Lessig puts it in his book Remix, “live in a world infused with commercial culture,” it is all around us, “yet,” he continues, “we rarely see how it touches us, and how we process it as it touches us.”

“this commercialization of culture may have brought
music to the masses, but it does not seem to coincide
with the participatory nature of the Internet”

We largely forget that the environment the labels created is what has established many of the cultural norms they adhere to. That, “The twentieth century,” as Lessig explains, “was the first time in the history of human culture when popular culture had become professionalized, and when people were taught to defer to the professional.”  And, while this commercialization of culture may have brought music to the masses, but it does not seem to coincide with the participatory nature of the Internet, because, as Henry Jenkins says most eloquently in Convergence Culture, “Convergence does not depend on any specific delivery mechanism.”

“Rather,” he elucidates, “convergence represents a paradigm shift—a move from medium specific content toward content that flows across multiple media channels, toward the increased interdependence of communications systems, toward multiple ways of assessing media content, and toward ever more complex relations between top-down corporate media and bottom-up participatory culture.”  In other words, “The Death of the CD-Release Complex” cannot be attributed to or solely blamed on file-sharing simply because those involved in the Recording Industry failed to account for the subtle, yet sophisticated changes in the world around them.  It was the Internet, by its mere presence, that allowed music fans to create spaces online that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.  Forever shifting symbiotic relationship between the fans and the mechanisms they rely upon to discover new music, because the mechanisms that the fans control, would go onto greatly outnumber those that the Recording Industry could ever hope to influence.

Read Part One — (Screencap taken from the Day of the Longtail video)

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  1. “After awhile, they started growing the businesses faster than they could grow the artists.”
    This sentence had particular resonance for me. When I started in the music business, some of the conventional wisdoms didn’t make sense and slowly I started to realize that all the speed, pressure, perfection, stylistic consistency was all about marketing, production and corporate sized profit. So it is with some relief that the emperor’s clothes are becoming more transparent by virtue of the internet. All the scary scarecrows about too much information on the internet will eventually develop organic channels-like friends sharing with friends. I would have been happy to pay copyright royalties when I shared some klezmer music with my friends, but there was no way to do it. As for commercials-yuch, I trust the Netflix or Jango recommendation engine more than I trust a commercial.

  2. Thanks Jackie, its an interesting paradox that I came across. The idea that music ought to work the same way that DVD players or groceries do. If you sold x amount of records this quarter. Lets figure out how your can double that next time.

  3. Thanks for your insight. Very interesting… a lot for these execs to think about…

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