The Old Music Industry, Murder By Internet
Years and years ago, bands and songwriters went through more or less the same processes of evolution from start to liftoff. You and your buddies would start a group, jam in the garage, maybe write a few great songs while learning some cover tunes. If you were like Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of you would rehearse all day long playing everything from covers to perfecting your originals. Or perhaps your band was more like Def Leppard, you wound up in an abandoned building playing for hours or work developing only your original work. Soon after came “the gig.” Everyone would go play the local restaurant, pub, club, or maybe even a private function of some sort. One day, after pushing and pushing (sometimes for years), the band is noticed, and a recording contract comes into play. A few albums later, a career is built.
The law of 3s.
Okay, this is an unwritten law, but it’s quite common. Forget the one or two hit artists. This little theory pertains to the bands which have really made it big. Quite often the first album would be cluttered, but have that one great single on it. The recordings would be raw and rough, the song forms a little disorganised or even drag on some. Such was the case with old bands like Def Leppard and newer bands like My Chemical Romance. The next album would have more singles on it and be a significant improvement on the first showing growth. That third album? That’s the one that puts the band on the map. After that, any record is a success, the fan base has been acquired, and concerts are selling out. Some groups had a killer first album, too, but by that third album they “made it,” and thus a career was born.
With those sales came everything else that meant more money for the successful musician who has nothing else to fall back upon because they’ve devoted years to being an artist. Record sales up in the millions made a fortune. Merchandise was everywhere from music stores to concert booths to even finding a T-shirt with your favorite band on it while bouncing around your favorite department store. Record sales, concert tickets, and merchandise meant a successful group had it made. They could buy a huge house, build a studio in the house, and feed their family.
BOOM, the birth, and explosion of the internet!
Don’t get me wrong, much like guns the internet has its advantages. Sure, it’s currently a bit of a cesspool of false information, trolls, and self-proclaimed celebrities. However, there’s some great stuff out there, too. The problem, however, is really not the internet itself but rather the deadly combination of internet and dishonest jackasses.
One day, a little fella in college has an idea. He creates Napster, which is the first of a large group of “sharing” that is born. Today, Napster is almost entirely forgotten. Still, “sharing” is a thing. Cloud servers, torrents, etc. have allowed people to share and share without much control. Yes, the industry is out full time looking for people to sue over illegal piracy, but they can’t catch everyone and, unfortunately, everyone knows it.
Napster wasn’t an initial threat, however.
With a dial-up connection, it would take about 45 minutes to download a single song. I’m sure Steve Jobs thought about iTunes at that moment but didn’t see how anyone would wait that long for music to arrive on their computer. Those ahead of their time were going to wait for this one out. Napster didn’t wait, they were the first, and they introduced the process to the world. Soon after, the catalyst for doom appeared: High-speed internet. As time went on and internet speeds became faster and faster, the seemingly (then) massive multi-megabyte files that MP3s were at the time began to appear smaller and smaller as speeds increased. Storage has increased over time, too. People can store thousands and thousands of songs and not put a dent in their hard drive. People today can download an entire album in under a minute. That’s 4500% faster than the original speed. No more going to make a sandwich while you wait enthusiastically for that Pearl Jam album to download. Now you can download it, cue it up in iTunes, and off you go.
Are there any pros in music piracy?
Well, if it’s piracy, then no. However, let’s just suspend that title for a moment and go back to calling it “sharing” so we can see a positive side. When sharing first arrived it was like a gold rush. Forget about downloading anything you heard on the radio. You could also find rare live recordings, unreleased demos, independent work, covers, and just about anything else that you’d never find in stores. This was the exciting part sometimes, finding that rare piano improv cover of Canon in D by a lesser-known musical genius that you could add to your music collection alongside your Celine Dion, Chuck Berry, and Metallica. The enthusiasts of Eclecticville were in heaven.
The good, the bad, and the ugly.
We’ve seen the good, there’s that needle in a haystack find of things you couldn’t find anywhere else, not even on imports. Assuming they weren’t pirated to arrive there in the first place, no harm no foul.
The bad? Well, piracy of course. Stealing is stealing. People have sat around for years talking about the pros and cons and supposed “a gray area” in piracy. I’m a little more black and white about it, stealing is stealing. Period. When someone steals a loaf of bread to feed their starving children, we look at that as okay stealing. No one should go to jail, they are desperate and hungry. Piracy is the exact reverse of that! The spoiled and entitled have decided to steal the bread from the starving children. The artists are not planning on running a restaurant with a side-gig writing great songs. Not everyone can be The Bacon Brothers! Most musicians are in it full time and for the long haul. Stealing music is no different than stealing from a mom and pop shop in your town. That’s their bread and butter, and no one has the right to take from them illegally.
The ugly… The avalanche of consequences that’s come from decades (now generations) of internet piracy that’s been unpoliced.
First, let’s have a broad view of the many methods and means by which one can steal music online. Torrents. A torrent is just a hall pass to the room full of goodies. You acquire a torrent, then the torrent opens the door to download whatever the label reads. A torrent of 3 albums by Aerosmith will open an application that will download those 3 albums. Torrents are the new Napster, really. YouTube. Sure, YouTube is doing their part by paying licensing fees, policing user videos, and utilizing ads as a tool as well. However, there’s an overlooked thing that YouTube has never (in over ten years) been able to halt. Ever heard of video downloaders? There are dozens of websites that will ask for a YouTube link and then supply the user with a downloadable version of the video. There are also applications like All-to-MP3 which, with almost no effort whatsoever, make an MP3 version of the video by extracting the audio and deleting the video. If that’s not enough, some websites do both tasks in one seamless process! A YouTube link is placed into a field on the site, and an MP3 is spat out soon after for download. No charge, no fee, just free music.
Now the damage. People immediately jump to arguing about whether or not this hurts album sales. Those folks are missing the big picture. Sure, album sales have suffered much. We know this, there’s no discussion there. We have to also look at it economically speaking from every angle. Merchandise prices have never been low, but now they’ve become more expensive. Concert ticket prices in many cases have gone through the roof. Today, the money is made from the tour, not the album sales. Artists like Beyonce are advertised as artists who have sold millions and millions of albums and then inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We all know this is a double lie. Beyonce released a single on the radio, it’s available on iTunes. What percentage of fans that heard that song do you think bought only the hit single versus the entire album? If iTunes did not make singles an option, album sales would be the only option, and perhaps we’d see albums sold. However, we all know that for only a dollar or so people are going to buy just that one song. Then the commercialization and false advertising come into play and we see these R&R Hall of Famers inducted into a genre they aren’t associated with. Can you imagine being a jazz musician and still being compared to Led Zeppelin? How silly. What’s the point of a genre if everyone is rock n’ roll?
Printed music. This one, believe it or not, is a big one.
Sheet music and songbooks have been around forever. One day, wonky websites like Ultimate Guitar showed up. Users limitlessly submit their own sloppy transcriptions and interpretations of songs for other users to learn how to play. At first, the monkeys at U.G. were putting up a little informal disclosure at the top of every single song page to declare that it is a user-interpretation and not an official copy. Well, we know this already because it’s not legal to do so! Eventually, U.G. acquired licensing rights to print ANY song. I can tell you from experience, most publishers will charge a pretty penny for a minimal number of song licenses. So how in the world did a group of German web designers acquire enough money to fund “infinite licenses”? Well, it’s not quite like that. They received a modified licensing fee which requires them to pay royalties as an overall cost. How they acquire, that is entirely up to them – ads, apps, etc.
Is sheet music a big deal? Yes, actually. Think of it like this, professionals are not out there buying Taylor Swift’s collection of music books. We don’t need them. We can learn every song by ear without any difficulty. These books are intended for students.
Enter the music teacher.
I’ve been working in music schools for over twenty years. I’m very proud of that, and I have to admit I’m still learning things. You never stop learning, that’s the beauty of the arts. There’s an invisible entity that’s grotesquely haunted the world of music education, unfortunately. Imagine this…
You’re learning guitar. Your maybe 12 years old, and quite excited. Your teacher is excellent, he or she is a fun personality with a great sense of humor and a world of knowledge to share. The number one thing every student needs is a printed assignment to practice. Now, there’s no copyright on music, only songs. With that, copyrights do have an expiration so if a song is 100 years old don’t worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. However, without dealing with copyrights teachers would be forced to teach only archaic songs that students are maybe only vaguely familiar with, alongside theory. Can you imagine that? Learning chords, scales, exercises, and all of the other necessities with nothing but 200-year-old folk songs and other antiques to accompany those practices as examples? There are some teachers out there doing this, but most want to keep things current and fun for the students.
Method books NEVER feature a single new song. They do this for two reasons. The first is the most prominent reason, they’d have to pay licensing and royalties for each song. Not using such songs keeps the cost down for the author. The other reason? No updates! If your book’s aiming to stay current, that’s a full-time job! Every year each “new” song becomes another year older. Can you imagine? A 10-year-old method book with a cover that reads, “The newest” isn’t going to sell well if the songs aren’t new. Having old songs means never having to print another version. If you get into the method book business, there’s a good chance you’ll see a check from the publishers on a regular basis and never have to touch that book again. Dreamy.
However, this isn’t a pretty thing. Most method books are boring, and the students yawn through most of them. Eventually, they finish level 2 or 3, and suddenly there’s a plateau. Where’s level 4? 5? 6??? Most method books are intended for beginners and eventually level off. There are great books for advanced learning, but what about that middle area? I’ve spoken with hundreds of teachers over the years, and even for instruments other than guitar, this is still the case. Teachers are forced to find other material.
Enter the invisible man.
Now we see a form of illegal printing and piracy that isn’t vigorously policed but, believe it or not, is unlawful and a means of income for the lawyers. For those of you who don’t know, the following list represents things that are illegal for music teachers to do:
Photocopying anything out of any book or sheet music.
Handwriting part of or most of a song.
Using RETAIL software to compose a popular song in print for a student (which looks much nicer than handwriting.)
So where can teachers find music? Is there a cache of books and songs that are modern and available only to teachers? A music education supplier? Nope. Teachers are expected to purchase songbooks or tell students to buy songbooks. That’s it. That’s the solution. Sure, in some cases that’s just fine and dandy. However, think about this for a moment: MONTESSORI
Familiar? The Montessori method of teaching is a natural way of education in which lessons are customized to the individual. That’s what music teachers have been doing for years. As a guitar teacher, I have over 40 students ranging in ages from 5 to adult. Am I supposed to teach the 5-year-olds and the adults the same material? Absolutely not! The students receive a customized curriculum. However, that word “curriculum” is kinda moot. Why? Because there’s no long-term curriculum. None. Few beginner books anchor in one direction of learning, and that’s it.
Imagine being a guitar teacher in today’s world. You acquire a student who is about 10 and a hard worker. He gets through a level 2 reading book for beginners. You decide to reward him with a song, so you photocopy something out of a songbook. Well, let’s pretend that’s legal for a moment. So you LEGALLY do so and present that song to the student. The songbook cover says, “Easy Guitar” so apparently this is for the beginner level, right? Wrong. The song still has symbols, notes, and more than the student hasn’t ever seen before. Why? Because the method books have nothing to do with the songbooks! They teach one thing in the method books, while the songbooks are printed from an entirely different perspective. Sure, the teacher could wait until the student approaches a new item in the sheet music and then just explain it. That’s part of teaching, yes. However, as a teacher, we learn that reinforcement is the key. What good is that new item in learning if the student won’t see it again until they polish off level 2 and further complete level 3? A year could go by, and they’d forget they ever saw that new snippet. Then you’re just teaching it all over again. Using this mindset, we’re not educating, we’re just coasting through with occasional progress.
The single most important thing in music education is to have a curriculum. I dream of a world where I can legally customize any songs and all the theory I want for any student on my roster. However, in today’s world, we cannot. If I wanted to use an application like Guitar Pro and transcribe 5 songs in my own customize variations designed to suit better my students I could not legally give those copies out to any of them without the proper licensing. Having spoken to music lawyers and publishers, I’ve found that I would be obligated to pay about $150 for those 5 licenses. That’s not a lot of songs, by the way. So how many songs would be a fair number? Well, again, 40 students, all ages, different levels, different musical preferences… 500 songs isn’t a gross exaggeration. I’d say 500 songs would be right on par with the average teacher. I’ve confirmed this with my coworkers, and it seems we’re all on the same page. Now, if $150 grants 5 songs, then do the math. What’re 500 songs going to cost? $15,000. Show of hands, show of hands! How many guitar teachers out there have $15,000 to spare so they can teach adequately and most efficiently? Zero.
During a chat I had with a gal at ASCAP I had the misfortune of being the one to enlighten her as to how this affects music education. My reply to this was, “Well, how sad. To the teachers, we feel like the publishers, and the licensing giants hate music students. There’s nothing out there for us!” Her reply was, “Aw, honestly, we don’t want you to feel that way.” Well, we do feel that way whether they want us to or not.
Now, before I digress further into the abyss of what seems to be an unrelated rant…
How does this all come back to the internet? Well, the industry lost money when Napster was born. When high-speed internet arrived, there was a massive blow to the industry soon after. Record sales have dropped. No one buys music anymore. I’m not saying I’m worthy of a gold record or anything, but I have music on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Spotify, etc. etc. etc. and while I do see a check for it all I have to be honest, I also see people that are cheap. I’ve received emails from fans telling me how much they love what they’ve heard of mine on Spotify! Thanks!! Those same fans add me to a playlist, but never actually buy the album from the retailers. So… thanks? Beyonce and the lot are being falsely advertised. The recording industry is content with using computers to spit out magical singles by artists who cannot sing or play well. When the live concert arrives, the big-budget artists fake it. We’ve all seen the pop stars lip syncing. We’ve all seen the pictures of groups like One Direction who have been posing on stage like rock stars WITHOUT A GUITAR CABLE plugged into their guitars. Remember that horrible incident where one of our beloved Jonas brothers showed up as a guest guitarist and fouled up the only solo he had for the night? He had one job to do, a crowd of 10s of thousands, and he failed miserably hitting wrong notes and squeaks, most of which weren’t even on key. This drop in quality is the result of the industry trying to play catchup for their losses. Morality has gone out the window, and once a few people get away with it, well, as we clearly see, “everyone’s doing it!”
Everything is affected. Record sales, concerts, ticket sales, performances, merchandise, recording, music books, music education… the entire industry in one way or many ways is feeling the burn of the internet. Can it be stopped? We really don’t know, no one has indeed offered much of a solution and most people, including me, believe, “Well, there’s not much you can do. You can’t police the world.” Many people view the internet as the ultimate path of free speech. It is, too. Think about it, if someone walked up to President Donald Trump and said, “You’re such a worthless little trouser stain!” What would happen? Jail? Shot on sight? However, that same person can say it all over social media and not see a single consequence. The internet has granted many freedoms above the law and for no reason other than the law of “outnumbering” whereby those committing crimes like piracy grossly outnumber those who can press charges upon them or sue them.
I’d love to see the music industry resemble what it was like back in the 1950s. Back then, recording a record was one of the most exciting things a band or artist could do. Back then, hearing your song on the radio sparked a little more than a mere smile. I’d love to see music education benefit such that students genuinely LOVE learning. We’ll always have lazy students or students who are forced by their parents to learn. However, imagine the numbers growing if learning an instrument was to be an enjoyable experience complete with discovering new music. Imagine music teachers actually making a great living! I’d love to see a world where music teachers and even non-famous musicians could earn six-figure salaries. Instead, we suffer and watch helplessly as the internet hurts the industry more and more each day. We sit back and groan as we see doctors perform deliberate malpractice, meteorologists miss forecasts by a landslide, and others collect fantastic salaries for shoddy work.
I do like to end on a positive note, so let’s do so. Is there hope? No. LOL. Hey, I tried. I just don’t and can’t believe in my heart that the internet is helping music more than it hurts it. I’m sure someone out there could list some great things that the internet has brought to the table in the music industry. However, I don’t think any of those things (even combined) outweigh the bad. I have a mind like Elon Musk in the sense of thinking, “This can be better! Let’s do it!” So if it can, then why isn’t it? Something needs to change, and that change needs to be for the better.
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