Paths Forward

Victor Hugo once wrote that “music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” A recent study by Canadian researchers noted that music affects the feel-good brain chemical dopamine in the same ways as chocolate and sex. And Mozart’s music has been shown to benefit the spatial intelligence development of children.

Few people would argue with music’s impact on our lives, so it should be of tremendous concern to everyone that the recorded music industry continues to be in trouble. Global sales of recorded music fell another nine percent last year, according to the IFPI (International Federation of the Recording Industry). Various estimates put the drop in annual sales over the last decade at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, and IFPI estimates that nineteen of every twenty tracks downloaded is pirated.

Fewer new artists are breaking through too. Sales by debut artists in the global top 50 album chart in 2010 were just one quarter of the level they achieved in 2003. Those that do succeed are frequently lamented for a perceived lack of talent. Given all this, how can a young performer hope to live his or her life through making music? At Berklee, this is a specific concern to us, as we want our graduates to not only survive, but also thrive in life as musicians.

These trends clearly indicate that the music industry needs to adapt to a very changed world. New music business models are dependent on several things. First, there must be a ready adoption by consumers of new methods of music consumption. While digital sales continue to grow, some business models, such as unlimited music access on-demand for a flat fee, continue to languish. Among new business models, Pandora is a bright spot; around since 2005, the company has spent the past few years dealing with losses, licensing hassles, and technical challenges integrating into different devices, but recently filed for an IPO. The company now has a user base of 80 million people and “adds a new user every second,” according to SEC filings. Despite continuing losses, investors seem ready to rally as rumors swirl that the offering will be oversubscribed.

There also must be willingness by rights owners to venture into unknown, yet promising, waters. Radiohead has experimented with distribution, most recently announcing on a Tuesday that their new album would be available the following Saturday, rather than waiting for a Tuesday release date weeks in the future. This offset piracy of advance tracks by those who didn’t want to wait to acquire them through legitimate means. However, criticism of many rights owners for failure to embrace new technologies is valid despite the fact that there are a number of different legally licensed distribution mechanisms.  They must go further, competing with “free” and adopting even more creative approaches to licensing and rights exploitation, while working hand-in-hand with distributors to ensure listeners have the ability to experience music via all technologies.

Finally, there must be a movement to update copyright law. The Internet has brought with it an unprecedented capacity for the distribution of content on an instantaneous basis. Copyrighted material is now the largest export of the United States. In order to sufficiently protect our creative works, any changes to copyright must be technology-neutral, global in nature, and place some responsibility on those who control the gateway to access (Internet service providers) for the content that flows through their pipes, without impacting net neutrality. Licensing must be also become an easier process. While Pan-European licensing and the proposed Global Registry Database (which will provide a long awaited database of rights owners) are steps in the right direction, Pan-European licensing still seems an experiment rather than a reality, and in its currently designed form, the GRD doesn’t go far enough.  It should offer the ability to actually license those works.

I firmly believe in music’s ability to impact our lives, and I believe that it is impossible for us to remain silent at this critical juncture in music’s history. Whether a song is provided as a product or a service, people will always want to listen. We must find a way to give them what they want. We must rethink music.