What’s called the “music industry” — which really means the big players in recording and performance — just climbed over the mountain. Global sales rose last year for the first time since 1999. That’s 14 years of hell ending with just a glimmer of light on the horizon.
Still, everyone is celebrating the change. And the source is rather obvious. It’s the download services. It’s the aggregator services like Pandora and Spotify. It’s the new reach and new technology. It’s advertising. It’s… free enterprise.
Whaddya know, when an industry stops fighting change, denouncing and attempting to jail its customers, and instead embraces technology, things start looking up. It appears that music won’t die after all. The delivery systems just change. That’s nothing new. It was the same with every new medium in the last 100 years: panic, anger, fear, acceptance, and then finally enterprise.
The big players managed a growth rate of 0.3 percent for a total of $16.5 billion. That might sound pathetic compared to the $38 billion that they made 10 years ago. But some growth is better than the industry’s recent history. And by the way, all of this happened despite the incredible rise of pirate sites — thousands of them — that flourish despite the thumb screws and waterboarding tortures that government has used to shut them down.
So, how did this happen? Well, the industry has figured out that in order to make a profit, the best approach is to sell stuff that people want at prices they can afford and deliver that stuff to them in an appealing and convenient way. iTunes was first out of the gate, but many of these other services have joined in, and many more are coming.
This is how to compete with so-called piracy (it’s the wrong word for people who have never stolen a single thing!). You have to stop fighting and start adapting. Why is this so difficult to understand? It wouldn’t seem to be but apparently it is because it took a decade and a half for the biggest players to figure it out.
What’s much more impressive to me is the rise of new music creators that are not wholly counted among the big players. Here is where the growth is happening. Through digital networks, the exploitation of niches, innovative techniques, and a close connection between artists and fans, we are witnessing the creation of a new generation of rising stars who are also building new industries in the process.
Consider the case of Lindsey Stirling, the implausibly successful rock violinist whose concerts are sold out months in advance. It was only two years ago that this would have seemed completely impossible. She was a classically trained violinist — she is only 27 years old — who was faced with a terrible market for violinists.
She is technically outstanding with a great tone but who can make it in the classical world with its budget collapse and dwindling audiences? Instead she studied therapeutic recreation in college and came to live in Utah.
She had been experimenting for some years with the idea of making the violin the voice for popular music, combining that with a unique dance step and vigorous movement. It is not an unprecedented approach but Lindsey took the idea further than anyone before.
In 2010, she appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” and while the judges liked her, they weren’t into the whole idea of a solo violinist doing “dubstep” pop. It was all a bit too new and too unlikely, even for a show that specializes in finding new talent. The record labels too had no interest. There were no contracts anywhere in site. She just didn’t fit into their formulas for success.
So what did she do? She started focussing on her youtube channel. That was not even two years ago. Today her channel has 1,658,897 subscribers. That’s some serious reach and advertising revenue too. The views are there too: about a quarter billion in a relatively short time. Therefore she went further and started another channel that focuses entirely on her private time and life. It already has 146,069 subscribers!
When she put together her current tour, she focussed mostly on small venues, and charged $15 for seats (bands lowball these figures, exchanging upside potential for predictable revenue streams). The secondary ticket market swept in like good futures traders and purchased what they could (speculators get the bulk of the profit because they accept the bulk of the risk). These are now selling for $75 and as much as $150. Fans wait for hours before the shows to get VIP seating, and snatch up tee shirts, posters, and Lindsey bracelets.
Her fame is moving up so fast that each venue is more stuffed than the last. And she did it all with just her friends and youtube channel. The result is a form of new art that is suddenly hugely popular — a classic case of entrepreneurship (discovery what people want even if they had never known it to exist before). In this sense, her activity is not unlike most every advance in the history of art from Palestrina to Picaso.
I’m virtually a snob when it comes to music and my true devotion is classical and Renaissance. But I attended a Lindsey concert and absolutely loved it. There is just something spectacular about a big crowd of rockers and hipsters singing loudly along with a violin — a violin — as it takes the microphone in a concert hall over with a vibrating bass and drums. Stunning really. You want to save serious musicianship? Lindsey has discovered a path within the current cultural milieu.
None of this would have been possible without digital technology, the human network it forms, and the creativity it inspires. This is what technology is truly about: not grinding gears and 1s and 0s filling pages; it’s about the flourishing of human communities of interest and the unleashing of human happiness. This is the end result.
That music thrives under these conditions is the perfect illustration that the end state of every great technology is the uplifting of the human heart.
There are hundreds of others like Lindsey — known as youtube stars in a market that is open to absolutely everyone — now and in the future. Her famed is not counted in these big industry statistics either — only her iTunes downloads. It is in these niche areas where the action and the growth is, and it is to the credit of the magic of digits that they have enabled such talent to thrive.
Now if we could just get the governments of the world to stop trying to force people to do things their way and start letting people manage their own art and their own lives. Governments may never come around. But large corporations might. They only need to follow the money.