Something big is coming to the music industry. The smart ones have already worked it out, and it scares the crap out of them. The really smart ones are getting ready.
When I was young, my parents owned a radio station in Bega. It was great for us kids because all we had to do to listen to music was head down to the station and hang about in the record library. We could take a few records home and tape them too if we wanted.
I discovered some pretty incredible music for a country radio station. Kraftwerk, Devo, Run DMC and more poppy stuff like Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Culture Club.
This is probably how I got into weird music--by having the opportunity to listen to anything I wanted without having to pay for the privelege. When my parents sold the station, I had to buy music and much of the new music I discovered was coming from radio. I went through a pretty dire patch of crap music.
Later in life I was dragged to a rave by some friends. It changed my life. Once again I discovered that weird, pulsing, electronic sound I'd glimpsed in my youth.
Now the problem became how to find the music. Fortunately, the record stores selling this style of music anticipated the need to listen and had banks of headphones to listen before you buy.
Still, there's only so much time you want to spend standing in a record shop trying every weird and wonderful piece of music you can lay your hands looking for "the one".
You don't own music
The thing that's about to completely change the music industry isn't really a technology. It's a mindset. Sure it's driven by stuff like mp3, cable internet access and the like, but it's really a mindset.
In the very near future, the concept of owning a piece of music is going to disappear. Buying a piece of vinyl, magnetic tape or CD as the storage medium of music is going to disappear.
Why bother buying a record when you have every piece of music every made available through a high speed network connection? Particularly when all you pay for that connection is a flat monthly fee?
Now consider the changes that brings to the way we listen to music. Instead of being generally restricted to just the music we "own", we're free to explore the entire cornucopia that is music. Occasionally I feel like listening to schmaltzy classical music, but I don't own any Strauss CDs. I'd love to give everything Laibach have ever made at least one run through, but I'm not sure I'd want to pay big money for it.
The empire strikes back?
Now the smart ones amongst you have just started thinking about where this leaves record companies. The role of the record company, outside marketing, is as a venture capitalist of music.
Record companies put up the bucks to get the physical pieces of music made and distributed. Without that barrier to entry, who needs a record company? Well the Spice Girls and Brittney Spears, certainly need them. But artists creating funky music for the love of it? Established artists like Prince or Public Enemy? I don't think so.
The smart ones, and I think Sony are there about now, saw this coming a long way off. The way they're hoping to reintermediate themselves is to be the network software or hardware supplier for this new form of music distribution. Witness how Sony Music has supported SDMA and bagged out mp3 while Sony Electronics has produced a portable mp3 player. Some of them get it.
Of course the dumb ones aren't going to like it one bit. They'll go out kicking and screaming: lobbying governments to prosecute people making mp3 players and make copyright laws even more favourable to them, telling people they're harming artists by getting their music directly from them and so on. Should be fun to watch!
So where do you think it's headed? How are we going to do this?