The music "industry" is over

When you download mp3s, you're downloading

I've talked about it before and it seems to be in the final death spiral. That's right, the music "industry" is terminal.

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." - Hunter S. Thompson

The BBC reports today that international record sales have slumped yet again. Hardly surprising considering how easy it is to get broadband Internet access and, from there, download everything you could possibly want without a cent going to record companies or artists.

It's also hardly surprising that people are going to the small amount of hassle involved in getting tooled up to download and play back mp3s. Once you're set up, you can avoid the extortionate prices (I saw CDs in Virgin last weekend for £16!) and you can skirt the artificial scarcity. Instead you get as much music as you can handle for a small investment in time and equipment.

Technology has evolved in recent years to cut out all need for the record companies. These days their only functions are preserving their own existence and promoting the next bubblegum pop band. Talented bands these days can easily record albums themselves using cheap equipment at home, with perhaps a little real studio time for the tricky bits and some producer magic. What need for a record company there? Music fans have proven themselves quite adept at getting their hands on the latest releases, so the distribution arm of record companies is no longer really necessary.

"We live in an age of music for people who don't like music. The record industry discovered some time ago that there aren't that many people who actually like music. For a lot of people, music's annoying, or at the very least they don't need it. They discovered if they could sell music to a lot of those people, they could sell a lot more records." - T Bone Burnett

The one thing missing from this post-record company future is a revenue stream for the artists. Some have suggested a virtual "tip jar" where music fans can give up their readies for an artist they appreciate. If everyone gave, say, a couple of quid for each album they enjoyed, artists could potentially earn more than they currently get from their usurious recording contracts. The problem is that only nice people will do it, and nice people clearly aren't in the majority. So instead, nice people end up subsidising the nasties and the artists go hungry and get pissed off with making music.

The solution

I can only see one way out of this problem, and it's far from perfect. We need a license fee for music listeners. Similar to the television license fee in the UK.

Anyone who wants to listen to music under the new model must pay an annual fee. For their fee, they no longer have to buy CDs but can instead listen to any piece of music they can get. Their player equipment will be required to report what they listen to, directed at some central agency. According to these stats, the revenues are doled out to the appropriate artists. A threshold for each listener ensures that a maximum number of plays per track per artist is recorded, with anything above it discarded. This cuts out the fraud aspect.

People can opt out of the system and continue to "own" pieces of plastic they buy in records shops. (Though these people present an enforcement problem, the same as people who claim not to own televisions in the UK.)

There are many problems with this system, but I really can't see a better way to solve the revenue-to-artists problem. Can you think of a better way?

Who runs it?

Way back in 1999 I suggested the record companies could save themselves by implementing just such a system. I think they've missed the boat now though. Artists wouldn't trust them to run such a system and can see that an artist-run system would, clearly, have big advantages for them. An artist-run system is also within reach, whereas getting the big 5 record companies to pull their fingers out and work together is about as likely as Fidel Castro joining the Tories.

I know I won't be shedding any tears for the record companies when they finally die. The artists, however, need a way to make a living.