In recent years, numerous musicians have stated that the music industry is dying. The most notable of these statements came from Gene Simmons last year during an interview with Esquire. He claimed that the music industry as a business model is dead, and further proceeded to proclaim that “Rock is finally dead.” He followed up that statement with the scathing accusation that it was murdered by each person that downloads a band’s music and shares it with their friends. The moment the interview was published, the world of social media exploded into a frenzy of scathing rebuttals to Simmons’ statement. Some were intelligent, others were clear-cut examples of why some people should keep their personal opinions to themselves. However, there was one major theme to this outburst.
The theme was that denial is not just a river in Egypt. It is quite disturbing that people are unwilling to accept that the music industry, as a business entity, has been brutally murdered. There was no corrupt cop that disposed of the dead body and tried to hide the evidence. There is nobody but ourselves to blame for the demise of the music industry. We’ve been slowly killing it ever since 1999, when Shawn Fanning, his uncle John, and Sean Parker launched Napster – the original peer-to-peer file sharing service. Napster’s popularity grew exponentially within a few months of the site going live. College students quickly realised that the service allowed them to download their favourite artists free of charge. At the peak of its existence, Napster had 70 million users downloading and sharing files with each other. It quickly became apparent that Napster was going to have a negative effect on the music industry, and it was at this point that the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), on behalf of the five major labels at the time, filed a lawsuit on 6 December 1999.
This lawsuit signalled the end of Napster, and in 2001 the site was shut down. The RIAA, and the labels they represented, thought that they had just saved the music industry and secured their interests. What they did not realise is that they had just sealed their fate, and sentenced themselves to doom. Napster proved that file-sharing sites could exist and – with the Web 2.0 explosion – file-sharing sites grew exponentially. They grew into the likes of The Pirate Bay, Soulseek and numerous others. These sites constantly evolved, and have blossomed into the likes of Kickass Torrents. These sites, despite the best efforts of major record labels, continue to exist virtually unchallenged, providing every teenager with broadband access to nearly every song ever created at a couple of clicks.
This instant and free access to music is to blame for the steady decrease of album sales in the past years and the figures show it. If you look at the Soundscan data for third quarter album sales for 2014  – it is clear that something has gone wrong. Album sales dropped by 14.4%, with both digital sales and physical sales dropping. When the bestselling album of the year is the soundtrack to a Disney film with a singing snowman who doesn’t understand the concept of summer and a literal ice queen, then there is something wrong. Even more disconcerting was the fact that the only album that managed to go platinum this year was Taylor Swift’s 1989, but only after cutting a sweet deal with Microsoft to sell her album for under a dollar as part of their Music Deals app launch,  and removing her music from the grasp of streaming services like Spotify. This move was preceded in July by an op-ed piece she had penned for the Wall Street Journal, in which she stated that, “the value of an album is, and will continue to be based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace. Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.”  It seems that the only way to sell albums is by making it difficult for the average consumer to get their hands on the album before the album is released, and forcing them to buy the album after it is released.
However, despite Taylor Swift’s views on piracy, torrents of 1989 still came into existence after the release of the album, and this was even with the ruthless attempts of her label, Big Machine, to prevent the album from making its way into the hands of the technologically savvy buccaneers of the internet. This effort was guided by Universal Music Group, who, like most major labels, understand the drastic effect that early leaks of albums can have on sales. Measures were so drastic that the media houses were only allowed to hear the album a couple of days in advance, and even then these advance copies were only sent out to the major publications. An understandable preventive measure, because many modern journalists lack an understanding of the concept of ethical behaviour – but that is an entirely different topic. Even with the various torrents of the album, Taylor Swift still managed to sell 1.287 million copies in the first week of the album’s release.
This makes as wonder what her secret is. Several industry analysts put it down to the sheer hype that surrounded the album, and her clever use of social media to promote the album. However, if it was all based off hype, then why didn’t Foo Fightersand Slipknot manage to produce similar first week sales with their new albums? Sonic Highways only sold 190,000 copies while .5 The Gray Chapter sold 132,000 copies. If it was a case of hype then surely both bands would have matched Taylor Swift’s sales? Foo Fighters made an entire documentary series to accompany an album, one meant to embody the musical heritage of their native USA. Slipknot released their first album since the death of Paul Gray, an album that is quite literally a eulogy to Paul Gray. One would have thought that with Slipknot’s fan base extending into an older generation than Taylor Swift’s, that more physical albums would have been sold. Perhaps Gene Simmons was correct, perhaps rock ‘n roll is dead. Or perhaps the story is slightly different.
The musical era that Gene Simmons comes from, when KISS was still a relevant band, was drastically different to the current era of music. KISS’ rise to fame occurred in the late 1970s, after the release of their live album Alive! in 1975. Their fame grew exponentially, and made them one of the most prominent bands of the late 70s and 80s. This was during an age when rock music dominated popular culture. It may have been popularly described by parents as being ‘that devil’s music’, but the rebellious streak of teenagers during those times promoted the youth to fully embrace rock ‘n roll. It was because of this that bands of that era, especially the popular ones like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and KISS, profited so well off the music they made. Another obvious reason for their extensively large income was because the concept of illegal sharing of music hadn’t even been full developed at the time. The occasional teenager would bootleg a cassette or CD, but that required a lot of time and effort to do, so many of them would just buy the album themselves. There was no ease of access like there is today. The personal computer and the internet, especially today’s high speed internet, was just an ambitious pipe dream in the 70s. There was no piracy to sap away at album sales, and it allowed for men like Gene Simmons to earn their money through album sales. Three decades later, these men are jaded ex-rockstars clinging desperately to some semblance of musical relevance. In Simmons’ attempt, he becomes the advocate of a business model that is no longer economically feasible. He clings to the idea that the only way for bands to become successful is to sell millions of albums, and comes off as a sell-out with the sole intention of sucking his fans dry. We already have bands like that – they’re called boybands.
The sheer fact of the matter is, Simmons’ statement of “rock being dead” is as far-fetched as his hopes of KISS still be relevant. He blames the neighbour of that typical teenager starting a garage band, or even one of the bandmates. What he doesn’t understand is that when these kids create their first EP – even if it is awful – they will use the same means of acquiring their illegal music to get their music out there and heard by whichever record label would care enough to pull them onto their roster. Perhaps the band will be lucky enough to get the funding to create their début album, and in the process get their first tour. They won’t care how well that album does, as all the money is going straight to the record label due to a contract that nobody explained to the band. Their tour will do well, and soon people will clamour for another album. A second album is created, and another tour is organised, and by now there is a dedicated fan-base and a band who cares for their fans is born. This is the generic starting story of nearly every single popular modern band in alternative culture (and it hasn’t changed one iota). There is no desire to make it big or to earn millions –these are men and women who do it for the sheer love of music.
It is for this precise reason that the music industry, and rock music in particular, is far from dead. The problem is that the major labels are reluctant to embrace the change that digital media and social media has bought to the industry. The labels know that if they give into the change, their revenue will be cut and they will become ghosts of the media giants they used to be. The digital nature of the music industry means that there is no need for the middle man of a record label to handle the distribution of an album. It has now become a simple case of a band getting their music onto iTunes or Bandcamp, and marketing their music in the appropriate fashion.
It is easier to accuse an entire generation of killing the music industry than it is to accept that the old model for the music industry is flawed, and that the industry is evolving to suit the needs of the same generation that is being accused of killing it. It is easy for the beneficiaries of the old industry to cry wolf and claim that the industry as whole is dying; just because their millions of dollars of revenue has been marginally reduced by a decline in album sales. That could also be the result of the bands finally reaching their expiry date, and KISS should never have tried to pander towards the public with a branding campaign that went as far as creating KISS-themed condoms. What these bands don’t realise, and what Gene Simmons doesn’t realise, is the act of illegally file sharing a band’s album usually means that their music is going to reach even further than they could ever imagine. It is because of internet piracy that a small UK noise-pop band called Johnny Foreigner can have such an extensive fan-base in South Africa – sparking two nation-wide tours with several club shows. It is the same reason why a group of teenagers can know all the lyrics to Foo Fighters‘ back catalogue and be able to sing every word back to Dave Grohl when they toured South Africa earlier this month. Sure, bands of the same size as Metallica and KISS don’t need the exposure gained from the illegal spread of music, but that does not detract from the fact that the illegal spread of music has become incredibly beneficial for small-time indie bands that lack access to the means to distribute their music to every corner of the globe, and be able to embark on massive world tours. In the greater scheme of things, the distribution model used by many of these torrent sites could actually prove to be incredibly beneficial – as long as they are not controlled and exploited by greedy record labels.
Perhaps the music industry is supposed to die, or rather the current model for the industry is meant to retire, like an elderly parent who has been slaving away to provide for their child. It has to retire to give way to its offspring – an industry based on digital media and file sharing. Like any child growing up, the new industry will have its teething problems. Moments where the feasibility of such an industry will be questioned, just like we question the current state of the music industry, but there will come a day where people will look back at the old model for the music industry and laugh at our foolishness. Instead of viewing file sharing in such a negative light, we should be positive about it, as it could possibly be the best thing to happen to the music industry since The Beatles made rock ‘n’ roll popular. To quote Trent Reznor: “As the climate grows more and more desperate for record labels, their answer to their mostly self-inflicted wounds seems to be to screw the consumer over even more.”
Footnotes and further reading
1. Gene Simmons on the future of rock
2. Ashes to ashes, peer to peer: An oral history of Napster
3. SoundScan’s Third-Quarter Numbers in One Word: Bleak
4. Taylor Swift’s new ‘1989’ album is just $0.99 with Microsoft’s Music Deals app
5. For Taylor Swift, the future of music is a love story
6. Artists speak out on music piracy
Steve Albini on the surprisingly sturdy state of the music industry