the Chronycle

Poor quality, not technology, is the reason the music business began to suck

Once you’ve figured out how to find food and water, stay warm, and defend your progeny against wild animals, you begin to use sticks to hit rocks in specific patterns to generate specific sounds, the same way you would use berries to begin drawing pictures on those same rocks.

At first, music was an activity dedicated to fulfilling a human need: the need to organize sound into patterns that are pleasing to the ears, to the brain, and thus to the body.

Organizing sounds into music also made people want to move. This fulfilled another human need, the one for exercising your body, which is a health need, almost as important as eating and drinking water.

Music is a need, not a want.

By the 1950s in the United States, sound recording and playback technology had evolved to the point of making it commercially viable, and even extremely interesting, to build infrastructure and distribution channels for physical media products with sound recordings inscribed on them.

By the late 1960s and early 70s, the music industry was minting gold. Massive fortunes, distribution networks, and changes to laws governing performance and intellectual property, were built and implemented by and for the music business at that time.

Like in any industry that starts making a lot of money, the quality standard began to decrease even before the music business concocted the most successful recording of all time (in 1982). Profits were increasing, but by 1972, quality was making the way for an effort to codify the creative process – music making – into a formula.

This is not to say that the music business became unsuccessful after 1972; on the contrary, it kept on growing to its peak somewhere around 2000. That’s 28 years of healthy profits, on a foundation that has seen less and less investment in its maintenance as sales volume has grown.

So really the story of the music business since 1972, is one of mismanagement, incompetence, and most of all a lack of passion for and knowledge of music, from executives.

It is the development of the internet, which exposed the major flaws in strategy that had developed since the seventies. It was the first time the music business had no part in developing the “next” distribution infrastructure and network. Not that they were ever enthusiastic about adopting new delivery formats, but at least they always got first option on the newest and greatest technology. That was not the case with the internet, where the music business had grown sufficiently out of touch with their markets, to miss the technological shift entirely.

By 2000, the quality standard had all but disappeared, and since then it remarkably has gone into what i would call negative territory. Without computers involved, it is not clear at all whether or not the average professional musician would be able to either play in rhythm or sing anywhere near a key. Let’s not even get into the idea of conveying an emotion to an audience.

The greatest mistake of the music industry is to have stopped making music, in favor of making “entertainment products.” The internet didn’t make the recorded music business irrelevant, it exposed the fact that it was irrelevant.

If music turns into an entertainment product because people love it, great. But trying to construct a formula out of the creative process in order to guarantee an entertainment product, is a miscomprehension and a waste of time.

philip m shearer


bronx, ny, usa