There seems no objective justification for the idea that good music has simply dried up since file-sharing took off. “A digital vampire” – not the title of this season’s bestselling young adult novel, but an ageing rock star’s description of Apple’s online store, iTunes. In his recent John Peel lecture, the guitarist for The Who, Pete Townshend, railed against “the Aluminums” (Apple, I gather) and suggested changes to their business model that would be more supportive of musicians. He also wondered whether the modern, digitally distributed music industry could support the kind of careful listening and risk taking that the late DJ John Peel exemplified.
A reasonable response to Mr Townshend is that he could have picked more obvious targets – notably file-sharing sites and software, which facilitate outright piracy. (He did offer one sharp observation on the subject: “The word ‘sharing’ surely means giving away something you have earned, or made, or paid for?”) It is beyond doubt that the traditional music industry is dying: high street record shops are closing their doors or stocking alternative products, and music sales have fallen by about 40 per cent during the past decade. Digital music sales through retailers such as iTunes are manifestly failing to plug the gap from sales of physical CDs, but that is not the fault of the Aluminums.
Yet a more interesting question is how much this matters. According to Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota, three-quarters of pirated music would never have been purchased anyway. In such cases the consumer gains but the producer does not lose. Alas, for the major record labels – and, perhaps, for the artists too – the one-in-four acts of piracy that do reduce sales seem to be quite enough to corrode the industry’s business model….
Waldfogel manfully attempts to estimate the continued flow of high-quality new music…. Waldfogel… produces some intuitively sensible results: the late 1960s were the pinnacle of the past 50 years, while the 1980s were dark days indeed…. Certainly there seems no objective justification for the idea that good music has simply dried up since file-sharing took off.
Quite why this should be is a puzzle, but Waldfogel suspects it has something to do with the ease with which any band can produce and distribute music – a fact reflected in the growth of independent record labels. The money may be drying up, but the beat goes on.