Exploding Access in the Record Business: Why More Is Less

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Here's an ironic paradox. CD sales continue to spiral downwards, while Americans are exposed to more music than ever before.

Forty years ago, our access to music was, in comparison, extremely limited. We had to search to find it. We carried transistor radios, but could only hear 10 or 15 stations on the AM dial. We listened to music on our long playing albums, but were limited to about 23 minutes per side. With only a handful of TV programs showcasing music each week, live performances on television were rare. Most musicians lip synched to their music instead.

Music sat on a pedestal in our lives. We hungered for more.

It's amazing how things have changed. Today, we're a society surrounded by music. Our homes are equipped with high end systems that play back records to near studio quality. Many people carry their music collections with them, and get whatever songs they want on demand for their portable devices. Our cars have become miniature sound rooms, equipped with equalizers, multiple speakers and inputs.

Music is programmed to meet our lifestyle at any time. What we don’t see on TV, we can watch on You Tube or MySpace.

So with all this exposure to music, why are CD sales so off?

The 60’s and 70’s were an extraordinary time and produced some of the best music ever. As the 70’s urged continuing growth in the record business sector, companies built empires around their successes. Labels became marketing machines and over the course of the next three decades, they developed sophisticated ways to bring music to the public.

But the roads to exposure were built by the record trade - on the radio, in retail stores and in the press. By the time the digital revolution hit music, consumers were fed up. They weren't interested in having the business tell them what to hear. They wanted full access to the music playground.

And that's where we are today.

But there's a big problem. Access to music does not guarantee quality. Though we can hear anything we want at will, wading through the morass of artists seeking discovery can be discouraging and downright disappointing. Myspace has over 100 million accounts. You Tube has less but grows exponentially every day. We all find diamonds in the rough, but it's hard work. Consumers don't have time for this kind of work. There are just too many other distractions taking their attention.

So, where will the record industry be in another 10 years?  The future sits on the shoulders of a few trusted gatekeepers.  Whether you take advice from KCRW, PitchForkMedia, StereoGum, Fader, Soma or any of the other tastemakers in music, these organizations refine the search to bring the best to attention.  They have the best chance to bring quality into the conversation and define the cultural sound of America.

Without them, the business becomes a marketing machine for American Idol.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.