The Definition of Insanity

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

The record industry is engaged in a cycle of self-destruction. Decades ago the business was robust, but now it struggles to remain relevant. Much has changed in the last fifty years and the timeline tells an interesting tale. It was the cultural repression of the 50's that led to the sexual revolution of the 60's. With so much exploration, freedom and idealism took over in the 70's, which grew into the self-indulgent 80's. The 80's led to a culture obsessed with money and power in the early 90's, which laid the groundwork for another cycle of revolution.

What kind of revolution? Songs like Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit" exemplified the desire to be liberated from the corporate chains of bondage.

Meanwhile, the digital age gently worked its way into our lives, and by the turn of the millennium illegal peer-to-peer downloading had became act of defiance. Suddenly, illegal downloading was outstripping sales nine to one. The record industry, reeling from the denial of the changing marketplace, clamped down with lawsuits and digital management code. And now, even though DRM is gone, the industry seems to have no pulse on its recovery.

The four major label players, Universal, EMI, Warners and Sony, hold tremendous cultural power in their hands. They decide what new sites, gadgets and internet providers will be granted access to the catalog. They alone determine the pipeline to our musical heritage. And how are they faring with this new responsibility? Not so well.

In the digital world, there are no local online stores. Every retailer is treated as a national store. So either a retailer is granted permission to sell music by the labels, or they are denied. And today, many new online companies are denied the right to the catalog, unless they are willing to pay large up-front fees. Several start-up companies that have met with the major label conglomerates report that hundreds of thousands of dollars must be paid in advance, every year, just to gain access to the music. And for many tech companies, this may well be the difference between selling music and not selling music.

It makes no sense to limit the scope of sales in a declining economic market. The industry should be embracing new technologies, not fearing them.

And in related news, Brian Eno and David Byrne just launched their own label and album together. Don't look for the album in stores or on the usual digital retail outlets. Eno and Byrne have launched their own website to introduce, market, promote and sell the album themselves. Streaming the album is free, or you can buy it digitally for $9, physically for $12. Deluxe albums, including a film about the album, will be sold for $70.

This is the latest wave in the music business. Artists taking back the night so to speak and keeping the margins themselves.

It's time the record industry recognizes that history does repeat itself. While the repressive cultural practices of the 50's may have laid claim to the abundant expansion of the 60's, those 50's businesses did not flourish with time. Learning from our mistakes should be our greatest objective now.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat.