Today, recorded music is worthless, so worthless that no one should be paying for it.

Okay, let's not go that far, yet in an an age where people can easily copy and distribute records themselves, and where musicians can independently produce such recordings using fairly inexpensive technology, there's little obvious need for a bloated music industry. There's little need for an industry that wants to make a fortune being little more than a middleman, doing things most people can actually do for themselves, all the while charging a handsome fee. Yet even if their disappearance would appear to be the logical conclusion of a post-Napster world, of a world where they're no longer essential to the production and distribution of their own product, this industry and the record labels representing them somehow continue to exist. Why is that? Is it simply because the Big Three labels started cracking down on piracy, hiding behind a militant RIAA that saved them from bankruptcy? Is it because they learnt how to monetise the downloading and streaming of music, recouping their lost profits from the likes of Spotify and Apple Music? Or is it just because of ignorance, because not enough people are aware that the service they're paying for is unnecessary?

Maybe all three of these hypotheses hold some truth, but there's a deeper, underlying reason why the music industry continues to thrive. Major labels and their stooges continue to thrive not so much because of the defences they've erected around their output, but because of the positive motivations people still have for paying for it. Even though the public could potentially record and distribute music entirely by themselves, they nonetheless continue to bankroll an industry that, on first glance, now seems a little superfluous. They do this because they aren't in the market simply for recorded music, but for the meaning, identity and social capital that's prepackaged within this music. For the most part, such meaning is invested in their favourite tunes by the marketing of an industry that's never really been in the business of selling tunes as such. This industry doesn't merely record and distribute 'pure sound,' but rather produces a consumer object, transforming music into a fetishized commodity by pre-installing it with various social meanings and significations. It's precisely these which most of us consume when we consume recorded music, and it's precisely these which explain the survival of the music industry, since 'meaning' can neither be pirated effectively nor produced by isolated musicians and listeners.

What's more, as this essay will propose, this state of affairs is unlikely to change anytime soon. Even if every independent and amateur musician in the world could record their art with as much finesse as the most well-equipped professional studio, and even if every listener and fanchild could burn their own CDs of any existing record with perfect fidelity, the music industry as a multinational behemoth would still go on. That's because its mass, globalized scale makes it the only player that can deliver the kinds of cultural and social currencies fit for a massified, globalized world, in which increasingly international people increasingly want an identity that would be valid and exchangeable in almost any corner of the globe. No local music scene or independent underground could possibly hope to compete with the sheer cultural reach and penetration of the products it offers, which is why these products will continue to sell in one form or another, even though the music they package is no longer under the strict monopoly of the industry itself. Records will therefore keep turning a profit for the industry and, for better or for worse, this industry will keep dominating music, dressing and imprinting it with whatever tropes, memes, gimmicks, morals and narratives are the most profitable.


The End of the Monopoly

© Mathew Parri Thomas


That said, this domination of music used to be considerably more total and inescapable. Back in 1999, before the internet and Napster became a household fixture, the US music industry was worth some $14.6 billion. By 2009, once the effects of ubiquitous internet access had set in, this figure had decreased by more than half, reducing itself to $6.3 billion. What had happened over the intervening decade was that people had realised they could perform one of the main functions of the music industry -- the copying and distributing of records -- for themselves, thereby revealing this industry for the redundant parasite it was. Given the rise of the internet and personal computing, they no longer needed any third party to press CDs or vinyl for them, since their PCs allowed them to 'press' mp3s. Neither did they need any distributors to ship records expensively around the world for them, since their phone lines allowed them to send and receive albums in a matter of minutes.

The industry, in other words, was 'dead,' since it no longer had a unique service to offer the world's public, because the internet had made it unnecessary. Even if it wanted to complain that its copyright was being violated by every teenager who downloaded Metallica's 'I Disappear' before the song's official release, this was a negative, unconvincing defence of its operations. It amounted to saying, 'We alone should be making money out of the copying and distributing of music, not because we're the only ones who can do it, but because we bought the rights to have a monopoly.' To trumpet copyright like this, as the sole defence of a crumbling business empire, is tantamount to admitting that this empire doesn't actually offer anything of much value to the market, and that this market would be more efficient if it circumvented the empire altogether.

To a certain extent, this is what the market did, turning away from physical music to downloads and -- a little later -- streaming services like YouTube and Pandora. On the other side of the partition, this is what musicians partly did as well, exploiting the growth in high-quality yet affordable technology to record and distribute their own music. They took advantage of sites like MySpace, Bandcamp and CD Baby to share their work to whoever would listen, while they used digital recorders and apps like GarageBand to put this work to tape. By using such tools, acts from Lil B to Radiohead showed that the music industry was doubly expendable, in that the fans didn't need anyone to copy music for them and the musicians didn't need anyone other than themselves to record it.


The False End of the Monopoly

© Mathew Parri Thomas


And yet, and yet... and yet, even though a purely economic analysis would dictate that the Big Three major labels should've disintegrated in the face of their plummeting social utility, the music industry as an umbrella of multinational corporate giants still miraculously endures to this day. In 2013, it announced its first peak in global revenue since the heady days of 1999, aided in part by mp3s and other digital sources of filthy lucre. Sure, this was only a 0.3% increase to $16.5 billion, but it was an increase nonetheless, suggesting that the reports of its death in the years preceding this news had, much like Mark Twain's, been greatly exaggerated. People, it appeared, were still paying the industry to distribute music, despite being technologically able to distribute it themselves. Something, therefore, was going on, something not accounted for by a narrowly economic or utilitarian way of treating the situation.

This conclusion has been reinforced in the years following 2013, what with vinyl sales hitting a 26-year high in 2015, evincing how people still want to buy something they don't necessarily have to buy. Also in 2015, streaming revenues topped $1 billion for the first time in streaming's short lifespan, once again underlining that melomaniacs are still desirous of nicely presented and packaged products, even if in this case it's a virtual one that doesn't come in the usual cardboard sleeve or plastic case. They continue to pay for music they could hear online for nothing, and it's exactly this loyalty, if you will, that has contributed to the industry's surprising resilience and longevity, defying early-21st Century reports on 'pillaged' record labels and how file sharing was "killing them."

Admittedly, the most recent figures released by the RIAA documented a 5% drop in US takings for the middle of 2015. However, if you peer deeper into the available data and projections, a picture forms of an industry that's holding its own at the least, and gradually adapting to a new world at the most. For one, the UK music industry (the fourth biggest globally) grew by 4% over the same period of time, while the consumption of music via streaming expanded by 92.8%, with streaming's continued ascent offsetting the loss in money from digital downloads. In fact, given that Spotify witnessed rates of new subscribers to its service at 1.2 million per month last year, and given that both it and the comparably successful Apple Music pay somewhere around 70% of their turnover to labels, it becomes understandable as to why some optimists believe industry revenues will "return to slow and steady growth" in the coming years, and may even "double" by 2020.


The Meaning Industry

© Mathew Parri Thomas


So, despite the massive dive its star took at the beginning of the 21st Century, the industry is just about doing fine, selling more vinyl, some CDs, some downloads, and a snowballing amount of streams. Yet contrary to what some commentators are liable to assert, its survival isn't simply a matter of its adjustment to new technology or its enforcement of archaic copyright law. It's also about what music is on a social level, about the wider cultural meaning it has continually been endowed and implanted with since the dawn of mass-produced pop. More fundamentally, it's about how enough of us don't want to listen to music in a vacuum, severed from the CD cases, vinyl sleeves, packaging, artwork, label ads and promos, music videos, fawning write-ups, Madison Square Garden premieres, television programs, and publications that contextualise it, that flesh out its basic sonic skeleton into a meaningful consumer object able to confer an identity on us.

The simple fact is that, if people want to continue enjoying such a socially and symbolically powerful object, then they have to continue paying for it in one way or another, be this through album purchases, streaming subscriptions or advertisements. A world in which every musician is independent, in which music as an institution is constituted solely by acts recording their own music and making it directly available through their own websites, would not be satisfying enough for the kind of fan who wants their music to have broad social currency. This fan wants their music to lend them a certain status, a certain distinction that can be redeemed outside of their home or hometown. They'd deprive themselves of such music if they did nothing but download it for free, bringing music to the point where there was no music industry, where there was no one building an international superstructure of social signs around the recording of sound.

This is why, then, there have been a sufficient number of consumers prepared to continue paying for music, even if many others haven't been as interested in keeping the seemingly redundant music industry afloat. It's why, it could be argued, the aforementioned spike in vinyl sales has occurred, since in the face of the increasing digitization of music, listeners have pined after a physical medium that furnishes them with a greater, more tactile sense of music's social symbolism. These listeners have gravitated towards vinyl because its solidity and often ornate sleeves provide a superior canvas or vessel for the fetishisation of music, for their willingness to regard the art form as a totem of their selves and identities. At the very least, its anachronistic resurgence indicates a desire on their part to distinguish their indier-than-thou credentials in relation to the masses, a distinction which couldn't be achieved if it weren't for a music industry pressing records for them.

Vinyl provides us with very immediate and palpable feedback when we look at it or pick it up, quickly reminding us of the various significances embedded within the music it houses. Yet even when we depart from physical stores of music and the meanings they represent, there's a world of advertising, promotion and marketing that tags even digital music with the kinds of imagery and connotations many fans can't do without. On the one hand, there are the legions of magazines, websites and blogs that adulate even Coldplay's new album, infiltrating people with the desire to own -- even if in digital format -- the music they venerate. These tastemakers plaster music with their reviews and commentaries, defining this or that band as possessing a particular identity and social relevance. In the process, they have an effect on those who wish to express (or construct) a similar identity, making these people want to buy the records concerned, to purchase the right to say that they too share in these records' meanings.

This process was on stark display in the weeks preceding the release of Kanye West’s new album. Almost every 24 hours, zines and blogs were publishing ‘news’ articles on what Kanye West was up to that day or had just said on Twitter. Quite apart from keeping us all apprised on Mr West’s thoughts vis-à-vis Bill Cosby, this blanket coverage and hype became an object in its own right, a distillation of various themes and discourses — ego, vanity, (African) American identity, sex, sexism, misogyny — that was all directed towards another particular object: The Life of Pablo itself. As a result, this album was fetishized, that is, it was symbolically charged with all the discussions, conversations, debates, dynamics, arguments, articles, posts and fanfare that had accompanied its crystallization. It became an easy and accessible way for the public to express their particular stances on the issues that were invoked prior to (and no doubt after) its arrival. That it’s such a carrier of meaning and identity can be witnessed in how, after finally being made available on non-TIDAL streaming services on March 31, it quickly reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, becoming the second-most streamed album of all time after Justin Bieber’s Purpose.

Barring some superficial differences, much the same story applies to all the promotional work turned in by record labels and music vendors. From the banners that advertise a newly released album to the iconography that litters Apple Music, all of these serve to create the context supplying music with its aura of significance. An image of a band looking a certain way on their Spotify page may attract a potential listener with the attitude or image she's been aspiring towards, while a magazine ad may remind this same listener of all the (inexplicable) plaudits the new Coldplay record has received. In both examples, signs and meaning are deposited onto 'raw' music, granting this music a cultural resonance she'd like to possess for herself. This is why she continues to spend her money, since the downloading of free or illegal mp3s doesn't quite imbue her as comprehensively with music's social cachet as the consumption of a glamorously packaged consumer product.

And this is why, in part, the music industry has just about managed to preserve itself. It may not quite be the top-down tyrant it once was some two decades ago, and music might have become a more fragmented, bottom-up affair since the appearance of the internet, yet nevertheless the Big Three labels and their minions remain in power in 2016 because they have never sold 'just' music. Since the opening of the post-war era, they've sold image, personality, fantasies, self and identity, with music being the receptacle for these things. More simply, they've sold social capital, and their ability to sell this capital hasn't been insurmountably diminished by the Internet revolution, which finds itself unable to pirate such an intangible store of social meaning. Yes, mp3s can be copied and disseminated, but such free or illegal mp3s haven't been invested with the same cultural weight and value as a CD, vinyl record, or 'official' stream. These are bona fide consumer items, objects whose surrounding marketing and presentation makes them more easily fetishized or 'resonant' than some file on your computer.


The Future

© Mathew Parri Thomas


To put it more bluntly, the idea that the Internet Era was ever going to free the world from the music industry -- that satanic complex of record-label middlemen, media middlemen and retail middlemen -- was little else but a naive, short-sighted and ultimately misleading daydream. It even seems that this industry is slowly learning new ways of catering to the public, which often doesn't want music so much as ready-made units of self that can be recognised on national and international levels. Spotify, to take a prime example, has recently announced its acquisition of two tech startups, one of which creates apps for "talking about music" and the other of which has "found ways to create really compelling experiences around the production of audio." With these purchases, the Swedish company have underlined how the industry has moved into the realm where it's not simply providing consumers with music, but with "auditory experiences," many of which will have a social element and will therefore aid these consumers in the construction of their identities.

In light of how Spotify already gift people with the opportunity to flaunt their musical tastes via its Friend Feed and Found Them First app, it's likely that it and the industry as a whole will pioneer more novel ways of making the music under their jurisdiction an evermore intrinsic part of who we (like to think) are. This music was already a big part of our self-conceptions before the emergence of digital technology, and now that every record label has already flocked to Facebook and Twitter in order to integrate the promotion of their wares into the social media profiles we use to present ourselves to the world, it's all set to become even bigger. These labels will become savvier in their use of new tech to create narratives and 'experiences' around music, both of which will more efficiently draw the listener into the world of music as a commodity, tying the signs and symbols of this world more deeply to his or her self-image. Their loyal servants in the ever-expanding media will broadcast their promotional slants and spiel more rapidly, populating 'news' and 'reviews' sections across the world with a growing number of barely disguised press releases and label announcements that often do little but confirm the manufactured aura that's been spun around an artist. Meanwhile, the increasingly inter-connected, fast-paced and 'viral' nature of media will mean that such glorified press releases will spread more pervasively across the globe, as websites compete with each other for traffic and ad revenue, and as a certain breed of human animal flocks after the reflected glory of the most popular and celebrated performers.

In sum, the shift away from a reality in which the music industry is needed to press records and ship them around the planet will result in a reality in which the industry focus chiefly on advertising and marketing, coating their signed talent in a layer of myth and legend many of us can hardly resist. That advertising is already the chief concern for labels can be seen in the most recent "Investing in Music" report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which in 2014 noted that that investment in marketing and A&R was the record industry's biggest expense, that it had grown since 2011, and that this same industry spends more on the promotion and 'development' of its raw material than most other industries spend on R&D.

It's this spending that will ensure that budding musicians will continue to sign with major labels, since they want to harness the marketing power that would differentiate them from the teeming crowd of other budding musicians. Likewise, it's this spending that entices the public and coaxes them into spending money on music, inasmuch as they want to consume the wider cultural significance that's been heavily invested in the vinyl and the mp3s being offered to them. They will continue purchasing music that's interpreted as expressing particular youthful, feminist, male, black, queer, radical or whatever identities, because they want to participate in these identities, to be identified by the world accordingly and treated as someone with certain desirable qualities. As the foregoing has contended, it's only a mass, multinational institution like the music industry that can do this on any large scale, that can manufacture the kind of social meanings and significations that can be understood in most parts of the developed world. This is why it wasn't killed by the onslaught of the internet and this is why, for as long as many of us want easy, prefabricated identity, they will continue raking in their billions for a while yet.