Friday, April 18, 2014

Long Live Rock: Thanks to Technology

Few things make your writer more elated than unwrapping a new compact disc, transferring old vinyl to digital files or adding tunes to my Mp3 library. Recently, I had the great pleasure of performing all three in one morning — respectively opening Richard Thompson’s latest collection of impeccably performed Celtic-infused bittersweet rockers; preserving a nearly worn-out copy of Brian Protheroe’s eclectic 1976 LP classic “I/You” and downloading “Young Waverer,” the latest release by Canada’s libertarian response to rock’n’roll statism, Lindy Vopnfjord.

Despite all three artists flying under the radar of classic rock as well as contemporary Top 40 pop, rock, jazz or country, I hold a rabid fan’s devotion for their works. This is a somewhat contrarian view in a zeitgeist increasingly prone to incessant whining that art in general and music specifically needs massive taxpayer subsidies to battle, among other factors, the ever-limited playlists of commercial radio and record company greed.

But today, as so often in the history of recorded music, technology has opened up new frontiers for music rather than stifling it. The record emporiums of yore have been supplanted to some degree by the Internet, but one can still find precious vinyl and new CD releases at bricks-and-mortars. And that just covers the musicians who scored record company contracts and distribution deals.

Rolling Stone reported this week, “Download sales came in at 4.3 billion units globally, a 12 percent increase, while digital albums rose 17 percent, with 207 million sold.” This marks the first time in 13 years the music industry has witnessed a rise in revenues, prompting Sony President and CEO Edgar Berger to comment: “At the beginning of the digital revolution it was a common theme to say digital is killing music…. Well the reality is, digital is saving music. I absolutely believe that this marks the start of a global growth story. The industry has every reason to be optimistic about its future.”

The magazine also reported that a good 10 percent of the digital download market is driven by subscriptions to such platforms as Spotify and Deezer. “Until recently the vast majority of our revenues came from a handful of countries,” Stu Bergen, head of global marketing for Warner Music Group, told Rolling Stone. “Today, digital channels mean we can monetize markets worldwide much more effectively.”

I can’t speak about Protheroe, who seemingly hasn’t been active on the music scene in more than 30 years, but Thompson and Lindy have adopted two relatively novel approaches to their musical careers — at least compared to what the music industry was in decades past. Rather than trouble deaf heaven with their bootless cries, the former has taken to recording his albums independently and leasing them to a record company (a move more or less pioneered by The White Stripes); and the latter has taken to crowd-sourcing to raise monies for recording and download distribution.

Instead of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to where they are now creatively, Thompson and Lindy (and thousands more like them) have adopted new technologies and business models to finance and spread the fruits of their talents while simultaneously retaining creative control of their output. As for crowd-sourcing, such websites as RocketHub and Kickstarter are adding a step to the creative process while allowing fans to directly finance projects by their favorite artists.

All of this is pretty cool, and runs contrary to the oft-repeated complaints of hipsters that commercial radio has ruined modern music and true creativity is given short shrift by record companies eager to make the easy bucks. True, a quick scan of the radio dial will yield diminishing results for those seeking a bit more than the latest moon/June/spoon teen Bieber-Perry-Swift anthems.

Public radio features many programs that pick up the slack for the restrictive programming of commercial radio, but comes with a hefty taxpayer tab. The costs of running a radio station on the public dime may have reached a tipping point for conscientious politicians and irate citizens. Perhaps Internet crowd-sourcing can make up the monetary difference for local radio stations endeavoring to remain free from advertising. Likewise Internet “radio” broadcasts.

As for other technologies benefitting music consumers, currently within their grasp is the turntable — both traditional and newfangled. Invariably, your writer is asked if he owns a device on which to play the 45s and LPs purchased at thrift shops and estate sales. Not only do I respond in the affirmative that I have several classic players from the 1970s, but as well a nifty device that not only plays vinyl but transfers the music therein for digital playback.

Such devices exist for an outlay of just under $100, down nearly 50 percent from only a year ago, and others exist that digitize both vinyl and cassette tapes. Unlike the Walkmans of the 1980s and 1990s that required a bag for additional tapes and discs, however, modern music lovers can leave the house with entire libraries of songs, podcasts and books tucked into the smallest pants or jacket pocket.

It cannot be overemphasized how beneficial such technologies are for both those seeking to produce and market music and those merely interested in consuming it. It’s clear that the rumored demise of music past and present has been greatly exaggerated, and for that we have free-market choices between traditional storefronts, the Internet and other technologies rather than arts grants and publicly funded radio to thank.

Reprinted with permission from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (www.mackinac.org/18338) blog.

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