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  • Crowds, Clouds, and Idols:New Dynamics and Old Agendas in the Music Industry, 1982–2012
  • Charles Fairchild (bio)

The claim that the popular music industry as a whole was dying was made in a wide range of forums between the emergence of mass illegal downloads in the late 1990s and the dropoff in album sales that began around 2001–2, a drop that resulted in a halving of the sales of recorded music by 2012.1 The declarations of ruin, which continued through at least 2011, came from major news outlets, industry insiders, academics, high-profile musicians, and so-called digital visionaries.2 While this claim was often stated as if it were part of a larger presumed consensus, it was very often used for plainly varied purposes. On the one hand, this claim was used as a carefully chosen rhetorical device that proved politically convenient for the entertainment industry in its long, mostly successful campaign to transform intellectual property law in the United States and around the world.3 On the other, it allowed some to herald the end of the “old” music industry as the clunky old containers that held music in place gave way to an industry potentially revived through flexible, mobile, geographically unrestrained consumption.

Regardless of the rhetorical contests surrounding it, this claim is important to get to grips with, as it obscures salient aspects of the ways in which the music industry has changed since the turn of the century. Importantly, it is not hard to find evidence that shows us that more recorded music is being experienced across more platforms, devices, and media in more places more often than ever before. Indeed, there are at least two very simple measures that should suggest that the music industry was not in [End Page 441] such a derelict state as was often suggested in this period: headphone sales and performing rights revenues both hit all-time highs in 2010–11. In 2011 one major royalty collector said simply, “More music is being consumed today than ever before.”4 Even the music industry’s own numbers have told a different story, as have some of the music industry’s highest profile successes of the first ten or so years of the new century. There is simply a wide range of facts that cannot be easily incorporated into the death-rattle narrative some quarters of the industry have pursued for so long.

These apparent contradictions strongly point to the need for a more detailed reconsideration of the period in which the future of the music industry seemed most mired in a lethal crisis, from about 1999 to 2010 or so, by placing these years in the larger historical trajectory of the period from 1982 to 2012. There are three broad tasks pursued here in service of this reconsideration.

First, we need a more lucid understanding of how the music industry has worked to adapt to the digital economy in music. While this period of time is replete with reluctant, halting efforts that were laced with some impressive failures, several of which are detailed below, the causes of those failures need to be more widely understood.5 Some influential figures within the music industry were adapting to a digital economy in music both conceptually and practically far earlier than many might have suspected and with a degree of prescience rarely ascribed to their industry as a whole. This was especially true in relation to digital streaming services.

Second, we need a clearer understanding of what people meant when they said that the music industry was “dying.” Clearly, few, if any, commentators thought the music industry would no longer be able to make money from the experience of music. The more salient questions were about how to make money from music in a context of increasing media saturation and technological change. Specifically, it needs to be acknowledged that a very carefully restricted definition of “the music industry” was crafted by a few of this industry’s dominant entities to reflect a similarly circumscribed focus on album sales as the sole public measure of the industry’s overall health. In short, for the big players in the music industry, as album...


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pp. 441-476
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