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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Top 10 ways the music business died in 2008

I think this past year has seen some interesting transitions in the way recorded music is produced and sold.

In order to properly hype-up this post, I am hereby declaring it to be, all at once, a top 10 list!, an end-of-year list!, and a list all about the death of the music business! Oh, and while I am at it, I'll throw in some predictions of the future! too. (For the astute, long-time readers of these Wrong Notes: let's just say that what follows are just some observations about how we musicians and music fans are evolving our music bazaar, circa 2008.)

These can be understood as little "deaths" of what the record companies long promoted as "the way music is supposed to be." Things actually do change. And we're now releasing and listening to recorded music in new ways—different than what we did just a few years ago.

So, here are my observations—er, em, I mean the Top 10 ways the music business died in 2008!:

10. Death of the One Package

In the past, an "album" was fundamentally a package. And, each album was almost always one package: there was an album called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and one could buy the one package that was that album. Also, functionally, the package contained the music—you heard the music only by playing by the contents of the package: the disc.

Now, albums released online are fundamentally package-less. And the music isn't tied to a disc or other physical item. So, the online aspect of music breaks the "package" idea altogether: one doesn't need a package to get the music, and the music isn't attached to anything that comes in the package anyway.

But, we're people, and we like our packages! So, in 2008, we've seen a resurgence of album-packages that complement the online / digital tracks. And, since people don't really need a CD to get their digital files, these albums are "packages for packages-sake," and are being released in multiple versions to match-up with different fans' package fancies and budgets. Notable examples include Brian Eno and David Bryne's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (free, pay download, CD + download, and Deluxe Package), Radiohead's In Rainbows (download, CD, limited edition "disc box" with vinyl LPs) and Nine Inch Nails' The Slip (limited editions, CDs, free downloads).

Prediction for the future: we'll choose albums we like by getting them online for free, and then, after we find out that we like them, we'll shop amongst a variety of packages and buy ones that match our own styles of object possession and obsession (this pairs with my 2004 prediction about the future of music playbacks).

9. Death of the One Release Date

While in the past, single track and album releases would be spread-out a bit for marketing reasons, physical packages shipped on certain dates and there was this generally solid concept of a "release date" for each album. How solid you ask? Well, go into most any library catalog, CD site, or music list and there will be only one release date (year) associated with each album.

But, in 2008, this idea is no longer so solid. With albums coming out in multiple packages / formats, what's more typical are multiple release dates. This includes both albums that are released in process and/or released track by track, and albums that are released in multiple, final, forms. In some cases like Radiohead's In Rainbows and the Ear Reverends' Err or Man, the release timespan crosses multiple years (2007 and 2008 in both cases).

Prediction for the future: albums will be less and less associated with one specific release date, and will be appreciated by new audiences as new release-packages hit at different times.

8. Death of the One Price

Free downloads, pay downloads, CD and deluxe packages: need I say more? Oh yes, choose your own price, as Radiohead allowed for the digital download of In Rainbows. Also, music subscription services like eMusic offer different tiers with different costs, and Magnatune now offers a choose your own price subscription as well.

Altogether, this means, in 2008, that there is no longer "one price" for an album or track of music.

Prediction for the future: even more variety of prices for music.

7. Death of the One Transaction #1 (Subscription)

In 2008, more of us stopped paying for albums and tracks via single transactions. This can be said generally about the album purchase being folded in with overall sales of musician's offerings (concerts, merchandise, licensing, etc.). But, more generally, a lot of us got hooked up with subscription services like eMusic where we pay some amount every month, and no longer really pay on a per album or track basis.

Prediction for the future: subscription music services will grow to Netflix-like ubiquity.

6. Death of the One Transaction #2 (Advertising)

We also are paying for music via the many small, but invisible, transactions of advertising. Advertising supported music services have a long way to go to prove their viability altogether. And, advertising supported music labels like RCRD LBL were still very new in 2008. But, the general principle is there: break-up the music sale into many small transactions, and find people (in this case, advertisers) who are attracted to this pay-as-you-go arrangement.

Prediction for the future: more advertising supported music sites.

5. Death of the One Record Label

With artists planning multiple release packages, making use of online music subscription service, and all of the above mentioned developments of 2008, where do record labels fit in? If record labels are all about the music package, release date, the product-for-price, making the sale, etc., they certainly aren't the be-all-and-end-all for any recording musician.

So, for an artist looking to do a traditional release, the traditional record label still can be important. But, it's less likely to be the traditional, completely exclusive arrangement, because in 2008, musicians need to get their music out in other ways. Radiohead's example with In Rainbows is a clear one: they released the album online themselves (as their own label, essentially), and then partnered with a record label for the mass-market CD release.

Prediction for the future: record labels become more of a specialized service in some cases, more of a brand affiliation in others. But, altogether, look for musicians to be less exclusively tied to any one record label. And, also look for more labels like Asthmatic Kitty that are almost as much in partnership with other labels themselves, as they are with individual artists.

4. Death of the Compact Disc (Again)

This is a cheap-shot, but is anyone putting on CDs and listening to music on them? OK, sometimes—I put them on in my car. But, in 2008, even my friends (and I) who are the most die-hard CD addicts, are listening to all of our digital music via non-CD players (mp3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, etc.).

Of course, I am listening to vinyl LPs way more now too! But, the CD is little more than a delivery mechanism and backup copy for the files on our computers and other digital music players. The music business based on CD sales died (again) in 2008.

Prediction for the future: death of the compact disc (again). It's going to die again every year for a couple more years.

3. Death of the One Player-Format

With the death of the CD, what's emerging as its replacement is not so simply a new "format" or a new kind of music player. True, the successor to the CD is the digital music file—but the CD was really just the original way digital music files became popular.

What we have now in 2008 are people each with multiple digital music players. Between the computer, iPods, etc., people are listening to music all over the place on all kinds of devices that have huge music collections. The "format" isn't the CD or the album or the single or the playlist, and the context isn't individual / personal or shared / group. It's all of the above.

Prediction for the future: something like what I wrote about in 2004, in the future of music playbacks— lots of different players with lots of music on them in a lot of contexts. Now someone please make some software that's like iTunes, but works for with the multi-headed music library monster we're all creating!

2. Death of the One-Button-Play (Remix and Reuse)

Although it's common to talk about people as "listeners" of music, I think all of these music devices make people more like players of music. We each make music by pushing that play button—we make specific music happen in a specific setting by doing this.

But, the old music business was focused on sales to listeners. The expectation was that people would hit play and sit back. And, this missed-out on the change in attitude wherein people recognized that they were, themselves, making music—and they liked it!

In 2008, musicians are recognizing their fans as active co-creators of music. And, so, more than simply assuming fans will hit play, musicians are embracing the people who remix and reuse their music. These are the people who want to play music with more than just a play button.

Most visibly, musicians are capitalizing more on the larger music culture, that includes karaoke and karaoke-like music games like Rock Band.

Prediction for the future: more music released in games, and more musicians finding ways to connect what they do with the sales of actual musical instruments and gear (which sales increased markedly in 2008). If someone hears your music and goes out and buys a guitar, maybe you want to get in on that action.

1. Death of the Dustbin

With all of these developments in 2008, all bets are off on the demise of any particular recording. Albums are reappearing in music games, becoming popular in karaoke bars, being released in new packages, finding new life as part of subscription services, and becoming popular as digital downloads. And, let's not forget the rise of "user generated" videos on sites like YouTube, and the extensive use of old and obscure recordings in these videos.

Finally, add to this the ongoing attraction of licensing music for reuse in TV and films.

Prediction for the future: some years in the future, at least one track from Err or Man will end-up in widespread circulation via a viral video and feature film (sorry, I couldn't resist!).


So, what else happened in this last year, or so? What else should we add to this list.


I’d have to add the long death of DRM.  Now that I’m using Amazon MP3 and eMusic, it almost never seems reasonable to use services like iTunes as long as they’re still supporting DRM. I know they’re trying to move away, but it’s still painful.

This NYTimes article has an interesting review of how licensing potential is impacting music and musicians. Maybe it’s about the death of music being produced without licensing deals in place? :)

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