When Major Labels Die, Then What?

By Moses Avalon

Today, we are experiencing a radical transition in the way we relate to music, and music companies are rethinking about how to sell their product. They face a serious obstacle first: the fact that no one seems to want to pay for it.

When I was in college, people were proud of their record collections. Long-playing records, or LPs as they were called, came in large 12″ by 12″ jackets that were more than just something that held the record. They were works of art in and of themselves. Recording artists took advantage of this as an auxiliary canvas to express their vision. Record buyers found all kinds of practical uses for the jackets as well, shelf liners, art, wallpaper. (Okay, mostly, to clean weed inside the album fold.)

Back then, if you were a real music fan, you memorized the names of producers, musicians, and all of the PR “facts” that went along with the artist. This information was easily accessible because labels printed much of it on the LP’s liner notes. The world of the LP was the music industry that I, and many executives operating in the RIAA/ISP war, fell in love with; one that was about making money by affecting culture in a positive way and with a tangible product; a 45-minute statement broken down into 10 or 12 three-to four-minute songs. An album. These days ones “record collection” exists on a hard drive. You can’t really clean pot on a hard drive.

With the advent of the compact disc, artists had to negotiate with their record companies for extra panels to display credits and art. If the artist wanted something “unusual” they would be charged. It was cruel. Often new artists would buckle, agreeing to fewer liner notes as it cut into their profits. In time the public stopped caring about it as well, and thus the process began, sometime around 1984; a dwindling spiral of losing touch with the artist’s visual identity. I know, I know. MTV picked up the slack, but most would agree that while MTV might have been great for album sales but it was not great for music as an art from. Needless to say, today, on a download or a stream there is even less attention paid to the artist’s identity.


As the medium moves more and more into a ubiquitous “liquid” form, existing everywhere, but less noticed, it moves into opposition to the way music has existed in our lives: as a listening experience, unique to itself and apart from other day-to-day functions. In the liquid future, music will be everywhere almost all the time, but we will not notice it much.

High-tech companies are pushing the “liquid agenda” because it suits their needs: selling gadgets and Internet-based services. This necessarily means being able to communicate the message to the public that they can provide accessibility and portability to everything you want–legally or not. To them pop music is a mere tool to sell technology, the free toy at the bottom of their cereal box.

Conversely, record companies (and indeed all content companies) have an almost opposite agenda: they need to sell the music as a unique experience, which necessarily means controlling copyrights and venues where music is heard and bought. Mired in the traditions of how to do this–specifically, to make money with albums–record companies have been fighting what tech-heads companies call “progress” for years.


For those who have been in the business since the 1980s, it would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to much of what has been said about the future of music. Many producers, writers, performers were attracted to the music business for reasons that may no longer be relevant.

It’s also entirely possible that the public has outgrown the need for pop gods and arena rock. Perhaps the twilight years of pop music are ahead of us. The years where it takes its place, with many other art forms, in the tapestry that has become the life aesthetic: Rembrandt on a postage stamp, Picasso wallpaper, da Vinci on a necktie. I have no doubt that there was a fine-art curator somewhere who publicly objected the first time he saw a print of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling as bathroom tile. No one listened. Commerce marched on. The only difference for pop music is that instead of irate art historians, it has major labels and their lobbying entity, the RIAA, fighting for air as their inventory slips into the BitTorrent-ed public domain.

I start to wonder if the folks at Disney had the right idea in 2004 when they convinced Congress to extended the length of a copyright to 95 years. Perhaps Disney knows something about art and the public domain that we ordinary folks do not; just look at what the public generally does with great works when they don’t have to acquire permission from their authors; the work takes on sillier and sillier forms until one day we see a XXX movie staring Mickey and Minnie. While our laws grant the right for such things, does this mean we as a society have to expedite the demand for it?

If we let go of pop music as an art form and let it too retire into the public domain, how long until we one day see an adult movie staring the characters and music of the Beatles. How about a Jim Morrison lawn jockey that plays “Light My Fire”; a Janis Joplin anti-hangover pill; Bono‘s Bartender Companion that helps you prepare favorite drinks of the Sinn Féin; a Bob Dylan calendar that each day has a thoughtful reminder from a different religion.

For all these new “music products” we can thank companies that see pop music not as an art form, but as a commodity, like salt or soybeans. These are not companies run by musicians and certainly not run by people who have worked with musicians for over half a centaury, financing their dreams, responding to their inspirations, and entering into business partnerships to market their hard work.

Record companies have taken quite a beating in the press since 2001. They’ve been accused of not understanding the needs of the market and thumbing their nose at the changing technology. Most of these criticisms have come from tech companies and their respective influence over the press. Of course, it’s not as black and white as these critics would have us believe.

Record companies are opportunistic capitalists, for sure. But they are also fighting to preserve something wonderful about their product– music: its ability to play an important role in our culture; one that in the past has stopped wars and raised awareness for worthy causes. Even if it’s for purely greed-motivated reasons (which I don’t believe it is) the public is still the beneficiary of their greed. Riding the tech-stimulated anti-label zeitgeist also means resigning ourselves to a possible (if not probable) future where the medium is reduced to little more than cultural wallpaper, stripped of much of its artistry, its meaning, and its social consciousness.

It also means a destabilization of industry economics. Perhaps in favor of a better one, but so far, the butcher’s bill has been massive downsizing of both staff and label rosters by almost 50 percent.

All this so that the public can give music away to each other without breaking the law. Is this worth the tradeoff?

So you have to ask yourself: are the real enemies of music’s future the record companies who are trying to retard this “progress,” so that their product does not end up being the free toy at the bottom of a cereal box? Are they the real enemies?

If so, count me among them. I for one, would like to think that the art form to which I have dedicated my life, will still have cultural significance in the next 50 years. If you’re with me on this, raise your hand.

Moses Avalon

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