From the Denver Post (by way of artsjournal.com, our invaluable host), this story suggesting that pay-per-song Web sites are the wave of the musical future:
Stores will no doubt sell prepackaged music CDs for years to come, but in 2003, the power has shifted….
With at least five major paid sites now offering upward of 300,000 songs, pay-per-song has reached a marketplace mass that will both generate valuable publicity for the owners and create price-cutting competition for consumers.
More big names are poised to join the competition if their marketing surveys pan out: Dell, Microsoft and Amazon have all said they’re interested in selling downloadable songs.
Read the whole thing, including a useful box comparing the various features of the five major pay-per-song sites. What it says doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been predicting the demise of the recording industry in its present form for a number of years now, most recently in an essay published in Commentary last year (it’ll be reprinted in expanded form in A Terry Teachout Reader
under the title “Life Without Records”) in which I argued that the rise of CD-ripping, file sharing, and pay-per-song would inevitably lead to the decline of the record album:
In the not-so-long run, the introduction of online delivery systems and the spread of file-sharing will certainly undermine and very likely destroy the fundamental economic basis for the recording industry, at least as we know it today. Nor can there be much doubt that within a few years, the record album will lose its once-privileged place at the heart of Western musical culture….
Prior to the invention of the LP, musicians usually recorded not albums but specific songs or pieces of music which were released on single 78s and meant to be experienced individually. Perhaps, then, there will be no more Only the Lonelys or Kind of Blues, but only “One for My Babys” and “All Blues.” Or possibly new modes of presentation will evolve…
To be sure, this prospect is understandably disturbing to many older musicians and music lovers, given the fact that the record album has played so pivotal a role in the culture of postwar music. Nor do I claim that life without records will necessarily be better–or worse. It will merely be different, just as the lives of actors were irrevocably changed by the invention of the motion-picture camera in ways that no one could possibly have foreseen in 1900. But one thing is already clear: unlike art museums and opera houses, records serve a purpose that technology has rendered obsolete. The triumph of the digit, and the demise of the record album as culture-shaping art object, is at hand.
This piece did in fact disturb quite a few older readers, some of them musicians who had not yet envisioned the possibility of life without records. I sympathized, as I always do with those who find cultural change disorienting. What I try to do, though, is remember that different and worse aren’t always the same thing. Sometimes different is better, and sometimes, maybe most of the time, it’s just different. The thing is to try to understand the nature of the difference–and, insofar as possible, to think of ways in which new culture-shaping technologies can be used in the service of old values. Yes, film has permanently usurped the place of live theater at the center of the cultural conversation. But it didn’t kill live theater–and it also gave us new ways to tell old stories, and to tell them to larger audiences than ever before, as Laurence Olivier did in Henry V and Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing.
That’s how I view life without records: as an opportunity. And I’ll feel the same way when the printed book gives way, as in time it surely must, to the hand-held electronic book-reading device. No doubt the day will come when I stop asking the Great Cultural Dealer to deal me new cards, and decide to spend the rest of my life playing with the ones already in my hand. It happens to us all sooner or later. But I’m not ready for that moment, not yet. Yes, I’m old-fashioned–but my attachment is to essences, not embodiments. And while I’m well aware of the law of unintended consequences, I also believe in the power of free men to shape and reshape those consequences.
That’s why I’m planning to buy myself an iPod for Christmas. It’s time for another card.