your gold record is calling…

This was a story in Britain this summer and I just forgot to blog about it. Now here it is stateside in the New York Times. A growing revenue stream for the music industry is the downloadable ringtone of popular songs for cellphones: sales of $16.6 million in 2002, and $50 million predicted for 2003. And while synthesized versions only put money in songwriters’ pockets, ringtones that are snippets from the actual recordings spread the wealth to musicians and singers, too. And a few songs have made more money as a ringtone than as an honest-to-goodness, played-on-the-radio, bought-in-the-music-store song.

And here’s the money shot:

The ring-tone business offers many attractions for the labels. Unlike CD’s and digital music files, ring tones can be bought anywhere at any time by someone whose cellphone has the software and hardware for music. The cost is added to the user’s monthly bill. In addition, most cellphone networks are controlled by the carriers that own them, allowing them to be monitored in a way that is impossible on the Web. Some people in the music industry see a not-so-distant future when teenagers will pay a few dollars to download full songs onto their phones or other wireless devices … Companies have sprouted up to act as liaisons between the music owners and the phone-service carriers.

The future of legal digital music just keeps looking bleaker and bleaker. Let’s break this down, shall we?

  • Monitoring and control of the cellphone network so that what you store and play on your device is always under surveillance? Nice. Where do I sign up?
  • Teenagers will pay a few dollars to download a full song? When a CD usually costs less than $15 for at least ten tracks and often more? I can’t imagine why any consumer would balk at such a scheme.
  • And yet another layer of administration has cropped up to act as liason between music labels and phone companies? So is any of the money we pay for music going to people who actually make music?

The music industry is now claiming a decline in music sales of 26% over the last four years, according to the article, although in PBS NewsHour q&a from June, Matt Oppenheim of the RIAA claims much more modest figures. The industry has never been good with numbers (or they’ve been very good, depending on how you look at it). Musicians have historically been given the short end of the stick when it comes to the profits arising from the sale of their music through the industry, and the ability to fudge numbers has had great benefits to the business.

The industry claims that this decline is “[b]ecause of factors like unauthorized music swapping,” in the language of the Times article, which is a weird construction. How many factors “like unauthorized music swapping” could there be? In other words, how many are the result of consumer behavior versus other factors? Consider that

  1. The whole economy has been in the toilet for much of the last four years. Why should the music industry expect to be exempt? Or maybe the problem of online file sharing is worse than we thought. (New car sales are down because of unauthorized music swapping. Unemployment is up because of unauthorized music swapping.)
  2. The music industry just doesn’t try that hard to produce good music.

To expand on point 2: I’m a fan of popular music (look, I may quote the Replacements to bolster my indie cred, but I also love songs like Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” or Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” even as I recognize that they are emotionally manipulative and more than a little clichÈ), but even I have my limits. There are far too many insipid songs (rock, hip hop, r&b, and especially the god-awful crap that passes for country music on commercial radio) that the music industry spends literally millions of dollars producing and promoting, way more money than they spend paying people who actually write the music and perform it. That’s why they have a problem: their music just isn’t very good. And I think they know it, or else they wouldn’t spend so much money to cram it down our throats.

The solution? Is it to get back to basics, to try to encourage creative people to make interesting and innovative music, to take advantage of new technologies to streamline the production and distribution process so that it’s less expensive, thus putting more money into the pockets of the people who deserve it, to create a fair and equitable process by which artists are remunerated for their work?

Yeah, we could try that but…. oooooh, cell phones!

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