Boredom, Slayer of Industry
By: Matt Hawkins
A look at how the music industry was harmed by technology, marketing, and bored consumers.
I would like to offer to the world one additional theory as to why the music industry is feeling a slow down in sales. This reason is not piracy, nor is it related to the current economic down turn; it is not necessarily poor management or even something that the music industry would be able to stop, even if it wanted. What is this terrible monster? Boredom. That’s right, plain old boredom is the biggest crisis facing the music industry. Boredom inspires us do to things we may never have even thought possible, because we are able. Before I discuss why boredom is the ultimate threat to the music industry, please allow me to explain what has transpired in order to elevate boredom, usually only responsible for time killing, to the terror of multi-billion dollar industry.
The first mass marketing of music to audiences was through the introduction of the radio. The radio allowed an artist, with the help of a music company, to reach a number of people which was previously unimaginable through local performance. This flexibility allowed people to experience new types of music and the artists who played that music on such an epic scale and with speed which the strolling minstrels of yore would have surely scoffed.
In the beginning, there was vinyl, and it was good. At least as good as it got when the advent of the vinyl record made music recording available to the masses for their personal consumption. This allowed the consumer to be their own DJ, to decide when they were going to listen to a song, or how many times that song would be played. The recording industry flourished on this technology. For the first time, consumers could choose the music based on their personal tastes and mood at the time from a very wide variety of artists. The diversity of the catalog prior to vinyl recordings was very limited as both the media and players were expensive and thus only a luxury available to the wealthy, not the average consumer. Piracy was a word which only a few could even contemplate as the facilities’ required to reproduce audio in this format was expensive and not easy to operate.
Next, the striking fizzle that was the 8-track was followed by the more commercially viable option, the audio cassette. This little device was later able to record as much as 90 minutes of audio in a format which would eventually be playable on the go with the introduction of Sony’s Walkman line of portable, personal cassette players. While the cassette made even more music open to the masses, it also provided the opportunity for the average consumer to record to the media. This was one of the first threats to the existing commercial music business as the eventual introduction of dual-deck dubbing recorders made the copying of tapes as easy as the push of a button. The music industry saw the ease of recording as a threat, but was eventually beaten back.
The introduction of the compact disk proved to be the introduction of the revolutionary feature which would begin the downturn of the music industry. While the personal CD recorder did have an impact on the ease at which music could be copied, it is of little concern in the creation of the levels of boredom which currently plague the industry. The real threat was the fact that the CD player no-longer tied the listener to a linear experience. The consumer could now loop individual tracks, entire albums, or some more advanced players included custom play lists. The user could now command any track from a CD that they wanted quickly and without the need to search for position on a record or tape.
The digitization of music brought with it the ability for the consumer to locate tracks instantly across ever growing libraries of music. Gone were the days of flipping through jackets and jewel cases. With the push of a few keys, hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of tracks would be no obstacle to finding the music which the listener seeks. This ability freed the average consumer from the limitations of more traditional media fueling their desire to have an ever growing library of content with which to satiate their need for something new. Manufacturers such as Apple, Microsoft, San Disk, Sony, and others were more than willing to supply devices which were able to hold this vast library of music.
The digital age also brought new types of public distribution to the consumer. Satellites no longer tied a radio station to small broadcast areas in the proximity of a radio tower and the internet allowed for an audience half-the-world-away to listen in to music. However, the lust for money and power lead to a loss of small broadcasters on the internet and over the airwaves resulting in a litany of the same basic play list from coast to coast. Station after station played music from the same handful of play lists meaning that the public was exposed to the same hackneyed content beaten into their ears; and the public became bored.
In an effort to cure the boredom induced by the choking of free will and regional personality from public broadcast in the name of music industry profitability, consumers turned to their portable devices to provide them with the music they wanted to hear. These devices grew in storage capacity, complexity, a feature that eventually allowed a music collector’s entire library of music to fit in a pocket or purse, and for the user to peruse their library at their leisure. While this has allowed users to extract much greater value than previously possible from their collection of music, it has taken its toll on profit margins of the music industry.
When compact disks and audiocassettes were the primary consumption media for audio, it was difficult for all but the most diligent consumers to track all the music in their collection and the physical media containing said music. This caused the user to go purchase new media containing new music when the few items they kept with them became unappealing. When a user, carries thousands of albums in their pocket and wants to hear something new, they have only to press the shuffle all or random play buttons to hear music they may not have heard for a decade or more, essentially rediscovering their own music.
In effect, the music industry in its own attempt to increase the market for its own product have back-fired. Demand eventually created a market for devices that provided the music consumer with the utopian access to the product marketed so vehemently which ultimately lead to the downturn of the industry.