“A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” – Steve Jobs
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to the future of the music industry. There are the Traditionalists, who still view file sharing as “stealing” and hope that their preaching will swing the pendulum of teenage consumerism back toward charged content. There are the Incrementalists, who believe that paid downloads will continue to grow, and essentially replace the revenues of physical formats past. There are the Internet Apologists, who want to give music away as a loss leader to sell more concert tickets and merchandise, hoping that these gains will make up for the loss of content sales at the macro level. Finally, there are the Defeatists, who are resigned to a shrunken industry that supports fewer artists.
Personally, I reject all these notions. I believe it’s very possible to revitalize the music industry with free music, without relying on unrealistic growth in the existing concert and merch sector. This requires us to create an entirely new product offering to fans. And unlike recorded music, this product’s value must be in harmony with the realities of the internet. In this essay, I hope to outline the contours and justifications for the viability of a new model, which I’m going to label “crowd patronage”.
This brings us back to Steve Jobs’s words above. He may have been talking about his tech industry, but Mr. Jobs’ quote so elegantly sums up the past, present and future of the music business, that its very deconstruction unravels the entirety of the industry’s fate.
So let’s begin.
“They don’t have enough dots to connect”
Ever since the launch of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, selling recorded music has come to define the music industry. That means every single living person in the world right now has only known this reality. Recorded music = music industry… these are the only dots we know.
And yet, we know that musicians existed before the advent of recorded formats. They must have survived one way or another, right? As it turns out, there were a variety of “models” that have supported the creation of music throughout history.
Street performers, buskers, troubadours, gypsies, minstrels, vaudevillians… the number of synonyms alone signals the prevalence of an ancient breed of entertainers who performed in public for gratuities . Nearly every civilization in recorded history spawned a class of buskers, and by sheer numbers alone, it could very well be the “model” most musicians made a living on.
On the opposite end of the “social status” spectrum, some of the most epic and enduring compositions of our musical canon were commissioned by patronage. One of the very first disruptive information technologies ever, the printing press, coincided with the rise of the Renaissance, broadening the distribution of popular compositions and the fame of those that created it (and the royal class’ incentive to take credit). Patronage funded the ensuing Baroque era, which birthed the first enduring titan of musical composition, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Classical and Romantic eras maintained the tradition of patronage, contributing to the rent of geniuses like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.
Skip forward a few centuries and across an ocean to the thriving Tin Pan Alley era. In the late 19th/early 20th century, a concentration of competing sheet music publishers on Manhattan’s West 32nd Avenue blossomed into a full blown, star-making industry. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Cole Porter… these artists propagated their music and growing celebrity through the pieces of paper that bore their names.
These are but a handful of pre-grammophone “models” that have sustained centuries of musicians through the course of human history, some of whom we still canonize today. So at a minimum, we need to bust out of our historically narrow assumption that moving record units is the end all and be all of the music “industry”.