Welcome to the future! A future that contains some of the past, a bit of the present and not much else! Behold, the miraculous wonder that is: The History of Music Media Vol. 3.
If LPs and cassettes were the show ponies of the media race, the “CD” (or “See Dee”) was Manowar, Secretariat and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’s horses rolled into one.
Popular, cheap to produce and yet another format to gouge completists with, the CD had it all. Distribution cost? $0. Paid out of the artists’ royalties. Production costs? Studio time? Blow? Free. All paid for by the artists. Plastic, paper, ink – all cheap. Lots and lots and lots of profit.
The music industry responded to their incredible fortune the way any short-sighted leviathan would: by steadily increasing prices. Soon customers were paying $19 for one good song and 11 shitty ones. On top of that, the new format ran 20-25 minutes longer than the LP, leading many bands to pack their albums with filler.
Now albums that would have been solid at 45 minutes suddenly became 77 minutes of catalog dilution as bands threw in various shit remixes, shit “alternate takes,” or the ever-popular “13-minute hidden track” that was nothing more than 11 minutes of silence climaxing in two minutes of stoner in-jokes or an “ironic” cover. (This bloat carried over to the “CD Single” as well, giving you one good track and four shitty remixes, all for $5-$10.)
Finally, after so many other formats repeatedly “killing the music industry,” they had found a savior in a nice, cheap plastic disc.
But there was trouble on the horizon. The twin spectres of “used CDs” and “blank CDs” soon cast a shadow over all the hookers and blow purchased with their ill-gotten gains.
The first, “used CDs,” was decried by artists as disparate and incredibly wealthy as Garth Brooks (68 million albums sold) and Chris Gaines (1.1 million albums traded in at used cd stores). They now demanded to be reimbursed every time the album changed hands, like at the local record store or that time when you lent your Violent Femmes album to a friend of friend and they slowly absorbed it into their CD collection over a matter of weeks, and with each passing day it became less and less likely you’d ever see it again and more and more awkward to attempt to bring it up in everyday conversation.
The other, “blank CDs,” when combined with affordable CD writers, shoved a slightly-battered industry towards the edge of a long flight of stairs. The industry responded with more built-in fees and cries of “Home burning is killing music.” This cry was misinterpreted by various local fire departments and indie-leaning arsonists, who both quickly sprung into counterproductive action.
Having learned nothing from its “Beta” experiment, Sony forged ahead with a boldly miscalculated attempt to corner a non-existent market with the MiniDisc. Like a CD, only smaller, more easily lost/damaged and handcuffed to Sony hardware, the MiniDisc never had a chance.
Sony once again walked away empty-handed from the R&D roulette table, having shown only that early adopters will buy anything as long as it’s shiny and prohibitively expensive. Its ability to record music onto the midget-sized discs threatened, in an unsteady voice, to destroy the music industry. The music industry responded to this pint-sized miscreant with “Awwww. The little guy’s trying to say something” and slapped it with some punitive fees.
Ostensibly combining the best of both worlds (digital quality; solid state reliability) but in reality combining two non-complementary traits (digital quality; little pieces of metal read by a magnet), the DAT soon escaped its early position as ultra-expensive studio equipment, going on to lead a rich, full life as the backup “band” for thousands of hip hop artists and occasionally graced the stage as a “lead singer” (Ashlee Simpson, Milli Vanilli, Joe Walsh).
SACD (Superior Audio Compact Disc)
A sad attempt to drag audiophiles into the present, mainly utilizing the premise that “expensive=good.” Rolling Stone fell for it, but the number of questionable products, bands and ideas that Rolling Stone has fallen for could fill an entire Internet.
Not content to be merely a threat to the entire music industry, the mp3’s storage-friendly compression rate and ultra-portability did what no other medium had, and actually destroyed the music industry. And not a moment too soon, as rock and roll itself had been declared dead multiple times since the early ’60s by such formidable publications as Rolling Stone, Cat Fancy and Businessweek.
The music industry was now truly “fuckt,” as Mozart had so aptly put it millions of years ago. Its Rasputin-like longevity was threatened as was its Rasputin-like propensity for evil behavior. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry with an eMachine could download and dump hundreds of pirated songs onto jump drives, mp3 players and CDs with absolutely no physical effort. And, thanks to the major labels and their decades of gouging, no one was troubled in the least to see them limping into port, taking on water faster than it could be bailed and covered in pirate wounds.
Soon the good ship “Suddenly Outdated Industry” was leaking money from a million tiny holes. So-called “experts” in the guise of lawyers and yes-men were consulted. They all agreed on two things:
1. Something should be done.
2. Someone should be sued.
They summoned Dark Elf Lars Ulrich to attack the face of international music piracy: a certain Shawn Fanning. Coming off their most successful album to date, Metallica forged ahead in (self) righteous indignation, alienating an entire generation of potential fans. With Napster on the ropes, the recording industry went from barn to barn to verify that all the horses were indeed missing and methodically began slamming shut door after door.
A nation of tweens and octogenarians were summoned to court and threatened with usurious fines for downloading “Happy Birthday” and other such top 40 songs. Kazaa watched in horror as its user base (which numbered in the dozens) was swept into lawsuit after lawsuit. Meanwhile, malware creators watched in horror as their remaining victims lost their internet privileges and a great deal of money, both being very key components of their continued success.
Other high-dollar performers got into the act. Madonna seeded file sharers with mp3s of her asking, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Most pirates found this immensely preferable to her second-rate electronica and occasional British accent. Alicia Silverstone hastened her irrelevance by appearing in magazine ads reminding people that stealing mp3s was exactly like stealing cars, a move that upped the “cool” factor of file sharing to the nth degree. The youth of the world, properly chastened, switched from P2P to torrents, in essence moving from carjacking to Gone in 60 Seconds.
As the industry bled out, it summoned its archangel, Bono, to appear in the “paper of record” (High New York Times), flatly stating that America needed to follow the lead of Communist China and track every piece of information travelling the internet. This was met with sneers of derision and cries of “Fuck you, Bono! Find some other way to finance your malfunctioning electro-lemons!”
Panicked lawsuits filled countless courtrooms and lined countless corporate lawyers’ pockets. Bills were presented to anyone who acknowledged that “music” existed. Everyone and anyone was asked to “give until or else it hurts” to prop up a sagging multi-billion dollar industry. No one was spared. YouTube, bloggers, Girl Scouts, mom & pop stores, animal shelters, cop shops, hotels, bars and nightclubs all became notches on rent-seeking industry’s bedpost.
Nothing stopped the bleeding. The mighty mp3, victorious over King Music(k), waved its variable bit rate triumphantly, zipped itself into a compacted file and hid itself amongst the overstuffed shelves of Mediafire, RapidShare and Megaupload.
So long, corrupt and bloated industry. Enjoy the bitter fruits of your labor.
A Word* from Our Author
*”Word” may actually equal 1200+ words. Wear comfortable shoes.