Cut to 1999. Napster has just been released and for the first time popular music, computer viruses and petty larceny are available to the average consumer in the privacy of their own home.
You and the 80 million other users of the program can now share those obscure “mp3” files you received from your friend/colleague/sibling/neighbourhood N’Sync fan. Sure, that carefully manicured record collection might still work, and those cassettes recorded from radio broadcasts of your favourite jam almost sound like the real thing, but this is convenience like no other. And that is why it proceeds to resonate and becomes the standard way to access music for the Millennial Generation.
It is not a lie to say that the online distribution services we take for granted were born from Napster and its following entourage of other Peer-to-Peer networks, each one a little less quasi-legal than the last. In much the same way as the “British Phonograph Industry” (which sounded just as out-dated 15 years ago) insisted in 1980 that home taping was killing music, we as an audience were informed that the MP3 was going to tear apart the music industry. Similarly to the first campaign, this was new (il-)legal territory and as such the onus was placed on Napster themselves to police for copyright infringing content.
Five months after losing a court case against A&M Records Napster closed its cyber-doors. By that point several other services such as LimeWire, Gnutella and Madster were already in existence, arguably the start of the fruitless attempts to contain illegal online distribution services.
Around this time two interesting things happened whose implications are not openly discussed enough. Radiohead’s album Kid A tops the Billboard 200 sales chart in the US during July 2000 after the album is leaked on Napster three months early. Secondly the iTunes Store launches in early 2003, offering a retail outlet that could compete with the digital convenience of piracy and selling 1,000,000 tracks within only 5 days.
Radiohead’s success in the US was, at that point, unprecedented for the band. Whilst I might believe the album is notable for Radiohead experimenting and radically changing their instrumental line-up, for it to top the Billboard charts on its debut week was far more spectacular. Given its experimental nature, the lack of radio playability and localised popularity within the UK the album was the first isolated look at how digital distribution could be used to drive an artist’s sales.
Another band that saw great success was Dispatch who, as an independent band, had no formal promotion or radio time yet saw its music spread rapidly on Napster. They were able to tour to unknown cities and sell-out concerts, including Madison Square Garden, and were highly supportive of Napster throughout their time active.
Whilst iTunes wasn’t the first, and (despite Apple’s best attempts) will not be the last paid digital distribution platform for music, it is synonymous with our current perception of a viable online marketplace for established artists to make their work accessible. Its enormous initial success was not only born from the rapidly growing iPod brand but Apple’s willingness to embrace traditional pricing systems. If you had an iPod and a computer why go out to buy a physical album when a digital version was cheaper? Or why not just purchase the single? Much like Napster the purchasing power was entirely with the consumer, only now it was so easy. To woo record companies turned sceptical by the rise of piracy Apple could offer a non-intrusive DRM system, and allow them to embrace the digital age without acknowledging Napster and its look-a-likes as an incredibly important promotional tool.
Cut again to modern day. The record store is nearly dead, major artists are now launching their own distribution services and music paraphernalia, each vying for control of the consumer’s wallet and for exclusivity over record labels.
The subscription service model has grown exponentially, with Spotify leading the pack through its tiered model. Music now generates more revenue online than in physical format. Unfortunately humanity is still stuck in physical format. Corporations continue to report on piracy eating at online and demand more control over their distribution, and online services such as SoundCloud and Grooveshark distribute free music by policing vehemently for pirated content. Small scale bedroom producers have more services than ever to make their music accessible, but finding a selling point to differentiate from the crowd is as difficult as ever.
Kyle Gutterson is a local Melbourne artist operating exclusively on SoundCloud under the alias Arizon. At 17 years Kyle does not have a promotional team, a ghost-producer or a flash studio. He does not have a PR department or a major label backing him, he does however have just under 2000 dedicated followers online and a passion for music “whether it gets played by 10 people or 10,000.” Having been making music for almost 4 years, online sharing was the obvious choice to gain exposure he says. Now he is supported by ‘Export Elite’ and a number of other small labels, who Kyle sees as the “backbone for music”. “I generally believe that artists don’t make much money from music sales. The greed within the business of music can be frustrating, that’s why you just have to make the right connections with the right people.”
Despite having “literally made no money” through his labels, Kyle is upbeat and confident about their relationship “it’s honestly not the reason I choose to sign to these labels”. “We work as a team; there are no restrictions or controls on the labels part.”
This symbiotic relationship is a refreshing change from the often-seen clashes within the music industry. Artist Madeon publicly lashed out recently at his label Sony Music for their decision to pull his own music off the streaming site SoundCloud “against [his] will”. Apple was recently reported to be encouraging record labels to abandon Spotify in favour of its own streaming service. Yet the larger the scale, the less artists are seen in the conversation.
When asked about his own experience regarding piracy, Kyle reiterated that it affects him a lot less than larger artists, but “when I first found out that one of my songs on Beatport had been uploaded to a public host for free download, I actually saw it as a compliment; I couldn’t believe that people liked my music enough to go to such an effort.” Unfortunately his experience cannot and will never be symptomatic of an industry where billions of dollars are involved, however when a major artist such as Madeon is claiming his record label is “holding [their] own artists hostage”, there is evidently a problem. This industry cannot exist without it’s consumers, its organisers and its artists; and one of the three is being worryingly left out of the conversation.