How long should it take to work out a sustainable business model? Remember the DAT wars? CD burners? The warning signs were there years before Napster. Even in an alternate reality in which the Internet didn’t exist, nothing would stop widespread piracy of music once it entered the digital domain with lossless duplication, and storage became plentiful and cheap. If there were no Internet, people would just get together at regular swap meets and bring their portable 2TB hard drives, trading 5,000 tracks at a time instead of 5.
This is the industry that made the mistake of giving away music videos for free — and once that horse was out of the barn, it would never go back in. The Internet is a scapegoat. Yes, it made piracy more frictionless largely because of Napster, broadband connections and the innovation of P2P technology. But the best thing of all about Napster was the instant gratification, getting virtually any recording known to mankind almost instantly on demand. For free, yes, but Apple proved most people really don’t sweat the 99 cents a track. The real failure of the music industry is that you STILL can’t get everything on one platform. Up until a year or two ago (?) you couldn’t even get the freakin’ Beatles on iTunes. It took the arm-twisting of Apple to finally get rid of DRM that made the product MORE inconvenient for PAYING customers. The fundamental idiocy of that is self-evident.
Also, how quickly we forget that the Internet enabled individualized music discovery and promotion on a scale never before available. An unsigned band that would have had to toil through blood, sweat and tears of nationwide touring for years to build a following of a few thousand fans could amass ten times that many in a few weeks on MySpace. A little creativity could have driven monetization in a whole host of other ways if the labels and publishers actually gave a damn instead of pursuing litigation as a business model. My favorite example of all has to be publishers suing lyrics sites. Hands up all who ever paid a dime to buy LYRICS to a song? Talk about a pyrrhic victory — alienating fans who might spend good money to buy sound recordings or sheet music (with actual notes and chord charts!) or concert tickets or band merch to avoid the loss of imaginary revenue. Unbelievable.
I worked at MySpace from 2004-06. By the time I left, over a million bands had MySpace profiles; we passed 100 million registered users, were getting a couple billion page views per day, and surpassed Yahoo! shortly thereafter to become the second-most-trafficked site on the entire Internet. (Oh how the mighty have fallen, but that’s another story.) What was drawing a quarter million new registered users per day? Socializing of all kinds, to be sure, but for the core 15-30 demographic, it was shared enthusiasm for, and discovery of, music acts in a way that had never been possible before. By clinging to a defunct business model that relied entirely on a couple unsustainable revenue streams, and threatening its fans instead of courting them, the recording industry blew the once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the media consumption habits of young people in ways that could have been profitable for labels and artists alike. (I guess twice-in-a-generation if you include that music video thing.)