In college, I once took a course – “Music and Society”. One of the things we discussed in the class was the iPod and its effects on how we listened to music, and how it influenced artists. Now, this was back in 2006 when iPod wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as it is today (though by all notions, it was already massively popular enough to warrant such a class). In the past 5 years, Apple has not only added to the iPod’s millions of fans, but also invented the iPhone and the iPod Touch.
The iPod, as any purist will tell you, is bad for music. For one, the idea of buying single tracks instead of albums distils the sense of continuity and overall thematic concepts that tie an album together. An album like The Who’s ‘Tommy’ would never work in the age of the iPod. Listening to individual tracks from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” seems to be an exercise in futility since the entire effect of the album is lost when the tracks are played in isolation. What the iPod has managed to do is create ‘one track artists’ who thrive on singles. Lady Gaga wouldn’t be Lady Gaga without the iPod. Neither would someone like Weird Al Yankovic sell millions of individual tracks.
Further, the iPod has changed the way musicians go about creating music. While Pink Floyd sat down with a vision of a complete, thematically coherent album, modern day artists think more in terms of individual tracks. It doesn’t matter if the tracks in the album flow into each other. After all, the songs will be heard in isolation, individually. Whatever efforts you might take to create a thematic structure will be lost, so why even try?
From a musician’s perspective, is it a good thing? Perhaps. It makes for easier song writing. It means you can create one awesome song and hope to cash in. It means you no longer need to release entire albums. Rather, you can go about on a track by track basis – release one track as soon it is perfected, cash in, use that money to party and fund your next track.
But at the same time, it means that musicians who want to experiment, branch out, and incorporate sounds and instruments that they can’t possibly fit into one track will feel a little lost. Musicians with strong lyrics who pride in spinning stories around their tracks would feel irrevocably lost, since an individual track can only afford a limited canvas to paint their images on. Guitarists who want to explore a certain sound may feel limited by the constraints on time a 4 minute track binds them in. For the dedicated, sincere, experimental musician, the arrival of the iPod means that the purity and storytelling zest of the earlier generation is lost. It also means that we will never have an album like ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ or ‘The Wall’ (both by Pink Floyd) again. ‘The Wall’, for instance, was released with a full length movie based on the tracks. Something like that could never happen in this era of singles.
One very positive development has sprung from the advent of the iPod however which has revolutionized how music is created and listened to. As a musician, it is something I’m immensely ecstatic about: the iTunes music store. The iTunes music store has the potential to completely change the way musicians have traditionally created music. How? Allow me to explain:
Traditionally, as an artist, you went on stage, performed your songs, built up a fan base, toured, and if you were lucky, talented, and had that little ‘X’ factor, you would be spotted by some talent scout. Before long, you would be produced before a record company executive, who would wave a heavily biased (in the company’s favor) contract before you. As a broke artist hungry for mainstream success, you would, of course, take whatever they would throw at you, perhaps remembering how even the Beatles had to contend with getting paid just 1 cent for every record sold (and that 1 cent was split among the four of them).
Over time, as your clout on the music industry increased, you could negotiate your contract and get the company to agree to more favorable terms that granted you more artistic freedom and monetary rewards. Madonna in the 1980s, for instance, could get the record company to agree to whatever terms she wanted. Nirvana could walk out of any contract and dictate terms to the company. That’s how things were always done for decades: the young artist got screwed, worked hard, came up the ranks and finally became big enough to work according to his own rules.
Now in walked the iPod and the iTunes store. Within a decade, the iPod would go on to become almost as common as, well, a mobile phone. Everyone I know owns an iPod/iPhone/iPod Touch. All of them have access to the iTunes store where they can purchase any track they want with a single touch. Billions of tracks are downloaded from the iTunes store every year and Apple generates a significant portion of its revenues from it.
What the iTunes, in conjunction with the iPod/iPhone has managed to do is create an army of consumers who can discover and purchase any track they want within seconds. For the artist, it means that they entire discovery, supply, distribution side of the business that was typically controlled by record companies is democratized. The artist doesn’t need to create physical CDs. Nor does he need to worry about marketing blitzes, supplying the CDs to stores, negotiating prices, etc. Any artist, be it Kanye West or the neighborhood band, could put up his tracks online for sale. And here’s the best part: you may be Jay-Z, but the finest track from your latest album will sell for the same price as that wedding band from New Jersey: $0.99.
This means that an artist can today afford to release a track, sell thousands of copies, make a nice little bundle of money, then hit the road, perform in a few pubs, record another song, put it up on iTunes, sell another 50,000 copies, and repeat the process endlessly. It means that you can finally make music as a freelancer: releasing tracks as and when they are completed and using the money earned from each track to fund further tracks. When you have 8-10 decent songs, you could perhaps release them together as an album. Think of it as the patronage system under which writers and artists flourished in the 16th century, but only instead of feudal lords and ladies, you patrons would be ordinary fans.
Of course, this is still a rather utopian idea. Only an already popular band with millions of existing fans can get away with such an approach. Radiohead can afford to do this, and so can U2. But the local indie band probably won’t build up enough buzz to sell thousands of singles, no matter how good they might be. It isn’t difficult to foresee though, that 10-15 years down the line, no one would need record companies, and unknown bands could break through and make a tidy sum through a handful of songs. Will it be enough to buy private jets, ballrooms filled with champagne, fast Italian cars, and live life like a rock star? Probably not. But will it be enough to fund great music? Definitely yes.
The future of the music industry looks bright. All thanks to the iPod.