Go Buy A Song
Before the phonograph came along, if you wanted to hear music, you either played it yourself or with your friends or family; you went to someplace that music was being played (a church, a salon, a party, a fair, a tavern, a concert, or wherever); or you hired somebody to play it for you. (Imagine King George saying to his Court Musician, George Frederic Handel, "Hey, George, the wife and I are going for a boat ride on the 17th, can you and the boys whip up a little something for the occasion?"). In every case, music was local, "live", ephemeral, and never again to be repeated the same.
Once music became possible to record, though, it changed entirely. In the first place, it became permanent and infinitely repeatable (at least for the life of the cylinder, tape, or disc) and it became possible to play for audiences of a size never before imagined. With "live" music, neither recorded nor broadcast, the audience is limited to just the people within earshot – whether it's in the smallest room or the grandest concert hall or stadium. With recorded music, though, the music – whether by the sale of copies of the recording, or its broadcast, rebroadcast, or streaming – can, at least theoretically, reach everyone on earth, for all time to come.
Even from the beginning, this huge market potential was recognized, and the sale of music became big business. Recording companies, star performers, and broadcasters of live or recorded music (radio and television stations, for example) made fortunes, and even minor performers, back-up artists, orchestra members, and pick-up or studio musicians were able to make a good living. As early as the 1900s, recorded music began to have a new position and new force in society. And, in the 1920s, when radio, the electric phonograph, and "talking pictures", came along, their stars became cultural icons – many of them even more famous, with more "fans", and more adulation than even Franz Liszt (often called the first "Rock Star") had enjoyed some fifty years earlier.
In the 1930s and 1940s, because of recordings, radio, and the movies, music of all kinds thrived and prospered and, by the mid-50s, when I was a teenager, Rock ‘n Roll was a major cultural influence; a television program called "Your Hit Parade" was a long-time favorite; and pop singers and musicians were not only making as much money as movie stars, but many of them (from Elvis to operatic tenor Mario Lanza) were becoming movie stars. The 1960s brought "the British invasion" to popular music, and, starting with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Rock and Roll grew and grew, over time, until rock musicians became just as famous for their wealth as for their long hair, excesses, and groupies.
See USA sales database by the RIAA.
While that was going on, hi-fi, starting in the late 1940s; booming with the introduction of stereo soundtracks for movies and stereo LP records in the 1950s; and finally "going digital" from the 1980s onward, changed the quality of the sound and, along with the growth in popularity of other genres (including Folk, Country and Western, Hip-Hop, "Techno", "New-Age", "House", "Alternative", and bunches of others) brought music to audiences and markets unimaginable in earlier years. Making your music had been, while it was music's only source, something nearly everybody did. In the past, every kid got piano lessons (like it or not), learned to play some other instrument, or at least sang in church, in school, or at home. This dropped off with the advent and popularity of recorded music but, even into the era of the phonograph, some people, notably church singers, country folk, and classical music lovers, continued to make music for themselves.
With recorded music as its vector, the enthusiasm for "play it yourself" music continued. And, as audiences grew – first for Folk Music (in the 1950s and 1960s), followed by a new burst of popularity of Country and Western; all in addition to the continuing boom of every style of Rock ‘n Roll – great numbers of new people, from every segment of society, learned to play guitars or other instruments and to sing and/or write songs. Among these, teenage "garage" bands – many equipped with their recording equipment – became seemingly as numerous as the long hairs on their players' heads.
It's unknowable how many of these young people came to music for the love of the music, itself; how many were just seeking peer-group (or even just one girl) popularity; and how many were driven on by confident dreams of a musical career of wealth, fame, glory, and an unending supply of nubile young admirers. Whatever it was, it turned out to be a false hope: The music industry – and particularly artists' incomes – started to trend downward long before those dreams could be fulfilled. The approach and turn of the 21st century saw music industry sales and continue their downward slide for more than a decade. Whether this was brought about just by a lack of blockbuster hits, by competition from computers and computer games, by free downloads from the internet, by a simple loss of interest, or by other or any combination of other, factors doesn't matter: What matters is that it happened.
And now, even though music sales may be strong again, artists' revenues are still dropping. Back in January of 2019, MarketLine wrote: "The music industry has seen a resurgence over the last few years, displaying relatively strong growth after a decade of decline. Online music streaming is the major factor for this trend, with nearly 40% of the revenue being generated from streaming services." It went on to say that: "Live concerts are also providing an important boost, with millennials driving the demand for an authentic experience away from the unlimited entertainment options at the click of a button. Vinyl sales have reached the $1,000,000,000 ($1 bilion) mark for the first time this century, as consumers increasingly value the tangible nature of physical copies away from the ‘renting' approach that is dominating the market currently." "However," it continued, "whilst all these features display a prosperous market, the musicians themselves are seeing their revenues decline."
Yup, and there are two major reasons for that. One is streaming, itself, which, with the exception of LPs, has driven CDS and other media off the shelves and, effectively, off the market. The other has to do with the continuing possibility of live concerts. As compared to other media, including LPs, streaming pays very little – even to the point where an artist with hundreds of millions of streamed plays may not be able to make a decent living. With the loss of CDs and other "physical music" sales, the alternative for many artists has been to "go live" – take to the concert circuit to boost sagging incomes. But now, with COVID-19 making packed halls, stadia, and other venues impossible for the foreseeable future, what are musicians to do?
One thing that we, as the consumers of music, can do is to bring about a return to "owned" (physical) music. That same article in MarketLine said: "In 2018, vinyl sales broke the $1,000,000,000 ($1 billion) mark for the first time this century. Even under the current trend of ‘renting' music in a digital format, there has been a revival in the physical format whereby consumers can enjoy the artwork and tangible nature of vinyl. As a result, Sony Music has begun to produce vinyl in-house as the distribution format continues to take up a sizeable chunk of the industry's market. Importantly, it provides a much needed financial boost to artists and helps to reduce the power of streaming services."
I want to have a continuing supply of new music from a continuing array of musical performers; of every kind, from Doo-Wop to Pop to Classical, to genres I may not yet have ever even heard of. And the only way I can think of to ensure that is to go out and buy a song, and buy it in physical form.
Go buy an LP or a CD, and...