An open letter to the music industry...

What I have to say goes for everyone involved in the music industry, from the men that collect the checks at the labels all the way down to the lowly artists that create everything the business is built on. It is not for any one person that does any particular job, but just: everyone.

In this age of digital downloads (both by legal and illegal means, because let's be completely honest from here on out, and agree to disagree that the illegal downloading of music isn't going anywhere), music streaming, and the purchasing of songs and/or albums via internet connection, it has come to my frustrating attention that it is becoming harder and harder to find music. One would think this is a mistake, as I tend to, because how can that possibly be the case. There is more music at our fingertips than ever before (or so has been said), and yet if you search Google to listen to a song that is readily available to radio stations across the country/world, you have a pretty good chance that you aren't going to be able to listen to it. You'll find plenty of links to what you want to hear, but those links will be broken.

You're probably going to be given, first and foremost, a Youtube link, or dozens of them, depending on the popularity of your query. Those links will either not be the full song, just some 30 second clip similar to a track preview on Amazon.com to give you a small unsatisfying taste that will undoubtedly make you want to shell out $15-$20, or the links won't load because they've been taken down due to copyright claims (i.e. the song was illegally uploaded by someone not affiliated with it and therefore was taken down by the Record Label/Artist, etc.). Second on your search for music you'll be given the safer choice of listening to a streaming source via the wonders of internet radio. Last.fm, Pandora, and a plethora of podcasts and over-the-net cousins to actual radio stations give listeners the experience of listening to radio stations catering to the listener's tastes. The problem is, if you've ever used one of these, if you want to hear a certain song by a certain band, you can't. Just like radio has always been, you'll never catch the songs you really want to hear, and are instead going to be subjected to songs by other bands in whatever genre, or other songs by the band you were in fact looking for. The only difference between real radio and internet radio is the songs that they play, the ones you weren't looking for and didn't want to hear, can be skipped... or at least the first five can, and then you'll be notified that due to copyright laws you are only allowed to skip five songs in any one-hour period. The rest of the links on your Google search are to articles and music blogs that just link to one of the videos that popped up first. In other words, your search is already over.

So what do you do now?

You can cross that legal/illegal line and find it the good ol' fashioned way by downloading a torrent, although the origins of the torrent are probably from God-knows-where, and even then you have no idea what you're actually getting  until you download it and hit 'play' (because, let's face it, most people know jack shit about music, and songs and artists can easily be mislabeled by someone that has no idea what they're talking about. Like that time I thought I was getting a rare Ministry song and it turned out to be a song by Prong. By the way, if you don't know, those two bands sound nothing alike). Lots of people do the torrent thing, I personally do not. Too "iffy."

You could just purchase the song in question from a site like Amazon.com or iTunes, although just because the song is on the radio and is "available to listen to" does not mean it is available to purchase. And even if it is, some songs are iTunes exclusive, so if you don't use iTunes (like me) then you can't get it anyway, at least for a while (usually the exclusiveness runs its course and it'll eventually be available on other sites... eventually). All this aside, it seems like a lot to go through, searching for and purchasing a song that you just wanted to listen to.

Your third option, and the one I'm taking, is to do nothing, and instead write about everything wrong with the music industry's handling of their own merchandise in the internet age, and post it online with the nonexistent hope that someone might read it and fix the problems. (Okay, so it's more about venting than nobly trying to change the world... whatever).

The music industry is trying to sell music, right? However, they've become ever increasingly stringant on letting their consumers hear the music they have to sell beforehand. (This is nothing new, it's been getting worse and worse for the last decade). They don't allow sites to stream the song, for fear that someone will illegally grab it and therefore they'll lose money. They don't allow sites like Youtube to share it, because they view Youtube as a direct threat and quite possibly the biggest enemy of the music industry (when actually, in my opinion, it's the only thing saving it). They don't allow you to hear a single until there's an official video posted by VEVO or some other corporate internet alternative to what MTV used to be, or on the radio (which again, hope you have some time to kill, because it might be a while before your song is queued up).

When you order food through a drive-thru window at a fast-food restaurant, how often is it that your order is incorrect? Not all of the time, I'd hope, but it does happen more than it probably should. After the first few times, or maybe just the first depending on how forgiving you are, you learn to check your bag before you leave the line or at least leave the parking lot. You say to yourself, "I'm not going to chance getting all the way home and realizing that my food was cold/bad/wrong/prepared incorrectly, etc. Most people feel this way about music, too. You don't want to get to the final step of your journey of purchasing and getting home and opening it up and popping it in before you realize that there's a problem. The way the music industry works now, you wouldn't even have a very good idea of what the food even was on the fast-food menu. Just some vague idea that it's some kind of burger.

I realize this does not apply to every music artist. In fact, if you listen to the radio and don't hear a song by Rihanna or Lady Gaga or Nickelback, then I'm afraid that I have to inform you that you're deaf. I'm talking about the thousands upon thousands of other artists that aren't the "big thing right now." There are plenty of household name artists that aren't getting played and aren't getting promoted like they should. In fact, the song that inspired this rant is a brand new single by a big name artists that's the lead-off promoter to one of the biggest films of this upcoming summer season, and it boggles my mind to know that I cannot hear it online. With the billions of sites out there, I can probably find a cure for cancer in just a few clicks, but I can't hear a brand new single. I'll have to wait a month and buy it based on a 22 second clip, because every single option the music industry has given me has failed, and almost every single illegal one has been removed.

But, I will not buy it in a month or so. I will wait until it's old news and forgotten and then I'll pick it up cheap, quite easily, because they'll have moved on to making it frustrating for fans of another artist.

Now, about Youtube, because I want to clarify my statement before that it's the only thing saving the music industry. Despite the uploading of songs by users that do not own the copyright and therefore are not legally able to upload the material in question, and despite the music industry's attempts to stifle this out-of-control site that seems to spit in the faces of what they're trying to do (make as much money as possible while giving consumers as little as possible), it is the only place these days you can, possibly, listen to a song, in full, before you purchase an album without going through the radiowaves song by song until you get lucky and stumble across it. Youtube lets you type in a search and pull up a query and listen. Simple. The last time I bought an album at face value without knowing anything about it or hearing anything on it: 2002 or so. The last time I bought an album because I heard a song on the radio: I have no idea, but it would have to have been during the late 90's because I stopped listening to the radio for fear of my sanity. I don't know how many albums I've purchased because I've had Youtube as a source of music-finding, but it's a lot. And I will continue to do it for as long as that site is able to remain active. In fact, when I'm looking for music, I'll generally open up Amazon.com and search their music calendar and in another tab I'll open Youtube so I can hear a song or two as I go through Amazon's list. Youtube and purchasing albums go hand in hand, for me.

When a song is put on Youtube by a normal user, it's because that person is a fan of the song and the artist. Fans want to share the artist with others, to spread the word and get that song out there. That's what fans do. They share the love. What's wrong with that? If there is no viable alternative, as I've pointed out there is not, then the greatest asset to an artist (an artist that's not the flavor-of-the-week) is its fan promotion via Youtube. Where else is a fan supposed to go to hear new music from an artist they love? The official website? Please! Most aren't even updated regularly, and in fact lots of them are still promoting albums and news from several years ago. Their last.fm channel? It only plays songs by artists similar to that artist, not by that artist. iTunes and Amazon.com? Only if you can tell by a 20-30 second clip if you like a song, but generally all you hear is the intro and the clip fades out as the song is starting, or the clip is of some random part in the song that, taken out of context, leaves you wondering what you're even listening to. How about an official video, sanctioned by the record label and approved for mass distribution via the appropriate channels? All well and good, but most artists don't make music videos anymore because there's such a limited market for videos these days, and even the ones that do don't make them in a timely fashion to have it out when the single hits the radio. So by the time you finally get the video, you've probably already bought the album used somewhere for half-price.

Are some people going to exploit the Youtube video and find a way to illegally rip the audio so that they don't have to purchase the song? Yes. But people that want to steal music will find a way to do it. This hasn't changed. In fact, before the internet age, there was this hokey thing called "stealing from the store," also referred to in some circles as "the five-finger discount." Those were crazy times. The only thing that's changed is that the music industry has created an environment where the fans feel aggressive towards the labels, and therefore the artists, because the fans have been pushed around and over-charged and treated like shit for so many years, they feel like they're "owed" something, and that something happens to be the music. Polls have been done that show that most people illegally download music, if not always then at least on occasion. The polls also show that the number of people that think it's okay to illegally download music but don't think it's right to illegally download movies don't add up at all. Which means, people have a grudge against the music industry, not a clepto urge that needs to be satisfied. They just feel like the music should be free. Why? Because the music industry left the floodgates open a decade ago, and upon realizing their mistake decided to resort to extreme measures to stop the spreading behavior. This has only fueled people's feelings and allowed the behavior to take root. Good job, music industry! You created your own worst enemy in the very people you need to sustain your business.

And so now here I am, not listening to an available single because I don't use iTunes (it'll screw up my music library on my computer, if it didn't screw with my organizing then I would, but it does and so I don't), I don't listen to the radio, over-the-air or via internet (and when I do they never play the song I'm trying to hear, but a bunch of older songs), I don't download illegal torrents, and the record company has taken down all of the videos and every streaming player, video and audio, even the ones that at one point were officially posted by them. So instead, I'm bitching about things I hate about an industry that I don't think knows what it's doing, and how all of that affects me.

- gARTh -

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