Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Digital ate my music industry

There have been some awful explanations and pretty intense finger-pointing in the bid to find out what killed the music industry (or at least, what the RIAA-PRS believes to be the music industry). Joe Mardin is pointing his finger firmly at the CD.

Yes, the CD:

“In a way, the CD is what destroyed the music business,” says Joe Mardin, a musician, producer, arranger, and engineer. Mardin grew up in the music business; his father was Ardiff Mardin, the legendary producer of Hall & Oats, Norah Jones, Aretha Franklin, and others. “People were buying millions of CDs to replace their catalog," says Mardin, explaining how industry greed ended up killing the Golden Goose. “There was this imperative that started to emerge: 'You must fill up a CD with as much music as possible,’” Mardin says. “The rest was filler. You ended up with albums that were one or two hits and a bunch of wanna-be hits.” The record industry itself killed the album, trying to maximize profits.

So... having a format which persuaded people to rebuy the records they'd already owned with the promise of some sort of better experience was bad for the music industry?

I'm not sure I buy the idea that there ever was an imperative to "fill up" CDs, either - certainly, there's been enough lightweight releases in the last decade to suggest that some people were immune. And hasn't 'one or two tracks you want, and the rest so much bilge' been pretty much the standard set-up for an album since someone said "how about if we spin it at thirty-three and third?"

But even if you take Mardin at his word, he still makes no sense at all - if the music industry put out a load of tosh and killed off their audience, would you blame that on a small, inert, plastic disc - or, perhaps, the music industry management who took the decision? "Idiotic management decisions and greed killed the music industry" is both more honest, and a banner that many of us would be able to march behind.

[Thanks to Sarah D for the link]

UPDATE: Was going to stick this in the comments, but it probably deserves a higher profile - Peter Gorman on album length and the CD


Anonymous said...

And hasn't 'one or two tracks you want, and the rest so much bilge' been pretty much the standard set-up for an album since someone said "how about if we spin it at thirty-three and third?"

Much as this is true, the CD did seem to bring about a period in the late 80s/early 90s they double the amount of space to fill. I was listening to something the other day (can't seem to remember what it was, I think perhaps the not-so-great Black Tie White Noise) and was thinking about how I seem to remember quite a few albums that would've been better remembered today if they'd stuck to vinyl lengths. Sure, they would still be crammed with filler but at least we'd be more likely to give side b a spin.

Mikey said...

Also, don't forget, once the music was digital it was that much easier to rip into a computer: Napster would have been a much weaker proposition of we all had to record vinyl albums into our PCs.

No one thing broke the music industry, but its success was roughly coincident with the vinyl record: For the 100,000 years efore gramophones musicians were pretty much just passing the hat around in pubs and that's what they'll be doing 10 years from now.

anon#1 again said...


Exactly. The problem with the "industry" is that it is an utterly imagined one that only exists because of a unique set of circumstances. If current technologies has existed at the dawn of the recording era, people would today be laughing at the concept of set prices for releases.

anon#1 again again! said...

Not sure I agree entirely with the Gorman article there. To me, the problem doesn't lie with the format, it lies with this idea that every recording artist should be putting out LPs. It's interesting that he uses the example of The Who, possibly the definitive example of a band who never quite recorded any album that would be considered "greatest ever" but put out lots of great singles. Their albums were never the sum of their parts. Their compilations are fantastic. Then again who am I to suggest that Townsend should restrain himself and not record Tommy or Quadrophenia when that's the art he wants to create. Similarly, 70s Yes wanted to record albums long epic, overblown albums, so that's what they did. For most of us it wouldn't make any difference if they put out a couple of 45s or several 5 hour mp3s (if they were around today) we'd still say they were pretentious wankery but at least we could see that they were trying to achieve something, albeit something that was some distance from their compositional abilities (though not necessarily their musical ones). A better example would've been 80s Yes who should've stuck to releasing singles (even if they were terrible) instead of feeling that obligation to put out LPs. I just can't agree with the idea that all albums should be limited because there are example out there of filler. (Just because the short story format can be incredible doesn't mean that all epic novels are going to be rubbish.)

I had a dream last night (and sadly this is true and probably says a lot about my tastes) where I was at the preparations for some kind of school Christmas party or prom or whatever term you want to use and I was amazed that on a poster they were suggesting that they were going to be playing the Rema-Rema EP (which was weird since it was released a year before I was born not to mention the idea that school parties had gigposter-like adverts?!?). Amazing I thought, someone has heard of Rema Rema!!! Of course, in the light of day I have to wonder why I'd react like that. Why the hell shouldn't bands that only release an EP then die be remembered for that great EP (well, I like it.) Unfortunately most people won't know or ever hear about bands that only release that one EP or a handful of singles. Is it this attitude of the audience that forces bands to release albums? (Is this why the "one hit wonder" is highlighted and sometimes derided for being lucky and talentless?) If so why spend so much time blaming filler and the like. It should be blatant by now that I can't quite remember my point and that I am now typing filler!! Sorry. I'll stop now.

Anonymous said...

In response to "Digital ate my music industry"

"A Small, Inert, Plastic Disc"

A closer look will reveal that a consequence of the huge boon created by re-releasing catalog via the Compact Disc was a diminished skill and interest at major labels for finding and developing new talent as a shift occurred, rather, to develop the next format on which to re-re-release catalog.
Remember the mantra being chanted by major labels in the 1990s: 'We don't develop new artists.'
Here's an actual quote from then RCA A&R man, Peter Lubin from an article in the August, 1994 issue of Musician magazine: "The last thing I look forward to is stumbling onto something good. Every band that sucks is a relief."

On issue of filler, the fact that the sonic quality on a side of a long-playing album begins to deteriorate after about 18-20 minutes cannot be disregarded in the development of the classic pop-rock album.
When developing the Compact Disc, Philips and Sony wanted a minimum playing time of 60 minutes so as to accommodate longer classical pieces on a single disk. They settled on the 74 minute capacity (now 80 minute) in their quest to position the Compact Disc as the successor to the LP.

Higher prices for CDs as compared to LPs and cassettes, a few publicized antitrust/price fixing lawsuits against the majors and articles in mainstream publications (see "Pennies That Add Up to $16.98: Why CDs Cost So Much," New York Times, July 5, 1995) correctly informed public perception that labels were shortchanging the consumer. As labels were not about to reduce prices across the board (excepting certain price reduction practices by Universal to garner larger market share) non-classical artists and record labels, no longer limited by the LP's time constraints started exploiting the extensive capacity of the CD.
Of course the increase in content did not arise because, all of a sudden, artists had so much more to say or now felt liberated to express themselves more fully but rather to to justify the higher price tag. The consumers labels hoped to pacify instead grew increasingly dissatisfied with the inconsistent musical experience on a $17 or $18 CD filled with nearly 20 tracks maybe five of which were remixes.
Adding to the let's call it 'quality conflict of interest,' let's not forget the limitation on the number of compositions on an album on which labels will pay songwriters mechanical royalties.

The financial implications of Sony and Philips being the developers and patent holders of the Compact Disc are never discussed.
When it came time to bolster a new format, electronics giants and major labels fell into one of two self-sabotaged camps:
Hitachi, JVC, Mitsubishi, Pioneer, Toshiba with Seagram and Time Warner, the last two then being owners of major record companies all conglomerated behind the DVD-Audio.
And in the other corner, Sony and Philips continued to stick together developing the SACD.
No lessons were learned from the Betamax/VHS wars and these sonically superior formats lost out to the sub-CD quality .mp3.

When it comes to the demise of the music industry as we have known it, referring to the CD as "a small, inert, plastic disc" is to miss that the medium was definitely the message.

P.S. Please check the spelling on "Ardiff" Mardin and Hall & "Oats."

Simon Hayes Budgen said...

SACD and DVDA didn't lose out to mp3 because of a format war; they lost out because nobody was going to fall for buying their records for a third time on the promise of the sort of improvement in sound quality that most people wouldn't even notice. MP3 wasn't competing with physical formats in that way.

Oh, and: yes, you're right, they're spelled incorrectly - but that's the way the names appear in the original article in Conde Nast Portfolio.




All hail, our music industry speaks about the scourge, the scourrrge of pirates. "Without compensation the creators livelihood is unsustainable." What the gentlemen I think means is that because lots of us are doing things that are easier (getting music from our computers) and not spending money (e.g. sharing the music). Musicians are literally dying of champagne dehydration unable to scale cocaine ski slopes, in blood diamond ski suits to laud over us and lose their musical inspiration in vain veins of self-absorption, v.i.piss holes of Lady Thatch, and concurrent clinical holidays on manors in tax havens while we sit at home, skint. Oh the humanity. What will happen? It’s like the music industry has tried to fear monger whilst appearing a poor and blistered cultural social asset, orphaned from cutting edge consumption yet still being a billion pound, sue happy, die-cast empire. It wants to be everything, ever.

,,,more at

selena gomez said...

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