09/09/09 - The Day the Record Industry Died

Today brings two announcements of great import to music fans, but they’re most notable for who’s not involved: The major record labels.

First, The Beatles are announcing a slew of new launches to reboot the band for the digital era, including a branded version of Rock Band and the release of a set of digitally-remastered recordings that ready their catalog for purchase online for the first time. At the same time, Apple is holding their annual iPod advertising event, focused (as is often the case) on music. Most of today’s announcements from Apple are focused on the packaging and distribution of digital music, not just on songs and artists themselves.

But what’s remarkable is what the confluence of these two events represents: The final decline of the record industry’s ability to define the popular narrative about music. With only a few exceptions (such as Reprise, started by Frank Sinatra, and Apple Corps, started by the Beatles), record labels have been started by business people who have a terrifyingly consistent history of exploiting the artists they were ostensibly trying to promote. The labels compounded these affronts by developing a contempt for the new way consumers have decided to consume music in this millenium, hastening the end of the era of the major record labels .

But today marks a clear and unmistakeable milestone, dramatically demonstrating that the only entities with the power to make news about music today are artists themselves (as in the case of the Beatles) or technology companies (like Apple). You could arguably include a few TV shows, as well, insofar as reality competition game shows help introduce new artists. Despite this reality, though, most record labels today still absurdly believe that the media covers something like a new Jay-Z album because of the label’s promotional efforts, instead of that coverage having arisen from genuine demand from fans, as demonstrated by dialogue on blogs, Twitter, Facebook or just in face-to-face “hey, you gotta hear this song!” conversations. The reality is that the people who can get excitement going about music these days aren’t in the record industry at all, but rather all around it.

It’s not surprising, of course — the record industry was remarkably late to realize that we’ve all cared about the music, not the records or CDs themselves. Thousands of articles and blog posts have been written about that transition, to the point where the record labels’ demise has gone from unimaginable to being accepted as an inevitability in less than a decade.

Nothing could be more striking, though, than a day that’s all about music but ony features a minor, marginal role for the traditional record companies. They’ve had a good run, but looking at the larger pattern of today’s news makes it clear that their moment has passed.