Archive for the The Art Market and the Music Biz Category

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.”
–Theodore Sturgeon

“The art schools… you get young kids doing the most vile and meaningless crap. I think they believe every bit of it.”
–Leonard Baskin

“That’s the reality of rock ’n’ roll: Just about every band is absolute shit. Listen to any disco compilation or punk retrospective. Listen to 98 percent of the ska bands that emerged in the mid-1990s (or most of the originals, for that matter). The overwhelming majority of what you’ll hear will be wretched. And it generally seems that fans know this, even though they might not feel comfortable admitting it. Few people listen to entire albums, even when they’re released by their so-called favorite band.”
–Chuck Klosterman

And then there’s this:


21 big blocks of crap in the current exhibition, “This Entrance is Strictly Prohibited,” by Santiago Sierra at the Lisson Gallery in London.

I’m currently reading Andrew Keen’s insightful book on the Web 2.0 movement, The Cult of the Amateur. Its arguments—while a bit pat and polemical—reveal a lot about why things are heading south currently in so many “traditional” sectors of cultural production—such as the press, the book industry, the music biz (and I’d add the art market).

One focus of the book is that, while the utopian vision of the Web 2.0 movement is appealing to a wide swath of the populus, it ends up diminishing overall cultural accomplishment. That is, if suddenly everyone is deemed an artist, a musician, a political commentator, a filmmaker, then suddenly truly talented professional versions of these figures are left out in the cold–unsupported (in real financial terms) or forced to water down their content to gain support from a wider (but less deeply supportive) audience.

The music industry is probably the best indication of the way things are going. It’s all so au courant to bad-mouth the music industry—to claim it gouges us, it doesn’t treat artists fairly, it’s uncaring and unfeeling—as a rationalization for our habitual stealing of the intellectual property of music. There’s a widespread assumption that everyone’s stealing music—the kids are all stealing music—so, why shouldn’t I?

Well, interestingly, here’s a letter to the editor—written in response to a Penn State Daily Collegian article called “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” (which argued: “No matter what they call it — illegal downloading, piracy, whatever — a free market for music is a good thing.”)—that clearly hints at the results of the “utopian” vision of free art for all, whenever and wherever they want it:

The column “Music lovers deserve free market of songs” Oct. 30 failed to acknowledge the consequences of free music and the music industry’s suffering. The music industry employees are paid for their effort to bring the public music. Without these people, music would not be able to be distributed. Consumers are the only way the artists and industry employees obtain their paychecks.

While the Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America focuses, by design, on issues related to the visual arts, I am not completely unaware of what is going on in other artistic genres and creative fields. I have followed, for instance, with great interest the decline in the music business that’s occurred over the past six to eight years.

On a very simple level, the problems in the art market mirror those in the music business. That is, while the numbers of artists practicing in both fields grows–in this age of “everyone’s an artist”–the audience for art and music is actually shrinking. Or, as the above Rolling Stone article puts it:

In 2000, U.S. consumers bought 785.1 million albums; last year, they bought 588.2 million (a figure that includes both CDs and downloaded albums), according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2000, the ten top-selling albums in the U.S. sold a combined 60 million copies; in 2006, the top ten sold just 25 million. Digital sales are growing — fans bought 582 million digital singles last year, up sixty-five percent from 2005, and purchased $600 million worth of ringtones — but the new revenue sources aren’t making up for the shortfall.

This past month has seen the much-ballyhooed Radiohead direct-to-audience, without-a-label album release. Even before that, though, at the end of September the Freakonomics blog of the NYT conducted a “Quorum” discussion on the issue of the “future of the music industry.” It’s a pretty interesting discussion conducted by five smart commentators on the music business. My favorite commenter, Peter Rojas (founder of RCRD LBL, a free online-only music label), said some stuff that seemed, considering some of my recent posts, appropriate to quote:

… it was digital reproduction combined with the a ridiculously cheap distribution channel (the Internet) that really mucked it up for the major labels. The emergence of Napster (the original one) was the wake-up call, but the record industry would be in trouble now even if no one had invented peer-to-peer file sharing…

I don’t pretend to know what the industry will look like in ten years, but the funny thing about all of this is that music itself is healthier than ever. The Internet, combined with low-cost (or even no-cost) digital tools, has led to an explosion of creativity, with millions of amateurs making music for every conceivable genre, sub-genre, and microgenre, and then sharing their creations online. Andrew Keen might look down on these results, and no doubt 99.9 percent of the music being created today is terrible; but that’s besides the point. Even that one-tenth of one percent means that there is more great music being created than any of us will have time to listen to — and that’s not even taking into account all of the “professional” music that still manages to get made…

The majors thrived in an era of artificial scarcity when they were able to control the production and distribution of music. Today, we have an infinite number of choices available to us, and when content is infinitely abundant, the only scarce commodities are convenience, taste, and trust.