Can Pop Music Survive Without a Mass Market?

1261594563-largeJ. Gabriel Boylan in The Nation:

Unlike the introduction of the compact disc, which was developed by major labels and music retailers, as well as Phillips and Sony, the current tumult was unplanned and unforeseen. Digital technology has put far more power in the hands of ordinary consumers to wrest music from its gatekeepers. But crashing the gates has caused the music economy to dip down between cheap and free; people are storing more music on their hard drives than they're likely to listen to in the next decade, yet major labels, music retailers and even jukebox manufacturers are spiraling toward obsolescence. Offbeat and invaluable aspects of the mass music experience are slipping away as well, from the cranky exclusivity of the niche record shop to the tastemaking role of college radio to the music press itself.

The conventional, romantic view of the history of popular music is one of pure eras and movements reaching a creative peak before being co-opted, oversold or otherwise spoiled by runaway commercialism. Ragtime enthusiasts, rockabilly fans and punk proselytizers all claim that the early days of their favorite pet sounds were the best, most revolutionary and purest. The only truly lucky genres are those nobody ever liked–at least they were able to fade away honorably. The history of the popular music industry is often told in the same way, from its quirky, tentative beginnings through its benign, if greedy, golden age, when big labels could be handmaiden to terrific music reaching the masses. The cause of the industry's demise, the story goes, was avarice: the labels prized dastardly strategies for persuading music fans to part with as much cash as possible. The result, then, is the current mess. The potential chaos of a future where music is unprotected and unsellable (that is, an unviable profit center for labels or artists) might be worrying, but it's a prospect the industry created. Kot, a music critic at the Chicago Tribune, is excited about the new ways that bands are selling their music and trying honorably not to fade away. He is pleased that digital technology allows music to live and breathe beyond the grip of the record industry, which he thinks doesn't deserve any sympathy, since its response to the digital revolution has been not bold ideas about marketing or distribution but lots of lawsuits.