Editor’s Note-Tough To Be a Musician

Editor’s Note-Tough To Be a Musician

Independent music producers are proliferating, but the market for recorded music is shrinking.

If it weren’t for that pesky half-credit drum lab and a perplexing change in class requirements, Joseph Novak would be leaving the Berklee College of Music this spring with a degree in music production and sound engineering, with a second major in music synthesis.

It’s not all bad. A summer session will pass like a semiquaver, and Joseph will be able to take part in the spring commencement ceremony, which will mean sharing the stage, sort of, with Steve Winwood, formerly of Blind Faith and Traffic. Winwood will receive an honorary degree from Berklee, one of Boston’s few institutions of higher learning without a school song. When Joseph was a freshman, the graduation speaker was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

The music industry has always been challenging to new entrants, but Joseph will be entering a market much tighter than Winwood and Tyler and their engineers have ever known. Sales of recorded music are in the eighth year of unrelenting erosion brought on by piracy of digital recordings and the growing preference among consumers for low-margin downloads of digital singles rather than albums.

In 2000, consumers in the United States bought 785.1 million albums, in both the form of CDs and downloads; in 2006, they bought 588 million. U.S. sales of CDs fell by 19 percent in 2007, to 449 million units. The sale of downloads grew, but not enough to offset the decline in CD sales. The same trend is seen overseas. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry has reported that worldwide sales of recorded music fell about 10 percent last year, to $17.6 billion.

Some 3,000 recorded-music stores have closed since 2003. In 2006, the 89-store Tower Records chain, which represented 1.5 percent of all retail sales of music, went out of business, and Musicland, which operated 900 stores, filed for bankruptcy and subsequently closed 400. Sixty-five percent of all recorded music is now sold by big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, which carry fewer titles than specialty stores, put less effort into promoting new artists, and squeeze their distributors on price.

As writer Megan Wiley reports in this month’s cover story, the Twin Cities area is experiencing a surge of activity among small, independent music labels. It has happened before: From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, Twin/Tone Records of Minneapolis issued more than 300 albums, launching the careers of the Replacements, the Suburbs, the Jayhawks, and Babes in Toyland. It is happening elsewhere: About 25 percent of recorded music sales are associated with independent labels, meaning labels unaffiliated with the big four production companies, Sony, Warner, EMI, and Universal.

The rise of the independents does not portend a recovery of the industry, however. Most of the “indies” are tiny, and most sell music primarily through file-sharing services, such as Apple’s iTunes. Their ability to pick off market share speaks more of the weaknesses of the oligopolistic majors than to the indies’ potential to expand the overall market.

 

Two years ago, Berklee’s commencement address was delivered by singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge, who was a Berklee guitar major for three semesters beginning in 1979, and who reminded the graduating class of 2006 that “it’s not so easy being a musician.”

When Etheridge was the age of most college graduates, she said, she was playing in rough bars, with no discernable prospect of a recording contract. She was also dating a young woman—“you do know I’m gay,” she told the graduates—who was “kind of just coming out, and she decided it was time to call her parents and tell them she was gay.”

And she did. She telephoned her mother and talked about herself and described Melissa, her girlfriend, and she said that she hoped her parents would accept “that this is what I am.”

There was silence on the phone, followed by a disappointed sigh.

“We’ve always known you were gay,” the woman’s mother said. “But why do you have to date a musician?”

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