An article in Pitchfork provides a comprehensive overview of the evolution of music sales and the impact of the mp3 format on it. Basically, by eliminating middlemen, digital music tore control of music away from the major record companies and put it in the hands of the listeners.
The nature of the established music industry drove the need and desire for more control. Record labels created a closed system, where it was impossible to get a break if you were a musician. Music was force fed to consumers in album based rather than song based units, forcing listeners to buy more than they wanted. Mp3’s changed the currency to songs rather than albums, and made it easy to create duplicates and transfer them.
Cheap, flexible platforms “such as peer-to-peer networks, bloggers, Rapidshare, MySpace, Last.fm, and Pandora” give listeners the control and access they want. Unfortunately, it’s not access that record companies want listeners to have. Ultimately, “mp3s, flowing through peer-to-peer networks and other pathways hidden in plain sight, have performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry.” As a result, the recording industry has desperately sought to regain control of music based on intellectual property and copyright claims.
By placing control of music in the hands of music fans, mp3’s have contributed to the disruption – and quite possibly extinction – of the established music industry. How artists will be compensated for their art in the future has yet to be determined. Actually, according to the article, it will be music fans who will have to determine a fair way to create a fair system going forward. That’s a complex thought, and I think it may be asking a little too much. Arming record companies with copyright legislation and watching them try to control access to streaming content, peer to peer networks and personal use isn’t the answer either. The solutions are still out there and yet to be defined.