Ars Technica has an article looking at market research firm NPD and their MusicWatch Survey. It turns out that in their most recent release, iTunes has surpassed WalMart as the number 1 retailer of music. Oh, how times have changed.
I think that this is a good thing for music listeners. I don’t have that much nostalgia for when I was a kid growing up in a northern suburb of Chicago, riding my bike over three towns, looking all over for that one death metal cd i pined for, Entombed’s Clandestine. And now, that I’m older and my tastes have changed and am a little more impatient, I don’t have to talk to the ignorant kids and preorder it when I look for Stephanie Cooke’s “Love Will.” Exploring obscure genre’s nowadays is incredibly simple thanks to the electronic distribution model that iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, BeatPort, Traxsource, and many others are affording us as consumers. We can buy a single without having to buy the whole album very easily nowadays, while also taking the guesswork out of it for the distributors as to what singles are going to sell. If rarity is a valuable commodity for your musical tastes, it doesn’t often follow when you have to put rarity on semi trailers nationwide. Electronic distribution changes all of that and allows our tastes to follow our own individual identity.
Also, given that in any media distribution model, whether it be music, books, movies or television, when physical media is concerned, the distributors of that media often want something that will sell everywhere. homogeneity is often the result. My apologies to Stone Temple Pilots fans, but would Scott Wieland really be around if Eddie Vedder didn’t make it? You could say this about Brittney and Jessica Simpson, and 98° and N*Sync and on and on and on. Then what happened? Clear Channel bought all your radio stations, and MTV ceased to be a tastemaker. iTunes and MySpace took over, getting to you your music that you might never have known existed. Case in point, if you look at Leslie Feist’s career from her early beginnings with Placebo, By Divine Right, and Broken Social Scene, to rooming with Peaches, collaborating with Gonzales, doing side projects with the Kings of Convenience and Jamie Lidell, to finally get big time with ‘1-2-3-4′ off “the Reminder,” you’ll see the result of a more democratic selection of a star. For an artist like her to fly under the radar for so long, building up integrity, then finally hitting mainstream without selling out, would never had happened 10 years ago. I’ve mad props for Leslie Feist, and I think there are many more indie acts that would never gotten a chance in a physical distribution model.
Being the Electronic Director here at KWUR, this means a lot to my genre, as the single EP has long been the parcel of choice for DJ’s no matter the genre. Rarity has always been a huge commodity for a DJ, with northern soul dj’s digging up old albums, and house / techno dj’s getting early promo copies from their friends to build up hype on the dance floor, months before that album hits the record stores. The analogues for iTunes in my genre, Beatport, Traxsource, Juno and many other outlets have benefitted from this. They have made it less a money losing proposition when the artists don’t have to press vinyl. As a result, you’re seeing a large amount of collaboration between those two camps.
Is there a flipside to this coin? There certainly is. The big labels will make less profit on the big, big sellers. To a regular consumer, it isn’t so bad, when you only pay a dollar for the song you want rather than 15 for that and 9 more songs of crap you don’t. The profits from that inefficiency of the physical distribution model, however, often have been used to put out the more niche material that you’ll pay the whole album for. What does this mean for the industry going forward? More music stores dying, and more independent labels certainly, but I also think we’ll see a flatter, wider, bell curve in the acts that the big labels sign, often letting them cut their teeth first independently before letting them go mainstream. at least, I hope so.