Future Tense: 2012 Music Predictions (Pt. 1)

And so, as we enter into the year 2012 (the last year of our existence, according to another great seer), it is once again time for me to gaze through the fabric of time to reveal how all of our lives will unfold, music-wise, anyway. Before we get to the little ol’ Omaha music scene, let’s look at The Big Picture. The following will happen, if not next year, then soon:

Digital subscription music streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody – and eventually iTunes – have only just begun to take their toll on CD sales, which already were in the shitter.

The lone bright spot has been the sales of vinyl records. But unfortunately, we’ve already seen the peak in that nostalgia. The novelty of vinyl will begin to wear off, as people finally come to the realization that paying twice as much for a new release that they’re going to have get up and turn over on their record player, that they can’t play at work or on their smart phone or in their car, is quaint but woefully inconvenient. There always will be the luddites who refuse to acknowledge technology -- who will hold on dearly to the ideas of yesteryear -- but their numbers will only wane.

Meanwhile, the technology behind streaming music will only get better. We’ll see better quality streams and better connectivity to streaming sources. Eventually it’ll get to the point where fans won’t even remember purchasing individual albums or singles. The music they want to hear will just “be there,” as long as they’re within reach of a Wi-Fi or 3G/4G/5G hot spot. Just turn on your device, dial in your favorite artists, and the music appears. What do you mean, “buy your new album”? As a subscriber to Spotify, I already own your music.

The problem, of course, is that only American Idols and huge international pop stars make real money off services like Spotify. The smaller independent artists, who used to be able to scratch together enough cash from CD sales to finance recording another album, will only make a few bucks from streaming (if they’re lucky).

That cold reality will spawn a backlash against these services, but in the end (just like with iTunes) artists will cave - especially after it becomes easy for them to get their music available on these services.

Spotify and the others will adopt iTunes’ seller model. Right now, any band with decent credit can set up an account in the iTunes Store. They don’t have to be associated with a record label or an “aggregator” such as CD Baby or Tunecore. That’s not the case with Spotify, but that will change (especially after iTunes adopts a subscription model). Getting music in Spotify (and the other services) will be as easy as setting up an account, and eventually anyone with access to Spotify (or the other services) will have access to any artist’s music.

(By the way, those “other services” will eventually go away. Just like The Highlander, there can be only one. It’ll be either Spotify or iTunes or one of the others, but only one will survive as the sole online catalog for recorded music, that is until the regulators step in and break up the monopoly.)

If the above model becomes reality – if all music is streamed or downloaded by subscription – than publishing rights, which have helped sustain musicians by paying them for use of their music on television and films, will eventually erode. Artists will begin paying to have their music played in TV and movies if only to widen their exposure.

So with no income from CD sales and publishing rights, how will the independent musicians of old make a living? Three ways: charity, subsidies and performances.

Kickstarter, an online funding platform launched in 2009 to help artists and musicians generate money through pledges, was a first glance at what will become one of the only sustainable models for independent artists to generate income to record new albums. Some bands will blanch at the idea of asking for “charity” from fans, but let’s be honest: most of us buy local artists’ CDs now not because we want the music (which we already have on our computers), but because we want to support their efforts. The only thing missing is the ability to write off those purchases as a charitable donation (at least for now).

Which brings us to the government and private foundations. In Canada and some European countries, governments and private charitable organizations have subsidized artists and musicians for years. Organizations such as Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) are credited with making Canada the third largest producer of musical talent in the world. These private foundations are critical, especially as the global recession takes its toll on budgets.

But these foundations will never be enough. Here in the U.S., federal and local governments have to step up – either in the form of tax breaks or subsidies for musicians – or risk losing our creative class altogether. Look, we’ve subsidized farmers and other industries for years, now we have to do it for artists.

Finally, the last and most important source of income for musicians is live performances. Because no matter how available recorded music becomes, fans will always pay to see a great performance, whether it’s in a club, coffee shop, concert hall or arena. The live experience is something that will never be replicated digitally, thank god.

Next week, the fun stuff: Future Tense: 2012 Music Predictions Pt. 2, the local edition.

Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim's daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at lazy-i@thereader.com.

posted at 08:36 pm
on Tuesday, January 03rd, 2012

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