Tehee: Music industry looks to future, past for revenue

The Fresno BeeJuly 2, 2014 

The music industry is in a weird place.

If you doubt it, consider the story of CD and DVD manufacturer Disc Makers, which announced last month it's getting back in the record business — as in vinyl.

The manufacturer (which works with independent bands and musicians) quit offering vinyl pressing services in 2000 because it was expensive and accounted for less than 1% of the company's sales.

This is a big turnaround.

"After five years of 35% annual vinyl record sales growth (every year), we're back to being believers," company CEO Tony van Veen says on the Disk Makers' blog announcing the move.

At the same time, YouTube made headlines with its intentions to launch a music-streaming service, an idea that sits, technologically at least, in polar opposite to actual, physical records.

This is where the record industry is at, and it's hard to tell if things are good or bad.

The advancement of digitized music in the late '90s was a boon for the casual listener, who was no longer tied to the album structure.

Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora (and soon YouTube's as-of-now unnamed offering) continue that forward momentum. They offer a huge catalog of music for a monthly subscription fee.

The result? Personal, portable jukeboxes.

Also, no real incentive to buy music at all.

This is troubling for the artist.

Spotify has come under fire for the way it pays song royalties, which often come out to less than one penny per stream.

The payouts are so crummy and the process so convoluted that many artists — Radiohead's Thom Yorke, for example — won't make their music available through the site.

Michigan band Vulfpeck took another approach: It created "Sleepify," a 10-track album of complete silence, which the band asked fans to stream, on repeat, while they slept.

It wasn't a scam, exactly. It was more of a pre-planned exploitation of the system, one that earned the band $20,000 (for 4 million streams, to add some perspective) before the album was taken down for violating Spotify's terms of content.

Last month, YouTube threatened to block or remove content from artists who haven't signed on to participate in its subscription-based service. That was met with a series of hyperbolic headlines ("YouTube will be ripping down indie music videos 'in a matter of days' ") and a complaint from the Independent Music Companies Association, which claims the video giant is offering its clients "highly unfavorable and non-negotiable terms."

I'm a recent Spotify convert. If you're looking to find new, interesting music, it's seriously the best thing ever. I'm also a music fan, and I buy CDs and records and see live music because that's how musicians make their living.

There is a generation of listeners who grew up with music on their phones. They bypassed CDs completely (forget about records). They only know digital music and streaming services. The coming challenge for record labels and musicians will be convincing those listeners that music is worth more than a monthly subscription fee.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6479, jtehee@fresnobee.com or @joshuatehee on Instagram and Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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