Despite Music Industry Meltdown, Music is Flourishing… Why?


The music industry went critical and melted down. That’s the best way to describe the impact that free, widespread access to recordings has had on the business of music. A quick Google search confirms this in chart after chart.

And yet, music unquestionably flourishes today.

More music is being released than ever before. There are more musicians than ever, more fans than ever, and more shows than ever.

Fans enjoy greater access to their favorite artists, and artists can connect with fans like never before.

Music is spreading across the world faster than ever before. Even in the many areas yet to be connected to the internet, millions pass around thumb drives and memory cards full of music like a messenger-based Napster.

Not only is music flourishing, it shows no sign of stopping until every person on the planet is playing their own original music, or at least DJ’ing from a music library containing every recording ever made.

On the surface, this is clearly counterintuitive. How can the music industry meltdown lead to a new golden age of music?

Music is Performance

There are three aspects to music: performance, composition, and recording.

It wasn’t always this way. Recordings were invented in the late 1800s and popularized in the early 1900s.

Compositions were not a commodity until technologies like the printing press, standardized music notation, equal temperament and the piano became commonplace enough to establish a market. Prior to that, compositions were passed down through the oral tradition.

Every composition is merely instructions to recreate a performance. And thus, we arrive at the essence of music: the performance.

Today, music is flourishing because music is performance. It’s not recording. It’s not composition. These are merely ways to bring performance into being.

We have grown so accustomed to treating recordings as if they were music itself, so used to compositions as having a single, definitive author, that we have forgotten what music truly is: performance.

Music is Once Again a Service Industry, not a Product

Understanding that music, at its core, is performance, it’s a little bit easier to understand why music is flourishing while the industry flails and fails.

The industry is currently based on recordings. Technology allows for global free access to all of the world’s recordings. As many have said, “the genie isn’t going back in the bottle.”

But try telling that to the litigious, exploitative, and corrupt mainstream recording industry, which has been consolidated into three labels that own the rights to 2/3rds of the world’s recordings, and a handful of mostly unprofitable streaming sites run by enormous corporations. Streaming music has artificially propped up the music industry and stopped the bleeding for the time being, but there is no plan B and streaming music seems doomed to tread water as a business, at best.

Recordings and compositions generally require many intermediaries and a large-scale audience to be profitable, while performance scales beautifully and requires few middlemen. In an age of unprecedented economic inequality, fans and musicians can no longer afford to deal with intermediaries, and current technology makes no requirements of them to do so.

The smart bet is on performance. The live music industry is growing incredibly fast. This can be seen most dramatically in the meteoric rise of the electronic dance music (EDM) industry. EDM is the embodiment of the new music industry: fans and musicians coming together to experience a performance. In fact, for a new generation, music is performance, not recording. We have come full circle.

The critical thing is this: There doesn’t need to be an industry for performance to exist. There does have to be an industry for recordings to exist, though even that is changing with basement studios, instantaneous global digital distribution, and the various digital technologies that will go down in the history books as having as much impact on music as sheet music/printing press/standard notation/equal temperament.

The music career has been declining for years, hand in hand with the decline of the music industry.

But musicians, fans, and music in general is flourishing because technology allows us to connect like never before, while circumventing the music industry that’s been keeping us in chains for its own profit.

Music is free, performance is a service, and we are now entering a new era where the industry will be on the sidelines, and you and I will be the driver of musical evolution. Unchained, there’s no limit to how big music can get.