You’d think that history classes in a pre-Perestroika elementary school would seem quite useless in retrospect. In a span of a few years much of the past would be rewritten, leaving a poor student in doubt that there is such a thing as a historical truth. Yet it is my Soviet education that I often thank for an insider perspective on historical change.
I remember a textbook open to a page about the Golden Age of Athens, our teacher droning on about Pericles. Between one dictatorship and another Athens managed to create what some still believe to be the first true democracy. All in all the Golden Age lasted about 70 years. 70? It struck me that the 70th anniversary of the USSR was approaching, and I wondered whether toga clad Athenians were as sure about the limitless lifespan of their regime, as our teacher was about the permanence of our mighty state. What if the Communist rule went by the way of the Athenian democracy? Nothing around me predicted the fast-coming demise, but the question loomed in my mind, quite inappropriate for a young pioneer.
This perfect, though prolonged, lesson in historical impermanence was completed when the Wall came down several years later and the Empire fell apart before reaching its 70th birthday.
At the recent MIDEM market in Cannes I wished I could ship certain music executives by the busload back in time to that Soviet-era classroom and give them all a bloody D. How could it be that they just won’t learn from history? Nothing lasts. Especially not the CD business, which, let’s face it, has not been around very long, and, from utility perspective, is becoming more irrelevant than Brezhnev’s eyebrows.
The old structures are crumbling. It now takes under 10 minutes to download a brand new album – legally or not — while it may have taken an hour twelve months ago. There are more albums out in the digital torrent land than there are on iTunes, and iTunes just can’t catch up with everything we would like to see and hear. iTunes – the leader in legal music downloads — is also cumbersome, proprietary and a drag, as it were, for moving files from one device to another.
Meanwhile younger consumers expect to get music they want immediately and listen to it everywhere. Unfortunately, the most convenient place they can go to is also the cheapest one. It may not be legal, but no other offer is rich enough to satisfy their ever-growing curiosity. The question is not about stealing music. It is about the ease of the discovery process. Instead of fighting piracy and pushing down consumer throats more of the same static product, the industry has to look for creative ways to adapt to consumer experience, which today flows naturally via mySpace – LastFM – YouTube- BitTorrent route.
U2’s manager Paul McGuinness gave a remarkable speech during the Cannes convention. Among other things he spoke about the fact that portable music player manufacturers are benefiting directly from the online piracy, since the abundance of content out there drives player sales. He asked for a cut. Outside of its shock value, the message was lost in MIDEM’s daily buzz, among the self-congratulatory articles on industry players who continue doing more of the same thing.
What I like about McGuinness’ suggestion is that it offers an out of the box solution. While the journalists seemed to shrug his proposal off as clearly unrealistic, I think most consumers would happily pay a slightly higher “peace of mind” price for a bundled iPod+ unlimited music offer.
It is one of many possible ways to continue creating genuine value around music and justified revenues from it. The bottom line is music industry needs to adjust, evolve, and go through a little perestroika of its own .
That said, I am not worried about U2, or their manager. I am sure they will survive, even if they have to sing at a G8 summit. You see, they have talent. And talent is all that eventually counts in an industry – or profession – whose purpose is to move and inspire. The talent might live by selling CDs or endorsing watches, but it will always be in demand. It will get it’s equivalent in gold. What happens to the crumbs falling off the turntables, and the army of apparatchiks who live of them – only history will tell.