There will never be another Beatles … and that’s a good thing.
Let me explain what I mean (don’t worry, I think the Beatles are great). I don’t mean that there will never be another band as “good” as the Beatles, for whatever subjective evaluation of “good” that you might use. Well, there might never be, if you choose “good” to mean “sounds like the Beatles”, but most of us have a more complex and encompassing taste in music than just one band.
I also don’t mean that there will never be another band who sell as many records or who clock up as many weeks in the world charts (although the Beatles aren’t winning there anyway, it’s probably Queen).
By “there will never be another Beatles”, I mean that there will never be another group who completely capture the world of music like they did. There will never be another super-group as super as the Beatles. Or, for that matter, as super as Queen, the Rolling Stones, or INXS. And yes, that’s a good thing.
With the advent of the Internet, digital media, and file sharing, the music industry has become a different world. It used to be the case that to get your music anywhere you needed to have a contract with a record “label”, a publisher, marketer and distributor. You needed a distributor to get your music into shops where people could buy it. You needed a marketer so that people knew about your music, to get promotion and airplay so that people would want to buy it. And you needed a publisher to put up the cash for all that expensive distribution, marketing and studio magic. It was natural for successful labels to combine all three, and hence the most successful labels (EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner) came to have tremendous power and influence in the music industry. To the musicians, the labels presented a scarcity of available contracts. There were lots of musicians so labels could afford to be choosy, contracting only the most profitable. To consumers, the labels were able to present a scarcity of music and the media on which it was distributed, a scarcity which they had created. And they flourished.
Now the game has changed. The development of affordable digital recording technology means it no longer costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to record an album. If you have some friends with the right equipment and experience you can probably record your first album for practically nothing. So we don’t need record labels to front up the cash for recording any more. With far greater impact, however, the advent of the Internet and file sharing technologies has dropped the cost of music distribution to almost zero. The scarcity of media (e.g. CDs) that the record labels could maintain has disappeared for good. Consumers can now get music for free, and artists can distribute it for nearly free (and with any kind of popularity, fans will distribute it for them). So we don’t need record distributors to print discs or get shelf space in music shops any more.
Fast internet connections and services like (the original) Napster spelt the beginning of the end for the music distribution monopoly. But they still had one very important function: marketing. Unless people know about your music it doesn’t matter that you can record and distribute it for free. With no-one listening there’s no point (and no money). But then came blogs, then myspace, and now services like Pandora and Last.fm, social networks revolving around music and music recommendation. Consumers have begun cutting out the record labels from their last bastion of influence. The speed, breadth and richness of communication offered by the Internet, especially by social networking services, means that people don’t need to listen to the radio to know what new music is out. We’re no longer limited to the record labels’ channels of music discovery. Social networking allows people with diverse tastes, who might otherwise never meet, to discover each other and share music. They also help the artists to reach out the their listeners, to promote their music directly. Such technologies provide an audience for even the most diverse, eclectic music, music that could never before have found its listeners. In short, it opens up the long tail of music distribution. Services like Pandora and Last.FM take it even further, automatically matching listeners up with other people with similar tastes, suggesting new music they’re likely to enjoy, cross-pollenating playlists everywhere. An artist’s reach becomes much more closely tied to how much their music is liked, rather than how heavily it is promoted. A nobody can become huge if they manage to speak to our heart.
So with cheap production, no false scarcity in distribution, and music that markets itself, it looks like the record labels are out of cards. But how does this relate to the Beatles? Well, as great as they truly were, the Beatles’ and every other super-group’s success, owes something to the mindshare monopoly that the record labels could create and to the existence of a mould which they could break. People had very few ways to discover music, and the labels controlled most of them and thought they knew what people wanted. Now, people discover their own music, listen by choice to whatever they want to, rather than whatever’s on air. With the great democratisation of music that the Internet has brung, no group will ever control that much mindshare again; if anything, tall-poppy syndrome will more actively select against it. Diverse and eclectic music can reach its listeners right away. Without labels constraining published music to successful formulae there’s no build-up of pressure for change. And that’s a good thing, because we’ll all be listening to what we really like, not what the labels want us to like.
So there will never be another Beatles, but there will be many more groups who’s music suits your tastes, however mainstream or eclectic they might be. And like never before, you’ll be able to discover these groups and hear their music.
(More? Chris Anderson was way ahead of me)