Remembering MJ, and music industry’s survival blues

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Michael Jackson?

You beat it! In case you’ve missed it, this weeks marked the tenth anniversary of the untimely and super controversial death of the ‘King of Pop’. Inarguably, Jackson is one of the most successful singers the global music industry has ever produced. His record-breaking albums redefined the recording industry like never before, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.During his lifetime, he has earned half a billion dollars and in the 1980s and 90s he earned $50 million a year.

Can’t agree more.

In fact, his death in 2009 (“Gone Too Soon”, to quote one of his songs) came at a time when the music industry was staring at a series of crises — from failed business models and anachronistic distribution systems to the threat of piracy and personal scandals of several artists — endangering its very future. In 2009, trade analysts and music industry observers were already talking about the recording industry’s lost decades (starting year 2000).

Interesting!

A few months after Jackson’s death, which obviously triggered a spurt in sales of his works for a brief period, a report by Forrester Research, quoted on CNN, showed the total revenues from US music sales and licensing had plunged to $6.3 billion in 2009 from $14.6 billion a decade ago. Considering the changes in the value of the currency during the period, the fall was quite alarming. In fact, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, album sales were falling an average of 8 per cent each year since 1999, when ironically, global recorded music revenues hit their all-time peak of $26.6 billion. And almost everyone could read the writing on the wall.

Which was…?

There’s an impending crisis and there are no easy ways out. For one, online streaming (and illegal downloads) of music was on the rise. The compact disc had already killed the cassette star; and now it was the turn of the internet to kill the CD. For instance, Napster, the free online file-sharing service that was launched in 1999, had already brought the price of a music CD from $14 to nil in just about a decade.

So what happened then?

There was music all over the way, free for all to download. It took some more years for people to think about paying for online music. In 2003, when Apple’s iTunes entered the scene, the music industry was scrambling for a viable, sustainable distribution model. Sales of music albums had reached a near-halt by then. Even Jackson’s own albums saw a dramatic but obvious fall in the early 2000s. “We might not see another Michael Jackson circa 1982, but we also wouldn’t see another Michael Jackson circa 2002,” declared American journalist Charles C Mann in an essay he wrote a few months before iTunes entered the scene — ‘The Year The Music Dies’(Wired January 2, 2003).

Troubling times indeed.

Many things were going wrong, fast and furious. In fact, between the death of Jackson and its 10th anniversary, so much has changed in the way music is produced, performed and distributed that today the entire landscape would look extremely alien to someone who’d stopped tracking it in the early 2000s. Now, streaming is more streamlined. File-sharing websites are screened more stringently and piracy is more controlled than ever; people now pay for high quality music; price of digital music is much cheaper than in the early 2000s; music production itself got cost-effective; and cutting-edge technologies have made producing quality music hassle-free. And, above all, the smartphone revolution made music personal again.

That’s good news!

And, like most stars of yore, Jackson’s songs are now streamed millions of times on YouTube, Amazon Music, Spotify, etc. Audio streams now account for about 50 per cent of music distribution. Albums have got ‘unbundled’ and individual songs set the trends now. CDs are dead. But surprisingly, vinyl is growing thanks to the puritans — in the US alone, vinyl sales grew 12 per cent, from 8.6 million to 9.7 million, last year. In sum, as we celebrate a decade of MJ’s departure, music is still healing the world, and the industry means business.

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