I'm just getting around to reading this piece on the music business from last week's New York Times magazine. In it, Columbia's resident guru, Rick Rubin, describes his vision for the future:
Rubin has a bigger idea. To combat the devastating impact of file sharing, he, like others in the music business (Doug Morris and Jimmy Iovine at Universal, for instance), says that the future of the industry is a subscription model, much like paid cable on a television set. "You would subscribe to music," Rubin explained, as he settled on the velvet couch in his library. "You'd pay, say, $19.95 a month, and the music will come anywhere you'd like. In this new world, there will be a virtual library that will be accessible from your car, from your cellphone, from your computer, from your television. Anywhere. The iPod will be obsolete, but there would be a Walkman-like device you could plug into speakers at home. You'll say, 'Today I want to listen to ... Simon and Garfunkel,' and there they are. The service can have demos, bootlegs, concerts, whatever context the artist wants to put out. And once that model is put into place, the industry will grow 10 times the size it is now."
I should be excited about this, right? All the world's music, all the time. But somehow, I'm not. I like owning music; I like the feeling that this set of songs is mine. I even like the limits that this imposes. Sure, sometimes I want to listen to a song I don't have--but between iTunes and eMusic, that song is rarely more than a couple of mouse clicks away. Meanwhile, when I sit down at my computer, the limited selection prevents me from spending hours thinking about what the absolutely correct song for my current mood might be. Due to a series of unfortunate events that twice destroyed my accumulated stash, my music collection is not currently anywhere near big enough. But I have a feeling that somewhere between 5-10,000 songs, it will be.
Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated note, I need to go all fogey for a minute. Last night, I went to see Georgie James, the first band I've seen in a long time that I felt sure was going to be big before they even released an album. Which is one way of telling you that when their album comes out on the 25th, you should acquire it. But I digress. Anyway, I've seen them twice now, and they always play very short gigs, because they've got just about enough songs for an album.
At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, as I reach deep back into the mists of time to recall the new bands I listened to in college, I feel like most people didn't cut an album, or even play out that much, until they had enough material for more than one short set. To be sure, one or two of those songs was always a cover--generally a semi-ironic one--to the extent that funny variations on "X's cover of Y" became a running joke among my friends. (i.e. Grim Reaper's cover of "A tisket, a tasket"). But it seems like now as soon as a band ekes out enough material to keep a crowd occupied for fifteen minutes, they start circulating. What changed? The proliferation of indie labels, the low cost of cutting a CD, or something else? Or am I just romanticizing how much better things were back in my day?