The Future of the Music Business

In the age of the mp3, label musicians and the labels themselves are fighting for survival. As the cost of music is driven down to near zero, they’re doing everything they can to reverse that trend — and yet, the trend continues. I’ve been thinking about music costing effectively nothing and the future of the business and my musician friends for the past few weeks, and some half-assed ideas popped into my head.

Classical Music. Classical music is our future so take some time to consider it.

1. People rarely spend money on classical music itself. I bought a Bach or Mozart CD once when I was 19 when I needed background sound while studying. For the last few years, whenever I want to hear some classical, I just put on the one radio station that plays it or I pick any random classical listing in iTunes’ streaming music area and let it play. It’s basically free and plentiful.

2. Old classical music has no copyright, anyone can cover anything by Beethoven and not owe anyone a cut. You can remix sheetmusic from the 1700s all you want and call it your own. If you’ve got access to an orchestra and a recording device you can go nuts making music and never need a lawyer for any of it. Everything before 1923 is in the public domain: it’s like a Creative Commons wet dream.

3. Classical music fans are tech savvy and embrace the internet. The majority of them rip music, and a sizable chunk own iPods and pay for downloads.

Despite these doomsday notions, classical music remains an industry and there are tens of thousands of professional classical musicians worldwide that make a living from it. It’s not all glitz and glamor, but there are classical music labels that are doing alright and plenty of live events generate a decent amount of revenue even in modest-sized cities. There may not be crazy millionaire Kanye West platinum sellers (aside from maybe Yo Yo Ma?) in the classical set, but they’re not all starving artists.

The popular music industry of the future isn’t going to be anything like it is today, but if you’re an indie rocker in 2007 worried about what the future might bring, don’t listen to what the labels are saying, think more about the 2nd chair clarinet in the Berlin orchestra.

update: Andy was kind enough to send more evidence along: NYTimes, NPR, and The New Yorker all on how despite being plentiful and free like I mentioned, classical was the fastest growing segment of music sales last year, thanks in part to the tech savvy listeners paying for downloaded music.