Da Vinci On A Necktie

Imagining a World Without Record Labels

If you haven’t noticed, we as a society are not only experiencing a radical transition in the way we buy and consume music, but also in how we relate to it. Case in point: I (and I’m sure many of you) remember when the average young music consumer was proud of their record collections, when record sleeves were viewed as critical components of the overall package—works of art in and of themselves. Recording artists were encouraged by their fans to take advantage of their packaging opportunities as auxiliary canvases on which to express their vision. Record buyers found all kinds of practical uses for the jackets as well—shelf liners, wallpaper, framed art, etc. The real fans even memorized the liner notes. It was that world that I fell in love with; one that was about making money by affecting culture with a tangible product: a 45-minute statement broken down into ten or 12 songs. An album.

These days one’s “record collection” exists on a hard drive. Due to this, we are quickly losing touch with what was once an important aspect of an artist’s visual identity. And we stand to lose much more of the musical experience if this trend keeps up.


As music’s mediums move more and more into a ubiquitous “liquid” form—existing everywhere, but less noticed—it moves into opposition to the way music has historically existed in our lives: as a listening experience, unique to itself and apart from other day-to-day functions. In the liquid future, music may well be everywhere all the time, but we might not notice it as much.

High-tech companies are pushing this “liquid agenda” only because it suits their needs: selling gadgets and Internet-based services. This necessarily means being able to communicate the message to the public that they can provide accessibility and portability to everything you want—legally or not. To them, music is a mere tool to sell technology, the free toy at the bottom of their cereal box.

Conversely, record companies (and indeed most content companies) have an almost opposite agenda: They need to sell the music as a unique experience, which necessarily entails controlling copyrights and venues where music is heard and bought. Mired in the traditions of how to do this— specifically, to make money with albums—record companies have been fighting what tech-head companies call “progress” for years.

For those who have been in the music business for a while, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction towards this “progress.” Many musicians and producers were initially attracted to the music business for reasons that may no longer be relevant.


But before we point our fingers at the high-tech companies for the previously mentioned transgressions, we should entertain the idea that it’s entirely possible that the public altered their musical consumption methods because they’ve outgrown their past entertainment needs, such as pop hero worship and arena rock spectacles. Perhaps the twilight years of that culture are ahead of us, the years where music takes its place, with many other art forms, in the tapestry that has become the life aesthetic: Rembrandt on a postage stamp, Picasso wallpaper, Da Vinci on a necktie. I have no doubt that there was a curator somewhere who publicly objected the first time he saw a print of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling as bathroom tile. No one listened. Commerce marched on. The only difference for music is that instead of irate art historians, it has major labels and their lobbying entity, the RIAA, fighting for air as their inventory slips into the Bit Torrent-ed public domain.

One has to wonder if the folks at Disney had the right idea in 2004 when they convinced Congress to extend the length of a copyright to 99 years. Perhaps Disney knows something about art and the public domain that we ordinary folks do not? Just look at what the public generally does with great works when they don’t have to acquire permission from their authors: The work takes on sillier and sillier forms until one day we see a XXX movie staring Mickey and Minnie.

While our laws grant the right for such things, we as a society don’t have to expedite the demand of it. If we let go of music as an art form and let it too retire into the public domain, we might as well start placing our orders for that new Jim Morrison lawn jockey that plays “Light My Fire” or the Janis Joplin anti-hangover pill; we’re waving in all those companies that see music solely as a commodity.


Obviously the kind of companies mentioned above are not likely to be staffed by musicians or people who have worked closely with musicians over the years, entering into business partnerships to market their hard work. That’s one claim the record companies can make; they are more like you than many just by virtue of a shared vocation.

Record companies have taken quite a beating in the press since 2001, and they’ve largely deserved it. They’ve been accused of not understanding the needs of the market and thumbing their nose at the changing technology. They’ve been called opportunistic capitalists. And they are.

But record companies are also fighting to preserve something wonderful about their product: music’s ability to play an important role in our culture; one that in the past has helped raise the collective awareness. Given that, if you’re going to ride the tech-stimulated anti-label zeitgeist, you need to be aware that doing such also means resigning yourself to a possible future where the medium is reduced to little more than cultural wallpaper, stripped of much of its artistry, its meaning, and its social consciousness.

It also means a destabilization of industry economics. Perhaps in favor of a better one, but so far, the butcher’s bill has been massive downsizing of label rosters by almost 50 percent. All of this just for the sake of convenience for consumers? Is that worth the tradeoff to you, as a musician?

So ask yourself: Are the real enemies of music’s future the record companies? When you come up with an answer, head over to www.eqmag.com, visit our “Forums”, and give me feedback in our “Letters to the Editor” section. I await your responses.