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  • Writer's pictureDmitri Vietze

Humpty Dumpty: A Seismic Shift

The Music Industry Had a Great Fall; All the King’s Horses Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

Music Tectonics has identified several seismic shifts that have created the music landscape of today and tomorrow. These are climate changes, tectonic shifts beneath the surface, unexpected flash floods, or meteor collisions. Today we tackle “Humpty Dumpty Together Again,” the story of the sudden fall and reconstruction of music industry systems. Go beneath the surface with the Music Tectonics Podcast: Listen to an in-depth conversation on this topic with Vickie Nauman!

When the physical music market collapsed, the entire industry fell apart. The systems of distribution, licensing, marketing, fan interactions, music funding, artist contracts... everything was no longer relevant. Over the past 20 years everything is being re-negotiated and nobody is on stable ground. We are putting the industry back together, but since music uses and listening experiences are totally different, all the systems are either being reinvented or even scratched.

At first, many digital systems were built around concepts from the physical world. Albums were downloaded wholly. Online retailers had the equivalent of “listening stations.” Online radio still had hosts. Recordings were still released one country at a time. You could “store” your music on a digital shelf. You bought unlimited listening of a single album or single. (Humans made all the music, too.)

But digital listening became a new kind of listening: singles were detached from albums (along with the lyrics, notes, images, and other context that used to inform fans). Listeners began to rent the right to listen to millions of recordings for less than the cost of a CD. Music providers no longer needed to duplicate recordings. And making and distributing recordings opened up to exponentially more people.

Furthermore, once music became digital, its uses became more transferable, creating opportunities for remixers, DJs, video creators, and social media users. In some cases, entirely new types of licenses are required for these unexpected or unprecedented uses of music. Lyrics, for example, once an expense in the form of liner note booklets, became a revenue stream for publishers. DJ mixes and remixes went from illegal to found revenue for rights holders.

Yet as a cohesive system for these digital fragments begins to emerge, new problems appear with it. How do you verify the license for a music track on a user-generated video on YouTube? And what if one of the ten songwriters on that music track didn’t know about the license and isn’t happy with the use?

Are you allowed to copy a playlist and publish it as your own with the same theme or a similar name? What about reconstructing an album compilation using different versions of the same recordings? Who gets paid then?

What kind of license do you need to use music in Virtual Reality or on a specially programmed backyard charcoal girl or exercise bike? How do you structure the revenue share on a tablet-based instrument that allows the listener to remix the stems of a charting song? What if they distribute that song?

Humpty Dumpty is getting put back together but in a way that doesn't look much like the previous music industry. Identify emerging uses first, and you just might find the first rolling pebble of the next avalanche.

Which seismic shifts have you noticed in the music industry? What rumblings do you hear on the horizon? Keep the conversation going at the Music Tectonics Conference, October 28-29 in Los Angeles, CA. Music Tectonics is about the big picture: how the minor tremors that ripple through the daily news add up to seismic shifts that shape the business of music now and in the future. See you at the epicenter!

Humpty Dumpty after his fall: from "Denslow's Humpty Dumpty" by W.W. Denslow (Public Domain)

Humpty Dumpty after his fall: from "Denslow's Humpty Dumpty" by W.W. Denslow (Public Domain)

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