Despite the legal troubles -- the failed lawsuit strategies; the blackmailing of grandmothers; the Attorney General of Oregon coming out in favor of privacy; despite Radiohead and Trent Reznor and Madonna taking their business elsewhere; despite Starbucks and Walmart showing they can sell albums as well as EMI can; despite the Mail on Sunday using Prince's new album as a marketing stunt; despite the unstoppable force that is BitTorrent -- despite all that, the industry chugs on.
The real story of 2007 -- the substrate of all those little controversies -- is more profound. It's the realization, by seemingly everyone on the planet, almost simultaneously, that one of the greatest marketing illusions in history has been eroding for a decade and now is on the verge of being completely gone. With the advent of the phonograph, music became widely available for the first time ever, entering people's homes and lives in a way it never had. The companies that stood to profit from these recordings did a hell of a job making music and its delivery device -- phonograph, record, CD, whatever -- inseparable in consumers' minds.
As David Byrne (Talking Heads) points out in Wired this month, though, CDs aren't music. They're merely one way of experiencing music -- a mode that really ain't worth anything anymore. CDs cost almost nothing to make. Recording's cheap. The record industry is a relic of a time when the rules were much different, where profits could only be wrung from vast economies of scale. That isn't the case anymore. File-sharers jumped ship years ago. Indie labels followed suit, adopting slimmer, more nimble business models. In 2007, some of the major labels' biggest names decided to go it alone and the exodus was complete. Music is music again. MP3s, CDs, concerts, podcasts are just a few ways we hear it.