With the news that one of South Africa’s premier music chain stores, Look & Listen, has filed for business rescue, given the unprofitability of 14 of its 19 stores, it is opportune to reflect on the misfortunes of what was once an incredibly viable and dynamic music industry. Where did this all go so wrong?
On reflection, the writing was on the wall so many years ago, when globally, music companies were decidedly slow off the mark in embracing the new digital technology. In the mistaken belief that it was their right alone to dictate the course of music’s transition to the new digital format, many music companies chose rather to alienate purveyors of digital music, by taking a somewhat arrogant stance against them, apparently having no inkling or understanding that this new format was set to explode across the world.
Uploaders of music, many of them in their early teens, were punished with summonses and companies such as Napster and others who were disseminating music on the internet, for free or for monetary gain, having no rights whatsoever to do so, were also sued.
But surprisingly there were initially no significant digital offerings emerging from music companies, and the question must surely be: why didn’t the music companies take the initiative upfront and build these digital distribution platforms?
The art of communication and negotiation had disappeared in favour of a newfound aggressive stance, and physical music sales started to slide, with hardly any upsides accruing to record companies from digital sales platforms.
While music companies bemoaned their declining earnings, so too did the artists, producers and composers of music, who had every right to be able to profit from the fruit of their endeavours, these being their intellectual property rights. Music retailers also started to feel the pinch, as their customers unequivocally turned to illegitimate websites, as the industry termed them, which were offering free or low-cost music in the digital format.
It is widely accepted that Apple iTunes saved the industry by offering a great vehicle for paid songs – their famed iPod – and to date the site has sold well over 25 billion songs. The music industry did later come around as record labels turned to new income streams to counter falling physical sales with rising income coming from live performances, merchandising, sponsorship, publishing, as well as downloads and online streaming. But was it a case of too little, too late?
Where to now for the music industry? Well, as with overseas countries, we too have seen brick-and-mortar music stores closing down, and with customers seemingly diminishing, it’s not quite the same browsing in somewhat empty stores.
Music and allied promotions, though, can do with a fresh injection of creativity in order to put some excitement back into the stores and also into the digital format.
To this end, what appears to be sadly missing is the sense of purpose and commitment of the “music men and women” of the pre-digital era, who through sheer passion, ability and know-how, always knew how to rise to the occasion and rally the customers with dynamic and creative new music and catalogue releases, backed with superb promotions. Is it a case where making music happen takes a lot more than what techno savvy guys and dolls are currently bringing to this party?
* Irving Schlosberg is a former music company executive.