Killing the Music
By Don Henley
When I started in the music business, music was important and vital to our
culture. Artists connected with their fans. Record labels signed
cutting-edge artists, and FM radio offered an incredible variety of music.
Music touched fans in a unique and personal way. Our culture was enriched
and the music business was healthy and strong.
That's all changed.
Today the music business is in crisis. Sales have decreased between 20 and
30 percent over the past three years. Record labels are suing children for
using unauthorized peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing systems. Only a few
artists ever hear their music on the radio, yet radio networks are battling
Congress over ownership restrictions. Independent music stores are closing
at an unprecedented pace. And the artists seem to be at odds with just about
everyone -- even the fans.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the root problem is not the artists, the
fans or even new Internet technology. The problem is the music industry
itself. It's systemic. The industry, which was once composed of hundreds of
big and small record labels, is now controlled by just a handful of
unregulated, multinational corporations determined to continue their mad
rush toward further consolidation and merger. Sony and BMG announced their
agreement to merge in November, and EMI and Time Warner may not be far
behind. The industry may soon be dominated by only three multinational
The executives who run these corporations believe that music is solely a
commodity. Unlike their predecessors, they fail to recognize that music is
as much a vital art form and social barometer as it is a way to make a
profit. At one time artists actually developed meaningful, even if strained,
relationships with their record labels. This was possible because labels
were relatively small and accessible, and they had an incentive to join with
the artists in marketing their music. Today such a relationship is
practically impossible for most artists.
Labels no longer take risks by signing unique and important new artists, nor
do they become partners with artists in the creation and promotion of the
music. After the music is created, the artist's connection with it is
minimized and in some instances is nonexistent. In their world, music is
generic. A major record label president confirmed this recently when he
referred to artists as "content providers." Would a major label sign Johnny
Cash today? I doubt it.
Radio stations used to be local and diverse. Deejays programmed their own
shows and developed close relationships with artists. Today radio stations
are centrally programmed by their corporate owners, and airplay is
essentially bought rather than earned. The floodgates have opened for
corporations to buy an almost unlimited number of radio stations, as well as
concert venues and agencies. The delicate balance between artists and radio
networks has been dramatically altered; networks can now, and often do,
exert unprecedented pressure on artists. Whatever connection the artists had
with their music on the airwaves is almost totally gone.
Music stores used to be magical places offering wide variety. Today the
three largest music retailers are Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target. In those
stores shelf space is limited, making it harder for new artists to emerge.
Even established artists are troubled by stores using music as a loss
leader. Smaller, more personalized record stores are closing all over the
country -- some because of rampant P2P piracy but many others because of
competition from department stores that traditionally have no connection
whatsoever with artists.
Piracy is perhaps the most emotionally gut-wrenching problem facing artists.
Artists like the idea of a new and better business model for the industry,
but they cannot accept a business model that uses their music without
authority or compensation. Suing kids is not what artists want, but many of
them feel betrayed by fans who claim to love artists but still want their
The music industry must also take a large amount of blame for this piracy.
Not only did the industry not address the issue sooner, it provided the P2P
users with a convenient scapegoat. Many kids rationalize their P2P habit by
pointing out that only record labels are hurt -- that the labels don't pay
the artists anyway. This is clearly wrong, because artists are at the bottom
of the food chain. They are the ones hit hardest when sales take a nosedive
and when the labels cut back on promotion, on signing new artists and on
keeping artists with potential. Artists are clearly affected, yet because
many perceive the music business as being dominated by rich multinational
corporations, the pain felt by the artist has no public face.
Artists are finally realizing their predicament is no different from that of
any other group with common economic and political interests. They can no
longer just hope for change; they must fight for it. Washington is where
artists must go to plead their case and find answers.
So whether they are fighting against media and radio consolidation, fighting
for fair recording contracts and corporate responsibility, or demanding that
labels treat artists as partners and not as employees, the core message is
the same: The artist must be allowed to join with the labels and must be
treated in a fair and respectful manner. If the labels are not willing to
voluntarily implement these changes, then the artists have no choice but to
seek legislative and judicial solutions. Simply put, artists must regain
control, as much as possible, over their music.
The writer is a singer and drummer with The Eagles and a founding member of the Recording Artists' Coalition.