Blog: The Only Constant

Mark de Jong

“Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.”

- Confucius

It has been both fascinating and challenging to be part of the music industry over the past 20 years. Change has been relentless; as soon as you feel like you have a handle on the latest development, you realise that the ground has shifted underfoot once again.

I had a breakthrough moment a few years ago when I had the opportunity to spend a morning listening to futurist David Houle address a number of New Zealand’s music industry leaders. David talked to us about some of the changes happening because of technological advances and how they were likely to take place over the coming five to ten years. It helped to put so many things into perspective for me.

Even more impacting than the specific insights David shared were some of the overarching statements he made. Statements like:

“You will see more change in one year of your life than your grandparents saw in their entire lifetimes.”

“Change is the new constant and will accelerate constantly in the future.”

“Accept that almost no approach or method will last very long, it will be out of date as soon as you master it. If you have found a successful formula that is working brilliantly now and you don’t develop it further, you will be losing your edge within a year. Get comfortable with constant change”

At Parachute we have navigated a fair amount of change over the past couple of years - having David’s words sitting at the back of my mind has helped a lot.

The music industry continues to change and we can only guess where it will go to from here. It doesn’t seem long ago that the industry’s financial model was based on promoting and selling physical albums. Touring costs could be written off based on the fact that playing live would help an artist sell more albums.

The digitisation of music and the expansion of the internet introduced us to the concept of pirated music; music illegally distributed, free of charge and available to anyone with an internet connection. Innovator Steve Jobs came to the rescue with iTunes and the iPod, a simple, relatively cheap way for people to access almost every song being produced anywhere in the world.

Record companies saw hope in the possibility that digital sales through download services like iTunes could end up replacing the revenue streams from physical products like the CD. Alas, just as digital sales were tracking to make the music owners some decent money the newer technology of music streaming through sites such as Spotify started to take hold. Now people didn’t need to download and own their music, they just needed to subscribe to a streaming service and have immediate access to millions of songs. Why own a limited library of music, when you can have every song available anytime you want it?

The ease and logic of the new streaming services has decimated the income from music on iTunes. Now the industry is hoping that enough people will subscribe to Spotify and other streaming services to make up for the demise of both physical product and download services like iTunes. I think that’s unlikely.

The new reality as I see it is that technology has now allowed music to be produced for very little money, it’s also relatively cheap to promote that music and the costs of distribution are close to zero. I don’t think we can expect the sales of music in physical form to bounce back to previous levels, it doesn’t make technological or financial sense.

In the end these changes are mostly good for musicians and listeners. This new reality means that most of us are listening to much more music and artists can now build a big fan base without spending a lot of money. The artist wins in the currency of loyalty; when a lot of people listen to their music, those same people will pay money to see them perform live. The fees artists receive for performing live have grown hugely in the past 10 years as a result of these changes. Good news for artists, great for music lovers, but not so good for record companies!

Record companies like many other organisations have to face the reality that technology has taken much of the power away from the middlemen; the promoters, the distributors. This is part of a new reality.

Who can predict exactly how things will develop from here, but I think we can rest assured that more musicians and songwriters will be writing and producing more songs. These new songs will be cheaply and readily available to us all. All things considered, I reckon that’s a pretty good thing!

Read more from the Parachute Magazine Summer 2015 edition.