Oliver Sacks, neurology’s finest poet and a man who recently declared that he is in the climactic stages of terminal cancer, once wrote of music that it is so real to us, and so mysterious and untellable in its power to manipulate our desires, our perspectives and our mentality, that it appears to be almost a living thing. As a species, in a way that transcends mere culture, humans love music as if it were a living thing: Nietzsche could not have been alone in believing it one of the few things in itself for which life is worth living. If music is indeed as good as alive, it might be pertinent to ask what stage of life our music, and today’s industry, is in.

Fiscally, music is a simple business. Like any art, the highest or lowest, at nearly any time in the history of human culture, our popular music is made at a cost and for a price. As in any form of art, the best of it is made by the most dedicated and the able. As a given artist’s prospects diminish, as they have begun to and continue to in the industry’s current climate, the likelihood of great art being produced falls in a perfectly logical arc. In this simple fact rests the very simple, not-so-secret truth to the continued health of the industry: its lifeblood is the artist, that most remote and mysterious of figures whose ways are often oblique to us and which we romanticise until they become so.

However the story of today’s industry, by conventional narrative, is a never-ending parry between people who love and consume music, by buying it or listening to it, and the industry that supplies them. The artists are forgotten, caught in the middle, the most important and vulnerable element in the conversation much like children caught between arguing parents. Music consumers and the industry do not have an evenly combative dynamic in this parry, and the results of this imbalance and of the debate in general are highly damaging; the rot is only beginning to appear now, but in time as with any cumulative disorder it may eventually become so widespread and deliquescent that the industry, and the music itself, may cease to live.

Something so innocuous seeming as the BBC’s industry-mounted Sound of the Year critical poll can raise enormous frustration from music fans: while a number of artists of substantial quality, Adele first and foremost among them, have graduated from it, music’s more devoted lovers are not off the mark to suggest that the poll is not all that interested in attracting new listeners to any kind of cutting edge. Yet, again, we find the relationship between the music listeners and the industry forms a maddening ouroboros, with both guaranteeing the other’s dissatisfaction and frustration.

While many of the most ardent music lovers abuse the system that fulfils them by getting their music, one way or another, without paying for it, the industry is left no choice but to appeal only to the people who do: reasoning with most file-sharers that their system is unsustainable and a futile business. As a result, the richness in the variety of music the industry is able to put out is limited and we are left with the diametric culture of modern music: of the gilt-edged mainstream, where cultural management is more the key to success than the quality of the work. And the quagmire of the alternative, a mess of vain, sometimes brilliant music of varying quality in craft, which demands great patience from any explorer – a demand that could be called unreasonable. The middle ground between them, so often the place for the finest of all works of popular music to flourish, is moribund.

Ironically, for a method that was naively considered at first to be Robin Hood-esque in its aims to empower the artist at the expense of their industrial benefactors, the modern culture of music consumption is essentially an artistic feudal system. The business has adapted how it can: by being toothless in risk-taking, by placing the focus on brand creation as opposed to the artist’s work, and by growing ever more frugal with what they are able to pay their artists.

The old tales of humble musicians being thoroughly exploited by avaricious record labels are true in some instances, but they are exaggerated and discount the far more widespread phenomenon of managers conning artists through the medium of the ‘small print’. While such a thing was certainly possible for a new artist entering the business, the fate of one entering the business now, barring exceptions few and far between, is singular and inevitable: being on the treadmill for life. The fatal irony of it all is that this feudal system has two overlords: the record executive, who does pay the artist as much as they are enabled to for their work, and the consumer who pays nothing for their music, who, in an attempt to deprive their rival overlord, does not.

There is nothing that has ever guaranteed an artist phenomenal riches for their efforts: it has always depended on your level of appeal. But to reduce artists to ever more complex personal circumstances, ones which will inevitably hinder their work (as is the result in any occupation where prospects are limited), can have no good result. For, let us not forget, that these people are imbued to one degree or another with very special skills. They are able to create that which seems to be alive, and which is capable of enlivening us. From Bach, who had the church, to Joyce, who had generous aristocracy, to the Rolling Stones, who had the industry, the finest creations in art have always come from a space in which many factors align favourably: financial stability and some form of systemic support are always necessary among them. Fine music is still being made and will be still for the foreseeable future: but so long as consumers of music abide by their current model, which places them as receivers of an absolute benefit, we will not be getting the best. Worse still, its visibly inhospitable condition may drive away much of the best potential talent. Some will dedicate themselves to a newly thankless profession anyway out of love or indifference to anything but the craft; many won’t. The only way of stopping this is by refining our principles as lovers and consumers of music. We can wait for sound reason and good judgement to win out over opportunism, but it will be a long wait.

As human beings we can be given to abuse towards those and that which we love. The future of the music industry will be determined largely by how honestly a huge proportion of the industry’s consumer base can come to terms with the damage they are doing. As many of them have been allowed to forget the price of a song, so are they beginning to misplace their knowledge of its value. If you are one such music lover, the music industry’s current state may seem stable, favourable even to you. An objective diagnosis suggests otherwise, and without the good faith of its lovers, the music as we know it cannot and will not live forever. As any doctor who has informed a patient that their condition is terminal will tell you, it’s about when you spot it, and how fast you act.

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