Thoughts on the longshot hope for a music-industry “rebound”

In the annual exchange of New Year well-wishes, several friends have expressed the hope that in 2013, the fortunes of the music business will turn for the better. I’d like that too. I’m not optimistic though. Not simply because of the reams of data suggesting that in the future it’s going to be more difficult, not easier, for creators to be paid for their work. Or flaws in the delivery systems, or anything structural like that. (Right on time, Lefsetz checks in with one of his pithy and incredibly insightful Top Ten Issues lists, it’ll probably post on soon….)

I’m beginning to think that the only meaningful way to change the climate surrounding music is to focus, at least a little, on the listener. The arrogant, over-indulged, everything-all-the-time consumer who has learned, over several generations now, that his taste is king, his playlists are all that matter. The listener who dashes off the minute something is too intense, or weepy or in some way challenging to his/her sensibility. It’s a question of receptivity: Talk with enough recording artists, and a frequent lament has to do with how people “don’t give unfamiliar music much of a chance.” Obviously this is a sweeping generalization; plenty of people do it, every day. But there’s a truth in there – about how narrow the window for charming people has become, and how reluctant listeners are to actually immerse themselves in things that don’t enchant them immediately. It’s a game of seconds and nano-seconds now. No matter that lots of music of significance doesn’t thrive in that framework; one’s ears need to “orient” to it, and often the first encounter is a frustrating one. Who has time to go back and revisit anything?

The choices are now all instant. Which means the reactions can be instant; no need to wait for the end of a bothersome song, as in radio days, to be entertained. We are in control now. No waiting for the serendipitous discovery to beam in from a distant tower in the wilderness. We search with the knowledge that bliss is a click away. Bliss our way, unmediated, no filters. Which, hey, that’s all fine. No judging here. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if part of what we long for when we talk about some sort of “rebound” for music has to do with the music itself – the respect (or indifference) we accord it, the value we assign it, the time and attention we devote to puzzling out its mysteries.