People have been talking about the "Future Of The Music Business" for years now, long before the words internet, downloading or streaming were part of the mainstream vernacular. After the disco boom went bust, many predicted the end of the record business; instead, almost 20 years of unprecedented growth followed, because of the launch and success of the CD format.
The thing that you learn about the music business if you stick around long enough is that it's cyclical. There are endless ups and downs, shifts in listening trends, new technologies and distribution formats. The business is always evolving, sometimes playing catch up, sometimes ahead of the curve. There is consolidation, and a blooming of independence. This is both the past and future of the music business.
Back in 1998, I worked for PolyGram Group Distribution as their VP of New Media. It was a weird time, as PolyGram was being sold by Philips NV to Seagrams, who were going to merge us with Universal Music. Many heads were going to roll in this merger. And although this was still in the glory years before file sharing really took hold, the emergence of new media made a lot of people nervous. There were those who rightly suspected that new computer technologies would bring about democratization of the creation and distribution of music, threatening the record labels' long established control. Nobody knew whether new media would a good thing or a bad thing; part of my job was to figure it out, day by day.
My boss at the time was a guy named Jim Caparro, the President of PGD. In 1998, he was invited by Billboard to speak at their Worldwide Sales Meeting about the future of the music business, and he asked me to write the speech for him. "Write something about everything that's happening," he said. This was a huge opportunity; the entire industry was watching the PolyGram/Universal merger, and there would be a roomful of peers and reporters listening to him speak. Thematically speaking, what we all knew was ending, and a wholly unpredictable tomorrow was coming. It was time to either adapt, or risk extinction.
After a week of procrastination and a little bit of research about Richard Warren Sears (whose foresight in response to an abandoned box of pocket watches gave birth to direct to consumer marketing), I sat down at my pc at 1 a.m. on a Thursday, started typing and didn't stop until I was done, at 6 am. I didn't write so much as purge, weaving much of my personal anxiety over this uncertain future into the speech. I turned it into Caparro, and the draft I gave him is what he used, not one word was changed. His talk was well received at the conference, and the following week Billboard put the speech on their front page, ran it in its entirety. My boss got calls of congratulations and accolades. I was just happy he thought I did a good job on it.
So 17 years later, I'm cleaning out a box of old memories, and I find the issue of Billboard with the speech in it, which I kept. I had forgotten about it, and looking at it I laughed and said "let me read this with all this hindsight and see how naive I was about all this." But I read it, and surprisingly it didn't seem naive at all. I wouldn't call it prescient, but a lot of the questions raised did become big issues, some of which the industry is still dealing with today.
Looking back, I think it was pretty ballsy for Caparro to give this speech when he knew so many would be listening, because the record business doesn't like to change, no matter how often it has to. And really, we only adapted to the internet, to file sharing, to streaming, because we were forced to. And you rarely make the best decisions when you're being forced.
Here's the speech in it's entirety. It's long, so if you read it, thanks. It's a curiosity from a more innocent time. Or maybe it's a reminder of how many questions about the future of the music business remain unanswered today, 17 years later.
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