But Wait. Doesn’t This Industry Need More Crap, Not Less?

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Most are mediocre at golf.

They drive balls into the woods, make embarrassingly bad putts, and massacre an otherwise pristine course.  In fact, the number of “scratch” golfers, or those hitting scores that are “par for the course,” is slim.  Yet, these so-called “duffers” come back for more every weekend, and often plow thousands into equipment, greens fees, and tournament tickets every year, not to mention hours supporting advertisers through television and internet engagement.  These amateurs play crappy golf, no doubt, but they are critical for the golfing industry on a number of levels.

The similarities to the music industry are worth noting.  Last week marked the beginning of the “Great Hobbyist Debate,” as one onlooker coined it, and opinions on the matter are all over the map.  Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the pure hobbyist and the aspiring artist that may lack the talent, dedication, time commitment, resources, or originality to truly reach a serious, self-sustaining level.

Certainly, these distinctions get blurry – pure hobbyists can become quite serious, and aspiring artists can improve and refine their material to attract serious fan bases.  And some notable musical movements – including blues and punk – were hardly created by virtuosos.  But the hobbyist group – however defined – is critical for the future of this industry.

The proof can be found in an often ignored sector of the industry – musical instruments.   Sure, instrument sales are taking a serious hit in the Great Recession, but the general trend has been sharply upward – as in, billions upward.  CDs dropped more than 50 percent last decade, but more and more music fans are picking up instruments and playing.

In fact, sales of musical instruments were $14.8 billion in 2009.  That was down 15.4 percent over 2008 based on slimmer wallets, but more than double the 2003 tally of $6.92 billion.   The latest number was counted by Music Trades and reported by the IFPI, which counted recording sales of $17 billion last year.  These are two sectors within the same music industry, but with completely opposite arcs.

Somehow, underneath the rubble of a crumbling recording industry, some serious fertility remains.  The industry has collectively recognized that musical appetites are incredibly strong, thanks partly to unlimited access to music, lyrics, videos, tabs, and everything in-between.  Of course, part of that is happening at the expense of the recording and publishing industries, but not everyone is losing.  More fans are downloading for free, but more are picking up consumer electronics devices, phones, and musical instruments as well.

More importantly, more are reigniting or starting lifelong relationships with music across lots of different genres.  Sure, that includes plenty of amateur players that will never “go pro” or reach virtuosic levels.  Most will be “crappy” in the end, and hey, many are simply enjoying themselves on the weekends.

But playing music often goes hand-in-hand with listening and buying music, an appreciation that often lasts a lifetime.  Obviously this is benefiting musical instrument manufacturers, but it’s also benefiting direct-to-fan channels like TuneCore.  People are in the game, as listeners and participants.

Does that make it harder to market a talented artist?  Absolutely.  The “cluttering” of the channels is not as much of an issue on iTunes, simply because of its search-driven architecture.  But for most aspiring bands, iTunes is just the beginning.  The rest includes Facebook apps and pages, email accounts, and competition for blogger mentions.  In other words, ‘push’ platforms.  This, in turn, is part of a much more crowded media and communications environment.

But better to have more crap – lots of it – than the opposite.  It makes marketing and scaling bands much, much harder, but it also creates lots of opportunities for filtering concepts, hardware and physical sales, and companies that eventually work.  It also represents the output of a population that really, really loves music.  Not every industry is so lucky.

Paul Resnikoff, Publisher.