The Internet blew up that business model, and helped breed a generation of numbnuts who've never bought an LP and think digital music is free.
The refrain from the experts hoping to salvage the industry has been somewhat consistent over the past few years, and it was no different at this recent conclave in San Francisco: "We see in the future a much better experience; holistic offerings," said one technologist.
The idea is that interactive media and UGC can take the place of Top 40 radio exposure to drive interest; smart search and sharing tools will replace packaged CDs in retail racks to enable purchase; and videos or other enhanced content, like linking to live shows, will help support premium prices. Oh, and ads will get sold and put on everything.
Does all that technological innovation improve the music experience, or perhaps detract from it?
For most souls who ever walked the planet, songs were things you sung. Music was live, often impromptu, and mostly amateur. Considering a consistent mix of talent in past generations, that means most songs were also bad. And yet people loved the experiences.
While I make no claims to musical ability, I have a simple recording set-up in my basement that is better than what the Beatles had at Abbey Road. Anybody with a Mac computer has a portable, easy-to-use studio in GarageBand. Games like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" let even the tone deaf and musically challenged step onto stage. More people now have the capacity to make music easily, more often, and more collaboratively than ever before.
Yet the ultimate decider isn't in how they do it, how good it is, or who profits from it. Now, just like in the old days, people don't hum songs because there's great plush available with the release, or to enjoy putting digital files from web sites onto USB drives. They sing songs because they're singable, and neither technology or talent are required for that experience.
There's money to be made selling content, and the industry can find new ways to charge people for consuming a limited amount of professional music. But I wonder if the real a-ha is to find ways to monetize how a couple billion amateurs make it?