As with Adam’s anticipation of the demise of the newspaper, the demise of the recording industry has been prophesied for some time now. Periodic transitions from one medium to another have been disorienting, but it wasn’t until the digital era, when ripping tunes and file swapping became ubiquitous, that the economic model of the recording industry got to be seriously undermined. (Others have disagreed with me on this point in the past.) The RIAA has made itself a scourge by acting to protect its members’ intellectual property, which I find a legitimate response but others insist is preposterous. This is a brief background to provide context.
What surprised me to learn was that the recording industry has had a larger hand in its own eventual failure than even I suspected. As this article describes in some detail, recording companies (labels, if you wish) competed to attract listeners and sell albums, but rather than focus on developing musical groups and creating the best possible musical product (or maybe in addition to those things), they adopted a subtle technological trick to harpoon listeners. Louder music (average level rather than peak level) tends to give the impression of better quality to typical listeners, so over time, the dynamic range of music was flattened or compressed while made louder overall. The side effect the industry should have foreseen is listener fatigue, which causes customers to turn off the music.
This competetive strategy looks conspicuously like the tragedy of the commons to me. A few thoughtless competitors abandoned their values for a temporary and illusory edge in the marketplace until the practice became so widespread that the music itself was compromised. I suppose there are plenty of examples of both principled competition and weaselly competition. In this case, the weasels sealed their own fates first by enabling infringers and then selling listeners short (not in that order chronologically). Oddly enough, neither of these practices has had the same effects in the classical and jazz markets, where the best possible medium and best possible musical material have always been used to stimulate listeners’ interest and album sales. What a shame those simple values are lost in mass markets.