THE sound you hear emanating from the offices of major record companies in this country and overseas is not the happy tune it once was. Today, label executives are singing a lament for the demise of the old business model, when labels ran the show and made a profit from artists who were, for the most part, dependent upon them to fund, release, and support their singles and albums.
The business has been radically and forever changed by the advent of new means of distributing music via the Internet, through downloads and the ever-decreasing cost of equipment that allows artists to make their own music and release it directly to fans.
The latest, and one of the most dramatic examples of this new world, is the decision by the British band Radiohead to digitally release its new album, "In Rainbows," only days after completing the work, rather than waiting a more-traditional period of months to allow a marketing, distribution, and tour plan to kick into gear.
More radical yet is the price: "It's up to you," the band tells fans on its Web site. In other words, fans will buy the album for whatever price they think is appropriate.
Equally radical departures from the past recording and distribution pattern have been seen recently. The artist Prince allowed his album to be given away with a British newspaper.
Some bands record their own concerts and allow fans to buy a disc of the show they have just seen shortly after the performance is over.
Add to this convulsive mix the issue of illegal downloads of music - in the news recently with the conviction and fining of a woman in Minnesota for sharing copyrighted music online - and the transformation of the music business is clear.
As always, there are winners and losers. While some bands may wish to shake free of what they view as the shackles of record companies, allowing music to freely circulate on the Web can prevent artists, songwriters, and the labels from collecting money that is due to them for their work.
If labels cannot collect a fair return on their investment in artists, they could be forgiven for going only with known quantities, with artists already successful, not taking a chance on performers outside the mainstream.
Perhaps the fragmentation of the music business, the go-it-alone ethos that seems to be permeating it, will allow unknowns to be heard, and new music to filter up, by word of mouth and Internet buzz.
But what if those who download Radiohead's album don't think it's worth much? Or anything? How many artists can afford to fund their own recording for free?
In an era of the homogenization of mainstream music, the actions of Radiohead, Prince, and hundreds of other artists may be a battle cry for independence and artistic integrity.
Or it could be a sign that record companies will soon bet only on classic rock and American Idol finalists, leaving new-music purveyors to fend for themselves.
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