To See the Future of the Recording Industry, Look to Pac-Man

In his 2007 novel “Spook Country,” one of William Gibson’s characters sums up the demise of the recording industry to a musician:

“In the early 1920’s, there were still some people in this country who hadn’t yet heard recorded music…Your career as a ‘recording artist’ took place toward the end of a technological window that lasted less than a hundred years, a window during which consumers of recorded music lacked the means of producing that which they consumed. They could buy recordings, but they couldn’t produce them.”

Gibson managed to distill, into a single paragraph, the angst of many a record company exec.
Three major labels — Vivendi’s Universal, Warner Music and EMI — last year started selling DRM-free music online, with Sony BMG widely expected to soon follow suit. And today, Napster said it will soon start selling music downloads as unprotected MP3 files. The industry is hastily reinventing itself as it comes to terms with the uncomfortable realization that companies like Apple and Amazon own their distribution, even as the RIAA tries to put the download genie back in the legal bottle.
Consider a similar chain of events in recent history: The evolution of the video arcade. In the late 1970’s, teenagers flocked to the arcade to play the latest video game. There the machines stood, side-by-side, identical wooden boxes, their only unique feature the garish paint jobs. Most had the same controls (Robotron and Missile Command aside.) For a while, the quarters flowed.
Consumers soon acquired the means of producing that which they consumed. Home computers and game consoles brought the gameplay into the house. The flood of quarters dried up.
Today’s arcade is a different beast: The machines are about the experience, featuring motorcycles, snowmobiles, elaborate headsets, boxing gloves, dancing pads, and so on. The arcade industry reinvented itself, making arcades about the experience rather than the content. Many of these controllers are following the consoles home, as Dance Dance Revolution pads and quiz-show buzzers and Lilliputian guitars.
The recording industry is undergoing a similar transformation. Games like Rock Band, Guitar Hero and Singstar take music beyond just the recording. This was the reasoning behind MTV’s purchase of Harmonix, and the subsequent release of Rock Band this holiday season. Marry this to Internet-connected consoles and storefronts like Microsoft’s XBox Live, and maybe music publishers can find ways to revitalize the musical experience.
And because of the work involved — annotating songs, splitting instrument tracks, and marking those elusive little stars — consumers will be hard-pressed to produce their own experiences. DRM won’t be relevant, because the content it protects is only a fraction of the experience the labels are selling.