The music industry stands
at an historic crossroads -- almost every aspect of the way people consume
and listen to popular music is changing, dwarfing even the seismic shift in
the 1880s when music lovers turned from sheet music and player pianos to wax
cylinders and later, in 1915, newfangled 78 rpm phonograph discs.
The one thing all of the experts agree upon is that these changes --
which are already under way -- will be dramatic, quick and inevitable. But
no one knows exactly where they will lead.
Compact discs, the dominant form of recorded music today, may be extinct
within the next few years -- or they may continue to appeal to some
percentage (know one knows the exact number) of (probably older) music
buyers, while young listeners turn exclusively to downloaded music files.
Concerts as we know them may become much rarer -- or they may experience
a revival on a smaller level, up to mid-size theaters, so long as promoters
offer great sounds at a good value.
Mom-and-pop record stores may disappear, as a consequence of downloading
music and shopping online -- or they may become ever-more specialized and
valued centers of the music scene.
Similarly, the audience for AM and FM radio may dwindle, thanks to
competition from satellite and Internet broadcasting -- or it may survive,
if programmers continue to view their stations as a center for communities
and not just pre-programmed jukeboxes.
To get some picture of what the future might hold, the Sun-Times turned
to 20 of the top people in the Chicago music industry -- including concert
promoters, retailers and radio programmers -- and asked all of them the same
question: Look into your crystal ball and tell us what you think the music
industry will look like five years from now.
Their answers are illuminating, and they offer as clear a picture of the
future of music as anyone today can accurately predict.
Ken Waagner Internet music consultant
Waagner, who works with artists such as Wilco and Lucinda Williams,
coordinating their presence on the Web, believes that CDs will still be a
part of the music world in five years, but the shift toward the Internet is
"It's a generational thing," he said. "Over the age of 25, people will
continue to have an attachment to CDs. Under 25, they may never buy a CD,
ever. I see an iPod being in every kid's life, or a Windows media player
being in everyone's hand.
"From a record company standpoint, it behooves them not to have physical
goods: There are breakage and shipping costs and manufacturing costs, and
selling files online is easier, cheaper and has higher profit margins. What
I really see is that more and more you will see artists being less dependent
on the record company as a whole."
Tera Siwicki National Academy of
Recording Arts and Sciences
Siwicki recently became the executive vice president of the Chicago
chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences -- the folks
who hand out the Grammys, as well as campaigners for artist's rights. She is
optimistic that changes in technology will bring a new emphasis to the music
side of the music business.
"As things get more electronic, the industry is going to have to come up
with much more creative ways to market a product besides cover art and liner
notes," she said. "And maybe the image of the artist won't be as important
as the music itself. If a song is floating around on iTunes, you're not
necessarily looking at the person, you're looking for music. If there isn't
a focus on the image, then maybe people will focus on the craft."
Bettina Richards Thrill Jockey Records
As the founder and owner of Thrill Jockey, one of the most respected U.S.
independent labels (and home to Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and many other
underground favorites), Richards sees digital downloading as only a small
part of her own label's future -- perhaps 20 percent of the business in the
next few years.
"Most of our artists, who maybe two or three years ago were opposed to
their music being distributed in that manner, have changed their minds,"
Richards said. "It's not their preferred format, but they'd rather that kids
pay for it than get it for free. But for those who still prefer to buy the
hard copy, we are really trying to make our CDs have something extra that
you cannot get from a download -- extensive information in a booklet, a
CD-ROM or DVD component, coupons for contests -- an extra reward."
Jim Powers Minty Fresh Records
A former major-label executive who founded his own record company (and
brought us Veruca Salt and the Cardigans, among others), Powers disagrees
with Richards -- he's convinced that CDs will be almost extinct within the
next five years.
"It's going to be a plastic-free future," he said. "In the same way as
you still have vinyl aficionados, some people will still buy CDs, but it
won't be the core source of income in the music industry. It's rocketing
forward at a much faster pace than I think anyone realizes; I'm certain that
90 percent of the music Minty Fresh sells will be via downloading."
Rob Miller Bloodshot Records
The co-owner of Bloodshot, another of Chicago's best-known independent
labels, Miller is pessimistic about the plight of indie labels like his own,
largely because of the challenges that face small retailers.
"The bloodletting at the independent retail level is just amazing," he
said. "And I think this bloodbath will make a lot of artists who are making
a marginal living off their music, selling 3,000 to 5,000 records, just get
frustrated and break up. There is just too much damn music out there, and I
think there is going to be a bit of a contraction in the next few years."
Mike Felten Record Emporium
As the model for selling music online evolves, Felten hopes that small
retail operations such as his store in the Lake View neighborhood will be
able to grab some portion of the downloading business. But he also sees
mom-and-pop record stores as centers for the musical community as much as
"I've likened going out and buying music to going out and buying a beer,"
he said. "You can buy a six-pack of Busch and go home for a lot cheaper than
going to a bar and getting a microbrew for six bucks, but you don't have
that social interaction. We have to make record stores more
destination-oriented. That's why we're doing more in-store performances;
people just don't want to sit home in front of their computer for the rest
of their lives."
John Laurie Planet of Sound
The owner of Laurie's Planet of Sound record store in Lincoln Square
believes the electronic fad will eventually pass. "I think there's going to
be a lot of broken MP3 players," he said, laughing. And he's confident that
he will still be in business in five years.
"I'm really not kidding myself, because when we first opened, people told
me I was insane to do it, and that was eight or nine years ago," Laurie
said. "No doubt online sales are a part of the business now, but they're not
everything. I just know the problem with downloading MP3s, and the sound
quality is still so poor.
"I don't believe there will be fewer mom-and-pop stores in the future --
it doesn't seem to go away, and I haven't been proven wrong yet. People like
coming in here."
Paul Harrington George's Music Room
The manager of the South Side's biggest independent record store is also
optimistic about the future of record retailers.
"I think the bottom line is, five years down the line, it's going to come
full circle: People are going to want to come out and go to the record
shop," he said. "Downloading music is so impersonal. Look at a barbershop:
Even if they had a way to do your hair differently, at home, people would
miss the conversations in the barbershop, and sooner or later, it would have
to come full circle.
"Where I work, people just crowd in here to talk about new music -- who's
coming out with what, did you hear what 50 Cent said about Ja Rule, you know
what I am saying? And even though you can get that information off of the
Internet, people still love talking to other people."
Scott Gelman Clear Channel
Gelman, the local vice president of booking for concert giant Clear
Channel Entertainment, believes that live music promoters need to "rekindle
or reinvent the passion" for concertgoers to survive.
"I'm talking to my 13-year-old nephew and my 10-year-old son, trying to
figure out what motivates them," he said. "They have so many alternatives
today -- 150 TV stations, 300 different video games -- that they are doing
things totally differently from what we did."
To draw new music lovers, Gelman believes that the industry has to
explore extra incentives such as offering live CDs of concerts on site --
and it has to lower ticket prices. "We have to get the ticket prices on the
lawn down to 12 or 15 bucks; second, we have to create a party atmosphere,
and third, we have to make these bands accessible to all different age
groups, not just the adults who can afford 50 bucks a ticket."
Andy Cirzan Jam Productions
Cirzan, a senior talent buyer for Clear Channel rivals Jam Productions,
believes that nothing will ever replace the live concert experience.
"The one thing I can say is there has not been a reasonable alternative
for how people can enjoy live experience," he said. "When Webcasting first
came up, people were saying, 'Here we go, we're just going to watch concerts
on TV.' It never happened, and anyone who's watched a Webcast can tell you,
it is just a grueling experience. So we're lucky in the live end of the
music industry that there's been nothing coming along that can replace that
"But I do see a complete and utter reinvention in the major-label system.
The amount of money invested in an artist is going to go down dramatically.
The amount of staff involved in working projects is going to go down
dramatically. The methods used and the moneys invested in promoting product
is going to go down dramatically. Everything's got to go down, and the
business has to completely reinvent itself."
Angie Mead Gunther Murphys, Abbey Pub
As a talent booker for two of Chicago's best rock clubs, Mead is
cautiously optimistic about the future of smaller venues for live music.
"The city makes it really hard to obtain the right permits and
everything, but I hope that we are still going to be here," she said. "There
are so many bands out there that aren't big enough to play 2,000-seat rooms,
but there are enough bands out there that can play rooms our size. We
definitely see ourselves as staying in the community and being a big part of
Chicago. People like going out and hearing music. It's one thing sitting at
your computer downloading MP3s, but you need to go out and see a band live
and support them live."
Joe Shanahan Metro, Double Door
The owner of longtime North Side music venue Metro and co-owner of Wicker
Park's Double Door nightclub believes that small and mid-sized venues need
to get smarter -- and fast -- about offering concertgoers more than just the
"We have to convince people that the live experience offers something to
get them out from behind their computers and TV screens, and that going to
that show is something special," Shanahan said. He is enthusiastic about
programs such as the new "See a Show, Buy a Show" feature at Metro and
Double Door (as well as at Schubas), where the venue, in partnership with a
company called eMusic.com and participating artists, can offer concertgoers
the chance to buy a CD of the show they just saw on their way out the door.
Bruce Finkelman The Empty Bottle
The owner of Chicago's prestigious Empty Bottle rock club also believes
CDs will soon be extinct. "Everything will be done online," he said. "And
sooner or later, bands may even stop putting out recorded stuff."
In the live music world, Finkelman sees trouble for small clubs. "I think
it may soon be all government-funded clubs and venues, like in Europe," he
said. "The small entrepreneur will be done. I hope I'll still be in business
in five years, but ask the city [referring to restrictive licensing
procedures] if they think I'll be in business. I mean, what I think and what
it is looking like are two very different things. I think [the city] will
lower the amount of places that will be allowed to have live music."
Michael Yerke House of Blues
The head talent buyer for Chicago's House of Blues maintains that the
live music scene is stronger today than ever. "We don't do arena shows, and
there is a lot more risk at the arena level, but at our level, it's
thriving," Yerke said.
"People are spending more and more time with video games and on the
Internet, but you can't match that concert experience unless you are there.
There is no way to duplicate being at a live show. No matter what you have
on your computer or DVD, it's not the same, so I am optimistic about live
music up to the theater [size] level."
Todd Cavanah B96
Cavanah, the program director of WBBM-FM (96.3), is another believer in
the inevitability of the CD's extinction.
"I predict that in five years, the majority of music buyers will receive
their purchases digitally," he said. "As a matter of fact, at B-96, we
already receive most of the songs we play in MP3 form. CDs are an
afterthought these days; it's much easier and more practical to listen to an
MP3 that we receive from an artist or management company and send it to the
studio to air."
Shawn Campbell WLUW-FM
The program director for the lauded community radio station WLUW-FM
(88.7) is optimistic that CDs won't disappear entirely. "I think it is going
to take a generation," Campbell said. "I don't think that five years down
the road, people who are accustomed to buying music in traditional forms and
have done so their entire adult life -- people my age, in their 30s and
above -- I'm not sure they are going to make that transition [exclusively to
digital]. I do think, unfortunately, a lot of small, independent record
stores are going to continue to go under, and buying music is definitely
As for the radio scene, Campbell believes that stations like WLUW are the
future. "I think that we here on the left side of the dial [dominated by
nonprofit and college stations] will continue to grow, while commercial
radio shrinks. Once again, people are looking for more alternatives, more
things outside the mainstream. You hear complaints about mainstream radio
that it is the same thing over and over again -- it's pre-fab, not authentic
stuff. So I think that college radio, public radio and community radio will
Bill Gamble The Zone
The program director of WZZN-FM (94.7) believes digital delivery will be
the future for all radio stations. "And there will be a point in the
not-too-distant future when you will be listening to a song on the radio in
your car, and you will have the ability to push a button, and someone like
Amazon and Yahoo will get it to your house the next day," he said.
"Eventually, though, it will be all digital: Everyone will be walking around
with 10,000 songs on their iPod."
In the radio world, Gamble thinks that the current crackdown on corporate
broadcasters will mean a shift to subscriber or satellite broadcast for
adult fare like Howard Stern, but that stations like the Zone will live on.
"As far as the music side, I think radio's power will continue to be
there: It is still the credibility stamp and the shared cultural
experience," he said. "If you walk around with 10,000 songs on your iPod,
that is great, but then when you hear one of your songs on the radio, you
go, 'Oh, wait, I have good taste and other people like what I do!' The
majority of people like to know that they like what everybody else likes."
Norm Winer WXRT-FM
"Consumers will just walk into a room in their house and download movies,
songs, albums and entire artists' catalogs and add them immediately to their
personal digital libraries, all of which will fit into their pocket," said
the veteran program director at WXRT-FM (93.1). But he believes there will
still be a place for radio as we know it now in the high-tech future.
"I don't think people will just be limited to radio for their listening
choices; there will be more specialized choices for every genre, for every
vintage of music. But good radio will survive in places where there is
respect for, and responsiveness to the audience, where there is a
relationship to the community, where there is sufficient talent and
relevance and artistry, so the station is providing a unique service. If it
is generic, I don't think people want it -- they can get that from
satellite. Localization is the main advantage of good radio."
Patty Martin The Drive
The program director of WDRV-FM (97.1) believes the FCC crackdown on
commercial radio will be a boon to satellite broadcasters. "Terrestrial
radio is going to have to adjust," she said. "But stations like ours have
nothing to worry about, and the attraction is still the localism. You can't
find [DJ] Bob Stroud, who you've been listening to and loving for years, on
satellite radio. And that is going to make DJs more important.
"Anyone can throw these records together, but you don't have the
particular personalities on satellite, or things like traffic and weather --
just being in tune with what is going on locally is going to give us the
edge. I don't think terrestrial radio is ever going to go away, just like
local television stations aren't going to go away, and it faced the same
thing with cable."
Elroy Smith WGCI-FM
The music industry needs to reprioritize, insists the program director of
WGCI-FM (107.5). "I really would like to see the music industry get back to
pure music -- artists like Alicia Keys," Smith said. "And radio as we know
it will continue as long as it remembers to serve the community.
"We need to learn more than just radio. The corporate consolidation will
probably continue, and new kids are not coming into radio, but I think it
will continue to be strong. You have more competition, so your product needs
to be good -- there's more competition from satellite and the Net, and
anybody can play a 'Slow Jamz' by Kanye [West], so the personalities make a
difference in terms of branding a radio station. We have to stay out there
-- sponsoring concerts and being a part of the community -- because if we're
just a jukebox, you know we're going to die."