Every time I read another article about the death of the compact disc and the end of brick-and-mortar music retail, I start to feel old and crotchety. I mean, what is it with these young record industry whippersnappers? You may have your iThis and iThat and your uploads and downloads, but you've also got a memory about as long as the average dung beetle. It's not like this sort of thing hasn't happened before. For Pete's sake, doesn't anyone around here remember Jack Kapp?
The troubles the record business had back in 1933, when Kapp was working at Brunswick Records, make today's troubles seem like a walk in the park. That year was the low point of an 11-year slide that erased more than 90 percent of the industry's total sales. During that time, radio had emerged as the hot entertainment medium, and the new technology had many convinced that the record as a viable commodity was doomed. After all, who would pay for music when you could hear it for free?
The Great Depression made the situation even worse. As a result, the major labels consolidated -- by '33 there were only two still standing. And in the face of declining demand, they steadfastly refused to lower prices.
Enter Jack Kapp. A former music retailer and record company A & R man, Kapp was the Ahmet Ertegun of his time, searching the dark corners of the United States to find blues singers, jazz acts, or hillbilly combos to record. In the worst possible climate for the record business, Kapp had the crazy notion to start his own label, Decca Records. He signed up friends from his A & R days -- obscure country and blues acts as well as big stars like Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers -- and sold their records for up to a third less than the major labels were charging, while promoting the bejesus out of them with heavy advertising.
Following Kapp's lead, other labels began to cut their prices, which dovetailed with a slow, fitful improvement in the economy, so more people could afford to buy records. The swing craze also exploded in the middle of the 1930s, which made people excited about buying records again. By 1941, with Decca leading the way, record sales had risen fifteen-fold to a new high.
Sales in 2007 aren't nearly as bad as they were 75 years ago. The economy is in relatively good shape. But there's no equivalent of swing that's galvanizing music lovers and getting them excited about buying music again, and hasn't been for years. CD prices have come down, but too little too late. People are now accustomed to getting their music for free -- whether from copying their friends' CDs or going to illegal file-sharing sites -- so expensive packaging or other innovations will be necessary to keep physical music viable.
But the biggest thing we're missing today is a Jack Kapp-type of visionary: that one person who's got good ideas, the money to implement them, and the guts to risk that money in order to save the industry. Both the pundits in the press and the record label execs are busy asking "What's the point in trying to sell CDs anymore?" when they should be asking "How can we get more people interested in buying CDs again?" Nobody's pretending that the revenue from paid downloads and ringtones will make up for the lost revenue from declining CD sales anytime soon. But rather than trying to save the CD, industry insiders are trying to bury it while it's still kicking and screaming.
Who knows if one maverick could ride into town and fix what the major labels and the RIAA have been screwing up for the last decade? But it's sad that we're not getting the opportunity to find out. While pundits and insiders line up to shed crocodile tears on the grave of the record industry, the ghost of Jack Kapp looms over the proceedings with a knowing smile.
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