Why Fashion Thrives & Music Dies

timberlake300Fashion and music are inseparable industries, joined at the hip and usually happy to be so. Designers make fabulous clothes for musicians (and concert T’s for their fans); fans emulate their idols, and their idols, in turn, try to capture fresh new trends from the street. It’s a thriving ecosystem — one that the Lear Center has studied in some detail — and it has spawned many a celebrity designer, from J.Lo, to Jay-Z, who have found a way to translate their fashion sensibilities into mass produced apparel.

We all know how troubled the music industry is — I promise not to bore you with the details — but a recent development demonstrates why the fashion industry continues to rake in the money while the music industry unravels. We’ve all watched as our favorite indie record stores were shuttered, and now we sit slack-jawed as the big guys — Tower Records and Virgin — close their most iconic stores. The most recent casualty is Tower Records on Broadway in New York. Long a hang-out for NYU students, the store’s demise is a clear sign of the failure of the industry to deal with digital technology and the copyright issues that have poisoned the relationship between consumers and corporate gatekeepers. Even more telling is the fact that the old Tower store is being replaced by a Steve & Barry’s — a place that once sold cheap concert T’s but now enlists celebrities like Venus Williams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Amanda Bynes, Stephon Marbury and Laird Hamilton to hawk cheap fashion designs of their own making. Customers at the 264 Steve & Barry’s stores are generally aghast at the ultra-low prices (well below H&M, Wal-Mart, Old Navy, J. Crew and Forever 21) without sacrificing quality and with the extra sizzle of a brand-name celebrity endorsement. What thrifty fashionista could resist?

Eric Wilson at the New York Times offers this insight:
Fashion, as it has become more accessible to a generation that is obsessed with the mass emulation of celebrity style, has surpassed music (and the increasingly archaic concept of the record store) as the retail touchstone of youth. And cheap fashion has become infinitely more respectable, even cool, given the current economic climate.
There are lots of reasons why a low-end fashion retailer might dance on the bones of a big-box music store. For one, the apparel industry churns out material goods that consumers can’t instantly replicate without breaking out some thread and scissors. But here’s the rub: if a consumer did want to make an exact copy of a famous designer’s work, they actually could — there is virtually no copyright protection for garment design, which allows any potential Project Runway contestant the freedom to knock-off anything that inspires them. The only thing they can’t do is sew a fake CHANEL label in their new creation — that’s trademark infringement. Why is this important? One reason is that it allows the fashion industry to be fast on its feet — it doesn’t need to get legal clearance to use a bow that was originally created by Yves St. Laurent — it can simply sample from the panoply of colors, textures and shapes that capture the modern zeitgeist. It can respond quickly and creatively to new ideas, new priorities, new consumer needs — and it can offer a vast variety of these goods at lower price-points than consumers have seen in the past.

I’d be the last person to blow off the relevance of music to our culture, particularly youth culture, but the industry has made too many tragic mistakes in its effort to control the distribution and use of its products in the digital age. Even Sony BMG Music Entertainment chairman Andrew Lack admits that the music industry is to blame for all its headaches. Perhaps this explains why top brass from Universal Music Group showed up at Jerry Del Colliano’s Media Solutions Lab at USC this week, where undergrads energetically pitched ideas about how Universal could reverse their sorry fortunes with new business models. The ideas came fast and furious — sell ad-sponsored CDs, target the gay market, bundle tracks with t-shirts, build personalized virtual music stores, create a Saturday morning cartoon — from a group of students whose general cohort (age 13-34) no longer drives sales for top 10 albums (at least that was the case in 2006 and 2007).

But there are some reasons to have hope. Sony’s Andrew Lack mentioned two new initiatives that are not far afield from ideas the students pitched to Universal: Nokia’s ‘Comes With Music’ initiative allows cell phone users to buy or rent music on their phones, while the ‘MySpace Music’ initiative has the blessing of Sony, Warner, and Universal Music Group. Both represent the industry’s recognition that they must embrace digital platforms and make a sincere effort to reach out to a demographic that they’ve long taken for granted.

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