Legalization: the Music Industry’s Next Great Opportunity
This has not been a great century for the music business. Revenues are down year after year, an entire generation's worth of royalties have disappeared into the ether, and the digital future is much brighter for hardware manufacturers and pundits than it is for the artists and musicians who are constantly filling the content hole opened wide by our allegedly benevolent tech overlords. Musicians' ability to feed themselves with the work that they create is often contingent on the whims of marketers, sponsors and crowdfunders. There was a major shift in American consumption habits, and the music industry sat out the planning stages, only to have an epic fucking meltdown when they realized were gonna get screwed by the same tech overlords promising a brighter digital future. For the sake of future generations of musicians, we, as an industry, must not let the next major shift in American consumption habits pass without our input and guidance. The music industry needs to support the legalization of marijuana.
That the music and marijuana industries have a long-standing relationship is no secret. The two have been comfortable bedfellows since time immemorial, building a culture in the face of prohibition. The music community has been marijuana's biggest advocate in the modern era, propagating the idea that hey, this shit is not evil. And marijuana returned the favor by fueling the creative fires of some of music's greatest visionaries. Would the gatefold vinyl album cover have become so prevalent if '70s prog fans hadn't had to sort the stems and seeds from their paleo-dank? Would Cypress Hill have sold close to 10 million records if they had been rapping about Bud Light instead? What if Sleep had made Tobacco Smoker instead of stoner-doom classic Dopesmoker? (For starters, it would have been three minutes long and stunk.) The two fields are so intimately intertwined that it's easy to just assume that the music industry is on board with legalization.
But that's not really the case.
There are some artists who are vocally pro-legalization and have been for decades — Willie Nelson, Snoop, Cheech and/or Chong — but consider the sheer scope of musicians who use and reference marijuana. Where are Florida Georgia Line? Why aren't they out on the campaign trail, talking to rural voters about about the benefits of marijuana and the need for legalization? They are the bad boys of bro-country, and yet, pffft. And they're typical of the industry at large. Beyond on-brand activism, the music industry is sitting out the campaign to legalize marijuana, and in so doing is setting itself up for a smaller share of massive potential profits. Those that anticipate and capitalize on this massive swing in consumption habits will make a mint, and those that don't are going to be squawking about Spotify royalties until the cows come home.
Historically, this situation is not without precedent. The rise of what Frank Zappa called the “psychedelic dungeons” in the 1960s, with their immersive light shows and jam-encouraging format, was fueled by the prevalence and popularity of then-legal LSD. The dungeons helped pave the way for the LP era and its emphasis on long-form song composition. Likewise, when the legal drinking age was dropped to 18 in the mid-'70s, we saw the rise of perma-adolescent hard rock, the sound of hormones and cheap domestic lager. And the brain numbing glow of mobile internet is obviously responsible for the rise of sad-boy rap. (I kid! Maybe.) New developments in vice are almost always mirrored in the music industry — the cocaine / '80s divorce rock Venn diagram is an impressive one — but an opportunity like the legalization of marijuana doesn't come along very often.
According to Gallup, 13 percent of American adults will actually admit that they smoke pot to a stranger on the phone, up six percent from 2013. Some folks are projecting that with legalization, marijuana use will hit almost 20 percent, and could be generating $11 billion in revenue by 2020. That's one in five adults, with expendable income, walking into a store and purchasing a physical thing that they can't download. These are folks that are actively consuming and entering a third space to do it. As anyone that has had to listen to their weed dealer's mixtape will tell you, marijuana creates a captive listening audience. An audience who knows that music sounds better, as the old saying goes, on weed. One in five adults who no longer have to worry about going to jail, who don't have to hide their choice to smoke pot, who can consume their given intoxicant without hiding behind the goddamn dumpster like a corpse on a shitty cop show. One in five adult Americans who are going to get stoned and want to listen to music, live and on record.
Making sure that customers' expendable income is spent on music before it's blown on munchies is a merely a matter of placement. Music needs to be alongside marijuana every step of the way, from the retail environment to the concession stand at the Enormodome. Should the industry be reclassifying the aforementioned gatefold album covers as drug paraphernalia and trying to get them in every dispensary and storefront they can? Yes. Duh. Even more than co-branding opportunities like Colorado EDM producer Flosstradamus' vape pen or Leafs by Snoop, the high-end edible line from the Doggfather himself, the mere existence of new physical spaces where music fans can congregate could help rehab some of the community aspects of the listening experience that were decimated with the loss of widespread record retail. Like the head shops of yore, which were essential for fomenting the American counterculture, the next generation of marijuana retailers are going to have a profound effect. The music industry needs to make sure that it secures a prominent place in this new economy.
Not to mention, there's an opportunity here to fundamentally change the concert industry. There's a long-running joke in the concert world that the music is only there to sell beer. And beer works great for a lot of music experiences, but not all. This opens up the possibility for an entirely new approach to concessions at concert venues. Whether it's Zac Brown-style eat 'n' greets or THC-infused soda in the cheap seats, there's a lot of potential for live music to monetize its marijuana connections. Imagine everything from small clubs featuring local bands to weed-specific amphitheaters catering to heritage acts — James Taylor would slay in a shed full of stoned boomers, not to mention, you know, Sabbath. Audiences are still looking for an immersive entertainment experience; the folks that can provide through quality talent-buying and audience-tailored intoxicants will come out winners in the coming years.
Sparking a bowl and singing “Legalize It” in your best Peter Tosh voice isn't going to make this stoner utopia materialize out of thin air, though — many challenges exist on local, state and national levels. Legalization is currently a state-by-state, city-by-city patchwork of laws with different punishments and rules, all of which are sort of canceled out by the Feds and their insistence that marijuana causes gum disease and plane crashes. Guiding the bureaucracy of legalization is essential to guaranteeing that the music industry can be profitable in this new economy. Music has steered the national conversation about weed for generations — Malia Obama didn't get busted smoking reefer at the library; it was at Lollapalooza — but it also brings a Jeff Spicolli-shaped stigma to business and legal negotiations.
Reputational issues are compounded by the weed industry's inability to use typical bank services. The current instability and unpredictability of the marijuana market is enough to scare away more cautious investors and business partners, including members of the music industry. Likewise, the folks who are willing to take the risk before legal recreational marijuana becomes the status quo are the ones who will get a bigger piece of the market when the dust settles. Allowing outside forces — be it capital or cultural — to determine the value of music within the marijuana economy is allowing music to be devalued. We saw it happen with the digital revolution; it's not unreasonable that other industries will expect similar treatment. If the music industry establishes a value for their product within the legal-recreational economy early on, they won't find themselves begging for scraps later. The marketplace will mature, the cultural stigma will fade, and 10 to 20 years from now, when the market matures, the music businesses that grew with the pot industry will have an outsized cultural impact. An established stoner music scene will offer more than one-note rappers and two-note metal bands, and will likely blur many of the lines separating musical subcultures today.
Yes, there will still be a place for sophomoric pothead bands and the gas station attendants who love them, but the Kottonmouth Kings fan club will have less sway regarding the direction that stoner culture takes. Don't be surprised if venues that peddle in “sophisticated” music like jazz and contemporary classical are early adopters of the recreational-weed-as-concessions philosophy. Don't be surprised if you see nightclubs becoming more comfortable, if you see security policies shift and loosen. (As any security industry professional will tell you, a room full of stoners is easier to deal with than a room full of drunks.) And don't be surprised if there are smaller, less noticeable changes in the way that way that weed and music interact in the public space.
Normalization of marijuana consumption is going to produce some weird side effects. The music industry needs to anticipate and guide those side effects (just like that buddy that talked you down from those killer brownies junior year) as legal pot consumption becomes the norm. There is art to be made and there is money to be made, but only if the music industry helps make it happen. Complacently allowing the lawmaking cycle to evolve on its own is not an option. Taking an active role in the campaign for legalization is absolutely essential for real change.