State of the industry address

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: I hate to hear it referred to as “the music industry”. Music is not an “industry”. Music is not forged by giant steam-powered machines in foundries in the darker recesses of northern cities and towns. It’s an artform, lovingly tooled by craftsmen and women in country workshops.

This is, of course, nonsense. The likes of Goldfrapp may hide out in country retreats making music suited for hybrid mammals, and Kraftwerk may do all their finest work these days on 100-mile bike rides through the Alps, but it isn’t true for most acts nowadays, and neither should it be.

In fact, if there’s a good reason to refer to music as an industry, it’s that much of the finest music from the sixties through to the nineties grew out of grim, grimey, and secretly very beautiful northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield (oh, and also places like Detroit, Berlin, and the Parisian suburbs if you want to push this outside the UK). Some of the best creativity of recent years has grown from the cruellest urban environments, and to describe that as “industrial” would be completely right.

But when we talk about “the music industry” this isn’t normally what we mean. We’re normally talking about major labels churning out bubblegum hit after hit. Music somehow became very quickly a means for labels to make ridiculous amounts of money by selling consumers the same product time and again, either directly in the form of reissued, remastered, box sets, or less directly in the form of “manufactured” five-piece harmonising boy-band after four-piece indie girl band.

It’s not that I object to the charts being manipulated by these waves of dross. It’s true that I lost interest in the Top 40 about the time that Pop Idol and its predecessors and followers started to gain popularity, but they’re no more at fault than Love is All Around spending its fifty-third week at number one. What I object to is the constant cynical attempts by “the industry” to appeal to their lowest common denominator. The public likes Take That, so let’s give them Boyzone. This week they’re buying Oasis, so why not give them Menswear too? Sometimes perfectly valid artists, but clearly only propelled to stardom because they fitted the particular perception of the time of what should be on the top of the charts.

Meanwhile, “the industry” continued to find ingenious ways to sell us new copies of exactly the same items we owned already. Yes, you may have had Tubular Bells in its original LP form, but do you have the new “CD”? Do you have a tape for the car? Do you have the sequel, or the new gold-plated limited edition? Do you have the special collector’s edition branded sparrow? Oh, and by the way, the original CD wasn’t very well mastered, so why not buy a 24-bit digital remaster, which is available with or without bonus tracks or in a special box with extra paper to prevent you from opening it…

And then, jumping forward to today, they wonder why people prefer to illegally download things rather than buy them.  Perhaps it is because the public is a bunch of cheeky thieving misfits who just want everything for free. Or perhaps it’s because the over-commodified musical “products” of the eighties and nineties managed to saturate their own market? Perhaps the consumers, fed up with being treated as a constant cash cow, finally decided enough was enough, and started looking for other ways to consume their music?

In this occasional series (in the “industry” category on this blog) I’m going to argue that the current state of the music business, for all of their complaints, is the inevitable result of the way that us consumers have been treated for the last few decades. The game has gone full circle to one where the consumer is now able to dictate what they want out of the bands and record companies, and for some reason this has left The Man a little upset…

More to follow…