The Music Business

Rock Concert” by motumboe is marked with CC BY 2.0.

A few nights ago a post (by Channel Zero) describing how the music business was blindsided and completely shaken up by the arrival of house music in the mid 1980s got me thinking over how in some ways the music business as we knew it never really recovered. Channel Zero mentioned how we’re now left with a few often lip-synching massive artists dominating music globally. And this is of course true except of course that the music industry makes a fraction of the money it made before the internet took off.

The financial return on streaming, and downloading is minuscule compared with the days when everyone faithfully trotted off to the shops to buy their hugely overpriced CD’s and before that vinyl. This massive reduction in their earning capacity is just something that the music industry has gradually with much gnashing of teeth been forced to live with. Physical copies of music are at the very end of their life – most smaller record shops went went what seems like a lifetime ago often victims of the supermarkets. However even here Sainsbury’s has recently stopped selling music completely and Asda is apparently following soon so aside from a tiny niche market music will soon be virtually all about digital versions on your hard-drive. In the USA you can now get a number one album with a ludicrously low number of copies sold, and those figures even factor in downloads of whole albums. The same is true in Britain where beyond a couple of acts Ed Sheeran and the now past her peak Adele who still manage to sell very well indeed (incidentally do these two represent the final triumph of pop over rock?) you can have a number one album with a very small amount of units shifted. Thus a dated cult act’s fanbase can purchase enough copies to make number 1 if the campaign and avoidance of bigger artist’s new releases hype id planned well enough, We saw this only the other week with ‘never was’ indie band The Wombats (“who’re they?” I hear the majority of the population say) and before that with the admittedly bigger Marillion, but also achieved by a very cleverly conceived marketing strategy. Needless to say the Wombats album fell to number 98 in its second week on the Top 100 album charts. And the album format itself is about to implode completely after about seventy-five years of the consumer having to (usually) buy a whole load of filler to get a few decent tunes.

American hiphop acts have already started stopping making albums and the rest of the industry is gradually following suit. Albums will soon be as niche as the “ever-growing vinyl market we’re continually told abut because hipsters like/liked it, yes “ever-growing” to still only a negligible fraction of an already tiny amount of physical music copies and about 1.5% of music still sold in total. Album sales of any kind are now so insignificant in the UK that it looks like Fleetwood Mac’s forty-six year old ‘Rumours’ and Queen’s forty-one year old ‘Greatest Hits’ will remain in the top 30 or thereabouts in perpetuity or until they cease compiling the chart. And we can thankfully forget the Marxists and their mass-murdering and now failed creed when it comes to the ‘little man’ triumphing in at least one relatively important sector of the capitalist machine in a way that the communists could only ever dream of. A triumph that has made the cocaine-binge fuelled and sumptuous conspicuous consumption of the music business of thirty years ago now appear like a barely remembered ‘dream’. The music business was once so greedy that every album’s inner sleeve used to sternly warn us that “home-taping was killing music” because yo might want to give your friend a cassette recording of an album you’d already spent an arm and a leg buying yourself. They were never satiated with their ever-increasing inflow of our money. But the internet had a very nasty surprise in store for them As I’ve already said streaming and downloads which are now virtually the way the vast majority of customers consume music produces a derisory economic return compared with the days when physical copies predominated.

And as I once read in an internet article the days of a musical ‘artist’ being able to make a career out of selling (rather than performing) music have gone the way of an occupation as a tallow-candle manufacturer. After all time ever remorselessly moves on. And as we now know even the live music audience is now itself a fraction of what it was with only a handful of acts capable of making big money out of it. Ironically most of the largest behemoths still stumbling around the global live circuit are acts that came to prominence in the 1960s or 70s. This can at least partly be blamed on the fact that the kind of music that made up much of the live circuit for years was one based on acts utilising electric guitars. The guitar, bass and drums format being about as ‘happening’ to the majority of people under thirty these days as Kenny Ball and trad-jazz was to mid-60s youth when the Beatles and Stones were in their pomp. The meant the music industry tried any means to desperately try to hang onto their dying empire and its ever-diminishing returns. This of course encompassed the sledgehammer to crack a nut and vindictive legal campaigns to sue persons for thousands of dollars who had downloaded a few tunes for free. Or in some cases the parents of children because unknown to them their fourteen year old had downloaded something on the home computer. This only increased the population’ in general’s animus against what they saw as the record moguls’ unquenchable avarice. And anyway everyone knew that you had to be incredibly unlucky or stupid to ever be caught and so the idea of paying to buy music amongst (aside from a few snowflakes who I’ll return to shortly) the mass of consumers became decidedly “square daddio”. This development whether right or wrong was indefatigable and unrelenting and human nature tells you that even amongst the families of the industry insiders who fulminated against it free downloading was far from unknown.

But gradually over a decade or two it dawned on the music industry that the party was well and truly over and there was a whole generation who would no more think of buying music when they could get it free than someone would of buying a typewriter. Obviously this has happened in the film industry too with pirate downloads of new releases but that’s another whole story. I mention it here however because as with the music business piracy should not shoulder the whole blame for the two industries’ financial impecunities. The one thing film does have in common with the music sector of the entertainment is that a simple dearth of good product has compounded the problem of the pirates. Electric-guitar driven rock music seems to have reached the end of its fifty year life as the music de jure a position it held from the mid-60’s when it began to be taken seriously and written about by intellectuals to its feeble sputtering out around the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Jazz its immediate predecessor and creator of many of the rock tropes had had more or less exactly the same trajectory as its successor. It started as a boundary breaking but purely fun music in the first decade of the twentieth century as rock had in the mid-50s. Then just as rock later did it rose to dominate the whole of popular music. By that I do not mean just straight jazz but the way jazz chords and overall musical structures insinuated themselves into a large proportion of pop and easy listening music well into the 1960s. However the advent of ‘serious;’ rock music in the mid-60’s when it had mutated from its fun music beginnings meant jazz lost its hallowed place as the inspirer of much chin-stroking at the universities as rock now became the chosen music of the bohos and hipper intellectuals at the universities with favoured releases being dissected as if they were tablets handed down from on high. And just like jazz had fifty or so years before simultaneously rock based musical forms took over the music industry en masse not just as straight rock but as the mechanism that powered a large proportion of commercial pop from the mid-60s onwards. As as aside and unlike jazz, rock from its splitting off from its partly black origins in the mid-50s as blacks themselves started to shun it as passe music for ‘whitey’ rock-based music always had to share the market with the parallel universe of purely black music forms from soul to funk to electro and hiphop. And especially in the UK this parallel world contained many white followers who also largely shunned it like the black music audience in the States but with the added ingredient of reggae in the mix. And then just as jazz had lost its pre-eminence in the mid-1960s sometime around rock music’s last day in the sun characterised by a mid-2000’s rock ‘revival’ band consisting of ever paler, derivative copies of the original 1960s template, electric-guitar based rock music suddenly seemed very antiquated to a new generation brought up on rap and electronic beats and something your dad listened to, if we’re being kind or your grandad did if we’re not. Now to return to my earlier comment about snowflakes and paying for music.Of course some people do pay for downloads and streaming services but amongst these there has aways been a large vein of Guardian-reading middle class snowflakery.

Much of their subscription to monetarised streaming services is driven by a streak of “we have to support the artists or they won’t be able to make music, and anyway it’s stealing”. Of course this is all very moralistic but something they conveniently overlooked when they were happy to buy their music from multinational companies that were prepared to sell the most sexually explicit or violent imagery to the youngest of children. And who also had their tentacles buried deep in the arms-industry and so the military-industrial complex which brings us in a roundabout way back to the existence of the current situation in the Ukraine… Another oft heard cry from the bleeding hearts relates to the ‘tragedy’ of musicians no longer being able to have an outlet for their creativity which to be brutally honest is a crock of shit because any new music-maker coming up during the last last twenty years has known it is extremely unlikely that there is a money-spinning career awaiting them. And anyway if creativity is the argument home-studio equipment has never been cheaper and more effective if you are after professional sounding tunes. After all electronic tunes recorded on bedroom studios have been crossing over to the pop charts for the last thirty-five years. And for the music maker this has the added advantage that the music then made can be sold direct to the consumer and so completely circumventing the middlemen in the industry completely. Don’t expect the general population to be crying because certain people will now no longer be able to sit in mansions living off cocaine. After all as a keen reader of history book I don’t remember ever hearing of mass grief when the majority of blacksmiths and chimney-sweeps lost their jobs. Although after a long battle the original founders of The Pirate Bay were imprisoned and apparently forced to cease their activities, what they had set in motion was already too powerful and too self-sustaining to ever be stopped by an already enfeebled music industry, running on yesterday’s business model. And so what the The Pirate Bay (and its predecessors) had started exploded exponentially to the point today when anyone with the slightest modicum of intelligence has only to input the words Pirate Bay (or YouTube if using a downloader) into his or her computer to get for free virtually any piece of music or film still in existence And a VPN disguising service for your IP address makes the whole process just about as safe for the user as anything ever could be.

As someone who over the last thirty or forty years ago became increasingly disgusted by the industry’s ever growing profits for an ever worsening quality of music, and the immense liberties taken (especially in the UK) with the pricing of compact discs, I can’t say that I’ll cry myself to sleep at the news that the old style music business has crumbled to dust. As was mentioned by the original poster the seeds of the music business’s eventual doom were sewn with the advent of computer-based and often home produced electronic dance music in Chicago and Detroit in the mid-80’s. Actually as an aside the seeds of the finished product may sprouted in America but were actually conceived in Britain (and Germany) inspired by the British synth-pop of the New Romantic era of the early 1980s which itself like Chicago took much from Kraftwerk’s pioneering music of the 1970s. And of course without the English those Chicago house sounds that eventually took over the popular music world may well have remained a brief dance craze in a few clubs in north-east America. It was the English who initially took these tunes into the pop charts and eighteen months or so in in London in 1988 ultimately created rave culture which thirty-four years later spans the globe and carries on unabated to this day. Ironically the white youth of its birth place (the United States) being the last to “get” the music as late as a couple of decades after it kicked off in Europe. So with Britain’s creation of such an unprecedented change in modes of popular entertainment on a global scale that must be yet another uptick for this “small island off north western Europe” to borrow that trite little phrase used by the more insane members of Remainer fringe. This rave culture that England gave the world being a mass-based movement that completely sidestepped the established music industry for a time after its inception but had turned to cuckooing the industry’s nest when cyber culture finally delivered the coup de grace to a decadent and altogether unpleasant business. I should imagine if in an alternative history scenario where somehow the internet had arrived twenty-five years earlier and the demise of the music business as we knew it had happened at rock music’s peak creative period, arguably 1965-73, there may have been more of a reason for at least a few regrets but the ever diminishing quality of music since those years, in tandem with the industry becoming an ever more greedy beast had removed from the hearts of many any feeling of sadness for its eventual plight. So what are we left with in 2022 a handful of big acts who can make a still relatively large amount from tours, and a couple from releases too. But with a but with a large proportion of those final few mega-touring concerns now reaching their 70s and 80s and so the end of their performing years the scene is likely to become ever more denuded over the next few years.

There are of course a handful of large modern pop acts (Ed Sheeran, Adele etc) and some couple of Rap/R&B acts out there but no large scale rock act has broken through on a global scale for the best part of twenty years. (The same period as from the end of World War Two till Beatlemania or the birth if rock ‘n’ roll until the arrival of the Sex Pistols, so I think it’s fair to say if it is only dormant it must be on the verge of extinction as a modern form of mass entertainment. Even a lot of the summer music festivals now consist of only pop, r&b, garage, rap and other dance-based acts. And surely if anything was ‘the festival’ was the last bastion of rock music. And and the consumption of any type of music is more or less totally based on non-physical copies selling for a fraction of what their physical counterparts used to. And with a massive proportion of the population taking all their music for free as they get all they want from peer to peer sites, torrents. YouTube download programmes and the rest. Decent music will be still made but it will driven by individuals who put it out as a hobby for purely creative reasons. My particular favourite genre (along with classical music) is trance/hard trance of which tens of thousands of tunes are produced every year globally. But no-one who puts them out out expects to make more than pennies from selling it and the way to making any real money in that sphere is from becoming a well known DJ as well as producer, but even here the days of the superstar DJ have largely vanished aside from a few ‘legacy’ names, the ‘legacy’ here comprising the individuals who became massive during the latter half of the 1990s and the turn of the millennium when trance contented itself with taking over Europe before setting off on its world travels., So there you have it a vastly altered music industry living off a handful of ageing sixty or seventy something rock acts along with, pop and rap acts. And the triumph of a completely new business model where the process misses out the music mogul completely and the producer/vendor sells directly to those interested in his particular niche in a market fragmented into a multiplicity of different genres. And where your chance of making big bucks is about the same today as it would be setting yourself up as a maker of those erstwhile typewriters.

© LancashireOldeEngland 2022