Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"The Business of Music"

I've just caught up with BBC Radio 4's "The Business of Music" with Matt Everitt. Very interesting reflection of what happened to the music industry when illegal downloading reared it's head closely followed by iTunes etc. Explores the idea that the labels reaped what they had sown by embracing CDs and repackaging their back catalogues, making huge amounts of money until technology allowed the CDs to be ripped and the music shared for free.  I think it's fairly clear that whilst the industry had a monopoly on the distribution of recorded music consumers could be treated pretty badly. 

I wrote about this subject a few years back when HMV was going into administration. 

"When I was getting into music as a child/teenager HMV was pretty much the only place I could buy music. I’m talking about the late 90s and early 00s. This is before YouTube, Spotify and iTunes. Other music shops existed of course but HMV was ubiquitous in town centres. I didn’t have the knowledge or interest to seek out independent record shops and it seemed that HMV was more likely to have the product I wanted than Virgin Megastores and the others. So for years as I was developing my music tastes and knowledge I used HMV almost exclusively and it seems to me that I was taken advantage of. I collected every Beatles album, I devoured CDs by Travis and Stereophonics. I paid about £10 a pop for this stuff. Very occasionally I purchased singles and that cost £3.99 a go.  Buying a CD was a pretty big deal to me and I had to save up to do it, but it was exciting to have that physical thing that represented a band or artist. This makes me sound about twenty years older than I am but I did indeed sit on the bus home from town and unwrap my new album so that I could sit reading the sleeve. Ah, the sleeve. A little booklet with information, lyrics, photographs, exciting stuff! Except that for many of the albums I bought this was a disappointment. I was collecting albums from the 60s and 70s that had simply been scaled down to a CD booklet from a 12 inch sleeve. A couple of tiny pictures and hardly any information at all. Modern CDs naturally did better in this respect and I have fond memories of some lovely CD artwork that added to my enjoyment of the music. I’d have to pay more for the really good, inventive artwork though. I know that the record industry at large is to blame for all this, but I feel HMV did play it's part. Did they really need to be charging me that much, particularly considering that their clout and very generous arrangements with record labels meant that they helped put many smaller retailers out of business altogether?

Later everyone had the internet at home and illegal downloading started. I wrestled with my conscience over illegal downloads but looking back it’s not hard to see why my generation went for it like mad. Then came legal downloads, why buy a CD in HMV for ten quid when you can get it cheaper and quicker on your iPod/Mp3…for the naff album artwork?  Then what I‘d call a real revolution came with YouTube and streaming. Suddenly you didn’t even need to own music to listen to it whenever you wanted, and not just music but film and TV, so who was going to spend money on it?

Me, that’s who! By this time I was driving so I wanted my music with me in the car. I wanted to be legal so I didn’t bother using YouTube to “steal” music and burn it to CD. I downloaded legally but I also still went into HMV quite often to buy CDs for the car. To be fair I mostly just bought CDs in the rather wonderful 2 for £10 section, but like a fool I did still pay top wack for new albums that I really wanted, even though I knew full well that I was paying more than I really needed to.

Eventually though my attitude and habits changed. I’d find myself setting out to buy a CD or DVD from HMV and actually stopping myself when I saw the price. I’d browse the store and make mental notes to find the stuff I liked the look of online and get it cheaper. A combination of a new car and iTunes match meant I could use my phone to access all the music I’ve ever owned without it taking up physical space in the car or digital space on my phone.

However, even last Christmas I was in HMV buying presents, again knowing that often I was paying more than was really necessary. I still like a physical CD even though really there’s no need for them and they take up too much space. I’m admittedly behind with movie streaming so I still buy DVDs. 

So what’s my conclusion? I don’t know really, just those mixed feelings. A big part of my coming of age was spent in HMV stores deciding what I liked and who I was. Some of my favourite albums came into my life because I happened to notice them on the shelf whilst browsing, something that doesn’t happen online in quite the same way. I feel sorry for people who can’t/don’t/won’t use the internet to get music, and are therefore losing a very important outlet. As I mentioned above its very sad and frightening for a large number of people whose jobs are at risk, a tragedy when added to the numbers who’ve already lost jobs due to the closure of other high street names.

I do think that HMV made mistakes. Mistakes in the way the behaved towards me and their other customers when they pretty much had a monopoly on music sales. Mistakes in the way they reacted to a changing market place, and the mistake of becoming more generalised as the business struggled.

However, perhaps there is a bright future. Perhaps we may finally be moving away from that much criticised high street model that has been the norm for my whole life, the feeling that all town centres are the same. Maybe new and innovative independent stores can now flourish by specialising in something. Who knows, perhaps HMV will be a part of that change."

I'd now add this final thought that my experiences of the last few years have demonstrated that whilst the traditional models of music creation and consumption are moribund, technology is allowing communities of music makers, supporters and enthusiasts to pool resources and share ideas in a way that it seems to me is much fairer than in recent history. The profit margins for selling recorded music may be vastly different, but it wasn't always the creatives who saw the benefit in the "happy times" anyway. I have a sense that we are heading towards a CAMRA situation where sizeable groups of music lovers have decided they want to keep music creation alive and are prepared to support it. Community gigs, house concerts, folk clubs, online radio, podcasts, forums, websites, Twitter feeds, FB recommendations, online record stores like Fish Records, pledge music campaigns and the like are allowing artists to continue to produce music. What's more it's really democratic; people can choose who to support and how to go about it. As an artist I've decided I don't need to follow the business plan or creative models insisted upon by major labels or dyed in the wool media outlets. I can follow my own path and if people want to join me and help with time and investment we can interact directly to decide how this can best be done. What's more this support goes directly to making more music, not funding a creaking colossus who's main concern in making more money from both artist and listener.  

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