Just in case anyone reading this hasn’t already heard, here’s the deal. Prince – legendary musical genius and all round sexy motherfucker – has decided to take his ongoing fight with the record biz one step further and give away his new album…with The Mail on Sunday. WTF? I’m no expert on the demographics of The Mail on Sunday readers but, and here’s a wild stab in the dark, I’m reckoning that they’re not generally fans of the purple one…nor are they likely to be particularly liberally minded when it comes to ‘new music’. But that’s by the by (as opposed to buy the buy…’cos he’s giving it away…oh come on, this is gold dust). The point I’m struggling to make is that the music ‘business’ (in its traditional sense) has just taken one more step …okay it’s been frogmarched then… towards extinction. Earlier this year Music Zone, a cut price music and DVD retailer, went bust. Some of their stores were taken over by Fopp Records…another cut price music and DVD retailer. Guess what…they’ve just gone bust too. Sanctuary Music (the biggest independent label still around) is about to be sold for a fraction of its value, music industry execs are leaping form tall buildings (okay, not yet…but give it time) and even HMV is looking decidedly shaky.
Are they all about to permanently deleted? Well, if Alan McGee (Creation Records boss) has his way it’s a distinct possibility. He’s decided to start giving away the music of the bands that he manages and thinks that trying to sell it nowadays is simply a waste of time and money. Instead he predicts that bands will make their dosh through tours and merchandising. Hmmm…it’s a nice thought. So we don’t need record labels now do we? Do we? Certainly a lot of the stuff that the bigger labels churn out is a whole heap of shite. The growing number of smaller ‘indie’ labels on the other hand seem to be doing a pretty great job. But are they making any money? Are the bands making any money? Are we in danger of getting to a stage where most musicians have to get a ‘proper’ job? What happens when the live music scene goes cold again? We’re living in a pretty prosperous age at the moment but, and if there’s one thing I learnt from my Economics A level (I think there was just the one thing…) the economy is a cyclical old bugger and could well turn around and bite us all on the ass pretty soon. The thing that troubles me is that a growing number of people (me included if I’m really honest) see music like water. They turn on a tap and out it flows, a never ending supply of tunes. Like it or not, that (on some kind of level) devalues the music.
Whilst I don’t want to see big corporations get fatter, surely if it weren’t for record company advances in the past, passionate A &R men (I’m sure they’re not all weasels) and never say die pluggers many of the greatest albums ever made might not have made it to the ears of the masses. Look at most of the really big tours now too. Reunion shows and greatest hits. Sure you still get loads of bands doing their thing, making music in their bedrooms and touring in the back of a van - and long may that continue - but I’m talking here about the next Arcade Fire’s, Super Furry Animals', Bjork’s…Prince’s even…fairly cool artists who break through to more of a mass market thanks to a combination of good music but also the marketing and PR might of a big record label. Spend a day online and you’ll probably find 100 bands you love but who’ll never get anywhere…bands who deserve to ‘break’ so that they get something for their hard work and the wider public realises that there’s more to music than the 20 Best Shopping Songs or Nick Knowles Sings the Hits of REO Speedwagon (if that guy ever releases an album it’s a cert for number one…he’s on every freakin’ TV show the BBC seems to make these days).
Of course a growing number of bands are leaving (or being forced to leave) record labels altogether and set up on their own. Again a great idea in principle - cut out the middle man and go straight to Mr and Mrs (and Ms…and Miss) Punter. But surely to make this work you have to approach it all in a fairly businesslike way…and since when has the act of creating great music (as opposed to commercially successful music) been about business? Will you get more and more bands doing just what the big labels have done and modifying their sound to fit in with what’s big? “Of course none of this is new” I hear you cry “you’re being naïve, music has always been a business really”. Maybe. But in the past most of the business end was managed by fat old men smoking cigars or cocky 20 year olds with flashy haircuts and sharp suits. Now it looks as though the business bit might have to be managed by the lead singer and drummer of the Shag Donkey (not literally, but you get the idea).
For the web savvy music fan, things don’t look too bad. After all we can gain access to all kinds of stuff for nowt. But, for the general public…the 99% of people who don’t spend hours hunched over a PC downloading and listening to stuff, I’d say the future looks as bland as a bread sandwich (that’s bread with a slice of bread in the middle, topped off with a slice of bread). The big corporations (step forward Google, Clear Channel, News International, Apple etc) will control pretty much everything. Mavericks will be starved out of existence (‘cos being a bit weird and all that ain’t really profitable) and we’ll be left with a nice little underground scene attended by a few ‘cool’ people and loads of enormodomes hosting reunion shows. Oh…it’s already happened hasn’t it?
Right. So what have we learnt? Bugger all. Just a series of questions really. I’d be intrigued to hear what up and coming bands make of it all though. Is it getting tougher to ‘do’ music full time? Are small labels making any money? The only thing I do know is that you can’t just keep giving music away and not expect some form of fallout. McGee predicts years of ‘anarchy’ (quite what he means by that is anyone’s guess)…place your bets.
PS: By the way the Prince album isn’t bad. A bit Prince by numbers, but then after nearly 30 years that’s kind of what you’d expect. If you’re quick you can still probably get one for £1.40 with a free copy of The Mail on Sunday…bonus…er…well maybe not.
PPS: Enough with the rain…seriously…cut it out…it’s getting on my tits.