The music industry – 2003

We’re only in it for the music

In 2003 Steph Coole began writing an article for City Lights, assessing the state of the music industry. Now in 2006, as the last of the big-five record labels finally throws in the towel, he delivers a verdict.

This is supposed to be the start of a new era for the last of the big-five dinosaurs – an invite-only gig showcasing their market-saving protégées, The Next Big Thing. Before the show the label’s Chief Exec explains how his latest, favourite band will take the world by storm. “They cleverly mix the cutting-edge angst of Nickelback with the power pop of Robbie Williams. Extensive research has shown that this combination will engage the mainstream demographic and extend our market share.”

But the competition winners don’t show. And having gorged on vol-au-vents, washed down by Chateauneuf du Pap, the A&R pack file out. Faced with an audience consisting of one slightly bemused journalist, The Next Big Thing mutter something about the kids of today and jobs in the city and slowly sulk from the stage. “We were afraid of this,” confides the slightly sauced Chief Exec. “I guess we’ll have to do the same as BMG, Sony, Warner and EMI – sell our last remaining asset, the back catalogue and then find a hot beach to lay down and get fat on.” As I leave the venue a kaleidoscopic melee of melodies, hooks and riffs greets me, pouring from second-floor flats, street-corner buskers and Hoxton’s myriad of underground clubs. It’s clear that music is still alive in 2006. But what happened to the industry?

Many commentators still call the 1950s – 1990s the golden age of music. Each decade saw new icons, movements and fads encompassing radical new directions and retrospective glances. And as the musical genres multiplied, the marketing to an equally diversifying youth culture became sharper. The underground scenes became mainstream and then faded away for the cycle to repeat itself. Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda, likened the process to a double helix, with artists, labels and audiences inexorably linked in determining the ascent and descent of popular music tastes. Manufactured pop was a constant throughout the highs and lows of this period. Great songs were being written, satiating musical appetites of all shapes and sizes.

By the late 1990’s, with a perceived increase in cynical marketing and the internet making it easier to access music, there were rumblings that something was horribly awry. Industry profits began to plummet. And by 2003 the concerned catcalls had reached a crescendo. Record labels, industry regulators, journalists and consumers were prophesising the impending collapse of the industry and with it, music itself.

Someone or something had to be blamed. The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) pointed a finger at internet-fattened pirates. And having failed to outlaw peer-to-peer services such as Kazaa, turned their attention to consumers. “Once we begin our evidence-gathering process, any individual computer user who continues to offer music illegally to millions of others will run the very real risk of facing legal action,” said RIAA president, Cary Sherman. Peter Jamieson, executive chairman of the British Polyphonic Industry (BPI), threatened to follow suit. Others cited the damaging decline of the singles market. In 2003 Top of the Pops executive producer, Chris Cowey, described the charts as “dysfunctional” and “full of crap”. Sage heads nodded and agreed that the real issue was a dearth of decent artists. So, was music really about to disappear up it’s own derriere?

I really couldn’t see it. But in 2003 it was impossible to explain why. Three years later things are a little clearer. Perhaps in an effort to maintain their industry hegemony, the major labels missed, or ignored four key factors until it was too late:
· As Chris Brown, bassist with Mr Freedom points out. “The growing interdependence between music, image and youth culture was making it harder to sustain a relevant and authoritative music industry.”
· The advent of file sharing and broadband offered a potentially worldwide audience the chance to access, sample and consume increasingly fluid and diversifying musical styles.
· A quick peek beneath the dying veneer of super-clubs and stadium rock revealed a varied and thriving live circuit.
· And at a fair price people have always been willing to invest in music by paying for it. Even supermarkets could grasp this point. “Customers have repeatedly told us they’d buy more music if they could get it at more affordable prices,” commented Rachel Fellows of Asda in 2003.
So as industry experts sat and debated; the makers, consumers and a few flatulence-free middle parties began to mould the new future of music. In May 2003 Apple launched iTunes. Charging a flat fee of 99cents per song, the service notched up five million downloads in the first two months. Fopp and other discount stores continually pushed CD prices lower. And venues across the country, similar to Nottingham’s The Rescue Rooms and Junktion7 began showcasing unformulaic new artists such as Franz Ferdinand, Futureheads, Dizzee Rascal and The Sleepy Jackson.

Empowered and embracing the new technology, musicians started to communicate directly with the consumer. The internet, independent outlets, promoters and live performances became their primary conduits. In the face of such lithe competition, the major labels folded. They were still constrained by their marketing bibles and exorbitant contracts with cash-hungry artists. The experts hurriedly changed their debates to focus on the pros and cons of this new model, whilst the rest of us filled our musical plates with a palate-tingling array of flavours. As I leave Hoxton I peer through the window of the wildly popular Fame Academy Karaoke Café. A freshly mulleted David Sneddon appears to be making a tidy fortune. Good on him.

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