Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: The return of the wrong questions

By | Published on Tuesday 5 March 2013

Andy Malt

Last year the global recorded music business saw revenues rise for the first time since 1999, according to figures published by the IFPI last week. And that’s good news, I think we can all agree. True, the rise was a mere 0.3%, and one rise does not equal a boom, or even a revival of fortunes, but I think it shows two important things.

First, that the doom-mongers in the record industry who obsessed for so long with the mantra ‘you can’t compete with free’, and who therefore concluded that while piracy prospered the record industry could not, were wrong. True, if they can, a minority will take your content for free without worrying about the legitimacy of its source, and an even smaller minority will deliberately go to piracy platforms because of a usually misguided assumption it’s a great way to ‘kick it to The Man’. But for the majority, provide good, user-friendly, compelling music services, and they’ll pay for them.

Second, recognition of this fact by some key powers that be in the record industry about five years ago (and by some key indie chiefs ten years ago) is now starting to pay off. Around about the time the majors removed digital rights management from download stores, and started to licence Spotify type services, those of us who had been banging on for years about the many opportunities being missed by the record industry while it instead responded to the internet by handing cash to lawyers, lobbyists and DRM-makers, felt a real wind of change blow through the industry.

And I do believe that change in thinking is behind last week’s figures. Whether the 0.3% uplift deserved quite the positive spin delivered by the IFPI last week, possibly not. The trade body’s chief Frances Moore declared that there was a “palpable buzz in the air” in the recorded music industry at the moment; everyone’s upbeat about the future and they’re all dancing around the place. Probably to all the new music in which they’re investing 26% of their revenues.

As we noted in our report on the IFPI stats, the business models of some of the newer digital services which are growing most rapidly are not 100% proven as yet, but while we are still travelling through the unknown, digitally speaking, you really sense we are now moving in the right direction. And remember, so far we’ve only tapped on the outside of the potential of those emerging markets like Brazil, China and India. Plus, the IFPI stats do not include any of the booming merchandise and brand partnership revenues, in which labels – as the primary investors in new talent – increasingly share.

So, boom no, revival no, secure and stable no, but right direction, yes. Things are certainly better than the were a decade ago. Even five years ago. Even six months ago. It’s probably markedly better now than it was yesterday. And the sea change that occurred five years ago that’s starting to pay off, it’s irreversible, there’s no going back to the bad old days of doom, gloom, kill the file-sharers and lock-down our catalogues.

Though you sometimes feel not everyone in the wider music business received that memo. And no more than when you attend debates specifically aimed at the publishing side of the business, or the songwriting community, where the doom and gloom sometimes still lingers, and you meet people still asking the questions and delivering the accusations I thought we’d all agreed were pointless five years ago.

At a recent songwriter debate I attended at least half the panel seemed to have reached the unswayable conclusion that the internet had destroyed creativity completely, and much of the discussion centred on the premise, “20 years ago we did everything 100% right, what went wrong?” It was suggested by one speaker, entirely seriously, that it is very likely that in 20 years time there will be no songwriters left because it will no longer be financially viable for that to be your profession.

I get that it’s harder for songwriters. If, through choice or circumstance, you are first and foremost a creator of songs rather than a performer, then being told about the burgeoning opportunities in merch and brand alliances doesn’t help much. And, because the publishing royalty has always been a relatively small slice of the record revenues pie, those tiny per-play payments from the streaming platforms are even more tiny for the publisher and songwriter. And even more so overall if the label starts basically using the single to help sell t-shirts and keep happy whatever shampoo brand has backed the popstar.

But adopting a woe-is-me the-internet-is-killing-songwriting attitude to all this, as some do, is counter-productive, and equates to the majors’ original sue-the-fans lock-down-the-music approach that arguably delayed the recent uplift in record sales by five years. In much the same way as the labels have had to change the way they work, and their partnerships with their artists, publishers and songwriters probably need to start doing the same, and beyond simply expanding the sync team. And perhaps the artificial divide between the record and music publishing industries needs to come down.

I think my point is, when things collapse, there’s a lot of fun to be had rebuilding them, and while you sense a lot of the record industry finally began to realise this a few years back, that more positive philosophy hasn’t yet extended across the entire music business. And we saw this too when HMV went into administration back in January. This, some said, was proof high street music retail was finally dead; with many writing off all independent music sellers in the same breath. Even though I think it’s obvious that some fundamental errors ten years ago killed HMV, and actually its demise (or more likely significant downsizing) provides some great opportunities for more nimble and innovative indie music sellers.

The Record Store Day venture of recent years seems to me a great example of indie retailers capitalising on some key positive elements of the internet age. The fact that it’s easier for retailers to collaborate online. That artists can engage and excite core fans direct over social networks and can therefore cheaply create an ‘online event’ that spills over into the real world. And that in the everything-everywhere MP3 age, limited editions of physical product will excite and loosen the wallets of many music consumers.

RSD is now a key date in my personal diary, though I’m not convinced Jack White was a particularly good choice to be official ambassador for this year’s event. True, White is quite an innovator in some ways, but he’s also a nostalgia junkie, and that somehow suggests Record Store Day is more about bemoaning the loss of a former age, rather than getting excited about the record shops of today.

White kicked off his stint as RSD ambassador by saying: “[A few] years ago someone told me that 1200 high school kids were given a survey. A question was posed to them: Have you ever been to a standalone record shop? The number of kids that answered ‘yes’ was… zero”. An interesting stat, except White’s implication was that that said something ominous about the kids of today. Which is not a good way of exciting the same kids about what RSD offers. As for much of the rest of White’s monologue, well, as Music Ally’s Stuart Dredge points out, it simply patronises young music fans.

Worse than that, he doesn’t even patronise them directly. His entire statement plays to his own audience. He’s not trying to enthuse The Kids to come down to a record shop and see what it’s all about at all, he’s sneering about them behind their backs. “Why go to a bookstore and get a real book? You can just download it”, he writes. “Why talk to other human beings, discuss different authors, writing styles and influences? Just click your mouse. Well here’s what they’ll someday learn if they have a soul; there’s no romance in a mouse click”.

Having accused a large proportion of potential customers of having no soul, he goes on to forbid anyone who enjoys videogames from taking part in Record Store Day. Great work so far, Jack. He concludes his piece by saying: “As Record Store Day Ambassador of 2013 I’m proud to help in any way I can to invigorate whoever will listen with the idea that there is beauty and romance in the act of visiting a record shop and getting turned on to something new that could change the way they look at the world, other people, art, and ultimately, themselves”.

But that isn’t what he’s doing. The whole thing is written so that he and other people who do still visit record shops can nod knowingly at one another and glance disparagingly over at the nearest teenager, who is apparently “soulless” for getting a kick out of the never-ending marvel that is the internet. Less enthusing the masses to try something new, more trying to identify and unite against a common enemy. For Jack it’s black and white – record shops are where everyone should be going and anyone who doesn’t, who instead chooses to employ the convenience modern technology allows, is an idiot to be scoffed at.

But it’s not black and white. Like everything in the music industry. Like everything in life. It’s not either/or. I have a Spotify account and I buy vinyl. I like the convenience of downloading a song to my phone and sitting at home having to turn the record over every fifteen minutes. If record shops, and the music industry as a whole, want to attract a new generation of customers, they need to accept the new ways in which people consume music, and become another aspect of the whole experience. The world changed remember, the old infrastructure collapsed, so let’s have some fun rebuilding it.

The future of the wider music business is not closing ranks and muttering to each other about how it’s all gone to shit. The record industry tried that for a decade and it didn’t work. Then some key people started to look at the opportunities and potential, and their fortunes are slowly starting to turn. How we make and consume music now is not wrong or right, it’s just different. The key to survival is accepting that, while concurrently trying to nudge it forward in a way that works for everyone.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU