Reverend and the Makers, Future of The Left, Los Campesinos, Radiohead, The Joy Formidable - The evolving music industry
Bill Cummings 03/11/2009
You don't even have to be an online music nerd like me (and maybe you), to realise that the music industry is in a state of flux. Whatever your position on the digital democracy that music sharing online has fostered, whether you stand arm and arm with Reverend John Mclure who thinks the digital revolution has opened up the doors to a world of music you might never have heard, or you stand behind Lilly Allen who rather hypocritically thinks it's an evil theft of an artists work whilst sitting pretty on a major label and making her own mixes of illegally downloaded tracks, it's clear that sharing copyrighted music online is not a harmless crime.
The rise in file sharing has finally reached the point where its affecting smaller or medium sized artists and their royalties, affecting their ability to continue with music as a job, to progress as a band, and threatens independent and major labels alike. Witness the recent ad taken out by Music Week where in a full page letter advert by Andy Falkous of the band Future
of the left decries the way their second album was leaked only days before its release - as he points out it's rather like trying to slam the stable door when the horse has long since bolted over two miles away 'It feels that getting annoyed about downloading in this valueless modern age is like taking issue with water for being wet or night for gradually turning into day because ultimately the entitlement that most people feel for free music completely overshadows any moral or legal issues and conflicts that may arise in the hearts and minds of better people, people who understand that actions, on both an individual and group level, have consequences far beyond that moment of instant gratification. How far, I wonder does this entitlement for free music go? My guitars, should they be free? Petrol to get us to shows? Perhaps I should come to an arrangement with my landlord, through the musician-rent-waiver programme. Perhaps he should pay me, for his ninth-division indie-cred through association.'
What are the solutions? Find new physical products that are one reasonable, and two offer those special things that your mp3 or zip cannot, a proper piece of CD/vinyl already isn't as compressed as its digital counterpart, it's stereo sound offering a more pleasurable listening experience plus it's got personally designed artwork that you can touch hold, taste and hear a bookmark in your record collection. But that's not enough: a new generation has grown up without the habit of buying music in shops, or having that special feeling in the pit of their stomach as they endlessly search the racks for an undiscovered aural gem. Thus new formats need to offer extra tracks, first dibs on tickets, multi-media features and reasons why people should bother owning a physical piece of a band's musical work, otherwise in the ensuing years the physical format will become a small niche sold at gigs. Without the shift the future is uncertain: maybe the album as art form will die as Itunes and other digital providers increasingly offer tracks in individual and EP form. There are solutions like music streaming service Spotify that allows users to explore vast label music catalogues, whilst interrupting them from time to time with a few adverts that will fund the royalties of artists and labels listed.
So: good while it lasts, eh? Whilst there are still gaps in what Spotify offers, every major and indie seems to be signing up, but how long before they demand more? And how long before they realise that it's a pretty simple idea really and develop their own in-house label services? Also it initially restricted the airplay of up and coming and unsigned acts too surely the web was meant to be an opportunity for them? Look at the from-the-ground-up digital success of the Arctic Monkeys or Los Campesinos who gave away their early demos to fans and bloggers to create a buzz. Belatedly Spotify is now taking a leaf out of Last.fm's books and including unsigned/small label acts in its catalogue giving them the exposure they need, maybe Last.fm will develop its own stand-alone application to do the same thing! I want royalties on that idea, ok?!
As the influence of labels begins to wane and beyond those who have always done it DIY, increasingly better-known acts are taking matters into their own hands, first there was Radiohead giving their last album 'InRainbows' away for as much as the downloader was willing to pay for it. While Idlewild after leaving their last record company funded their new album on fan pre-orders alone, Patrick Wolf sold shares in his work through the interesting site Sellaband. But there's a problem: surely a new act won't have the fanbase for such schemes? How will they fund the recording, and release of their albums? Without the mid level funding of labels this will be true in many cases. But acts like wonderful shiny pop act The Joy Formidable seek to build a special bond between their music and their fans. Releasing special edition EPs with personally created artwork, releasing their first mini album for free through their website, and staying in constant contact with their fans with blogs, videos and every means possible, thus they have created their own buzz from the bottom up. Indeed the decline of the major labels might actually be a positive thing, leaving amongst the debris those that really do it for the love of music and the connection between fan and band that goes beyond chart position and industry one up manship.
As our deputy editor Fliss Collier puts it In some ways, it could be considered a blessing that there's been a decline in physical music sales - it means there is no longer room for the half-hearted. Looking to bands like The Joy Formidable, it's clear to see that making the physical product count and bear meaning must be part of the deal it's no longer acceptable to just reel off a commodity. When singles
were at their peak selling-wise, and four tracks was just a matter of course, bands were creatively prolific - bands such as Mansun who put out EP after ingenious and individual EP, coloured with loving art work or including a poster pack - these became highly collectible and part of the attraction to serious fandom. In these times of the faceless download, it's evident that some edge is vital in order to make buying music products appealing and important again. It's an opportunity that The Joy Formidable have seized with aplomb and made into a form of art. Their releases have been not only limited but personal with it - hand made sleeves, self-designed art work with lyrics (resurrecting the humble lyrics sheet anew), series of limited edition T-shirts sold as packages with CDs, and most recently, inviting their fans to a gig which was recorded for a live album. The Joy Formidable are still a band in their infancy, lest we forget, so these sparks of quirk and originality are vibrantly alluring and have ensured them an impassioned and dedicated fan base who follow them on tour. Touring is another opportunity bands can revitalise and make newly inviting. Recently rock stalwarts Ash headed out on a tour that was dubbed the A to Z Tour, taking in venues from each letter of the alphabet - venues that not only have the band not visited in years (since they were small fry), but that bands in general constantly overlook. Places off the beaten rock track, such as Norwood in South East London, or the provincial and generally culturally lacking Aldershot and Milton Keynes - and where even is Ventnor? The band are also set to release a slew of singles all year, which is another quirky release method.
There's also a debate about the omnipresent user-generated film clip site YouTube which up to now has dominated this field, but until recently held out on paying PRS royalties to artists for the use of their streamed material of music promos and related music footage on its site. In March, Billboard reported that negotiations on rates broke down, which prompted Google to declare that it was taking down premium music videos. 'It is important that those who are creating music - the writers and composers we represent - be rewarded when their works are used,' said Andrew Shaw, managing director of broadcast and online at PRS for Music, in a statement. 'YouTube is a popular online video destination, and this new licence continues to support musical talent. This is an achievement for songwriters, composers and the YouTube community alike and it reinforces the value of our members' work.' Patrick Walker, YouTube's director of video partnerships, added: 'We are dedicated to establishing and fostering relationships that make YouTube a place where existing fans and new audiences can discover their favourite content - whatever it might be. We are extremely pleased to have reached an agreement with PRS for Music and look forward to the return of premium music videos to YouTube in the U.K. where they will join a variety of other content to be enjoyed by our British users.'
There are new pretenders to YouTube's crown from vimeo and a new Irish based site called MUZU.TV which has been around for a few months now and growing on its own organically, but had its proper launch last month. Andrew Boyers a spokesmen for the site's PR says: 'It's basically a video site that's 100% dedicated to music video content - not just promo videos, but also backstage videos, live footage and interviews as well - literally everything a music fan could want.' Apparently Muzu is trying to carve out a more independent niche than YouTube working with artists and labels to build up a mass of content, and rather like Spotify its offering royalties to both unsigned and major acts, which can only be a good thing.' Andrew continues: 'They've got partnerships in place with over 7,000 labels, including the four majors, which they've gradually been putting in place over the last few weeks (hence the launch now). It means all the content is original, licensed and high quality. It also means that artists get paid for all the content that is on there that, from their perspective, is great. It doesn't matter if they're unsigned or major label artists, but they'll get a 50/50 split of all ad revenue.'
Like most new music media sites its interactive and applicable across social media platforms allowing anyone to create their own music TV channel, made up of multiple, personalised video playlists which users can watch online at MUZU.TV and share with their friends on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and pretty much any other website. Apparently it's even possible to sync your Facebook and Twitter accounts with your MUZU.TV. Certainly taking a tour round the site, its sleek, flashy and well designed when compared to its more stripped back larger competitor. I got stuck on videos by Jeff Buckley, Lady Gaga, Shakira's She Wolf and a Shoegaze playlist containing Lush and upstarts Titus Andronicus, but also a episode of the Tube from 1983 featuring Tears for Fears. But whether MUZU has the broad appeal of a YouTube that allows anyone to become viewed by millions in seconds, is open to debate, time and the market will tell, it's certainly offering a interesting proposition for the artist, and a better deal. It's probably just the start of a range of sites that will converge easy to use, social media and digital music technologies under one roof.
The future of music online and offline is constantly shifting and uncertain, the way we consume music will fragment to online platforms and physical formats will converge into various sites and portal modes of consumption(Ipods, laptops, blackberry ect) that offer more and more tools to spread the word about music, take songkick.com for example that allows for streaming, recommendations, and gig listings: all based upon your listening habits.
The decline in sales worries many in the industry, but it could be an exciting development leading to another evolution in music. The punk scene that spawned many of the independent labels that we know and love today could be revisited in a new modern age where those that are in it for the love and the passion of those acts they champion will be the ones that really flourish. Of course there's a question of how bands will survive in this new reality and whether their music will ever make any money, but perhaps many of them will go back to doing something else, those that still want to create music and art for that sake primarily will survive. Those mainstream acts that stand still and allow their label to route map their future plans will be left behind as those self same could labels allow their music to become stagnant commodity like so much of the dross that inhabits the charts. Those that see this brave new world of media as an opportunity will utilise it in increasingly interesting ways.
With the shifting modes of consumption, what is the future of the music industry? How will acts survive in this new music world? What music sites (Spotify, Youtube, Last.fm, Muzu, Sellaband, Songkick ect ect) do you use online? Do you still buy music?