CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter – Friday 4 Nov 2011

By | Published on Friday 4 November 2011

Andy Malt

This week Pete Townshend gave the very first John Peel Lecture at the radio industry’s big annual conference, the Radio Festival in Salford. As you might guess, talk at this event tends to be fairly media focused, but this new strand will allow issues relating to the music industry to be discussed, whilst also commemorating John Peel, the anniversary of his death falling just before the Festival.

Whenever you’re looking for someone to give a keynote talk, you want to go for a big name. Someone who people will have heard of, and who lots of people will want to come and listen to. But all too often this means some aging rocker (quite often a member of The Who, actually) wandering up to the lectern to talk at length about how it’s not like it used to be, and that life for musicians these days is just awful.

This is something which, when programming the convention side of The Great Escape, we here at CMU are very keen to avoid. Everyone loves hearing a veteran artist’s stories, and there can be a place for that kind of thing at industry conferences. And some old timers have new projects that mean they can offer some genuine insights into current debates. But just because someone has been earning their crust from music for 40 years doesn’t automatically qualify them to talk about the future of the industry. There’s a real danger these speeches lack optimism and ideas, and instead lament that the glory days are gone and everything’s fucked.

To be fair to Pete Townshend, he did his best (though he did admit it was he who decided to shun talking about the music making process – something he’s much more qualified to discuss – in favour of polemicising on the state of the industry). He didn’t simply sit down in the “everything’s fucked” camp and moan for an hour. And he did bring with him some ideas. It’s just that the ideas weren’t very good. Or, rather, they just weren’t that well informed.

The guitarist mainly focused on iTunes in his speech, basically suggesting that as the record industry is now all but dead (we’ll skirt over that point for now), Apple – with its well documented profits – should pick up the slack, and provide guidance, investment, marketing and distribution for new bands. “Is there really any good reason why”, he asked, “just because iTunes exists in the wild west internet land of Facebook and Twitter, it can’t provide some aspect of these services to the artists whose work it bleeds like a digital vampire Northern Rock for its enormous commission?”

Well, yes. There are several good reasons. For one, as industry analyst Mark Mulligan notes, “iTunes and other digital stores might be guilty of many things but [taking an] ‘enormous commission’ is not one of them”. iTunes may have most of the digital music retail market, but it does not bring in especially huge profits for Apple, and it was never designed to. Its raison d’être was originally to sell more iPods, and feeding i-devices remains its main objective, though, of course, these days it provides much more than just music.

And that leads us nicely to point two. Assuming Apple did decide to use some of its profits to invest in emerging talent, would it really be good for artists or the industry if the big new talent investor of the future was a technology company? As I said, iTunes is simply an added value service for Apple, it’s not core to what the company does. Apple makes gadgets. Anything Apple does other than making gadgets is ultimately expendable. If Apple decided tomorrow that iTunes wasn’t worth it, it could drop it and move on quite happily. A record label type operation even more so, because that would be even further removed from the world of selling gadgets.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about artists working with tech companies, or consumer brands, instead of traditional record companies. Given the undeniable incompetancies, at times, of the major labels, which have been more obvious since the arrival of downloading, you can see why such an idea might be attractive, and isolated artist/tech company/brand partnerships have worked really well. But as the default investors in new talent? Remember, anything that isn’t core business for these companies will always be dispensible.

Remember Starbucks? Remember how it wanted to be a record company? The coffee chain (a company that exists solely to sell coffee-based beverages) launched its own record label, Hear Music, in 2007. It insisted that this was not a cynical marketing exercise, the company was in it for the long haul, and they duly signed up some big names to grab headlines while pledging to invest in new talent. Then, not much more than a year later, and almost overnight, the plug was all but pulled, which wasn’t great news for Carly Simon who was in the process of releasing an album though the label.

Now, it’s not unknown for record companies to lose interest in certain artists even after pumping in loads of investment, and sometimes just before a big record release, but at least you know Universal Music will never lose interest in the concept of releasing music. And if your records sell well, generally labels remain good allies. But go the other route and, however well you records are received, if they aren’t also selling iPhones or cappuccinos, then you might be out the door.

Another strand of Townshend’s speech bemoaned that there is no one out there providing new artists with platforms to get themselves out into the world – in the internet age, he said, all artists must rely on the “wolves of Blogland where it seems to me a lot of the vilest bile comes from people who could be drunk, or just nuts”. But of course there are a huge number of online tools out there to help artists promote themselves, communicate with fans and sell their wares. In fact it was the existence of so many such tools that made one of the keynotes at this year’s Great Escape incredibly optimistic.

As Brighton-based musician, and advocate of DIY methods, Chris T-T said in a piece on his blog following Townshend’s talk: “Basically everything he suggested is already in place on the Internet, independently of iTunes. And funnily enough, service providers that get nearest his vision are the most exploitative … Meanwhile the good online tools for artists are plethora and you pick and choose. If Apple turned around tomorrow and offered exactly what Townshend asked for, it wouldn’t add a single USP beyond what’s competing online already, built by small, highly competitive companies fighting to build their own roster or corner a bit of the market”.

Townshend made more sense when he talked about his “inner artist”, noting the struggle between creating music and dealing with the business side of things, and how these often conflict. “A creative person would prefer their music to be stolen and enjoyed than ignored”, he said. “This is the dilemma for every creative soul: he or she would prefer to starve and be heard, than to eat well and be ignored”. It’s a dilemma pretty much every artist will recognise, and those at the grass roots will be reassured someone as successful and experienced as Townshend feels the same way. But to suggest that having the warm hand of a multi-national tech firm on their back is the only way to keep future artists on track, and well fed, is nonsensical.

Read the full text of Pete Townshend’s speech here.

In other news this week, Warner followed Universal in dropping out of the bidding for EMI’s record labels, which means there are no more buyers lined up for that side of the company. Whether Warner can be coaxed back (this possibly being an attempt to push Citigroup to accept a lower price) or if the publishing side of EMI will be sold on its own remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit in the US led by Rob Zombie and the estate of Rick James demanding a higher share of digital royalties was allowed to proceed. And it was suggested that an amendment to the ruling on EMI’s failed case against digital locker service MP3tunes might affect the outcome of Universal’s lawsuit against Grooveshark.

Over in the Conrad Murray trial, the jury began deliberating, although not before the defence’s star witness had been accused of being in contempt of court.

And in yet more legal news, Justin Bieber’s lawyers issued a cease and desist letter against a campaign using his name and image to falsely claim that new artists trying to get ahead by uploading cover versions of songs to YouTube would land themselves in jail if a new bit of proposed US copyright legislation goes through. Then Bieber received a legal letter of his own, telling him that he is being sued by a woman who claims he is the father of her newborn child. As outlandish as it sounds, her lawyers insist that she has “credible evidence”. But they would, wouldn’t they?

From legal news to the CMU tax desk, where, as the price of products that benefit from that much previously documented VAT loophole in the Channel Islands was officially reduced from £18 to £15, rumours started to circulate that the whole tax relief system was about to be phased out. There was speculation an announcement to that effect could come within days, and that might still be the case. Though, even if not, everyone now seems certain the VAT dodge will be axed sooner rather than later. To find out how exactly this VAT loophole works, why it is relevant to music retail, and what good might come out of it being axed, CMU’s Chris Cooke interviewed a long time campaigner against the Channel Islands tax relief system, Richard Allen, earlier this week.

Elsewhere in CMU land, Los Campesinos! guitarist Neil Beale put together a great playlist for us, and Eddy Temple-Morris wrote a piece defending Coldplay.

Over in the CMU Approved column, we brought you new music from brilliant electronic producers Torgny and Doldrums, US indie types Gardens And Villa, plus a comic/music combo from Amateur Best (aka Primary 1’s Joe Flory). We also have The Flaming Lips‘ 24 hour song, a track from French singer-songwriter Soko‘s long-awaited debut album, a trailer for Esben And The Witch‘s upcoming online cinema event, and a new video from Zulu Winter.

Also before I go, I should point you in the direction of the CMU supported student categories at this year’s Record Of The Day Awards. If you’re a student journalist or photographer (or know someone who is) head over here for details of how to submit work to be considered for the award. Previous winners have gone on to work for a variety of publications, and this year’s winners will be invited to cover The Great Escape for CMU.

And finally, as ever, we can’t go without a mention for this week’s CMU podcast. This week, Chris and I discussed Universal’s digital royalties lawsuit, the Conrad Murray trial, Pete Townshend’s John Peel Lecture, Justin Bieber’s paternity case (in more detail than was perhaps necessary) and fans of the Insane Clown Posse’s classification by the FBI as a street gang.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

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