CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: A return to the ‘golden age’ of music is the last thing we need

By | Published on Friday 13 July 2012

Andy Malt

I’ve written a couple of times this year about the possibility of local music scenes being able to exist in isolation in the internet age. Both the Norwegian black metal and Oxford indie scenes of the 90s benefited from a period of being virtually unheard of outside of their immediate surroundings.

But at a time when bands can have their earliest songs shared and scrutinised across the globe within moments of recording them, is it possible to develop quietly, and do true local music scenes even exist any more? Well, maybe yes. It certainly seems that way from a documentary on the Dublin hip hop scene that appeared on BBC Three this week.

Of course, Irish rappers aren’t necessarily an easy sell (sorry Irish rappers), which has probably helped them to quietly develop their own style and build a good local following without the world at large barging in via the good old information superhighway.

For an outsider, there’s a certain absurdity to many of the scenes in ‘Irish Rappers Revealed’ – but it’s also fascinating to see how artists like The Class A’z, The Working Class Army and Temper-Mental Misselayneous have developed Ireland’s contribution to hip hop away from the comedy rap that was once its domain to something more serious, and to hear opposing views on what their message should be and how it should be delivered, and the realities of where their chosen artform has led them.

It’s a very interesting documentary, and I recommend you check it out on the iPlayer before it disappears on 25 Jul. Though this isn’t actually the topic of my Editor’s Letter this week (and not just because one of my colleagues accused me of being “obsessed” with local music scenes earlier today). So let’s move on, shall we?

OK, according to new stats published this week by Sweden’s record industry trade body, GLF, digital now accounts for 63.5% of recorded music sales in the country, and streaming services account for 89% of digital income. Revenue overall is up 30%. Compare that to the UK, where digital is only just matching physical product in revenues, and streaming services contribute only a small portion of digital income.

Sweden, of course, is the home of Spotify, and therefore the Mecca of streaming music for many. Though, as home of The Pirate Bay, it’s also a bit of a Mecca for piracy too, which possibly makes the recent growth in record revenues there, and Spotify’s role in making that happen, all the more impressive (even if, percentages-wise, Spotify’s growth has been aided by iTunes’ decline in the country – not that Apple did itself any favours by withdrawing from the country’s chart when streaming data was added into the mix, thus detaching itself from local music fans).

Various Swedish record industry types have lined up to welcome these stats (and without resorting to the customary “but we must still do more about piracy” moan). According to Music Ally, IFPI Sweden MD Ludvig Werner said: “The Swedish music companies have been extremely quick to adapt their business models to today’s parallel sales channels. What’s more, Swedes have shown that they really like streaming music. Now, when buying music in a way that suits the consumer is easier than ever before, music sales increase. The first half of 2012 has not only been characterised by a very strong period for streaming music, but even the sales of CDs have been strong, with a decrease of only 1%”.

That said, he also admitted that CD sales were still 40% down on the first half of 2000, and conventional iTunes-style download sales are also now slipping. Though, with Spotify-style services doing so well, Universal Music Sweden’s MD Per Sundin is still confident that the Swedish record industry will be back to the revenues of “the ‘golden days’ of the CD in just a few years”.

So, the good times are returning. Though, while sales increases are to be welcomed, should we be harking back to the “golden days” when major labels made loads of money by selling lots of overpriced CDs? Even if you believe the streaming services can continue to plough as much cash into the record industry once their venture capital runs out, and that eventually the majors will be receiving 1990s style revenues from Spotify et al, is that where the wider music industry wants to be? I don’t think it is.

Yes, digital services will continue to grow, and yes they will generate more money for artists and labels in the future. But successful digital services alone will not ‘save the music industry’, allowing everyone to carry on as before. Not least because it’s not in the best interests of artists to do so, and it’s the new ways of doing business, of structuring an artist’s deals, and engaging and selling to fans, that will make the industry at large stronger.

This is especially true for less mainstream talent and smaller rights owners, all of whom will tell you their streaming revenues are not so magnificent. That doesn’t mean they should withdraw from Spotify et al – participating in the streaming revolution is not optional any more, and artists should embrace that, and revisit the way they and their partners market their music to maximise per-listen revenue.

But more than that, streaming and digital revenue is only one element of an artist’s business, and both they and their business partners should remember that. For the average band, it’s much more important to focus on engaging core fanbase – utilise social media, analytics and direct to fan platforms to maximise the revenue that can be generated from loyal customers. Which is an awful way of saying ‘make cool stuff and sell it to the people who like you most’. Yes, you might get lucky and score a global hit that will result in a nice big Spotify cheque, but relying on that will not a viable career make.

And making all this happen requires a different way of artists and music companies working together. More so than ever, it’s important for artists and their business partners to consider all their activity as a whole, rather than as a collection of isolated interests. Everything an artist and their partners do should inform another aspect of their collective business, then they’ll be better placed should, say, publishing revenue suddenly drop off.

Part of the reason we’re even having this discussion is because of the way the music industry was set up in the golden days, which made it incapable of responding at large to the digital revolution in a timely manner. Artists were allied to various warring factions (often via relationships of mutual distrust), and their biggest investor was dependent on one, as it turned out, insecure revenue stream. Looking at the latest Spotify cheque and speculating that soon we’ll be back to the ‘golden days’ makes me worry what will happen the next time the music industry is thrown a curveball.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

In this week’s podcast, Chris and I can be found discussing Sweden’s digital music stats, the Bloc Weekend fiasco, the general doom and gloom across the festival market, and Chris Moyles leaving Radio 1.

For all that, and maybe even a little bit more, look out for the podcast this weekend, either on or automatically downloaded to iTunes.

So, this week has mainly been spent trying to work out exactly what happened at the Bloc Festival last Friday. Held at the recently opened London Pleasure Gardens, the event was shut down by police at 12.30am on its first night, due to overcrowding. Festival organisers launched an investigation into what went wrong, but on Wednesday the company behind the event went into administration.

As that investigation got under way, many theories circulated online about the cause of the problems. Some reckon there was an issue with tickets at the gate – though the event’s ticketing provider, CrowdSurge, insists that there was not a problem with faked tickets, and that its ticket scanning technology was working fine. Though the company did reveal the festival’s promoters decided to stop scanning tickets shortly before 9.30pm.

Adding more gloom, Music Glue’s Mark Meharry, speaking to CMU, predicted that the knock-on effect of all this could mean a much more difficult year for UK festivals in 2013. And another difficult year is something festival organisers really don’t want, when in the last seven days alone Hit Factory Live and MFEST have been cancelled due to poor weather, Ultra in Poland was called off due to a contractual issue with its Miami-based parent event, and Vince Power loaned his promotions company Music Festivals plc £750,000 to provide “working capital” following poor ticket sales for its flagship Hop Farm and Benicassim festivals.

In addition to that, nine people were stabbed at a Swedish House Mafia mini-festival and Cro-Mags’ show at the CBGB festival in New York was cancelled after an ex-member of the band attacked the current line-up with a knife. It was quite a week for festival gloom. Possibly the one positive piece of festival news this week is that Coachella won’t be leaving its home city of Indio, as local councillor Sam Torres dropped a proposal to add a 5-10% tax to ticket prices.

The big media news this week was that Chris Moyles and his team are to leave the Radio 1 breakfast slot in September to be replaced by Nick Grimshaw. Moyles has been presenting the breakfast show since 2004 (and has been at Radio 1 since 1997) and still enjoys high ratings. However, he has been criticised for not reaching Radio 1’s target demographic and many have called on him to step aside for some time.

Over in the seemingly never ending saga of the EMI sale, now that Sony and friends have control of the publishing side, this week is got on with the inevitable task of making people redundant, as well as restructuring Sony/ATV’s management team. Over on other side of things, the chairman of Universal’s parent company Vivendi, Jean-René Fourtou, was helping schmooze European regulators about the major’s planned purchase of the EMI record labels. And the music firm’s CEO Lucian Grainge said that he has a grand plan for the future of music, which he will seemingly only instigate if his company is allowed to complete its EMI purchase.

This week’s playlist was put together by Friends, and there was more music to listen to in Eddy Temple-Morris’ column, where, as he says, he was promoting Losers, ‘Eat Shit’ and ‘Waterfilth’. In the Beef Of The Week column, there was important information about revolving bras and skinny jeans, and the adverse effects they’ve had on Katy Perry and Russell Brand. Plus, of course, there are all this week’s festival line-up updates.

In the Approved column this week we had music from Lowell (who counts members of Coldplay, A-ha and Mew amongst her backing band), new but incredibly buzzy kids on the alt-pop block DIANA, dark pop duo ERAAS, and even darker pop solo artist Trans Manna Ray.

And we’re not even close to finishing with the new music yet. We had snatches of a theme song Trent Reznor has composed for the new ‘Call Of Duty’ videogame, Frank Ocean‘s debut album proper in full, a new mixtape from Azealia Banks, an EP from Weird Dreams, plus new tracks from Twin Shadow, Beth Orton, Tame Impala, Peter Broderick, Carina Round, Minus The Bear, Mono, Nite Jewel, Jenny O, Josephine, and Two Wounded Birds.

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