To understand why music has gone downhill in general you need to look at what has changed with the structures that are used to write, create, record, brand, market and sell music. These are fundamentally different today than they were in the Beatles era.
Nowadays almost no band gets a 5 album deal like was common in the 1980’s. As a new band you basically have one chance with your first album. If it doesn’t succeed the record company are not hanging around to take a second chance. This is where the problem lies as there is a glaring conflict between giving a creative artist enough time to hone their craft and the demands of operating in a market based economy which seeks to maximise profits above all else.
The problems can be found as a by product of our ever faster consumerist culture. The public often judge a new band too early and on one snippet of their full output. In our new dumbed down society entire music careers are based on getting the thumbs up or the thumbs down.The days of bands releasing an experimental album during their career to explore new avenues, instruments or influences are nearly over. The pressure on bands to churn out hits is enormous and once they fail to do so then they’re toast.
Take U2’s Achtung Baby. It was a highly experimental album that at the time seemed a bit bizarre for a rock band. But they and Brian Eno had identified the new wave of electronic music as permanent and found a way to weave this with guitar rock. It was a revelation and arguably one of their best all time albums. A few years later they released another experiment in Popmart and the thing was an absolute flop. But they were allowed to have flops because record companies knew that even the best bands could get it wrong but they were just as likely to bounce back. Even Pink Floyd had a number of albums that barely sold before Dark Side of the Moon arrived and became one of the most innovative albums ever created. The new techniques and pioneering of sound engineering that Gilmore and Waters undertook in their garage influenced bands for decades afterwards.
A bigger problem is the marketers fondness for having a good ‘buzz’ about the band. They need fans to keep talking about them to increase sales of the next album. So take the Arctic Monkeys for instance. Their debut album was like a shot in the arm, everyone stood up and took notice. The lyrics were unbelievably fresh and the album was a 45 minute synopsis of growing up in working class Sheffield, their creative juices had served up a brilliant mix of indie riffs and a societal commentary on Britian under new Labour, all set to a pulsating tempo.
But then the next album came along and although it was okay for most people it didn’t follow on from the success of the first. This scenario happens almost de riguer with new bands these days to the point that the turnover of two album outfits is huge. Simply because of time and the pressure of the marketers to release album no.2 in record quick time while there is still a good ‘buzz’ about the brand.
So the Artic Monkey’s probably spent the best part of 5 or 6 years writing and perfecting their debut album before it ever got launched. The follow up album was on the shelves 11 months later so it was hardly surprising that it fell quite a bit short of the first. But that wasn’t the Arctic Monkey’s fault, their talent hadn’t suddenly dissipated overnight, it was stifled by the pressure to deliver masterpiece no.2 in record quick time. And these days rock n’roll ain’t so rock n’roll anymore. Bands can no longer have blazing rows with their record company over delays or going to San Fran to take acid or getting arrested and missing a concert because you decided to drive a pink Cadillac into your hotel’s swimming pool and then returning to the scene later just to throw the TV out the window, all just for the craic. Slowly but surely the market economy got a grip on music and has since chipped away at an artists bohemian care-free mentality.
Record companies replaced the freedom of making music with 11.5 month dictated cycles of production, promotion in the media and then on to the concert fields. Rinse, wash, repeat, rinse wash repeat. The term ‘hard working band’ is more true today than ever, half the time they don’t even know what country they in as they’re giving a 6.30am interview to some morning show presenter who is more Craig Doyle than Jools Holland and doesn’t understand anything tangible about your music but just rattles off stock questions which you were asked by the previous morning show host in that other country.
The final nail in the coffin comes with the sheer difference having a buzz on a band makes to the bottom line profits. Two recent examples were Radiohead and Green Day. Radiohead were extraordinarily successful; Ok Computer and the Bends were two of the biggest selling albums albums of the 1990’s, well up beside the sales U2 and Oasis were delivering. But then they went experimenting with jazz influences on Kid A and electronica with Amnesia. Then from 2003 to 2007 they didn’t release any music, a pretty big gap in music terms. The ‘buzz’ began to fizzle out when sales dropped sharply. Radiohead didn’t care less and took a break, went to Africa to play some drums and took time out to reflect and evaluate on their evolution as a band. Searching for new influences and innovative is critical to bands reinvent and cib It explains why Picasso’s early work sells for €20,000 and his later stuff sells for €20m. But figures like those do not suit accountants- they want big returns and they want them on a consistent basis.
The biggest example of this was probably Green Days album sales over the last decade. When they released American Idiot in the lead up to the Iraq war they had hit a raw nerve amongst millions of previous fans and signed up millions more with the huge success of sales not just in the US but right across Europe. The concept and themes contained within American Idiot were delivered using powerful and emotional lyrics which carried out a dual function of protest against American hegemony whilst it also debunked neo-conservative post 9-11 foreign policy and the new media order of the Murdochs and Fairfaxes, remarkably it was all achieved in less than 13 songs.
The timing of its release couldn’t have been more perfect, it lit a fire underneath the music buying population. The highly politicised lyrics transcended the Atlantic and the Pacific and the album can now be seen a decade on as a sizable catalyst which turned helped to turn public opinion against the intentions of the War on Terror and the consequences of the Patriot Act.
American Idiot had done more for criticism of the Bush government and neo-con agenda than hundreds of thousands of op-ed words in the New York times. Print medias ability to influence society was The album sold 14 million physical copies at a time when the ipod was becoming the norm and downloading for free was becoming rampant.
Undoubtedly Green Day had struck a nerve. Not since Pink Floyd invented the model of a concept album, an album that purposely sets out to go beyond music and into ideas and ideals, had a piece of music had such an influence over more powerful resources. The Green Day live show sold more tickets than U2 who were already established a decade earlier. Their performances were high tempo and not dislike a highly charged political rally complete with chants repeated back by the crowd to reinforce the message. It was a bolt out of the blue from a band which typically shifted 3-4m units of each of their previous six albums.
Ironically enough it was a triumph of the marketing of protest and the new media order and also a modern era alliance of the punk tradition for anarchism and a rejection of a structural and hierarchal society. It even came complete with its own branding and logo- a raised fist and a grenade
e, symbolism borrowed from the 1970’s bible of government subversion, the now banned Anarchist Cookbook. The marketers used the ingredients from the 1970’s decade of protest against Vietnam and the oil crises and recycled and repackaged it for an audience that had become more introspective and nuanced about their appreciation of music. The happy clappy tunes of the 1980’s were wholly rejected in favour of the insightful notions and meaningful value placed on seminal works by Nirvana and Radiohead, followed by Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and the Manic Street Preachers. For a while it had looked like music had rescued itself.
But then despite all the protests and new found awareness of injustices committed in the name of American citizens George Bush Jr still managed to get re-elected by a court decision in Florida, made by judges installed by his brother. The Iraq war carried on but they only reported it when bombs killed US troops or more than 50 Iraquis. The widespread belief that the electoral count in Florida was rigged resulted in more petrol being thrown on the flames of political cynicism and disenfranchisement from the system.
After those events a few things conspired to really bring things downhill rapidly. The industry had thought they were onto a winner with Green Day’s success in tapping into a global mood and in many ways they were. It didn’t cost the marketers a cent to bring about the conditions that made people feel that way to begin with – the government had done that for them. 50% of marketing costs is the creation of a need, a want or a desire for which you then sell a remedy to. In this instance the marketing conditions had been pre-set and it was then a simple matter of adding the logo and get surfing on the trend. Record executives had thought they reinvented the wheel.
But then the wheel came off and they didn’t know what to do. Illegal file sharing had become the norm to levels of 90% and marketing budgets for albums were slashed. Rather than regrouping and using the previous experience of album flops to their advantage they panicked due to stockbrokers downgrading the share price outlook on Sony, EMI,Universal et al. And all while the global economy was in overdrive and sales in all other sectors were growing. The music industry reacted to falling sales like a spoilt child by hiking their prices to compensate for less sales and thus drove demand even lower. At one stage in 2006 a new CD in HMV had hit a price point of €25. Blank CD’s were used a lot by this stage so the public was well aware of how cheap an actual CD cost. They scratched their heads and rightly deduced that €24 òn top was a tidy profit, especially compared to margins in other industries. A 7-8% margin is considered regular for companies like Tesco so the margins evident in the music industry were creaming were on a massive scale.
90% of global album sales come from only five record companies, thus making it a de-facto cartel. And in a cartel all companies follow virtually identical strategies to one another as to break from the pack will only cause competition and potential price wars, and you don’t want to be paying the costs of competing when its more profitable to maintain the status quo and stifle choice. So instead of returning to the drawing board and going back to nurturing and developing new musical talent they threw the rule book out the window. The decision to do so was based in part on a seismic shift that had just occurred in TV production- the need for the industry to pay wages to actors almost evaporated overnight. Why pay an actor to act when the general public do it for free ? Capitalist theory favours less risk as an industry matures and the acting profession carried a ton of risk for the big studios, something that was never more salient than during the Hollywood writers strike which brought TV production to a virtual halt across America for almost a full year. A vacumn was created and instantaneously filled. The investors in the big studios saw their opportunity to put a nail in the coffin of large scale productions, not exclusively but to an extent that the industry was fatally wounded. So ER got replaced by reality shows in hospitals. As did Casualty in the UK. The BBC went from a huge stage, drama and production facility to one where they barely did anything at all. Channel 4 actually did virtually nothing except control cameras in a house straight out of Orwell’s 1984. And the public lapped it up in droves. The whole movement was personified beautifully by the film the Truman Show which solidified the notion of the ordinary person on the street being able to grasp fame, albeit without the fortune which had now been neatly accumulated onto the profit margins of the studios.
The music industry saw the same opportunity and thought they could take it. From 2004-5 to present there has been a collapse in the shelf life of a band. The marketers had thought that the same sales tool of annually announcing a ‘new improved formula’ on laundry powder also applied equally to music. If you re-package the same band year after year it begins to get old very quick and looks inferior to everything else surrounding it, which is now perpetually shiny and better than last years product. The band can’t innovate or experiment because the consequences of failure are too high.
This structural shift began after Radiohead had stuck two fingers up at the money men who themselves by now developed the mindset of a Wall Street brokers rather than their beginnings as jeans and t-shirt music junkies. Radiohead went experimenting just as every other major band from the Jam to the Who to the Floyd to Zepplin had done before them. But now the industry was getting greedy and shoring up even more profits. Radiohead did what was artistically important to developing their craft of musicmanship and making mistakes to return strengthened by the lessons learnt, which they duly did with On Rainbows.
Throughout rock history all the classic and seminal albums came off the back of failures. But now the industry was applying modern day accounting and analytical performance criteria to a creative process involving humans from beginning to end- from the first lyric penned to the choice of the consumer of whether or not to purchase there are literally thousands of variables that need to fall into place to offer a good chance of success.
Modern day data analysis software had been the preserve of the banking and the insurance sectors almost on their own to that point. But then Sage and SAP burst onto the scene and stole a march on Microsoft by localising production processes in virtually industry.
So uotp The manufacture of bread roles had survived millennia without detailed data analysis. But by using it they could squeeze that last 1% of profit out of it, would could potentially add up to billions extra on the balance sheet and thus translate to a rising share price and higher dividends. Which is great if you are making bread roles because it can actually be reduced down to a set formula which when adhered to will deliver output with consistency and certainty, something that investors crave over all other considerations. Uncertainty means jitters which means people lose money because the natural instinct is to do something, even if blindly so.
Applying analytics and profit forecasting to creative industries is now looking like a huge error of judgement. The new rules outline parameters outside of which they won’t fund what could be the next biggest thing. Improving musically is now made much more difficult; letting bands take a break or to go down a different creative route for a while has now become almost unheard of, except for bands which have gotten past the five album stage, which in itself has become less likely as one and two year deals are the only game in town. The new game dictates that two albums is about as much scope as they’ll be given. And that itself is now condensed into two years, with over 70% of the time spent doing things other that actually making the best music you possibly can.
Unwittingly or not the new music moguls had removed one of the cornerstones of creating music that becomes timeless over the ensuing decades. Timeless music subsequently generates many multiples of the original profits as Beatles or Hendrix standards of music consistently remain in the top 100 album charts, thus they became the golden goose of the industry that still lays eggs 60 years on. But major works that will continue to sell in numbers decades later are not being added to and that creates a massive problem.
It would be difficult to think of any music of the 1980’s that will still get radio play in 2040. Again the mistakes of the 1980’s were trying to reduce music production it to a formula, on that occasion it was using the vehicle of factory songwriting outfits like Stock, Aiken and Waterman to produce a steady stream of No.1’s. The industry loved it as the royalties stayed in their name, meaning many artists were downgraded to the status of performers. Today people try to forget to remember bands like Bananrama and Big Fun and rightfully so or the scar inflicted by it might begin to itch.
When Green Day released American Idiot in the lead up to the Iraq war they had hit a raw nerve amongst millions of previous fans and signed up millions more with the huge success of its appeal to the lyrics which debunked neo-con foreign policy in less than 3 verses. In an era of constant dumbing down here was something that was short and succinct and it hit the target perfectly.
Their political lyrics transcended the Atlantic and the Pacific and the album turned into a catalyst for societal change; the public came to realise that what they had been fed in 2001-2004 had turned out to be largely false. Claims about a war being started ‘within 45 minutes’ were later shown to be propaganda. Falsity and the war on terror and WMD’s convenient excuses were now just seen as a smokescreen to do an oil grab.
On a financial chart the downward curve is probably steeper in the music industry than it was for the Great Depression. In other words not the type of performance the new CEO of the record companies likes, especially when the CEO’s themselves were by now much more likely to have done an MBA in Harvard Business School rather than have dropped out of some music production diploma in Seattle and rose up the ranks by going to gigs and understanding the underground scene and knowing how to recognise an opinion For and opinion formers were saying before the justification n mainstream adopted it as their own.
The quick fix cheap solution was too late to reverse the malaise which Industry thought they were above. They had failed to recognise that
technology had outstripped the CD and the establishment of iTunes meant that more control and profits were now being sent to Apple rather than to the usual suspects.
But the malaise of reality is one that the free market is still sorting through. Kim Dotcom reckons he has a workable solution whereby the artist would retain about 85% of profits.
Reality TV spawned programs such as the X-Factor and this program is now weldimabout becoming famous and achieving meet the PM. Univeral own the global rights to the X-Factor. being owned by a music company meant the royalties stayed largely in house and you invested a new way of acq1uiring talent. What this space and I’ll let you know