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We come not to praise the music business but to bury it

The music business has fought tooth and nail against digitalisation in general and the internet in particular and I have long suspected that regardless of how it struggles, eventually Big Music will go the way of the buggy-whip industry, with music returning to its ‘craft’ roots and simply ceasing to be a big business, at least in the way that is currently understood, the mass market eventually giving way to a mass-of-niches.

I wonder if this is a sign that future has taken a step closer?

Sandi Thom, the unknown singer-songwriter who built up a huge following on the internet, went straight to No 1 with her debut single. The 24-year-old shot to fame after claims that her live performances in the basement of her home were being watched by more than 100,000 people via the web.

Regardless of sour grapes claims the viewing figures were inflated in this case, I wonder if the wave of the future has arrived?

25 comments to We come not to praise the music business but to bury it

  • jonty

    “…ceasing to be a big business, at least in the way that is currently understood…”

    That’s the nub of it. Sandi Thom had a deal before she started webcasting. The tecchie nuts and bolts of her webcasts were managed by a specialist agency and the shows were hyped by PR activity. Traditional marketing channels have changed, that’s all – ‘Web 2.0’ means that the old ways of advertising have been replaced with viral and word-of-mouth approaches. It’s all good. Instead of having one act selling to millions through big-budget channels, we’ll see millions of acts selling to individuals through no-budget channels. And every now and again acts like Sandi Thom, the Arctic Monkeys, Gnarls Barkley et al will ‘spike’ and hit the motherlode.

  • Julian Taylor

    Never nice to see more gullible mugs earnest music buying public being taken for yet another ride by SonyBMG. I should think that the ‘viewing figures’ were indeed vastly inflated given that SonyBMG, as well as their UK rivals Virgin/EMI, now employ some very clever people indeed with the task to present new talent as ‘fresh from the indie download market’, complete with Myspace profiling, carefully sporadic CD-baby listings and even IndiePodcasting spaces , all designed to nurture and hoodwink the public into the belief that they are helping indie talent to take on the ‘big labels’.

  • The strange this is how little good independent music there seems to be around in these days of the flatter market of the internet.

    I used to hear a lot of really strange music in the 80s, but it all sounds all too regular now (please, spare me another band that sounds like Coldplay).

  • asus phreak

    It does not matter if this was a fit up by Sony, as this is the way to sell music… without the likes of Sony

  • RAB

    Well it’s swings and roundabouts with technology isn’t it?
    What do you do for kicking sounds before bedtime but your ipod’s frozen and you gave all your old cds to the charity shop?

  • GordonR

    There’s nothing modern about the marketing of Sandi Thom – other than the bogus internet angle used to hype things. Nor is it an example of viral marketing. It’s just old-fashioned smoke and mirrors.

    If the wave of the future is more payola, PR spin and rigged numbers… then we should all be singing about a punk or hippy past.

  • I don’t know if there’s any astroturfing going on in this case, but 100,000 views is not hard to believe. I just checked the “total plays” numbers on MySpace for some musicians friends and found numbers from 20-90,000.

    I don’t know about the “big business” going out of music, but I know plenty of people who are not signed to a major label who make their living as professional musicians. It’s not just musicians, either–I know someone who makes her living as a booking agent for independent musicians, and CD Baby has built their business around catering to indepenents. Things like MySpace, iTunes, CD Baby, podcasts, and file sharing really have made a big difference already.

  • Dan Badham

    Sandi Thom is indeed an example of old fashioned smoke and mirrors advertising, rather than another step closer to the demise of big music.

    Perry’s post would seem to me to contain a contradictory logic: namely that the success of an act like Thom, or the Artic Monkeys, is somehow a measure how quickly we are moving towards a ‘mass-of-niches.’ A huge success for a record company is not indicative of the imminent demise of that record company, acts such as these will be appearing in ‘New Internet Discovery’ stories for the next decade, it wont have anything to do with a major shift in the musical marketplace, just a shift in advertising techniques.

  • it wont have anything to do with a major shift in the musical marketplace, just a shift in advertising techniques

    But that would be a huge difference. If you can promote yourself online for a fraction of the cost then you do not really need some vast machine behind you to sell enough music or get enough people to a gig to make it a viable endeavour. If Sony also does that, well fine but given their lack of disproportionate comparative advantage on the internet, that means the end of Big Music setting the agenda.

  • Dan Badham

    Perry – I think that in the sort of marketplace that Thom, Monkey and all the recent ‘internet shock’ discoveries operate you do need the might of a Sony to succeed. The reason is that within this context music is a commodity more akin to mineral water than a buggy-whip. Sony et al will survive just as well as Evian will survive; creating, marketing, and supplying a consistent product. I also think that within this market place you position underestimates the degree of expertise that is concentrated within record companies – expertise that turns an alright sounding band (very common on unsigned gig scene) into a great looking band / artist (which is what ultimately sells CDs). I’m sure we probably agree that this specialisation is not really worth the incredibly high prices that can be charged for music, but not everybody thinks a bottle of water is worth £1.50!! I reassert that large corporate music companies will continue to develop and sell ‘product artists’ for sometime to come. Sonys release of artist X singing song Y is the product, song Y released alone simply wont cut it.

  • Nick M

    I’m with Perry on this one. And there is a very simple economic reason why “Big Music” is doomed (with Hollywood set to follow). The music business has fought tooth and nail against every technology they see as a threat but I still bought a DVD rewriter for 20 quid last weekend and I still torrent all sorts of stuff. “Big Music” is losing this fight because they’ve come-up against an industry bigger and nastier than themselves. The USA has the world’s largest music and film businesses but taken together they are 1/6th the size of the US computer industry. Couple that with the fact that the computer industry is hell-bent on rich multimedia content because if it wasn’t we’d all still be happy with a good ole 486 for a bit of word-processing and the only conclusion is that Big Music is finished.

  • Dan, some of the reasons I disagree are within the very reasons you give… sure, Big Music can package some bands into something saleable, but then others will not need that at all. And if the cost of doing it yourself is 1/10000th of what it costs Sony to package and promote someone, the sheer number of musicians who could try it themselves means that within the vast pack of crap that will emerge, some really good self-promoted music will also appear (bad news for Big Music but great news for music critics whose critical opinions and ability to find the good stuff become much more valuable).

    Moreover a hell of a lot of the bands promoted by Big Music are not just completely shite no matter how ‘produced’ and ‘managed’ they are, they also end up never making any money.

    So when there are 100,000 bands self-promoting for every one being pushed by Big Music, I cannot see how bloated music companies spending a fortune for VERY cost-ineffective marketing can possibly win that battle in the long run.

    If there is a role for Big Music, it will be promoting bands that have already ‘self-promoted’ themselves to a certain level and just want more money to make cooler vids or have fancier gigs. That might work as it makes funding them much less risky that a new band (most of whom go nowhere) and at the same time puts the band in a vastly better negotiating position to talk to the likes of Sony/BMG etc…. but even in that scenario, Big Music is a great deal less ‘Big’ than before.

  • Julian Taylor

    Why is it that every single time a new aspect of technology comes out, a new idea gets an airing or innovation takes a healthy leap upwards then there is always someone saying “this spells the doom for Hollywood, SonyBMG, Universal, Warners, Virgin/EMI, Columbia etc. etc.” ad nauseam. I’m afraid I have yet to see the mainstream music industry daunted by anything thrown in their path, with the possible exception of the invention of the recordable cassette tape, since as a rule those major industry corporations have the financial clout and thus the ability to ‘buy’ the best. Whether funding RIAA and the MPAA to crack down on teenage torrent thieves downloading music and videos online or attempting to pioneer new and interesting ways of restricting illegal sales of their signed artists’ material it is most certainly not the major labels that are adversely affected by new technology. The companies that tend to suffer are rather the smaller independents (Data Records/Ministry of Sound Records is one such name that comes to mind in the UK) that will, and do, suffer because they can not afford to employ those with the knowledge to be able to set up all the Myspace, iTunes, CDBaby trappings needed in the new technology age.

    As for Hollywood being doomed, how is it so? Are small independent film producers going to start making major 2 hour blockbusters with a MiniDV camera and distributed via YouTube and are we about to see the prequel to The Da Vinci Code done by 2 students and their girlfriends in a fresher’s bedroom at Goldsmiths College? When anyone has discovered a way to break the movie distribution market, which as it happens often dictates whether a film will be a success or not, then I can quite openly accept that argument.

  • Yes, I cannot see how the same argument applies to the movie biz, which requires not just a wider range of specialised skills but also more challanging production standards vis a vis music… but if Data Records/Ministry of Sound Records cannot find people to do what they need for reasonable amounts of money, they are not looking very hard!

  • Pete

    Tim makes a good point – the strange thing is that as music has become easier to distribute (and indeed to make and produce), the variety and inventiveness of new bands seems to have dried up.

    Or am I just getting old?

  • nic

    Nintendo started their existence making playing cards.

    I think what is relatively clear is that “big music” will change and you may find that what these companies do in ten or twenty years time is very different from what they do now. I imagine some will not survive the change. But that doesn’t mean it will be the end of big companies being involved in music altogether. They will adapt and find some new way to sell their product or even invent entirely new products to sell.

  • Michael Taylor

    I wrote in praise of the Kleptones in a previous strand, so if you were bored by it then, I apologise, because I’m going to repeat myself.

    I think we forget what music can be. We forget because there’s so much of it about – it’s all around us. I suspect it always has been. But since we discovered how to record music, and distribute it cheaply, something has changed. We no longer “listen to music”, as if it were tunes that could be noted down with pen and some stave-paper, we “experience soundscapes”. Much of what we take for popular music is soundscapes – the sound of Phil Spector, Motown, Nashville, Roxy Music, Led Zep, Queen. They’re soundscapes, and they are unique, in that cannot really be noted down and recorded. Yet they are as immediately recognizable to us as that blackbird was to Beethoven, or as Beethoven’s 5th was to our near ancestors (and possibly to some of us).

    Now, throughout the history of music, musicians have been able to – have needed to (what else could they do) sample, repeat, re-set, comment on, dialogue with (no apologies for this dreadful phrase) pieces of music they had heard or were familiar with. Let’s take just one obvious example: the inclusion of the Lutheran chorales in Bach’s St John Passion. From the sublime to the ridiculous -Bach’s inclusion of ribald drinking songs (“Turnips and cabbages drove me away”) in the last variation of the Goldbergs. This ability to rethink, to restate and to basically mess around with music is absolutely central to the composers’ task.

    And so on to the Kleptones. The Kleptones have demonstrated the power, the artistic and emotional power, that these techniques can harness on a 2-CD “concept album” called 24 Hours, which is downloadable (necessarily for free) at their website. They’ve essentially ransacked 40yrs of popular music to produce a full emotionally-draining “day”. Some of the musical insights were clearly just waiting to be revealed – I particularly love the things they do with Lennon’s Imagine, first mixing it with Marc Bolan’s “Its a Ripoff” to acknowledge the underlying weaselliness/cheesiness of Lennon’s song, and later rediscovering and reclaiming its potential sublimity.

    I could go on – of course, Bob Dylan’s “simple” love-song “If Not for You” is properly heard as a 3am soul-searching set against the sirens of the urban night. etc etc.

    I don’t so much want to go over the economic arguments in this post – though I’ll happily follow up if necessary. Rather, I want to establish, or at least suggest, that what the Kleptones in 24 Hours has done is a moving, satisfying and, I’d argue, necessary work of art. Given the usually unacknowledged omnipresence of popular music in our consciousness, I’d go further with the full compare-it-with Ulysses stream of consciousness stuff. Quite simply, it’s a piece of work which establishes the artistic value and purpose of mash-up, in the same way that, say, Dark Side of the Moon established the value of stereo. It’s there, it’s been done – you only have to listen to know that in common with other major pieces of art, there’s a before and there’s an after. . . .

    (I apologise to those for whom it’s all got a bit gushing – listen to the music and tell me I’m wrong).

    But precisely for the same reason, it’s a great threat to the music industry. The Kleptones neither can nor will accept any payment for 24 Hours, since, they acknowledge that the music they’ve put together isn’t theirs. But clearly, having demonstrated what can be done, they’re pointing to what should – what must – be done. The music’s out there for the making, not for the stealing.

    And this is the real revolution: the collapse of information distribution costs means that for the first time we can distribute soundscapes, not “music” or “notes”, and use those soundscapes to understand ourselves, our societies, our times and lives better. We should be on the side of the creators as they discover this, not the “music industry” – which, quite obviously, knows lot’s about “industry” but damn all about music.

    Properly done 24 Hours proves that mashup can be no more a breach of copyright than Andy Warhol’s tins of soup.

  • Not Dave

    Big Music companies are doomed. They have been doomed since mp3’s and broadband became mainstream.

    Oh sure they’ll struggle and rage against the dying of the sun but as sure as eggs are eggs their sun is setting. (Talk about mixed metaphors).
    Everything they come up with to protect their rapicious business model, the geeks quickly bypass and will continue to do so.

    They are doooooooooomed!

  • The companies that tend to suffer are rather the smaller independents (Data Records/Ministry of Sound Records is one such name that comes to mind in the UK) that will, and do, suffer because they can not afford to employ those with the knowledge to be able to set up all the Myspace, iTunes, CDBaby trappings needed in the new technology age.

    There’s no special knowledge required for any of those things, unless you count the ability to use a web browser. Something that actually does require some knowledge is in the area of sound engineering, but this is again an area where technology has greatly helped independents.

    It used to be, not very long ago, that when you wanted to record something you had to go to a studio with very expensive equipment that very few people knew how to use. That had a lot to do with the importance of the big labels, in fact–nobody else could afford it.

    Now, the very expensive equipment in the studio has been replaced by Protools running on a Mac in the guest room, and the ability to use the equipment has become much more common as a result. There’s still specialization (most of the musicians I know don’t do all this themselves), but the barriers to entry are so low now that anyone can afford it.

  • Julian Taylor

    Ken, I’d agree that undoubtedly from yours and my perspective that this is not exactly a hard thing to do. Many companies do not as a rule employ web experts – they tend to prefer to plough their funds into Artist & Repetoire than into web development. Thus you do get a large number of independent companies falling by the wayside simply due to either lack of money, to pay for this, or ignorance from either not understanding the technology or not being prepared to take time out to research it for themselves.

    Don’t forget that the majority of these small independent record labels tend to be no more that one or two people in an office with a receptionist and some rather good audio equipment. They generally make their money either from one solid discovery (think Creation Records and Oasis) or from signing lots of acts and then licensing those acts on to the majors where possible.

  • I wasn’t talking about small indepentent record labels, but the artists themselves. The more successful ones do indeed hire web experts to design their sites–this isn’t expensive or hard to do. In fact, some musicians _are_ web experts, and it’s pretty common for them to do sites for all their non-expert musician friends.

    Lately MySpace has been replacing a personal website for some musicians, especially those who still have day jobs.

  • Dan Badham

    So when there are 100,000 bands self-promoting for every one being pushed by Big Music, I cannot see how bloated music companies spending a fortune for VERY cost-ineffective marketing can possibly win that battle in the long run.

    Just can’t agree with that. The sort of mass market that big music operates in is fundamentally based on a psychology of authenticity, of authenticity conferred by being on a major record label. I do concede that this authenticity could be as easily conferred by Apple, or Yahoo, as it is by Sony BMG, EMI, or whoever. But it is this authenticity that is key.

    Where I think that we are more closely in agreement is that the scope of big music may decrease, buy which I mean the % of all musical tastes that it caters for my decrease. In the same way that Nike might not be desperately concerned about a home weaving revolution I don’t believe that the likes of Sony music will be overcome by self-promoting bands. They both make a mass-market market product.

    One aspect of the debate that may not be immediately obvious to the reader (depends upon your musical preferences) is the extent to which the “mass-of-niches” has already developed away from the hurrah about downloading, copyright, itunes e.t.c. My own particular niche (modern electronic & dance music) has survived and developed away from the mainstream for 20 years. Not only has this music been at the technical vanguard in terms of production, but it has long ago deployed business models and collaborative frameworks (in both distribution and production) that make the current mainstream offering seem prehistoric.

    I should add that all of this is of little concern to me as my flatmate has spent the last 10 years spending apprx. 30% of his income (total not disposable) on music – which I am slowly stealing from him.

  • Alcoholiday

    On-topic (just):

    I see our friends at the BPI are going after download site AllofMP3.com.I’ve been using this site since it was previously mentioned here on Samizdata and would hate to see it disappear. Easy to use, quick and flexible, it is everything you could look for.



  • Just can’t agree with that. The sort of mass market that big music operates in is fundamentally based on a psychology of authenticity, of authenticity conferred by being on a major record label.

    Perhaps I misunderstand you but are you seriously saying that authenticity comes from being promoted by some big company??? I find that a remarkable notion. I suspect more people would think the very antithesis of authenticity is a big music company!

    Moreover, it is the mass market itself which I think will disappear in the long run, being replaced by a mass of niches (the ‘long tail’) which was previously not economic to service but which vastly lower distribution and (as per this article) promotion costs make entirely economic to consider, provided you have low overheads (i.e. you are not a big company… or perhaps even a company at all).

  • Julian Taylor,

    The thing is that the process may occur, and it may be very slow.

    It’s also very hard to measure. There’s quite a lot of artists doing direct CD selling. The problem is that doing so keeps you from entering the charts because it’s not through a measured channel (there was something a few years ago about the sales of a Bhangra records from an indian shop not being included).