Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Music vs the music industry

With X-Factor winner Leona bound to be Christmas number one this year (not that she's not good enough. She's supremely, incredibly talented. She will be an international star), it just highlighted the fact that you can take someone and plonk them to the top of the music tree. It points so obviously to that falseness of the music industry nowadays, and was just about enough for me regarding music for 2006.

This year has seen record companies, record stores, markets and customers embrace music downloading, rather than oppose it, to the point where it now makes up most of the sales in deciding the music charts. How quickly those record companies stopped moaning about illegal downloading once they bothered to venture into the almost limitless audience. Online music has now moved away from the self-promotion, underground fan based, word of mouth phenomenon that gave rise to the likes of Arctic Monkeys and sites such as myspace, and has become big business. Hugely big business, in no time at all. So that side to the music industry, a DIY ethic only getting to its feet in 2005, has already gone the way of the mainstream and commercial.

Is it all about money? Were illegal downloading sites really cutting physical sales so much so that they had to get the money available from downloading? It's clearly been worth it, as CD prices have barely moved. It still costs £10-12 to buy an album in the record stores. It doesn't cost much less to order CDs online. It does to download albums. But then, I still can't see the fascination of paying £7 to only 'virtually' own the songs of an album by a band. You don't own their album, you have digital copies of songs.

For me, why I refuse point blank to download unofficial leaks and will continue to buy new CDs of my favoured artists, paying to hold a CD in your hands, even though it probably costs less than 50p to make that CD, is a hell of a lot more valuable than paying simply to legally download music. 79p on iTunes, to do no more than connect to their server and get a certain song. If it costs almost nothing to make a CD, it costs nothing at all to let people download some data.
The posterity, too, of owning an album is valuable to me too, though I grew up with tapes, then CDs and mini-discs, and this generation will grow up needing nothing but an mp3 player to hear every song they can ever want. That sort of listening, though, devalues the music. Like re-reading your favourite book, putting on your favourite CD and listening to it is an experience. You're not going to think "I'll sit down and have a read of Catch-22" (for example) and go and read it at your computer.

So, the big businesses have done very well out of online this year. And the trouble is, all the sources who try desperately to provide a genuine alternative to commercialism in music now have to constantly come up with something new. These days, regardless of where you stand as an artist, you get chewed up and spat out. MySpace profiles a new band every day on its homepage. NME's "2006 cool list" feature 3 people in the top 10 (including no's 1 and 2) whose bands haven't even released albums yet. It reads simply like a "what's hot this month". New acts get a week's worth of fame and are gone again. And this is in the places where they're supposed to be supported.

The thing is, I don't have a problem with commercial music. Girls Aloud, yes, are vastly image conscious, but they release perfect pop songs, as do Sugababes. Getting into the charts should not be snubbed by underground bands, or bands of certain genres. If you want to be successful, the charts, especially albums, are the only thing that matters. Artists like the above are successful because they do well in them. For some reason, being popular as a band is a bad thing now? But if you want you music to be heard, and you want to be loved for your music, then the popular music album charts (the clue is in the name) are the place to be. Do you think the Fratellis, Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen or The Kooks care that their CDs sit alongside Take That, George Michael and Scissor Sisters? Of course they fucking don't. And it doesn't make these bands instantly void from being credible. Well, it shouldn't but the "real" bands who play to 57 people in their home town once a month and sell albums through MySpace to friends in other "real" bands while having a day job to fund being in a "real" band think so. I sure hope that superiority complex keeps you warm at night.

So like I say, music isn't suddenly bad because it becomes commercial. (Everyone loved the Arctic Monkeys before their album found its way into 93% of the homes in Britain - now it's trendy to hate them. Turner is a prat though, but still). It's the perception and actuality of the commercial music industry, which uses artists to make money, devalues the one thing that matters - the music - as a commodity, that turns people against it. It makes bands who really need to and deserve to be a part of that industry, think 'I don't want to get into that'. There are hundreds of great bands who should be part of it. But the music industry is cutting itself from the music, relying on the unit shifting, image based acts instead of taking risks and breaking down the barriers between the audience who buys it because it's in the charts, and the audience who buys it because they like it.

By definition, the popular music chart should reflect popular music. But the industry keeps shooting itself in the foot. It caught on to the online bandwagon in the nick of time - and now downloading no longer favours the underground/new music scene. It's alienated the very people it should be trying to reign in by promoting the mainstream above the underground. It's made the charts a (musically) unfashionable place to be - yet if you want to be a truly successful music artist, it's the only place you can be. In today's society, The Beatles really would be ridiculed by one half of the music press, because they'd sell millions of records and be as mainstream as possible. Yet they're the best band in history.

Who took the music out of music industry?

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