Sunday, 14 February 2010


Between 2007 and 2009 I was in an indie guitar band that has since signed a record deal and achieved a degree of national attention. Before I left last summer, we had a number of heated discussions, which almost always boiled down to me saying that I felt way too much industry line-toeing was seen to be an inevitable part of ‘making it’. On one occasion, one of my band members turned round in exasperation and said, ‘so what do you want us to do, all get day jobs on the side?’

His point was that, in a very uncertain musical-economic climate, we couldn’t afford to be getting all fussy and principled. Instead, in an unforgettable phrase of his, ‘we should be doing what’s expected of us’. I was slightly appalled by this attitude, but the suggestion about getting a day job stuck in my mind. I started thinking to myself: wouldn’t it be fantastic not to have to rely on the financial support of a record label, with all the compromise that entails?  

This might sound like a romantic notion, but the more you look at the situation, the less far-fetched it seems. For a number of reasons, I believe that we’re heading for a total overhaul of how music and art generally is funded. More specifically, I believe that the future of music will be one in which semi-professional and amateur musicianship is the norm. And this might actually be a very good thing.

Over the years, since those first magical 45rpm singles of the 1950s, we’ve become used to the idea that pop music is only truly legitimate and worthy of attention when it is packaged, marketed, and sold back to us by the record industry. But now, as most people are surely aware, the music business is in deep trouble. The physical media of pop music – records, tapes, CDs – are rapidly passing into history. What will take their place?

In the last decade, record companies began to shift their focus onto internet downloads, which now dominate the market. However, illegal acquisition presents a perhaps insurmountable threat to this method of distribution and its long-term financial prospects. It seems probable that, for every record label attempt to limit illegal downloads and force consumers to acquire music by more legitimate means – monthly subscriptions, ‘pay-walls’ etc – a new way of getting around these controls will quickly materialize.

Many point to the resurgence in live music over the last decade and see this as the way forward for the industry, but this too looks doubtful as a long-term solution. Touring is a famously expensive beast, and besides, pop music’s commercial success over the last fifty years was largely a result of its use of mechanical reproduction; whereas performances have always been expensive and time-consuming, the record was relatively cheap to make and easy to distribute in vast quantities. The so-called ‘live boom’ of the past few years has not been nearly big enough to change this fundamental principle.

The likelihood is, that with traditional means of generating revenue from music falling by the wayside, we will be forced to think of more radical alternative ways of guaranteeing a regular income for the average musician. One possibility is that, with the industry going into freefall, there will be a wider public realization that music will have to be subsidized somehow, which might lead to an increased public sector role in the funding of pop music. As with the recent banking crisis, a record industry in rapid decline could look to the government for bail-out.

The big caveat to this potential development, of course, is that it would have to be accompanied by a much wider political sea change, one that would reverse the long-running trend away from centralization in all sectors of society.

The other, to my mind more plausible outcome, is that we will see a reordering of the pop-musical landscape on a microcosmic level. We need to harness home recording technology so that it is put to better use than Guitar Hero-style leisure activities. There has been a growing sense over the last few years that DIY recording and distribution via the internet is becoming a definite reality, but with the total lack of an alternative ethos and infrastructure outside the mainstream, most people still don’t really know what to do with the new capabilities.

At the moment, the average bedroom or internet musician still prays to be noticed and turned into a success story via traditional record company avenues. The shattering of the ‘X factor mentality’ and the end of the notion of music as a feasible ‘dream career’, could change all this.

There is a pressing need to rebuild our musical culture from the bottom up. A revival of music production and dissemination at community level, aiming it first and foremost at family members, friends, schoolmates, even online ‘virtual communities’ to me seems like the only way forward. The technology is there. It needs to be accompanied by a change of attitudes, starting with the basic premise that even a single other person listening to your music without a thought to its potential for commercial value constitutes a receptive audience. That music can and should act in this way, as a fundamental means of individual expression and humanistic conversation, could be the great lesson that emerges from the crisis.

The imminent collapse of a centralized record industry will inevitably lead to a basic rethink about what music is for, and might cause the average musician to conclude that he or she is better off abandoning the fool’s paradise of ‘making it’ in the music biz, for a revived communitarian amateur culture in which it’s possible to make music and be appreciated on one’s own terms. If you have to get a day job to enable you to do this, then so be it. The alternative, of doing whatever the record industry expects of you, to increasingly diminishing returns, will not be an option for very much longer.

(full version of this piece over at The Grain)

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