I’ve been asking everyone I know in the music business the same question now for over 5 years… ‘how do you think the availability of free music on the internet is going to affect the music business?’ I received a variety of responses but they’re consistent enough for me to finally form a reasonably educated opinion. I’ve also watched the progress of musician friends who have been trying to follow in the alleged footsteps of artists like the Arctic Monkeys and Lilly Allen, both of whom supposedly ‘made it’ through their myspace pages and related internet activity. The truth is that both of these artists, regularly held up as examples of the advantages of self-promotion on the internet, actually had other factors aiding their success such as strong management or famous connections.
The truth is much more complex. There’s no denying that if you already have a fanbase or a reason for people to be searching for you on myspace, the internet is going to help you in ways that never existed before. You can stay in touch and make sure that your fans know all about your gigs and forthcoming releases in a much more reliable and efficient way than by physically distributing flyers. However, if you’re unknown and don’t have a manager, no-one is going to know or care about your myspace page; even if you stop having a life and spend all day inviting friends, you will achieve very little other than to slightly annoy people or at best, get 2 extra people to your gig!
One thing that has definitely changed in the music industry is the willingness of the majors to develop bands; now more than ever before, they are unlikely to sign you unless they think you have a good chance of selling a lot of albums on your first release. It’s all about branding, in that you need a back story and to be some kind of archetypical band or singer, or preferably already a celebrity via reality tv or things like the x factor. Anything risky simply doesn’t get a look in.
The underlying reason for this is straightforward; music doesn’t make as much money as it used to. Because of filesharing, everyone expects to get music for free. If you’re a serious fan of a band, or a die-hard collector, you may still buy a cd, but the vast majority of casual music consumers now expect to download free tunes and restrict their purchasing of cd’s to Christmas presents. The official download sites where you pay for music are actually not making much money; itunes allegedly runs at a loss, subsidised by Apple because it helps sell the ipod. Ok, so musicians, like everyone else can get free music but the gains they make on this are massively outweighed by their loss in income; I’m not talking about internationally famous artists, I mean the more underground musicians who might previously have made a few quid here and there from cd sales over a long period, or from a small record company/publishing advance. These musicians are increasingly being forced to seek other means to support themselves; they may be able to download other artists’ music for free, but they can’t eat it!
I recently sat down with an executive from a major record company, and we talked about which famous British bands wouldn’t have been signed in today’s climate, either because they needed developing, didn’t sell on their first release or were too ‘risky’. These bands include Queen, Led Zeppelin, Blur, David Bowie and Feeder, to name but a few. You could argue that cream always rises to the top, but I happen to believe that scum rises first… by which I mean that the more aggressive, cut-throat people will always be heard, but the more subtle, fragile or unusual talents will no longer get a look in because they won’t get a chance to develop.
Let’s hope that some new system evolves whereby those who swim against the stream still find a way to get exposure. Its not that I’m opposed to filesharing or unlimited access to music via the web, but there really needs to be a new way to sort the sheep from the goats!