By James Clark
Finally, after 25 years of self-harm, the music industry has succeeded in taking its own life.
Seppuku was finally achieved with news that The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the music industry’s enforcement arm, is to join with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in issuing warning letters to thousands of customers whose computers contain illegally downloaded albums and songs.
The industry premise is simple: if you download songs without paying up then the artist and the label which invested in them get nothing, thus you are stealing and hurting the industry. Andy Burnham was straight in to back the move, citing the need to “protect artists”. It’s rubbish though; the real villains are elsewhere.
As a teenager I and everyone I knew would tape music from the radio shows like the late John Peel’s, hoping to hear new things we might like. This was equally illegal (remember those great “Home Taping Is Killing Music” warnings the BPI’s forerunner used to issue?). Did it kill the industry in the 80s and 90s? Not a bit. Artists I came to love at the time: The Cult, Billy Bragg, The Smiths and, as the adverts used to say, many, many more, all came to my attention through tapes like this. Having discovered I liked them I thirsted for more, and I went out and bought their records.
One of those bands whose records I bought after getting a tape from a friend called themselves Pop Will Eat Itself. True prophets from Birmingham, as it turned out. In the 80 and 90s music was about broadcasting yourself. If you were a “goth”, and loved The Cure and The Sisters Of Mercy, you dressed accordingly. Other kids knew your likes, and to some degree your view of the world, your values and what mattered to you just from seeing you.
The music you listened to reflected and reinforced this. It was like belonging to a clan. The same went for metal heads, skinheads, new romantics, grungers, hippies and a thousand other clans.
The commercial spin-off of this was that kids expanded their tastes, and thus spending, as they grew older because their music was rooted in something which grew with them. But the record industry couldn’t help itself. In the 90s it decided that paying money to drunken and difficult bands was a mug’s game, and investing in expensive A&R to find good acts was equally stupid.
Instead it started producing endless dance acts and boy bands. In the short term it worked – a “DJ” needs only some technical kit and a pile of someone else’s records to produce an album. Boy Bands, short on talent, do as they’re told for fear of being sacked. And it sold records, including to a new audience, the newly-financially-empowered under-14s. But when the 14 year olds were 18 year olds they simply stopped buying records altogether. Perhaps the odd Christmas No1, or “Now That’s What I Call Music! 3894”, but nothing else. Why? Because they had no musical identity. S-Club 7 and East17 meant nothing to them after they grew up. The music they listened to as kids didn’t lead them anywhere, or to anything new. The internet is the new John Peel, the new underground scene. It is through building a presence amongst file-sharers, and on social networking sites, that the acts of tomorrow break through from the underground to the commercial mainstream – not because they’re on iTunes, but because kids love the sense of discovery, of finding something others don’t know, of being first.
File-sharing should have been the industry’s salvation. I own dozens of records I came to via file-sharing friends. I suspect 80% of the records I have bought in the last five years can be traced back to file-sharing. Almost all of my friends have done similar things – file-shared to find new things amongst on-line communities of like-minded people, and then bought records as a result.
Sure, one or two people out there will “steal” everything and never part with a penny, but they’re a tiny minority and they have always existed (your friend with the 1,000 self-recorded tapes, remember him?). The industry, and the BPI, though, insist they should be able to deliver dross and expect people to buy it blind. I’m 37, and I’m still buying records and loving new things. I’m already a 20+ year customer for the industry. What of today’s 17-year-olds? There are only so many X-Factor winner albums one can buy in 20 years.
The reality is that the music scene survives, just, beneath this cloying blanket of commercial greed and risk aversion, with the odd band breaking through to the clean air above. Within a decade, though, the industry will be gone as we have known it, and the talent it uncovered, and the lifelong joy it bought people as a result, will have gone with it.
Blues legend says that the great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a deserted Mississippi crossroads in return for his success. The next Robert Johnson will get there to find the offer rescinded – Satan is gorged on the souls of an entire industry.