Mama said there’ll be days like this / There’ll be days like this my Mama said

Ok back to the rants…

For David Bowie, some­time mime artist, musi­cian and oppor­tunist, the peri­od from May 1972 through to Octo­ber 1971 – eigh­teen months – was a very busy one. Not only did he record and release three albums of his own, Zig­gy Star­dust, Aladdin Sane, and Pin­ups, rein­vent­ing him­self and utter­ly dom­i­nat­ing Euro­pean pop; he also mixed (with some con­tro­ver­sy but sub­se­quent remix­es have vin­di­cat­ed him) Iggy’s Raw Pow­er, pro­duced Lou Reed’s Trans­former and wrote and pro­duced Mott The Hoople’s world­wide pop-punk smash, All the Young Dudes.

At the same time he was tour­ing and seem­ing­ly in every bit of avail­able media, and, in a way unseen since The Bea­t­les, was being imi­tat­ed and was influ­enc­ing a whole gen­er­a­tion. And just to top it off, to add some cream to Bowie’s achieve­ments, is the unas­sail­able fact that at least three of those albums can rea­son­ably be said to have changed the direc­tion pop­u­lar music took there­after (and Bowie would do it again in 1977). We can still feel it today.

Let’s call it a cre­ative hot­house. But as astound­ing as Bowie’s artis­tic tsuna­mi was, it’s not an unusu­al phe­nom­e­non across the past cen­tu­ry of cre­ative musi­cal inno­va­tion. Wit­ness the Hol­land-Dozi­er-Hol­land Motown roll of 1964–66, or the sim­i­lar Gam­ble-Huff era of the ear­ly sev­en­ties; the be-bop explo­sion in the ear­ly for­ties; NYC’s rhyme rev­o­lu­tion of 1979–82; and the 1986–87 rev­o­lu­tion in Chica­go and Detroit that is still send­ing shock­waves around the world. Music thrives on these short, incred­i­ble bursts of ener­gy, which act like a scythe, clean­ing out the dead wood. With­out them, we would still be sit­ting in a world with big record com­pa­nies try­ing to sell us recy­cled ver­sions of the safest thing they could pos­si­bly think of, over and over and over again. As they’ve tried to do over the past decade. With­out them, to put it del­i­cate­ly, we would be total­ly fucked …

Almost with­out excep­tion the lit­tle explo­sions that have dri­ven pop­u­lar music are artist dri­ven, or at the very least dri­ven by sharp inde­pen­dent man­agers or label own­ers in con­junc­tion with a col­lec­tion of com­pli­ant acts. They have nev­er, not once over the past fifty years, been pushed by major records com­pa­nies – with one glar­ing excep­tion: Warn­er-Reprise in the ear­ly sev­en­ties when it was a lit­tle major behav­ing like an inde­pen­dent label (and mak­ing squil­lions doing it). The music indus­try is and has always been artist or sven­gali dri­ven. The majors have always been the mon­ey mak­ing ded­i­cat­ed fol­low­ers of fash­ion. And they have fought these lit­tle rev­o­lu­tions tooth and nail, sur­ren­der­ing only when it became inevitable.

And to my mind, this is where it all start­ed to go wrong. That’s where the record indus­try as we know it start­ed to lose their grip; when they decid­ed to dri­ve rather than fol­low. The indus­try had always been wise enough to be aware of this and tem­per it by employ­ing music ori­en­tat­ed peo­ple to run the labels. Be it the Warn­ers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions label heads (actu­al­ly WC were smart enough to buy suc­cess­ful indie labels and keep the music men to run them – the human assets were what made those labels what they were in the first place) or Clive Davis (per­haps the most suc­cess­ful record man ever, over four decades), the cor­po­rates that owned the majors knew that music was more than spread­sheets. That was what made them suc­cess­ful – crazy illog­i­cal pas­sion­ate peo­ple.

But in the late eight­ies, they began to lose the plot. Poly­Gram (now Uni­ver­sal) bought – sep­a­rate­ly – Island, A&M and Motown, and in each case failed to grasp that those labels were lit­tle more than vehi­cles for the cre­ative over­sized egos of Black­well, Moss & Berry. None of them are now any more than logos on a disc now, with no mean­ing beyond a mar­ket­ing depart­ment. Of course, in Motown’s case, the pur­chase came with an incred­i­ble cat­a­logue which must pro­vide a good annu­al return, and cat­a­logue acqui­si­tion is a major’s cor­ner­stone pol­i­cy. But in the case of A&M, they paid half a bil­lion dol­lars only to close the bloody thing down with­in a few years. It’s a hell of a price to pay for Sting’s back cat­a­logue.

Yes, it start­ed to go wrong when the bean coun­ters and the career “indus­try” peo­ple took over and they start­ed to ratio­nalise. Warn­ers, Sony and, espe­cial­ly Uni­ver­sal are all cas­es in hand. All are essen­tial­ly face­less and real­ly have lit­tle to do with music. As one friend, who knows, said to me yes­ter­day, these peo­ple have, in recent times spe­cialised only in sell­ing peo­ple things they don’t want. Uni­ver­sal may make mon­ey now but they’ve large­ly opt­ed out of the future. Like the oth­ers, they large­ly stopped devel­op­ing viable acts with careers and went for a cul­ture of quick return pop shit and end­less fast buck shit­ty com­pi­la­tions, banged out with a quick TV cam­paign (with fast decreas­ing returns as that sys­tem col­lapsed too) for max­i­mum return to the bot­tom line.

An artist’s career is only as good as the last album, or sin­gle. I know of one act who had a num­ber one sin­gle with their debut, the sec­ond was deemed too hard, and that was it. The phi­los­o­phy of com­mit­ment and devel­op­ment they bought with Island and A&M was thrown out the win­dow. It was bound to bite back soon­er or lat­er, and it has. In 2004–7 Robert Palmer or Bob Mar­ley would not have stood a chance with Island.

But peo­ple haven’t stopped lis­ten­ing to music – quite the oppo­site. They sim­ply stopped buy­ing into the shite foist­ed onto them by the behe­moths that the major record com­pa­nies became in the nineties and beyond.

In the midst of all the down­siz­ing and pan­ic, incred­i­bly, what does Warn­ers do? It signs Paris Hilton for god’s sake. Any one of those music peo­ple I men­tioned before would have (and prob­a­bly did) laugh scorn­ful­ly. It is so bizarre. Warn­ers is a per­fect exam­ple of a com­pa­ny that has no-one near the top who has any grasp on the essence of the pas­sion that made them what they were; it’s utter­ly behold­en to pen­sion funds and the same boss who fucked over Poly­Gram / Uni­ver­sal.

And one could argue that the con­sol­i­da­tions, done under fear, and dri­ven by pan­ick­ing share­hold­ers, have made them not only, obvi­ous­ly, less com­pet­i­tive, but less in touch with the real­i­ty of the ser­vices they pro­vide, and the cus­tomer who wants that ser­vice. The bizarre Jobs /EMI announce­ment last week was a point­er to that, offer­ing the cus­tomer more expen­sive than phys­i­cal albums, with the decid­ed­ly odd car­rot of DRM free files. Why would you. Don’t they get it? Peo­ple were laugh­ing at them.

I watch, with a lit­tle irony and bemuse­ment, as the big three or four (or what­ev­er it is this week) make them­selves large­ly redun­dant to the indus­try they helped cre­ate. They will, I think, in the sort, rather than the longer term, become lit­tle more than hold­ers of vast cat­a­logues, to be end­less­ly recy­cled until copy­rights expire.

My daugh­ter, aged twelve came to me the oth­er day, and asked about how she should pur­sue her musi­cal ambi­tions (and she wants to be a “star” into the bar­gain – good on her, that’s the dri­ve she’ll need to at least give it a go – and she’s 12 so the aura of such things hasn’t worn off yet). I went through a check­list of things she need­ed to do, of the steps and options open to her, includ­ing vast amounts of hard work and self-belief. It occurred to me after­wards that I didn’t men­tion a record com­pa­ny. I talked about the var­i­ous web options includ­ing the Web 2.5 out­lets and p2p (which sits eas­i­ly in the future far more than Uni­ver­sal, at least on the cut­ting edge, where it mat­ters). A decade two ago a record com­pa­ny would have been a big part of the game-plan, but no more. It’s only rel­e­vant on the periph­ery, as a way to get some CDs into stores, and in 2007 there are oth­er ways to do that.

And that, in a con­vo­lut­ed way, is where these some­what dis­con­nect­ed thoughts are head­ing to. In mid-2007 we are in the mid­dle of a series of musi­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions. We are in a cre­ative hot­house, just as Bowie was in 1972, but times ten, and increas­ing­ly the major cor­po­rate play­ers of years past have become irrel­e­vant to such. Rarely a day goes past when I don’t hear or see some­thing that takes my breath away. But just as rarely do I see the names SonyB­MG, Uni­ver­sal, Warn­ers or EMI attached as any more than minor bit play­ers. Even the music that does use their ser­vices – and I mean the excit­ing stuff that sign­posts the future, uses them as lit­tle more than a means to an end, as a foot in the door to tra­di­tion­al retail, or as a means to a pub­lish­ing advance, and not much more.

The end is nigh and the future, increas­ing­ly, is here.

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