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.