This fortnight, our resident music nerd Cormac Duffy looks back on a week that shook the music industry
Stuck in a drought of new music, combined with the depressing combination of impending exams and the mid-season cancellation of Community, the music business ended up being the source of most of my entertainment this past fortnight. The once mighty empire of EMI, now a mere bank asset, was torn asunder and sold on in parts to Sony and Universal. If the move bypasses those anti-trust regulators, the major label world will now be a triumvirate of Warner, Sony and Universal.
Sean Parker, the guy Justin Timberlake played in The Social Network and now the director at Spotify, used this to make an intriguing, but terribly timed claim. Commenting on his Facebook page, he boldly boasted that due to the music industry saving the work of Spotify and similar streaming services, EMI was probably undervalued.
Before anyone could say “Speaking of undervalued…”, word leaked that Mercury nominee Jon Hopkins received a pittance of £8 for 100,000 streams on the site. The ensuing scandal (sped along by Hopkins’ catchy “F**k Spotify” quote) led to a withdrawal of music from the streaming service by a range of independent labels claiming that it was damaging sales.
The same day, the US Congress began debating a set of radical bills that would allow Internet service providers to block access to sites hosting illegal downloads without having to bring it through the courts. Were these to pass, the ease of downloading would be abolished for all but the expert-minded, threatening to set back the decline of the music industry by years. Not the best news for Google to receive, as it debuted Google Music Beta, which allows users to access their own collections being stored in “the cloud”, which is being touted as supporting the hosting of pirated and illegal files. The supposedly inevitable decay of the music industry now seems uncertain, but really it always has been. I think the oft-ignored wild card in the issue is the lowly consumer.
The shocking truth we all tend to ignore is that even though it’s easier to download music illegally than it is to breathe these days, records and downloads are still sold, often in larger amounts than ‘indie’ acts ever received in the past (see solid sales figures for releases from James Blake, Bon Iver and Tyler, the Creator). It astounds and comforts me to know that people still place a monetary value on sound, to put it in the plainest terms.
What is it that motivates this noble minority? Detached from necessity, it becomes an act of the consumer’s own volition, their way of making a statement. Purchasing an album these days is a sign of solidarity with the artist, a personal endorsement. With this as the case, maybe the future direction of music marketing is building up an emotional, rather than a cultural caché. If purchasers are being moved by a desire to support the artist, the artist has to be seen as in need of support. It’s one reason I think that smaller, independent labels could rule the future, even if it takes a little help from anti-piracy regulators.