Friday, November 15, 2013

Tech it or leave it out

Most developments in the music industry are the result of technological advancements or improvements. This is common to all areas from playing and recording, broadcast or performance to distribution and delivery. The great crisis of our age is not about streaming or illegal downloads it is about how musicians/artists earn. The person who solves that will be feted, likelihood is that it won’t be an artist though, it’ll be a businessman.

Everyone hated downloads, they destroyed sales (possibly). Apple’s solution of iTunes was driven by the hardware they’d created, they needed a one-stop store to sell the media to play on the machines – and they wanted control. No-one liked it, labels or artists, but they knew they had to get on board. There were few alternatives in the legal downloads game and most of those have now been crushed by Apple’s superiority.

Artists did not make those deals, labels could ill-afford not to and in the many years we’ve spent getting to streaming it still seems that business always takes the lead. It’s understandable, artists create art and business-people sell it – isn’t that the deal? If you look back far enough it seems that it was always the way but also that it was the acts that adapted quickest that profited most.

I have mentioned previously that the evolution of the album as a format was a business decision, the CD certainly was – many artists also profited in the latter circumstances from being able to re-market or re-distribute old material, often two or three times. It seems to me no coincidence that the era that most of this took place was also a reasonably barren one for new guitar-based music.

The language is also interesting – the album (as opposed to the original name of LP – long-player to differentiate it from a single) was so-called because it was a collection of songs. The earliest albums are just this. The artists who made the most of the format in artistic terms turned it into something different. Though I am prone to waffle on about The Beatles to illustrate this detail, there are few better. You can consider that they went from a basic rock ‘n’ roll covers band to a successful singles act and one of the very first successful album artistes – using the extended format to its greatest benefit. They also did this in a ridiculously short space of time.

Again I’ve made many references to this in the past and there’s one crucial reason why it wouldn’t be so easy again – the live market is now more profitable once you’re even partially successful, thus staying in the studio is not really an option. The other essential reason is that, whatever your level, you also still have to compete with The bloody Beatles who notably have another album release this week.

Artists are still fixated with the album format but are any of them really experimenting with the form? They still sell – 100m albums in the UK last year - but the signs are that this may not be for too much longer. Partially the reason that they still sell is that adults (the over-30’s and 40’s) are more keen on discovering new music than at previous points in history – these people grew up with the album and still want it, but they won’t be around forever or they’ll find different ways to occupy their time.

If we consider that the boom-time for albums was in the 70s and 80s, fed by the artists of the late 60s, it is clear that there were fewer distractions: not so many TV stations, no box-sets, gaming, etc. The way in which people listen is also a factor – if you put on a vinyl 12” LP you were unlikely to get up and swap it after one song, CD players (with remote controls) may have encouraged track-skipping and listening on your mobile device or PC is even less conscientious. For instance I find that having the mouse in my hand really does lead me to flick to the next track or artist.

What can current artists learn from those of the rock ‘n’ roll era? There are simple lessons as far as I’m concerned – make the singles compelling enough that the audience want to hear more, then make the albums entertaining and diverse enough that people will stick with you. People used to grow up with acts, there’s a much more temporary relationship at present it seems – acts need to work on that, some are getting it right and they will have longevity as a result.

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