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Sellouts and Selfies: The Modern Face of the Music Industry

In the beginning, there were the Beatles. A blatant lie in a world where music has existed since humans first smacked a rock onto a tree and called it New Age, but it’s a snappy enough start. Whilst it’s true there have always been people making music, the concept of managers, producers and labels as we know them today are still in their relative infancy. With Columbia Records setting itself up in the late 19th century, labels far preceded what might be considered the age of modern popular music. However, this isn’t going to be some rose-tinted rant about how things were so much better way back when. There has been such an accelerated shift in values since the dawn of the digital age, it’s scarcely surprising the music industry has struggled to move with it.

When it is remembered that any 60s band wanting to get their music out there had to record their first demo cassette in their gran’s inner city basement using a few milk bottle tops, an Allen key and a moulding potato, it’s hardly a surprise that they relied on the musical establishment to bring them to notoriety. Recording studios are expensive. Professional tape machines are expensive. Do not forget that this was still the time when recording engineers wore lab coats and editors sat in dark rooms splicing tape together. It’s clear that bands needed the financial backing of a large corporation.

But the financial edits cut both ways. Sure, labels pumped money into their artists, but nobody was stealing their music! Or at least, not in any vaguely palatable way, so I’m excluding holding a cassette machine up to your parent’s record player to make a mix tape of all your favourite hits. Build up enough followers for an artist through all the traditional marketing techniques, and sit back while the record sales poured through the door. Music sold (remember this as I’ll come to it later!).

So what changed? Well, anyone who’s had even a close approximation to a functioning ear to the ground for the last twenty or so years would know the answer. The biggest barrier for troubled teenage souls pining after their equally naïve loves in awkward poetry and four sheepishly strummed chords was finally surmounted by the arrival of a computer and the sticky sinews of the World Wide Web.

Forgetting for a moment the phenomenal reach of the internet, with computers came the possibility of creating a passable album in your own bedroom. Plugging your webcam mic into your digital audio workstation opened up a whole realm of possibilities. Who cares if you need to compress and distort every inch of acoustic life out of it to make it bearable? Music these days is so heavily processed that it’s often impossible to tell whether it was recorded in Abbey Road Studio 2 or the men’s bathroom of a Camden dive bar.

So you have your finished EP and all that’s left is the screams of adoring fans and the faint aroma of urine after a show (face it, you’ll never be the Beatles, OK?). Well, you simply upload it to the internet, get all your mates to start sharing it, and hey presto you have an EP out in the public domain. People will listen to it from Timbuktu to Tottenham. With luck you might even get the odd pound coin thrown your way when your parents show your gran how to download it.

And yet, the majority of the biggest money earners around today didn’t start this way. How did they elevate themselves to such heights without going through the rejection, turmoil and embarrassment of becoming a major recording artist? The answer is the worst kept secret of the music industry.

In the pre-digital world, bands had to start with musical talent and back it up with an electric personality, as opposed to modern times where musical talent sits somewhere near ‘Has a driving licence’ on the ‘Desirable’ column of the job listing. This is slightly ironic seeing how many arrived at this peak through some form of popular talent show. A talent for flashing their private parts on Instagram has managed to move the fallacy of musical talent truly into an Ex-Factor and more towards a D- or V-Factor.

Now we have a situation of personalities with a voice that can be patched up with careful editing and processing strutting their stuff on the screens. Music isn’t selling anymore. Personalities sell. I said I’d come back to this. And why do they need to be musically talented anyway? There are plenty of incredible musicians and composers out there willing to write and sell their songs outside of the limelight. Music becomes secondary to the headlines. And this isn’t a bad thing! There’s huge capacity all of a sudden for a talented musician with the personality of a geriatric sloth to have their music performed to millions! And if the performer wants to spend their time posting selfies of themselves or commenting in the most inane and sickly way on world events then that’s their choice (#yolo #prayforintegrity), and if said commenting brings them even more publicity, then their management and label are laughing.

It’s the stuff of dreams for a publicity company. A product that sells itself without any conscious effort? Of course, they can put them in the right place at the right time, wearing the right amount of nothing, but it takes true skill and idiocy to come up with some of the absurdities they say and do.

So what’s the conclusion? Where does this leave us? A wise man once wrote that if one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music, people don’t talk. Many say that music is dead, or wail that talent shows have destroyed the music industry. I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I rarely bop along to the latest teen-girl fantasy boy band, but they serve a purpose both as a point of endless satire and most importantly, money. They bring in enough money by selling to the only people who still pay for music (teenage girls) to keep the industry afloat for some truly incredible bands and musicians. They might not make as much money as quickly as the ‘Talent’ crew, and their break is likely to come later, but when they get it it’s that much sweeter, and if all else fails, they can simply sit back and write for someone else. Or upload a naked selfie. Your choice.

by Alex Woodfield

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Date Posted

04 Jan 2017

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