# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Miscellaneous - May 2011

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 23 / 4 / 2011

Miscellaneous - May 2011


Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' reflects upon the causes for HMV's declining sales, while the fortunes of Amazon in contrast continue to expand

The music industry: major label executives putting up large advances to songwriter-producers churning out production-pop for talent show contestants and Brit school graduates, who in turn pay for video directors, sound and lighting engineers, radio pluggers and concert promoters. 2011: the year when all of this might fundamentally change. The defining factors: HMV and Amazon.co.uk. HMV is staring over the ledge, having narrowly avoided having its bank lending status revoked. It has already announced store closures and job losses. With the British economy having seen no growth over the past six months, and consumer confidence consequently in sharp decline, its prospects don’t look good. The brand may survive (though even that is in the balance), but its business model will inevitably change. Expect the back catalogue albums from non-charting acts currently lining the shelves to disappear. Meanwhile, Amazon is booming. Being an online business, it doesn’t have to worry about having attractive shop fronts, and it can keep a wider range of stock, piling it up and filing it away, safe in the knowledge that only its warehouse staff need know where things are kept. It faces one potential challenge, however. The voices of those wanting to close Amazon’s tax loophole (allowing packages worth less than £18 from the Channel Islands into the UK tax-free) are getting louder. HMV have lost most from Amazon being able to sell everything cheaper. If they can convince their creditors that they still have prospects of solvency, they are likely to strip back what little choice remains in their selection of CDs, focussing instead on IPods and Xboxes. It’s hard to feel that sorry for HMV – personally, I’ll be taking advantage of Amazon’s tax loophole as long as I possibly can. I’ve been looking to stock up on the back catalogue of Superchunk recently, and there’s no better place at which to do so. I’m not going to easily forgive HMV for the days when buying new albums used to cost me between £13-17, a profit margin that kept their executives in no shortage of cocaine, but kept fans, bands and labels deep in their overdrafts. But, unfortunately, with HMV’s ruthlessness having made it the last remaining high street shop specialising in music, if it does fail, those fans, bands and labels will probably suffer even more. So if HMV does stop stocking a good choice of music or if it closes down entirely what happens? Many will cheer, and see it as a big victory against corporatism. Advocates of independent shops might see it as an opportunity. But the biggest losers will probably be the indies, ironically. They thrive so long as there are a large number of labels functioning, but the mid-size labels rely on the comparatively larger pockets of high street shoppers. Rough Trade East might feast on a diet of limited editions and bedroom releases, but their comrades on the suburban side-street don’t. So, our lonely eyes turn to the internet – the cause of many of these problems but clearly part of the solution. And yet, those prophesising an online vision of Eden with manna in the form of unlimited free music were forced to take a reality check when Spotify announced a limit on the number of hours and the number of times you can listen to a song recently. I think the reality is that we will have to get used to music being made differently. I began this column by referring to all the careers that the music industry supports. Clearly, some of those won’t exist in a world where the only way to generate substantial wealth from music is by getting an act onto the MTV playlist and onto supermarket shelves. The music industry’s lobbying arm, the BPI, has two stock messages – music is still an industry that can grow (and – this implicitly means - sustain executive lifestyles, with all the cocaine, sports cars and 50% tax rates this entails) but, they stress, this can only happen if Government and the courts crack down on online activity that doesn’t help them. Strictly speaking, the BPI represents small labels too, and it does voice a concern widely shared in its campaign against copyright theft. But its corporate viewpoint is too narrow, and sounds too much like the banks, energy companies and supermarkets who have stopped representing any interest than their shareholders. The music industry would be wise to stop letting the BPI speak for it. Instead of thinking of itself as an industry, it would be better to think of artists and their audience. People who buy CDs aren’t just consumers, they are fans. With loyal fans, it becomes possible, in fact, to make a living in music without an upfront advance from a big-brand label. Admittedly, it isn’t easy. Look at Darren Hayman, of Hefner and French fame – he wrote 31 songs (one a day) in January, and gave them to his fans online. More work than many bands will endure in an entire career. I doubt he was able to pay his rent with the proceeds, but hopefully, this exercise will provide the platform for many activities that will. To make ‘January Songs’ work, Hayman has had to learn self-sufficiency (in fairness, Hayman did most of the work even when he was being sent cheques by a large-ish label in his Hefner days). As well as writing songs and learning instruments, he can now produce and master his own recordings, make his own videos, promote and sell his songs. As well as offering fans a fascinating glimpse of how song-writing works, ‘January Songs’ shows how musicians might want to cultivate an audience in a post-corporate world. What this model doesn’t give much room for, I admit, is the rock ‘n’ roll glamour story. We might miss the days of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop circling the globe with their drug addictions and hangers-on, moodily disdainful of anyone who hasn’t joined them in the rock-god stratosphere. But, the long term consequence of that rock star model has been Liam Gallagher (palpably one of the thickest men on the planet) and the executive board of EMI (palpably some of the thickest businessmen on the planet). I think when Prime Ministers past, present and future praise music’s contribution to economic growth, they are referring to Liam Gallagher and not to Darren Hayman. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for those less fascinated by obscene wealth, it is Hayman and not Gallagher who offers an idea of how music might survive in a world without a high street music megastore.

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