published: 16 /
In the latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll column Ben Howarth asks, if with the collapse of Fopp, and both HMV and EMI admitting to losing money, if the music industry really is in crisis
The 'music industry’ is in crisis, but - if the Guardian media blogs are to be believed, the ‘music scene’ is in rude health.
The two great, three-letter bastions of the British music industry are both losing money. HMV and EMI were both there when operas and concertos were first made available to country drawing rooms, and their presence ushered Britain into a new era of popular culture. They had the corporate nous to turn the bold ideas of Epstein, Martin, Lennon and McCartney into a market phenomenon. Pop music, as we know it and love it, started then.
There is now more pop music made, and more ways to listen to it, than ever before. There is something rather ironic, therefore, that the very people who took an unrespected art form and made it the centerpiece of a national culture, have managed to lose the ability to make money out of it - at a point when pop music in all its forms has never been more respected by both the elites and the masses, and has been granted a free rein on national airwaves for three consecutive weekends, with Glastonbury, the Diana concert and then Live Earth.
Fopp has also shut its doors, which is sad to anyone who liked buying albums for five pounds and books for even less, but I wouldn’t add that to this general picture. Fopp’s failure seems to have come out of embarrassing mismanagement, and though the ‘harsh climate’ probably exacerbated that, Fopp probably have only themselves to blame - though this is no consolation to the people who - though neither you nor them realized that at the time that they were serving you behind the counter - have just spent a month of their lives working for free.
But why are EMI and HMV failing? They are making and selling things that - though many steal from the internet - many, many more are quite happy to buy. An element is that, after years of grumbling from consumers, they have finally been forced to stop ripping their customers off with £16.99 price tags for albums.
The internet poses a problem, and they haven’t risen to it. This is strange. Every other business seems to have taken the internet and used it to redefine its business model. Music seems to have got scared. The only music industry professionals who want to "embrace" the internet are nutters like Chuck D and Alan McGee who have put more casual fans off completely.
Music is an odd climate. If a band even hinted at being anything other than solidly Trotskyist, they would never again be featured in either the 'NME' or 'Plan B'. But if that same band stopped making corporate shareholders a fortune, they would be shunned by everybody else.
The only art form more capitalistic than pop music is the Hollywood film industry. It’s very odd, therefore, that the only way the music industry seems to have been able to use the internet is to give things away or let people steal them. How has that been possible?
I think the only conclusion you can reach as to why EMI and HMV are losing money is that the people running them aren’t being very clever. EMI and HMV once changed the cultural climate, but they now seem determined to keep things just like they always have been, whilst knowing deep down that will never happen.
And yet, 90 per cent of us continue to buy our music in disc form. I can’t help but feel that EMI and HMV should be leading a positive change, but finding one that we fans - as there are lots of us - like. Instead, they panic and spend most of their time working out ways to sue for copyright infringement.
All the while, Rough Trade - which really was born out of the minds of Trotskyist nutters - is in rude health, and will soon be opening the doors to a rather exciting new store. Just what are HMV doing wrong?