Sympathy for the record industry

I’ve been pretty scathing about the music business in this blog and elsewhere, which raises the obvious question: “why do you hate the music industry so much?” And the answer is: I don’t. I’m actually a big fan.

Music matters, whether it’s U2’s Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own catching you at a vulnerable moment and making you burst into tears, or Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out convincing you that it’s a very good idea to dance like a chicken. For 50-odd years, the music business has been an important part of the economy and has contributed greatly to the gaiety of nations. It’s also very, very good at spotting and honing talent, which is a tricky thing to do: of the thousands of bands that you’ll find in any city, only a handful are worth paying attention to, and the music business (in its various forms, major and indie) is very good at snapping them up and nurturing their talent.

You’ve got to have some sympathy for the record industry, because it’s an incredibly risky business: there’s no way of knowing what’s going to sell and what isn’t until the records are actually out there. And the chances of success are absolutely tiny: of the bands that get deals, 95% of them sink without trace; very few of the remaining 5% go on to become the next Radiohead, REM or U2, let alone the next Beatles. Manufactured pop helps reduce the risk somewhat, but even then it’s a gamble: how many faux-britneys have sold even 1% of what Hit Me Baby One More Time sold?

You’ll find a lot of people moaning about manufactured pop or corporate rock, but not me (beyond the odd bad-tempered moan about Westlife or Nickelback). That’s partly because I love a lot of “manufactured” stuff – you’ll find Tatu, Dream, Britney, Backstreet Boys and even Daphne & Celeste on my iPod – and partly because the obvious evils of bands such as Westlife is tempered by the fact that the truckloads of money they generate pays for the less commercial and more interesting acts on the same label.

People in the industry aren’t baby-eating monsters, either: the various music business people I contact via work – the BPI, indie musicians, people at labels, publishers, people from the various licensing agencies – and that I’ve encountered in my non-journalism activities – promoters, managers, studio engineers, bands, DJs – are generally decent people with an abiding and obvious love of music. Which is why it’s so frustrating when they do dumb things, such as artists refusing to let their songs be sold individually (hello, Radiohead!), labels releasing albums with two good songs and 12 unremarkable filler tracks, or industry organisations suing schoolchildren and pensioners – or in one particularly despicable example from Down Under, threatening to sue the Red Cross because it accepted donations from Kazaa’s parent company.

Pundits are predicting that 2005 will be the year of digital music, and I sincerely hope that’s the case – but if the prediction is to come true, some things still need to change. The biggest change is that the industry needs to stop viewing its customers as thieves; by limiting what you can and can’t do with legally purchased music, all the labels are doing is driving people to other, illegitimate download sources. And the music format war needs to be sorted out too. As long as iPods only play songs from the iTunes Music Store and Windows Media Players only play songs from Windows Media shops, we’ve got a problem. If the labels address both of those issues in 2005 then they won’t just have my sympathy; they’ll have my outright admiration.