The Wild Wild East (or why we should stop bitchin’ and forget the record industry)


An interesting debate has sprung up over the last few days, prompted by a couple of acquaintances in the music industry over the nature of payment for work they have done (or actually rather work that others have done, and the principle of the thing itself).

It’s all about illegal downloading, and how that eats into the revenues of musicians. Both had stuck to a principle that music has a value, and that there must be some enforcement of copyright regulations internationally, I think that in many ways that ship has sailed. The East is wild, and the world is small. Trying to beat down sharing sites in Russia and China is a pointless game of whack a mole, and just not worth the effort.

However, the result of this is that the music industry is slowly returning to it’s normal state (historically speaking). And that may be no bad thing.

When we look at the history of the musician over hundreds of years, we can see that there is a 50 year blip in which recorded and broadcast music became extraordinarily important, giving Radio, TV, but most importantly the record companies, huge power over musicians.

But recent change in the industry has begun to shift the balance back to where it once was. Now, recorded music is regarded as largely a commodity, most of it is rubbish churned out by record labels and TV companies for a specific audience that listens with its eyes. Sex sells, and the idiots will always buy.

But for us, those who don’t play (and have never played) ‘POP’ music, this should be our time. The old industry is throwing itself under the bus with crap impersonal electrobabble, but the real music fans are returning to the old way of consuming music.

They go out and watch a band. LIVE!

And that’s exactly what the music industry was before the record companies had a medium to exploit. People went out and saw musicians, and bands got paid for the work they did that night. No residuals I grant you, but does a coal miner get residuals? We should never have taken that for granted in perpetuity.

Then there’s the thorny subject of ‘Theft’. Is illegal downloading or Streaming ‘Theft’? Well I suppose it is, but it’s largely victimless. If you think that the person stealing your music would have bought it if they couldn’t rip it off, then you’re probably deluding yourself. They wouldn’t. It’s a crime of opportunity. It’s there and they can have it, so they do. But they wouldn’t have gone out of their way. They would never have paid, whatever the price.

For the average musician or recording artist, (not the big boys),  the customer is the person he sees at the gig. Look in their eyes – do they want to steal from you? No, they are there because they want to support you and they want you to carry on doing what you do. Which means they are waiting for your next record, and they want to own it. Not download it, they want to physically have a copy, and they would be thrilled if you signed it! Your audience is emotionally invested in you, the product is the live gig.

When did the record industry eat itself? Probably in 1996 when Warners paid $80 million for REM’s next five albums. That’s why albums cost £15 a go in the 80’s & 90’s (even for 20 year old reissues on a 50p plastic disc). So of course the legacy industry are bleating, because they were ripping off the customer for years, and now the customer is getting his revenge, in spades. And if it were any other industry it would be the same.  EMI went just about broke, and judging by their reported bill for hospitality (i.e. cocaine), I’m not surprised.  Progress shakes out the bad models. And the record industry, despite the great but rather short ‘golden age of the Long Player’, was always a soul devouring piece of crap. Its death is long overdue.

So the real music industry is slowly returning to what it once was. Local. Personal. Live. And that’s where the little guy, with time for his audience and a personal bond with them, comes good. Your audience doesn’t see you on a screen from a quarter mile away, you’re a real person, like them.

Maybe the final bell tolled just recently, when Prince released his record through that great music journal, the ‘Mail on Sunday’. Or when U2 tried to give their album away with iPhones, and got a massive collective raspberry from the audience, who didn’t even want it For Nothing! Now I can’t ever remember giving away an album at a gig and being told to ‘shove it up my ass!’ Poor Bono…How it must have hurt his poor feelings. (Still he has his money to count, that should keep him busy……. for the rest of his life).

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for the recorded album. But the days of bands rocking up to a studio to record an album they haven’t written yet on someone else’s dime, well that’s pretty much gone. And good riddance to it. We will have to be more and more frugal. More music will have to be recorded ‘live’ and raw (like it once was). Less time, fewer overdubs, less fancy technology. The smaller and less expensive studios will always be busy. And the barriers to getting into the trade will fall with the price. But if you can’t cut it when the red light goes on, then you’ll be out. Just as it’s always been on the live circuit. ‘Talent will out my dears’ as the great Freddie Mercury once said.

And that’s how it should be. Anyone with the talent or the drive should be able to get a band together, save up a bit of gigging money (if they are good enough to get a gig), and go in and cut a record. If they can sell it fine. If they choose to give it away to create interest, that’s cool too. It’s a free country, it’s a free market. The record companies operated a cartel to keep out competition for decades, controlling the record distributors, the studios, pushing up the recording prices, signing bands just to ‘shut them down’. Technology caught up with them and the consumer took his opportunity, and beat them to a pulp with it.

There probably won’t be the huge supergroups in the future. Maybe it means that there won’t be another Queen, Beatles or Foo Fighters. But there will always be working musicians, turning out great music, and fans who will go out of their way to listen and become involved in the gigs.

I love Steve Lukather. He’s a great musician. But like the little guy in the real world whose company has just cut the overtime he’d enjoyed for years, he’d be better to stop bitchin’ and realise that he had a damn good run while it lasted, and he’s still got the tools to go out and do a good day’s work like the rest of us. There was never any guarantee it would last for ever.

And if like me you’re a musician, and like me you’re finding it hard to make a living, I sympathise. But the truth is, if you’re a good musician you’re probably a highly skilled and intelligent person who could go and get a fairly well paid job in a more stable industry.

But you don’t.

And you don’t for exactly the same reason I don’t. You love it too much.


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