The state of music

It’s about this time of year that I teach a mini unit on the music industry to my students. It’s also about this time of year that I ruminate on the state of Country music, having just watched the CMA awards.

When I first started teaching this topic there were just four major record labels, and a diminishing number of music magazines. Now there are just three major labels and even fewer magazines. According to pundits, the market seems to be moving permanently away from music ownership towards music streaming services. To me it seems polarised between the hipster fetishisation of vinyl and the complete devaluation of music as streams of data.

I want my students to take away a couple of key messages from my mini unit. The first is that ‘the music industry’ is a lot more than the four three major labels. No matter what the mainstream media coverage is, there is music happening everywhere, from the pub down the road to the truly independent label and the market-it-yourself sites like Bandcamp, Noisetrade, and SoundCloud.

The second takeaway I want my students to have is that they should be concerned – really concerned – about music discovery. So I’m going to come across as all organic and steam-powered, but I don’t think we should be trusting algorithms. I also don’t believe that services like Beats, which isn’t yet available in the UK anyway, but which claim to have human curators, are going to be trustworthy. Here’s why.

In order to be a music recommendation angel, you have to be willing to bite the hand that feeds you. Beats is now owned by Apple, who are a music retailer. Music retailers don’t slag off their products, no matter how bad they are. Apple, through iTunes, has taken the place of both the local record store and the music press. It’s a shop window, but it also contains a review-and-rating component. Which you can’t trust. As a shop window, like all retailers, iTunes will accept co-marketing funds in return for the prominent placement of something that the industry wants to sell to the public. The U2 debacle of recent times exposed this, to widespread derision. Behind the scenes, you can bet the conglomerates are rubbing their scaly hands together at the prospect of offering ‘human-powered recommendations’ to punters.

The sad thing is, that what gets shoved under our noses in these circumstances are the cash cow artists, like U2, who hardly need the marketing push. In recent weeks, it was revealed that (prior to the release of the Taylor Swift record) only one album had achieved platinum sales status in 2014: the soundtrack to Frozen.

In one of my sessions, I like to point out some of the stark download sales statistics of this modern era. Such as: in 2011, 2.5 million music tracks sold just one copy.

I like to get my students to think about that one copy. When I publish my books on the Kindle store, I always like to download a copy myself. That’s what that one copy is.

In 2011, 13 albums sold more than 1 million copies. Here in 2014, we’re looking at two: Frozen, and now, 1989, the Taylor Swift album. Can you imagine the strategy meetings about the release of that album? Can you imagine the yacht downpayments that depend on Ms Swift? And although it wasn’t much of a ‘risk’ for her to abandon the figleaf of Country music and go 100% Pop, it was still a risky move that could have seen her fall between two turds. Then again, the one thing you can guarantee would have given the execs apoplexy would be Taylor Swift turning up with a fucking Country album, with banjos and fiddles and pedal steel guitar and everything.

And the kicker for the major labels is that Taylor Swift is on Big Machine, and while they get to distribute her record, she has more control over what happens to her music than minor artists do. Taylor Swift has the same kind of clout as Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Van Morrison, and, er, U2.

Last week she pulled her albums from Spotify, to which I gave a small cheer. Not because I think she needs any more money, but because I hate the idea of music streaming. I hate the idea that some computer algorithm somewhere is deciding what I discover. I hate the idea that my access to music is dictated by the availability of network coverage or wifi. And I especially hate the idea that my diet of music is restricted to the three major labels.

I have fears for my own ability to discover new music these days. I downloaded a dozen albums off the back of a single (online) Rolling Stone article this year. I don’t trust the never-moving iTunes shop window. And I can’t even turn to the annual CMA awards anymore, because the Country industry is still in the throes of its obsession with fucking trucks and beer. Looking at the line-up for next year’s Country2Country in London, I was once more underwhelmed. Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert: all more or less interchangeable, mostly offensive, wearing too many baseball caps and having too many neck tattoos. Lady Antebellum are included, but, bof to them. Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack interest me, but looking at their place in the line-up, they’ll come and go before most people have taken their seats.

In conclusion, state of the major labels: pretty much fucked. State of music discovery: worrying.

You know the music industry is fucked, because the best record of this year, by far, is Kin by Larkin Poe. In a sane universe, everyone would know about them, but hardly anybody does.

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