In the wake of the passing of one of modern music’s great luminaries – as we mourn collectively, and rightly so – a depressing consideration crossed my mind: ‘It’s unlikely that we’ll see another artist who is given the opportunity to push the creative envelope in the same way David Bowie did enjoying significant mainstream success again.’
It doesn’t take the sharpest of minds to see why. The fact is, for numerous reasons, neither the music industry nor the general public support the career progression of true artists any more (I don’t want to come across as pretentious with phrases such as ‘true artist’; but I think you know what I mean). I’ve heard it said many times that music sales are down by 50%. That, however, is somewhat of a Bayesian average. I say this because what some people are not considering is that the parents of children who are lovers of One Direction or whoever/whatever(!) the latest X Factor fad is are not going to illegally download music for their kids - they’re going to buy it; and that is why we are still seeing those records sell in their millions; or in some cases, tens of millions. All the while, one look at the charts reveals a sad paucity of genuine artistry. I’d be interested to see genre specific statistics or at least have them split between ‘credible’ music (for want of a better word) and mass produced dreck. I’m sure they would convey that sales for 'the next' David Bowie are down by considerably more than 50%. I remember a time when acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Massive Attack, Portishead, Soundgarden and Tricky would have albums in the top 40 concurrently. These were acts that were given the latitude to develop their careers – both in a time sense and a financial one: Here’s $50k for a month in the studio for your first album, for your sophomore, we hope to see an upturn in commercial success, so here’s $250k for five months in the studio for that!
So, what has changed in the industry? Well, the meme to the left - currently doing the social media rounds - almost sums it up; I say 'almost' because a meme should never be completely trusted - they are usually just a little facile! But the sentiment does ring true: basically, because not many are buying ‘credible’ (there’s that word again!) music these days, there is no money to create it - let alone provide a profit for record labels. Most bands can't even be their own bank any more. We spent two and a half weeks recording ‘New Waves of Hope’, mostly self-funded. That was after being signed to four labels, from whom we received next to no real career guidance and not a penny in capital. Every label release was a licensing contract – meaning the artist pays for the production of the music while the label does their ‘best’ to 'exploit' it, giving the artist 50% (net!) in royalties. In light of what people have said about the record and the glowing reviews it has received, I can say with some confidence that 20 years ago, ‘New Waves of Hope’ would have sales predictions presenting it as a worthwhile speculation - and so it would have been funded by a label, probably to the tune of a greater outlay than the $18k we spent on it; because tracking that album in the time we did was quite an exceptional feat.
I thought twice about posting this blog; mainly because it could come across as having an agenda; plus, it's also not entirely positive! I wanted to post something joyous and happy, but when that meme started cropping up everywhere, from people (mainly non-musicians) supporting its message, I thought it pertinent to shed a little light from the inside... Abundant happiness next week!
Interestingly, the internet is flooded with people proclaiming their support of upcoming talent; but I honestly don’t think many are putting their money where their mouth is. Here’s an example: the first single we released from ‘New Waves of Hope’, ‘Making Plans for the End’ had over 30,000 plays in its first month on Soundcloud (not a huge amount - but respectable); it has now been on Spotify for nearly three months and is yet to receive 1000 streams. If streaming really is the next financial driver of the industry and people claim to be supporting new artists, why are they choosing a platform that doesn’t offer royalties over one that does? Is it lack of education or just a matter of ease and convenience: 'why should I sign up to Spotify when I don't have to register with Soundcloud?' Either way, the result is tens of thousands of people enjoying the music of artists who are receiving no royalties. The production of music is expensive and so no royalties = no music. We could easily put out 50 songs a year and it’s eminently frustrating that we are unable to record (let alone release) new music at a rate that would satisfy us and greatly please our fans. I hope this exemplifies the redundancy of the 'artists should make art for art's sake' argument. This is not a sense of entitlement and it has nothing to do with artists wanting more money, it's a plainly obvious truth: if people love an artist and want them to create more music - bringing joy and wonderment to their lives - then they must pay for it.
I remember a time when people would complain about the price of a CD; that’s when they were £15. My argument was ‘don’t buy the CD’s of artists you don’t like because if you only buy music that brings you joy, £15 for a lifetime of pleasure really isn’t that much. Especially considering, you’d happily spend five times that amount in the pub in one evening!’
Meanwhile, M83 have a song licensed to the quite dreadful 'Made in Chelsea' and The Smashing Pumpkins have licensed a song about suicidal ideation from 1993 to a Visa advert - talk about desperate, non-integrous financial drivers... and these are huge bands!
This is not a gratuitous whinge. If it was, I wouldn’t be so frank about our numbers. Neither is it me begging for people to buy our album. That’d be fantastic… but this goes way beyond The Microdance; it’s a cultural malaise: almost every musician I know (and there are some seriously wonderful ones) is in the same boat and I’m afraid that the next generation of kids are going to have no one to aspire to – no reason to pick up their guitars, amps, pedals, drum kits, synths etc. and traipse halfway across a city to a rehearsal room that they are struggling to pay for with no light at the end of the tunnel.
I will also make it abundantly clear that in no way am I trying to put The Microdance in anywhere near the same league as Bowie!
May the gods of rock ‘n’ roll bless his cosmic soul!
PS: I’d also like to extend a big thank you to those of you who are still buying the music of the acts you love; and in particular, those of you who have such great taste that you’ve parted with your money to buy a copy of our album. For those of you who haven’t heard ‘New Waves of Hope’, we’ve found that others are enjoying the album to a greater extent than we are proud of it. So why not head over to Spotify, pour yourself a nice drink, put some decent headphones on and have a listen?!
PPS: I’ve been heavily criticised by previous management for promulgating such negativity and I expect to be criticised for this. But I don’t think this is negative; it’s just the way it is - and if I were on the other side, I’d want to know about it. This death knell is a silent one.
Peace and love,
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!