The Day The Music Industry Died

7 10 2007

Just thought this was an interesting enough read.

The day the music industry died

There is no money in recorded music any more, that’s why bands are now giving it away

Having waited four years for their heroes to finish another record, Radiohead fans were understandably excited last week to learn that the band’s seventh album, In Rainbows, will finally be released on Wednesday. But what really rocked the fanbase – and heightened the air of gloom enveloping the global record industry – was the news that In Rainbows could be preordered and downloaded perfectly legally for as little as 1p at

Currently out of contract and thus entitled to dispose of their recordings as they see fit, one of the most popular bands in the world had decided to let the fans decide how much their latest album was worth. An MP3 file of In Rainbows would have no price tag. Honesty boxes, it seemed, were the new rock’n’roll.

If the Radiohead faithful appeared somewhat nonplussed by this move – “The danger is that people will stop seeing their music as important,” one fan posted in a blog; “I will gladly pay $20 knowing the artist will get the money,” pledged another – the band’s strategy was anything but mad, and not even that revolutionary. Last week the Charlatans announced they would be giving away their new album as a free download. Earlier this year another rock band, the Crimea, did the same.

In July Prince arranged for 2.5m copies of his new album to be cover-mounted on a Sunday newspaper and issued several hundred thousand more free of charge to anybody attending his London concerts in August. The scale of this charitable epidemic can be measured by a quick browse of the Free Albums Galore blog that lists more than 800 albums by a range of artists – from the Beastie Boys to some unsigned metal bands – all of which are free to download.

What looks like commercial suicide is, in today’s reality, sound business sense. Records, CDs or downloads now have all become downgraded to the status of promotional tools – useful to sell concert tickets and fan paraphernalia. While there is still good money to be made in music, and particularly on the concert circuit, the record business – blame it on piracy, too many CD giveaways or the advent of the recordable CD – is a busted flush.

A revealing story doing the rounds in America tells of a young rock band who decided to stop selling their CDs at gigs after they discovered that by offering their CDs for $10 they were cannibalising sales of their $20 T-shirts. The truth now is that a rudimentary cotton garment with a band logo stamped across it that has probably been manufactured for pennies in a Third World sweatshop costs about twice as much as an album recorded in a state-of-the-art western studio. And even at that price, recorded music isn’t selling.

Album sales are currently in freefall all over the world. The 10% drop in the UK over the past year is dwarfed by a 15% slide in the US, 25% in France and a whopping 35% in Canada. The bankruptcy this summer of the CD retail chain Fopp, HMV’s announcement that its profits halved in the first six months of this year and Richard Branson’s recent decision to dump the Virgin Megastores – which have reportedly lost him more than £50m in 2007 – are only the most visible signs of a crisis that has rocked the music industry on its axis.

The point isn’t just that people are buying fewer CDs; they are paying as much as two-thirds less in real terms today for the music they listen to on their iPods than they used to when the compact disc first took over the market. Twenty years ago a chart CD cost about £14. Today you can buy the same in a super-market for £9.

The online market may have grown recently, but not enough to fix the hole. Here, too, margins have shrunk. A download of a single track now costs 79p against the £4 a CD single cost in 1999.

The impact on the bottom line of the record labels has been catastrophic. When EMI’s subsidiary Virgin put out the Spice Girls’ debut album in 1996 the company cleared roughly £5 in profit on each copy sold. That margin has since shrivelled to around £2 – and only then for albums that are significant hits. Industry insiders estimate that only one of the new British acts that has “broken” in 2007 – the pop diva Mika – will actually make his record company any money.

This has not gone unremarked in the City. When the private equity firm Terra Firma bought EMI recently it paid about a third, in real terms, what the company nearly fetched 10 years ago when a sale to its competitor Universal was mooted. That decline mirrors what has happened over the same period to the retail price of new CDs, and it also reflects the scale of the cull of EMI’s workforce, which has shrunk in 10 years from more than 10,000 worldwide to about 4,000 today.

The mood of panic is palpable, and there are no obvious solutions in sight. In America the recently appointed co-chairman of the Columbia label Rick Rubin, formerly a record producer by trade, has spoken of his ambition to turn the company around by refocusing it along the lines of a cable TV business – making Columbia’s entire catalogue downloadable to customers who pay a monthly subscription.

Another senior figure at Columbia has dismissed this plan as “potentially the last nail in the coffin”. The recent establishment of a “word of mouth” department at the label reflects the loss of control felt within a business that has lost a grip on its market.

One – fading – hope of the major labels is that they can somehow grab a share of the profits their artists make elsewhere. When Robbie Williams resigned to EMI in 2002 for a reported £80m this new deal guaranteed the label a piece of the action from Williams’s highly lucrative concert tours. But many young artists since have become wary of such composite arrangements. Some have decided to bypass the major record companies altogether.

One of the hottest new names to emerge here this year, the rave metal band Enter Shikari, refused to sign to anybody and in March released their debut album, Take to the Skies, on their own label Ambush Reality. In the past these tiny, so-called indie labels have usually been funded by majors anxious to covertly purchase credibility for their products with a young audience traditionally distrustful of big music corporations.

But that is not how it is with Ambush Reality. The marketing of Take to the Skies was largely down to the band themselves, who have played nearly 700 gigs since forming in St Albans in 2003. Word of mouth, coupled with a band presence on MySpace, has done the rest.

In November 2006 Enter Shikari became only the second unsigned act after the Darkness to sell out the leading London rock venue the Astoria. Take to the Skies entered the album chart at number four in March. In May they undertook a major tour of America – the first British band to do so without the support of a big record company.

This upending of the music business was neatly predicted back in the 1990s by the guitarist of the American hardcore band Anthrax who described their new album as “the menu; our concert is the meal”. This comment recalled the Beatles’ producer George Martin’s observation about his protégés’ first LP, Please Please Me from 1963. It was, Martin said, “just a memento of a concert”. Now, likewise, bands sell CD recordings of their performances at the end of the night.

The reprioritisation in recent years of live music over the recorded variety has been dramatic. Attendance at arena shows rose here by 11% last year. By the time 2007 bows out, 450 music festivals will have taken place in the UK.

Every week brings news of another frenzied assault on the box office. Last Monday Ticket-master reported that 20,000 tickets for the Spice Girls’ first reunion concert at London’s O2 arena in December sold out in 38 seconds, with 1m fans registering to buy. Three weeks back more than a million clamoured for seats at the forthcoming Led Zeppelin reunion. Glastonbury disposed of its 135,000 weekend passes for this year’s event within two hours – taking more than £21m in the process.

Ticket prices, especially for Alist artists, have soared as the price of CDs has tumbled. You could have bought Madonna’s entire catalogue for less than half what it cost to see her perform at Wembley Arena last summer where the best seats in the house went for £160. With the Rolling Stones at Twickenham a view from the pitch would have set you back £150.

Now that live music rules, nobody bothers to complain about what it costs any more. Euphoria at the news earlier this year that the Police had reformed obliterated all concerns that it cost between £70 and £90 to see them play at Twickenham in September. I spoke to many fans at one of those gigs; not one complained about the ticket price.

In the light of these numbers, the probability is that music fans now are spending more money on their passion than they were in the heyday of the CD. They have rediscovered an ancient truth that music is, at root, a communal experience as much as it is something that goes on between your ears.

Interestingly the band now tolling the death knell of the record industry, Radiohead, seem currently to have mixed feelings about live work.

“They probably will be playing some dates next year,” a spokesman said last week. “But Thom Yorke doesn’t like touring much.”




4 responses

7 10 2007
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8 10 2007
my music blog

this is a pretty nice analysis and observation. What you said truly speaks to itself. As they say, if you can’t beat them join them. However, Radiohead just want to make sure that their music won’t be stolen.. they just look at it as a new way to encourage fans and other music lovers to atleast pay the price that they can afford. I just hope that fans will not disclose that great offer and download their idol’s song for FREE!

8 10 2007

I think paying 1p (I paid 80p) is a good price for In Rainbows – in case I don’t like it. And if I do, there is talk of label deals to put the CD on shelves next year. I’m not that die-hard to spend £40.

But yep, I think albums inevitably are becoming promo tools. As they should be. If I can hear a single song on TV or radio free, why not just play me the whole album. Then I might consider seeing the songs played raw and live, with a very loud bloke shouting next to my ear. And then perhaps buy a shirt.

Before music recording mediums and charging venues, music was always free and we’re just returning to that. It’s back to inciting responses purely than just money. How long before the last money making method is just merchandise, not even live? Maybe buying a t-shirt enters you into a raffle for attending a gig.

I’d love if Metallica made their next album free…But Lars would probably quit before that.

8 10 2007

I love this. The major label music industry has done little in the favor of bands and it’s great to see this industry topple in on itself due to it’s own corruption, and lack of relevance due to stuck in the mud business practices.

There is no reason for a mid sized band to do sign to a big label at this point. with today’s technology you can record an amazing sounding record for relatively inexpensive costs, and digital downloading and distribution takes the hassle out of promoting, retailing and collecting on sales. In the end, bands and thier fans win.

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