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The music industry: Dialectics in cultural production

Last month Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien spoke to the BBC about his views on the current state of the music industry. Here is a quote:

“I sense, and many artists sense, that it's become dominated by money, and the need to make more money, and I think the problem with that is that the creativity's gone out of the industry, the fun. That was the main thing. And I think the problem is that in the last 10-15 years it's become about money and the money men are now running the companies, whereas traditionally it's always been the creatives. You realise there's something hugely missing now. “ (1)

What’s telling about the comments of Ed O'Brien is that despite his belief that the recording industry has become money dominated and his recognition of the upheavals generated by the emerging download market he still views the industry as a viable means of organising music production and distribution, one which simply has something missing. It’s odd really as Radiohead have been pioneers in mainstream music through their use of the download format to distribute their work (In Rainbows) and you would think this would lead them to the conclusion that the future lay away from the big budgets and distorted hyperbole of the record biz. Indeed as the figures tell us the CD format is continuing to see falls in sales while downloading in the form of MP3s and FLAC is growing year on year. The doomsayers point this out as an indication of the death of music in general highlighting the increasing formulaic and market driven agenda of major labels, not to mention those same labels (and some of their artists) bemoaning loss of revenue and the growing hardship felt through illegal downloads. But this analysis does seem flawed in that it glaringly conflates music in general with the output of the music industry in particular.

So in all of this what really is the likely future of music? I do subscribe to the belief that CD sales are headed towards obsolescence, to the point at which the format will go the same way as the mini-disk and tape. Don’t get me wrong there will still be those pressing CDs but this will be likely be confined to smaller runs for independent labels and perhaps some mass produced runs covering the most commercial of music for sale in outlets such as supermarkets. However the large high street CD retailer will more or less cease to exist. The predominant form of music purchase will be downloads, most likely FLAC or media deriving from that format. Smaller labels and online distributors will move increasingly to supplying music directly by download through online shop fronts rather than using larger specialist distributors to get physical products into stores. There may well be some exceptions to this as right now there seems to be quite a lot of collaboration between smaller specialist shops and mega suppliers like Amazon and who appear to be renting out their applications and download apparatus to the likes of Boomkat who in turn negotiate with smaller labels to supply digital downloads of their releases. Hence you find music from the tiny independent Miasmah label up for download from Amazon and Boomkat. As for physical products the above mentioned decrepitude of the CD will be accompanied by the long predicted return of vinyl in a big way. The format has (as anyone interested in proper music knows) never really gone away. The continual popularity of the format with DJs and its unique quality sound wise has maintained a following both in the dance scene and among audiophile nerds. As such after a large decline in the 1990s the format has been growing steadily as a mainstay of independent music labels during the download revolution of the 2000s. Today even major high street retailers like HMV now have large vinyl sections where ten years ago this was usually confined to a small selection of current dance singles. Also major labels have been trying to get in on the act by releasing (all-be-it mostly non pop records) on vinyl as well as the standard CD format and digital download. These vinyl records can now usually be found alongside the CD format in the new releases section of large high street music retailers.

So what of the economics of these changes, clearly with the CD market all but dead and the production of vinyl in large quantities never likely to take on the mass appeal needed to fill the gap, the major record companies’ revenues are going to be severely hit. What’s interesting about the trends from 2010 are the huge increases in singles sales compared to album sales. The BPI recorded over 150 million singles sold (up 32% on last year) with 98% of these being downloads. This is compared to the mere 16 million album download sales (although this is an increase of 56.1% on last year). Clearly the market for downloads is still centered around those one hit wonders rather than those wanting the whole experience, and with the media focus on those one hit wonders produced by TV talent shows like the X factor, it is not a stretch to see where the money is likely to be headed. The sort of profitability over creativity attitude that Ed O'Brien talks about is precisely the modus operandi of the likes of Simon Cowell when he grooms and engineers the latest TV sing star for their 15 minutes of fame. It is this emphasis on short term profit rather than artistic longevity that hit’s the creative aspirations of artists hardest. Such an outlook produces an inherent conservatism in both form and content so that the end product is often paltry variations of previous hits, inoffensive ballads or seasonal stocking fillers all given a surface shine through the mandatory music video and TV/Radio promotional campaign. If one of these hopefuls manages to break out of the limits of type more often than not they metamorphose into another stereotype of stage-managed industry conservatism, all-be-it one at a relatively higher level of exposure. See Leona Lewis transformed from Hackney girl next door to sexy US diva ala Mariah Carey. In short the likely trajectory of major record labels will be towards the production and marketing of these kinds of short terms investments which generate large returns quickly through download sales rather than holding onto a large roster of bands or singers who only sporadically release new material.

So is there perhaps a dialectical structure to these trends? Certainly the rapid emergence of downloading took the industry by surprise, so much so that really they are still reorientating, and are maintaining a punitive, reactionary approach to illegal downloads through use of litigation, and, more worryingly, putting pressure on internet service providers to monitor and take action against their customers who persistently download illegally. Such actions can take the form of letters being sent, or even having their IP permanently blocked. Unfortunately by declaring war on their consumers the record business has put themselves in a pretty difficult situation. It is however a situation that the record business has had a major part in creating. Over the past twenty five years the recording industry has witnessed a massive degree of consolidation, small independent labels have found themselves bought up by larger national names and they in turn have found themselves bought-up in multi-million dollar deals by one of the multi-national corporations like Sony, Warner, EMI, Universal. Artists who may have signed long term deals with small labels with a relatively hands off approach to artist expression found themselves having to justify their continued profitability to multi-nationals and under pressure to conform to a prescribed type or face having their contracts cancelled.

This model has been pretty much repeated across the industry as trends emerged, and with them an imperative to invest in smaller labels with in vogue artists. The downside was that as the fashions moved on so too did the money and major label support, the result being that whole swathes of musicians and producers found their promotional budgets cut or being abandoned by their labels. New Romantics, Trip-hop, Drum and Base, Nu-Metal, all have had their periods of short term profitability that the majors tried to actualise before interest fell and the money moved elsewhere. It is important to realise however that this cycle is not a natural process whereby Capital colonises an area directed by an autonomous popular will. Certainly cultural production does contain its spontaneity, influenced by a diverse array of factors of which the technology and affordability of music production is paramount. However as Capital accumulation increases and the cultural sphere is colonised to greater and greater extent, the ability of major labels to manufacture and influence the trends that before it was more reactive to, also increase.

Today our exposure to music comes from a far wider array of sources than before, and the degree of influence of big Capital on that exposure is also unprecedented. Correspondingly this degree of exposure and influence - led by Capitals incessant need to continually find the newest and most profitable source of income - has fostered reification and commodification of music in general. The advent of digital technology which allows for fast accumulation and mass storage of music on MP3 players and hard drives has only added to the relativisation and impermanence of the experience of music. This however is only half the story. The fostering of a consumerist attitude to music and the emergence of digital technology has produced an antagonism that the music industry is struggling (and will ultimately fail) to deal with. To properly understand the revolutionary status of digital music it is necessary to consider the unique ontological shift that occurred when music began to be digitally stored and shared over the internet.

Before the advent of MP3s and other such digital formats the ontological status of a music product had a certain stability. You bought a CD, vinyl record or maybe a tape in a shop, and more or less this item was the thing in itself, it had a certain market value and its purchase and subsequent life was pretty much predictable. Obviously technology was readily available that could copy the music, i.e. tape to tape, CD to tape, Vinyl to tape etc, but this process was limited by the following requirements:

1 - The purchase of another product, usually other blank tapes, later recordable CDs.
2 - The time needed to copy the original recording. Real-time in the case of tapes, variations on a few minutes for CD burning depending on type of burner.
3 - Another known individual to give the resulting copy too.

All three of these factors are a restriction on the possibility of the musical product escaping its status as a unit of value within the economic framework. Large scale copying and distribution are restricted by time, technology and the need to find large numbers of people to receive the copies. Obviously organised pirating has existed for a long time but again the status of the recordings sold (whether bootleg tapes/CDs/ DVDs) maintain a certain thingness inescapable from the wider economy and current copyright legislation. Digital copying and distribution over the internet has blown this all away. As a user of the original Napster at the end of the 1990s I was amazed at the ability to read a review of a particular record in a magazine and to simply type the name into the Napster search engine to find any number of possible users to download from. One individual could rip an MP3 from a CD and within a couple of days hundreds of copies of the single file could have been downloaded to other users and their copies subsequently downloaded to thousands of others. The concept of a unit of production and its inherent value seemed obsolete. The industry’s knee jerk reaction was to simply label this kind of activity stealing. But who was the actual thief? The original uploader? The people who downloaded the original file, or the people who downloaded copies of copies. Clearly the demarcations afforded physical property are extremely ill suited to this kind of phenomena. That, however, has not stopped the aforementioned punitive actions against uploaders and downloaders. Along with the legal recourse and lobbying, the industry has being attempting to build a moral consensus regarding downloading, including highly speculative claims on the level of damage done to artist revenues, industry jobs, the wider economy, the culture of the nation, etc. A recent statement from the Recording Industry Association of America made the claim that illegal downloads had cost the US 373,000 jobs! The statement fails to list how such a figure was reached, and would no doubt be open to wide interpretation (2). It is also difficult to sympathise with an industry that sells music at prices only a small fraction of which actually goes to the musicians while the vast majority of which go to pay for cultural manipulation through blanket promotion and the inflated salaries of those who propagate it.

So here rests the critical antagonism; the insatiable demand for new music entertainment that the market has fostered in its consumers, and the emerging technology which until now has been a benefit to capital accumulation has reached a point that transcends its previous conditions. The internet and the endless creativity of those private individuals working on the next generation of file-sharing applications have in a very short period of time negated the hegemony of the recording industry. And just as the production and distribution of music is no longer wholly constrained by Capital, so too is the Ideology of music consumption changing with it. Even though there are a large number of legal methods of download which are considerably cheaper than buying the physical product, the prevalence of unregulated downloading continues. More than this, though, is that the necessity of large corporations to spoon feed consumers with the next big thing is also becoming marginalized. Online blogs, review sites and magazines like Pitchfork media, and the ability of individuals to upload and promote their own recordings through social networking sites means that exposure is no longer dependent on being given a promotional budget. Information about new music is available to any individual with an internet connection and the ability to search, review, and subsequently obtain music is rapidly freeing independent music from the grip of established media outlets. The increasing prevalence of TV talent shows to produce profitable short term investments for the music industry is a direct response to the loss of control over the regulation and emergence of new music that the internet and digital music has created.

In the long term I can see this phenomena developing into a genuinely stark duality in music culture. On the one side an increasingly conservative and repetitive mainstream focusing on a smaller number of predictable short term gains from increasingly manufactured artists. This will coincide with a continued withdrawal of influence over marginal and less profitable forms, including all but the most commercial rock music. On the other side, away from the concision of commercial music, it will be increasingly characterised by large numbers of small independent labels directly distributing their artists work through download or by smaller runs of physical products, increasingly vinyl on parity with CDs. With far lower costs for distribution and promotion the cost of music will fall dramatically. We are already seeing traces of this in the price wars of various outlets for MP3s and online CD purchase.

In the long term I can see the possibility that the vast majority of music will be obtained outside of the sphere of influence of big capital, with corporations unable to justify the cost of national or international promotion for artists whose music will be sold cheaply, is readily available by illegal download, and the popularity for which will fade due to disenchantment with its chronic formalism. It is in this long term sense that we may talk about the death of music as a mass cultural phenomenon. No longer blanket exposure for the flavour of week. No grand new trends with their multi million pound corporate backing. No talk of investment in hip-hop or diversification into nu-folk. Knowledge as the basis of hegemony of exposure and consumption will be decentralised and as such the old model of the media manipulated consumer buying up the latest fad will be negated. What those who attack the rhysomatic nature of the digital revolution miss is that while it throws the subject into a state where all narratives vie for attention, it also frees that subject from the interpassivity inherent in late capitalist culture. Too often the thinking is done for you, by the talk show host, the talent show judge, the major label executive or the magazine editor. The alienation of enjoyment into the mass activity of music consumption is negated by the plurality and subjective freedom afforded by the new digital revolution.

The swarm of new music, of endless lists of MP3s and digital media downloaded, cast aside or shared, unmediated by the big Other directing the purchase of choice; this is held up by conservative forces as the result of music and other media being so ready at hand, unconstrained by larger forces structuring hierarchies of value. Now we throw our sounds around like confetti at a wedding, all reduced to mere Muzak soundtracking our individual lives. What these voices of reason miss is the thoroughly liberating situation where the normative values and meanings in music are thrown into chaos, where the subject of the musical enunciation and the subject of the enunciated content are no longer screened from each other by the wider symbolic-libidinal mechanism of Capital - whose logic has nothing whatsoever to do with the experience of musical signification - and thus for the first time the mass exchange of cultural products within a society shed their alienating character, and we will finally be able to speak of an essence of cultural exchange that was always already there.

Almost one hundred years ago in Italy, Luigi Russolo premiered his mighty Intonarumori noise makers. One of the divisions in the concert program was titled “The Awakening of Capital”. While I might suggest that the unevenness in development that music has suffered from in the intervening time has left Capital in a self-satisfied slumber, the rapidly accelerating changes of the last ten years are to ensure that this awakening will be a very rude one.

Xaven Taner
February 2010

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