How Did We Get Here?

Having been a collector of music since I was about 13, and having spent 23 years in the music industry, issues around music and the business of music remain close to my heart. The industry has gone through various phases over the years, the last of which seems to have included ‘out’ as an important part of the phase.

But what happened? Are there no albums ‘out there’ that are worth owning? Do people really not have expendable income? Have the recessions hit everybody that badly? Or did the music industry shoot itself in the foot? And then in the other foot? Headshot?

I know I’m not the only one with a cash-flow problem. Since being retrenched in 2012, I haven’t had much income. Because of that I haven’t really been looking too closely, but I can’t seem to convince myself that there is no music being created and being made available for sale that is worth owning. (Now is probably a good time to note the subtle difference between ‘owning’ and ‘having’.)

I have a list of 548 albums that I still need to add to my collection, and that list keeps getting longer.

Through all my years in music retail I was never bored. Ever. Hundreds of new releases were available to me every month, and not every release makes it to every corner of the world. You can imagine that if Coal released a CD in Cape Town, you may not be able access it in a record store in Tulsa immediately, if ever - or at all. If a group of Tuvan throat-singers had a smash hit in Siberia – you probably won’t find their music for sale in Calvinia. When Freshlyground started making a name for themselves, we had countless requests for their CD in Cape Town, but there were no channels facilitating our access to their stock. Not even the fact that one of their members had previously worked at our shop helped. It just doesn’t work that way. Many more releases happened world-wide than we had (relatively easy) access to, and we didn’t buy everything that was available to us. Because of our diverse market, we did buy a fair amount. Not everything we bought and stocked was good, but it was popular, in some way relevant – or really good. I can’t seem to convince myself that the ratio of creativity – and of creation – has changed to the point that we are all doomed as active music consumers.

There’s a difference between music as a business, and music as creative expression. These two are almost worlds apart, but in the context of ‘the music business’, they need to work together. Stock the top sellers to get the business, and stock the niche-market product to keep the business. Specialist product is what forms the basic character of a business. It’s what makes you cool. It makes you more cool to the people who buy Top 20 product than it makes you to the specialists, who are just happy that you can service their music needs. It isn’t like they don’t think you’re cool. Being cool is just less relevant to them than you knowing what they want, and being able to have a reasonably intelligent interaction around it. I’m going to try to put this in one sentence: A successful music business is built by the Top 20 customers on the back of the coolness generated by the specialists. (You also need good customer service and knowledgeable staff, but I won’t get into that now.)
Ever heard someone say “I’m gonna hang out at CNA and check out their music?” You did?(*) Did make you wanna go too?

The trouble started when record companies decided buy in to something that was perceived as being a threat to their business. Go figure…

When the music industry embraced downloading – it wasn’t a well considered idea. Downloads, or mp3s, essentially, are nothing. There’s not an experience beyond hearing something, and this limits its value. Besides that, those involved in offering downloads had significantly more experience in the game than the record companies did by this time. They also had no vested interest in the wellbeing of the record companies or the (legitimate) music industry as a whole.

I suspect that record companies were also seduced by the fact that mp3s could be advantageous in the corporate ‘money for nothing’ framework. Essentially offering less product for not much less money. If consumers wanted anything additional, like a disc to burn the music on to, a sleeve or artwork and a jewel case – they’d have to do it at their own expense.

Music, and the presentation of music, will always be multi-dimensional. Music calls for interaction between a performer and their audience. The presentation of an album in a sleeve (or with a booklet), and as something you can hold in your hand – with artwork, photographs of the artist and stuff they think is cool, lyrics, technical information, etc – puts it into a context. That context becomes a unifying, shared space. Why would you go to a music concert if it wasn’t for the added value and poly-ness of it? If you think downloading mp3s is cool, you may as well stay in and look at pictures of the band on your monitor, or just stare blankly into space. Drinking at home is cheaper anyway…

“Hey, you wanna come to my place and check out my mp3s?”

The industry lost focus of the gains it had made during the booming CD years. That gain was the selling of something cool, and selling it in a cool format. CDs are much easier to deal with than vinyl. They’re physically smaller, so they’re easier to store and transport. They’re also capable of containing more content than LPs, providing extra value (and no – the difference in sound quality isn’t relevant on a day-to-day consumption basis). Goodness knows where I’d have to keep my records if I only collected vinyl. Look, I’d have made a plan, but just to make the point – they would have been everywhere! Now my music collection (sadly) only takes up three quarters of a wall in my lounge.

That’s the one thing.

Piracy has long been an issue for the music industry. I was once told (by a good friend, nogal) that “because she’s not that great – it’s unfair that Lady Gaga makes so much money while I still only have a crappy job, so it’s o.k. to illegally download her music”. Hungry people might ‘steal’ food. Music lovers? ‘Lovers’ is probably being a bit generous, but yes – they will always steal music. Be it by copying from a friend, downloading illegal copies off the internet or by whatever other means are at their disposal. To me this has always meant that: 1. you don’t really care for the artist, and 2. the masses tap into, and do, what is perceived to be cool. “I have that song(…. what’s its name again?)” becomes more important than “I bought that (debut) album (by Dire Straits because the production and playing on it is great, and you can either sit down and listen to it or put it on as background music, and I really like it – especially ‘In The Gallery’ and ‘Setting Me Up’)”.

In The Gallery’ by Dire Straits:

Setting Me Up’ by Dire Straits:

My resistance to mp3s etc is more than the claimed culture or ‘moving with the times’ issue. There’s a line to draw in what may be perceived as progress. Forgoing the physical aspect, to me, is it. In terms of the business – you minimize the value for the consumer. As a lifestyle issue – you effectively remove music from your space. I think someone was trying to impress me once by telling me they have 22 000 songs on their computer. I’m not sure that my lack of enthusiasm was noted. Collecting 22 000 mp3s is trivial, and when done illegally with the justification that you “once owned the album and refuse to pay for the same thing more than once”, it doesn’t fly with me either. It’s lame. It shows no commitment or appreciation, and definitely no support for the artist. (It also shows me that you can’t look after your stuff properly, but that’s not important right now.) All it does is benefit a collection of ‘pay-for-clicks’ scavengers, and maybe impress someone who is equally uninvolved. It’s the nail in the coffin, so to speak…

So, not only did corporatism choke the product, it was killing the medium. Double whammy!

The music industry (to a significantly huge extent) neglected to support artists by failing to ensure that the product they were issuing was valuable to own and could be promoted and marketed effectively as such. CDs were promoted as a valuable product – therefore boosting the industry significantly, but greed took over, leaving nothing of significant value to promote, and hardly anyone even trying. How excited can you really get about an mp3? Less is actually less.

“Gotta love the smell of a new mp3…”

Inertia’ by Coal:

Find Coal here and here

Doo Be Doo’ by Freshlyground:

Find Freshlyground here

In The Gallery’ and ‘Setting Me Up’ are on Dire Straits’ self-titled debut album released in 1978.

(*) Was it Nazeem?!

My Year In Music - 2015

Spoiler Alert!: Sometimes I have other things to say. Proceed with care.

Keep reading →

Pink Floyd - The Final Cut [1983]

Pink Floyd’s Final Cut was released at a time when no-one really knew what was happening with the band. We were still riding the wave from The Wall and stuck in the lingering rip current of Wish You Were, the meanderings of Animals, and the magic from Dark Side Of The Moon. We where euphoric, but members of the band were barely speaking to each other.

That whole fascination with The Wall here was a little weird. Everyone was going “We don’t need no thought control”, but not many listeners seemed to become noticeably more socially aware. Kind-of like a pocket revolution, if you will. It’s small, and no-one will ever see it.

But it was four years since Pink Floyd’s last album and records had to be made. Roger Waters was the only one with ideas. David Gilmour had lost interest and wasn’t writing, Nick Mason had become more involved in creating sound-effects than drumming, and Rick Wright had had enough, upped and left – thus leaving Pink Floyd as a somewhat troubled trio.

The problem was that Waters’ ideas where still mostly leftovers from The Wall. His preoccupation with World War 2-related hardships, the death of his father in that war, and the effect it had on him since childhood, had been made clear to the point of almost being exhaustive. Because it was such a personal issue, the effect would have been lost on a follow-up – especially to one of the most popular and controversial albums ever to have been made up to that point.

Then, out of the blue, the last person on earth you’d expect to be of any use stepped up and saved the day.

Margaret Thatcher started a war!

The political situation in England with a draconian Thatcher at the helm, and her sending the troops half-way around the world in order to regain control over the tiny Falklands Islands from Argentina in 1982 in particular, provided sufficient irritation and impetus for Roger Waters to re-write most of the songs he had offered for the follow-up to The Wall. Because no one was talking, Waters had been writing songs without any involvement from the other members of the group, so didn’t have to be cautious or compromise. David Gilmour could focus on what he did best – playing guitar. Nick Mason’s preoccupation with sound effects and new technology would come into excellent effect in providing an extending soundscape for the songs. Sadly, the absence of Rick Wright would allow for open, more spacious music.

Somehow, all that was wrong with the band at that point would contribute to a refreshing creative shift. One that would effect a(nother) partial re-invention of the band – both musically and as newly-relevant social commentators – acutely aware of what was happening on England’s political landscape. Pink Floyd could now provide fresh commentary on current issues instead of still dragging WW2 around with them.

What we really ended up with was Roger Waters featuring an array of brilliant session musicians, and two other guys from Pink Floyd. From a Pink Floyd point of view this was ridiculous, but looking at it objectively, this was not such a bad thing.

One Of A Few’ by Pink Floyd [The Final Cut]:

The Final Cut is an album of superbly crafted stories and brilliant musicianship. The lyrics are perfectly supported by the music and an almost tangible soundscape that flows through the whole album – linking the songs as a continuing story.

In dealing with contemporary issues in such a fresh way, Waters’ masterful story-telling and vulnerable, slightly awkward vocals remind me a bit of Syd Barrett’s stories, though very different in subject matter. The Final Cut would be the last Pink Floyd album to feature Roger Waters, making the link back to Barrett quite interesting. A full circle, almost…

You should probably listen to this album again.

Not Now John’ by Pink Floyd [The Final Cut]:

When Tigers Broke Free’ by Pink Floyd [as used in the film The Wall]:

The initial exclusion of ‘When Tigers Broke Free’ from The Final Cut had seemed strange to me, and I always felt that something was missing. The 2004 CD re-issue of the album eventually included this song as an integrated part of the track-listing. It had only been available as a single and in the film The Wall in 1982, as a re-issued promotional CD single in 1990, and in a slightly different mix on the Echoes collection from 1991 before. Eventually, after 20 years, The Final Cut was completed.

“…would Maggie be pleased?”

Pink Floyd - The Final Cut [1983]
Margaret Thatcher

(Images used for illustrative purposes and without express permission. If you’d like to object to their use, or give me permission for their use - please let me know.)