Those who cannot remember the past…

One phrase kept coming back to me while I was researching the album:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

I’ll tell you why (I can see you’re clamouring to know): we’ve done all this nonsense before. The music industry is just full of hysterical doomsayers with inflated egos… aware, perhaps, that music has value but unaware that not all value is monetary. But the money thing is beside the point, I’m getting distracted.

The point is that there are parallels between what is happening in the music industry now, and what has happened before, wherever we look.

  Then Now
A ‘singles business’?  

  • How many folk songs, learnt and taught in the aural tradition, do you think were released in album format? #justsaying 
  • The first notated music was written out by hand, usually by monks with nothing better to do. They would collate hymns.
    Later, when printing sheet music became possible and popular, music was distributed not only not in album format but in parts (ie. the piano part, the violin part, the cello part, etc.). Behold: the single.
  • The first recorded music that we might recognise as an album came in the form of recordings of shows / musicals. Before this, producers, such as they were, were recording single songs onto discs (which could only hold 3 minutes of music, or thereabouts). The 3 minute pop single is born!
  • Now we have music industry and technology people declaring the beginning of a singles business…
  • The album hasn’t been a ‘thing’ for very long, historically speaking. Leaving aside the desire of musicians and music industry personnel to each earn as much as a premier league footballer, what’s to say we couldn’t make a singles-based business work again?(We might all have to take a pay cut though, and an awful lot of internal restructuring would be required to keep those musicians and songwriters who are already at the bottom of the foodchain from ending up on the breadline.)
Piracy
  • In the 15th century (bear with me) manuscript printers had to have a licence from the crown to print music. Anyone who didn’t have a licence but copied and distributed music anyway… well, they were pirating music.In the 1400s.
  • Brilliantly, music pirates of the late-1700s, early 1800s would take work and ‘improve’ it – I like to think that somewhere out there, there’s a pirated Beethoven piece that is considerably better than Beethoven’s original work. Oh, actually, there might be.
  • Cassette tapes (we’ve jumped forward a few centuries, keep up). People realised they could record mixtapes onto cassette tapes and then strut down the street with their Sony Walkmans, feeling fab and looking 80s AF.Needless to say, the music industry was having none of this, and BPI launched a campaign called ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’, in a bid to end the practice.
    I mean, that went well…
 

  • This one isn’t quite so current. Napster was founded in 1999… and basically the music industry had a collective nervous breakdown. Amusing, sure, but not for the people they sued.
  • So it turns out that people have always wanted to share music with one another (who knew?), but the regressive and aggressive response of the music industry to piracy – first on tape, then online – might be what really caused all the damage here.
  • There were purists in the 1900s who resisted the introduction of recorded music altogether, but the music industry embraced it. It continued embracing change all the way through to the 1970s, but something clearly changed…
  • My theory is that the music industry just got too rich. There was (is?) no consensus that innovation is a good thing, because the status quo is (was?) so profitable. When the business had less to lose, it was more willing to change.

 

 

Playlists
  • Books of sheet music, collated by genre. Church music and/or hymns, for example. Not all by one artist. Sort of like a playlist?
  • The radio.
  • Mixtapes –  the first time, perhaps, that playlisting became an autonomous, consumer behaviour, rather than something consumers had served to them.

 

 

  • SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS WILL BE OUR RUIN!They won’t be. They’ve been around in one form or another for centuries; calm down. If you’re that worried, just make your radio and TV pluggers shift their focus a little. Most of the panic is around the idea that playlisters / curators have more power than artists / labels / etc., when it comes to the new music that consumers are hearing. So, music industry, create your own playlists. Create a body responsible for creating playlists or something. Just stop screaming and running around in circles, for goodness sake.
Video killed the Radio star
  • MTV. Launched on 1st August (awwww, my birthday!) 1981. Record companies started diverting money away from, you know, recording, and focusing on singles over albums because those were the songs that would have videos accompanying them. Plus our pop stars had to get a lot sexier, very quickly. And learn to dance.
  • YouTube. Okay, there are significant issues concerning how the money YouTube makes comes back to artists and their teams, granted. In terms of YouTube turning the music industry in a singles business though? It’s just a continuation of the same thing. MTV 2.0.

 

So, boys and girls, what have we learnt? — That’s right, the technology dictates the format. And the music industry needs to pull itself together, develop some internal communication, accept progress and make the new models pay for everyone in the business.

People will always want to listen to music, but they’ll happily stop listening to its industry. Especially if the only sound coming out of its mouth is hysterical screaming.

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