Friday, 13 November 2009

Music is a different business – it should do more for music that’s different

A week or so ago, I made five recommendations of music that’s a bit different to my (& maybe your) usual tastes, as part of my strategy to prioritise my music consumption – as set out in this previous post.

Those records were new or recent releases by Portico Quartet, Spiro, Steve Martin, Bill Frisell, The Unthanks and Pink Martini. None of them are ‘popular’ – but each album does fall into a category of sorts – one the many hundreds of music genres or sub-genres. Even Pink Martini – a blend of just about everything except pop, is described on Wikipedia as ‘vintage music’ – a sub genre probably, of ‘easy listening’.

As an industry – if you can really refer to the distribution of commercial music as an industry (a worthy post-grad paper perhaps) – the incredible, bewildering variety of products is what makes the music business totally unique. No other business that I know of puts full-blown produced products out there on the market without any prior knowledge of what will happen next. Sure, if you have a major pop artist with a known commercial track record and the whole dashboard of modern demand metrics, you might be able to put together a half-decent sales forecast – but you’d still be pushing it to be within + or – 100%.

But forget those, if you have any one of the above records – in niche genres – how on earth do you know if you can even hope to break even on releasing the record commercially – i.e. having funded its discovery, production, marketing and distribution? Because the one thing you do know is that you will not have a global hit on your hands.

In this sense, the music business is also unique – in that there are few genuinely ‘independent’ or ‘alternative genre’ records that become global smash hits. The movie business is different – it produces - even if it’s just a couple - of real indie smashes each year, pretty consistently. Be it Blair Witch, The March Of The Penguins, Slumdog, or the very latest example - Paranormal Activity – the small guys can make it really, really big in film.

It happens less so in music – if you look at the top fifty selling albums each year they are dominated by pop records released by majors. Neither small independent’s or niche genre artists get a look in. There are clear reasons based on industry structure. Film has an established independent film network that is supported by major festivals around the world – many of which are celebrated as significant cultural events. It has an ‘art-house’ cinema distribution network too. Film also gets significant government support on the investment side.

The music industry doesn’t have the equivalents. Yes there are numerous small venues that cater to the alternative – but they are not effectively networked and so do not make up more than the sum of their parts. Same for independent labels, really – hence there have been recent initiatives to give the sector a much needed leg-up – such as independent charts. But these often confuse ‘independence’ between source – i.e. label and actual musical style. As for retail, well we can see what’s happened there and it is almost too painful to keep watching.

Music that’s genuinely different, alternative or niche must simply submit to being commercially second-rate. The only global phenomenon of the same nature I can recall is the success of the Buena Vista Social Club Cuban music movement – and that all started with – an independent movie!

I applaud initiatives that try up the ante for the ‘movement’ that is niche music – such as the upcoming January 2010 Reverb festival of concerts at the Roundhouse, which has some support from the Arts Council of England and local Camden Council – though only small commercial sponsors.

However, I’m absolutely convinced this music can scale better than it does, if only it had the right platform. After all, this is the digital age where niche content was in fact supposed to have become the heir to the Blockbuster King, by now according to the uber-thinking-journalists.

Take this simple insight. I have three Pink Martini CDs so I like them – they have grown on me over the years without necessarily becoming an act I would recommend to others regularly. But I know I could name maybe 20-30 other people in my life who would like them as much as me if not more so – but who have never even heard of them. My feeling is that Portico Quartet could achieve the same sort of crossover potential in the UK that Jazz trio E.S.T. achieved in their native Sweden – where they regularly made the mainstream charts.

While I wouldn’t say the same for Spiro or The Unthanks – I’m am pretty convinced that they could probably triple whatever little they do sell - easily – if only they could get some effective, targeted exposure to their receptive audiences, and that could well be the difference between loss & profit.

Steve Martin, well, he doesn’t exactly need to have a hit – and has in fact spent extravagant amounts of his own money on making and touring his ‘The Crow’. But it is such a good record it deserves success in its own right, not just as some kind of vanity project. As for Bill Frisell – at least he is on exactly the right label to connect with his audience – Nonesuch – which specialises in route-to-market for eclectic, different music aimed at the more mature, discerning ear.

And here is the second insight for today. I’m a mature and enthusiastic music fan who has listened to so much stuff that I am receptive – in a state of absolute readiness – to hear more music that’s different. Where do I connect with my fellow audience? I’ve no doubt that audience is large (huge globally); fairly well-off and fairly uninterested in piracy – probably even pro-actively disposed to paying top whack for music - as the rich cultural good that it is. The reason we don’t buy much these days is we are uninspired and ill-informed. No one is putting this music in front of us.

Now I know there is the BBC and in the US, ‘public radio’ – and this is great. Programmes like ‘Late Junction’ are the equivalent of splendid cuisine for the ears – even if you sometimes have to work at it to acquire the taste first. But I don’t really do radio. I want to check this stuff out on demand and then buy it and keep playing it until I love it.

Also, I know these artists could get greater exposure in a number of ways – like what if Portico could get a support slot for Radiohead, or if Spiro got a great synch opportunity? That could break ground, but only as a one-off, transient thing – it might serve those artists well if they are lucky – but it’s not reaching that huge global audience of un-served, unlucky listeners.

And finally here’s the irony. In the UK we are about to get bombarded with new music services (again) – each one upping the ante on the ‘business model’ – more & more music for less & less cash. But the music is always the same stuff. The front-line recommendations are the big artists about to assault the radio networks, the TV and press. Spotify this week has the exclusive with Robbie Williams (do they really need each other?). Sky Songs has launched – in a promotion with The Sun newspaper. It’s like daytime radio all over again - the same music to the broadest audience possible.

Even out of those six million songs in the impressively large catalogues, there’s nothing for we-who-want-different, since we don’t know what we’re looking for, or if we do and hit search, it will not be there more than half the time.

Why don’t we do something different for those people who want something different? I’m on the case...the next post will show us the way...


Atlum Schema said...

great post keith, completely with your thinking. cannot wait to hear your proposals!

Simon Adams said...

we need to bring back the Old Grey Whistle Test, The Tube and all those innovative personalities that championed the eclectic and broke acts on TV. I still remember the feeling that I first time i saw Bobby McFerrin appear on The Tube (showing my age now!), inspirational indie TV like that made a difference. The recent Synth Britannia series on the BBC (so thankful that us expats can get the BBC here in the netherlands just for great progs like that) recounted the exciting times that music revolutions can foster...