The rebellion will not be downloaded

While digital downloads allow the likes of Radiohead or Macca to strike seditious poses, for smaller acts record label support is still vital.

John Marr

Topics Culture

Last week’s BRIT awards provided record label executives across the country an opportunity to celebrate, self-congratulate and ignore the elephant in the room. For a few years now, the record industry has been struggling to adapt to a world where music can be downloaded for free and people don’t listen to albums anymore. And the biggest British label of them all, EMI, has taken the hardest fall.

Guy Hands’ equity firm Terra Firma bought EMI last August for £3.2billion, just months after the label had announced a £260million loss over the previous financial year. Already, Hands looks likely to cut up to a third of the company’s 5,500 worldwide staff (1). The losses highlight not only the label’s recent mismanagement and poor sales (its shares in the British market dropped from 16 to 9 per cent in 2007) but also the diminishing importance of record labels in general. Just as advances in recorded music led to the decline of the sheet music industry over the twentieth century, so in turn the record industry is struggling to adapt to the internet age, with digital downloads devouring their profits.

The departing complaints of two of EMI’s biggest losses, Paul McCartney and Radiohead also highlight the problems Hands faces. McCartney claimed that EMI ‘had become really very boring… I could guess what they were going to say – “Love your record, Paul” – and I’d say: “Well, what should we do with it?” Then they’d go “Well we think you ought to go to Cologne”[for press interviews], which is what they always say. This idea became symbolic of the treadmill.’ (2)

When McCartney announced he wanted to have new material released in the week it was written and recorded, he was told they would require six months ‘to figure out how to market it’ (3). This sounds ludicrous enough for a singer of McCartney’s stature and all the more anachronistic given the expedience of the internet.

Radiohead’s complaint was ostensibly of a more artistic nature. With their contract coming to an end and appalled at the prospect of a private equity firm treating their work ‘as simply part of their stock’ (4), they delivered the biggest shock to record industry in years. They released their latest album, In Rainbows, solely as a digital download, which meant it was available only on their website. Not only were all payments at the purchaser’s discretion, but any monies went directly to Radiohead. EMI suddenly seemed like disposable middle men.

The band did subsequently release a material version of the chart-topping album through independent record labels of their own choice – a decision singer Thom Yorke claims they had to make or risk charges of ‘snobbery’ (5). This, at least, seems reassuring for the record industry. Indeed, there does remain an audience for whom the tangible sensation of owning a record is preferable to downloading. But they may become a niche market – just as people got over the shock of the new with compact discs and vinyl before that, so listeners may become accustomed to not physically owning their music collection. It can only be matter of time before what Yorke calls snobbery is portrayed by another singer as brave and defiant.

Yet whilst EMI have found themselves caught out by a shift in how we consume music, just how much of a risk are the rebelling stars actually taking? Crucially, all the acts who are leaving or talking of doing so have long established careers and followings; none of them will fail to pay the bills if their next work under performs. And McCartney’s hardly signed to Rough Trade; his new deal’s with Starbucks’ Hear Music label. Evidently all those drawn out sessions with the EMI marketing department weren’t such a waste of time after all, as he’s worked out his own marketing strategy. In this case signing a one-album deal with the world’s biggest and most rampantly commercial coffee house chain, so that they can sell his latest record Memory Almost Full in store and play it round the clock on the day of release in over 10,000 stores worldwide. So pleased is McCartney with the Starbucks arrangement that he’s set to continue working with the chain (6). It must be the vibrant artistic atmosphere.

The deal wasn’t so much a venture into an uncertain terrain as a short-term calculated risk by an artist with the profile and sales that would cushion him against a setback. For someone who famously wants to revoke his image as the safe-and-cosy Beatle compared to John Lennon’s loose cannon, signing your new album away as background music in sterilised chain stores isn’t the bold artistic move that might change such opinions.

What the deal does suggest, however, is that McCartney isn’t quite the cheery masthead of 1960s idealism some may think. He has merely identified the trend in music consumption whereby we increasingly incorporate music as an unobstructive detail in our daily lives; the song playing in the background while we work or travel home, rather than the record for which we set aside 45 intense listening minutes. McCartney’s is the attention to detail of a canny business operator rather than a hopeless romantic.

As for self-releasing an album, while it makes sense for a band of Radiohead’s resources and following, for new artists things are not so straightforward. It might conceivably work for a grimy rock band or someone recording lo-fi dance music in his own kitchen, that is, the kind of acts who pride themselves on simple and spartan recordings and a rabid following built up through word of mouth. But these aren’t the performers who bankroll the majors. Even singers like Adele, whose recent rise to fame has come on the independent label XL, need to have a substantial advance from the label to make a properly produced record.

The internet may have changed the way we listen to music, but it hasn’t yet managed to actually ‘break’ a significant artist. As Emily Hill has shown (7), the artists such as Lily Allen and Sandi Thom who were promoted as ‘MySpace success stories’ are actually the least representative of typical ‘MySpace bands’ (that is to say, the people who used it when it was an ‘underground’ website, before every band seized on it as a marketing tool), and all had lucrative record deals behind them. The MySpace angle of their story was simply part of the spin to make them seem fresh and relevant; modern marketing campaigns, whether dealing with established acts or debutants now focus on making bands seem edgier and more underground.

The threat by Robbie Williams’ manager, Tim Clark, to withhold his latest album from EMI encapsulates the two aspects to the industry’s current upheaval. On the one hand, Clark expressed concern as to ‘how EMI will market and promote the album [since] [t]hey do not have anyone in the digital sphere capable of doing the job required’ (8). On the other hand, there’s the risible idea of a waning star like Williams going on strike. It looks like the desperate posturing of an insecure act worrying about his falling sales and trying to prove he’s still as edgy, unpredictable and important as ever by throwing his weight around. For all the money involved (Williams signed an £80 million contract in 2004) it’s a cheap shot from a cheap ‘star’. Williams has built a career on two of pop music’s staples – schmaltzy ballads and a choreographed but empty sense of rebellion. If the former haven’t sold that well recently, then the front line of pampered stars pretending to stake their careers on business savvy moves against a weakened industry is very much in vogue. Talk about striking a pose.

John Marr is currently interning at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill revealed the PR puff behind the internet stars. Neil Davenport looked at British bands The Horrors and The Libertines. Shirley Dent argued that Glastonbury is only rock’n’roll, while Alex Hochuli interrogated the wisdom of Noel Gallagher. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

(1) Profile: British Music Giant EMI, BBC News, 15 January 2008

(2) Paul McCartney’s other break-up, The Times, 14 December 2007

(3) Paul McCartney’s other break-up, The Times, 14 December 2007

(4) Profile: British Music Giant EMI, BBC News, 15 January 2008

(5) David Byrne and Thom Yorke on the real value of music, Wired, 18 December 2007

(6) Paul McCartney Plots Second Starbucks Deal, Gigwise, 21 June 2007

(7) MyScam: the PR Puff behind ‘internet stars’, by Emily Hill, 13 September 2006

(8) Robbie Williams ‘goes on strike’, BBC News, 11 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today