HMV in administration – Is there a future for the music industry

No one involved in the music industry should underestimate the scale of the bad news which the demise of HMV presents. I’ve spent all morning listening to radio shows where people say that HMV’s business model is “old fashioned, obsolete or outdated”. The say that Youtube and iTunes are the new ways people get to listen to music. Whilst there is an element of truth  in all of this, HMV is still a massive outlet for music. It represent around a third of all shop music sales. The issue for the music industry is that Youtube and iTunes are not easy mediums for actually earning income from. If record companies cannot earn any money, then they won’t sign artists. If artists aren’t signed, then it will become almost impossible for them to develop musically.

All of the great albums have been made by people who have the finances in place to be able to deliver the music. The idea that the Beatles could ever produce Sgt Peppers in a bedroom on a laptop is ridiculous. To make quality music takes time and costs money. I think it is fantastic that technology allows young people to learn the trade at home, but where 30 years ago, no one would make a recording if they habn’t got a band and at least a semblence of musicality, the electronic media are full of things knocked up in bedrooms, patching together a few samples with a bit of out of tune singing on top. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this and we all have to start somewhere, to some degree it makes the music buying public resent having to actually pay for music, which is a bad thing.

The beauty of the HMV model is that unlike a trip to Amazon to download Bowies new single, you often come out having bought four or five items that you had no intention whatsoever of buying when you went in. In fact often you didn’t know that the product was out there. My last visit to HMV resulted in me buying four albums, none of which I knew about prior to the visit. I just went in and browsed.

We are seeing a similar decline in the established music press. Again 30 years ago, if you wanted to get a new member for a band, you’d advertise in Melody Maker. That publication bit the dust long ago. Now we have on line notice boards. Again these are great in that they do a job, but wheras musicians would buy melody maker to see the ads page and then read the rest of the paper, learning about new releases, upcoming tours and other news, now they just check on line.

Another big change is the plethora of music TV channels. In the 1970’s the only established shows were Top of The Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test. As these were the only shows, an appearance on the show was a virtual ticket to record sales. Whether you likes disco, punk, reggae or rock, you watched Top of The Pops. Sometimes you saw a band in a totally different genre of music and they became an overnight sensation. Two bands which owed their sucess in the UK to this were Blondie and Culture Club. In both cases, they caused such a stir that people were talking in the streets about them the next day. I was a Blondie fan before they had hit records, it amazed me that having been telling everyone they were great for a couple of years, all of a sudden everyone loved them.

The nearest show to Top of the Pops now, in terms of influence is The Jools Holland Show. Jules has broken many new artists and again it is hugely influential. The diffrence is that it isn’t a peak time show and it isn’t watched by too many teenagers. This gravely concerns me.  As I write this blog, I am in the office of my studios. We have two important sessions today. Mode Step, who have used the studios for ages are doing a final rehearsal before a world tour. They are lucky to be signed to a company which backs them to the hilt. In another studio we have a video shoot for an up and coming artists. Both of these ventures cost money and  the cash spent delivers quality product. It comes down to whether a career in music is sustainable.

I believe that the music industry made a massive mistake when it abandoned vinyl. CD’s are a far superior technical medioum, but vinyl allowed far more creativity with packaging. Because the physical size was bigger, cover art mattered. Albums could be coloutred vinyl or picture discs. They could contain posters and other merchandising. If I’d been the head of EMI, I’d have ensured that Vinyl releases gave a far better quality product than CD’s. Gatefold sleeves, limited editions, picture discs, free giveaways. All of these things would have protected the vinyl. They should never have put bonus tracks on CD’s. Had they used the superior packaging options to create a value added product, maybe we would still have a successful HMV?

They didn’t because CD’s were cheaper. The labels saw bigger profits, not anticipating the forthcoming digital age. People say to me “How could vinyl compete with a download?” Well if you had a limited edition picture disc, with a  T-shirt., poster and a gatefold sleeve, surely for those of us who love the artists we buy music from, this would have been a “must have”? Had they gone down this route, people today would have bought the album and done the downloads. Is it too late for this? I’ve no idea.

The other challenge for up and coming musicians in the UK is that it is virtually for an unknown band to make money playing original material. The only question promoters ask is “How many people can you bring?”. There is no concept of promoters supporting talented bands. My own band had it’s heyday between 1981-84. We received fantastic support from promoters, who would give us great support slots. Within a few months, we became the headline act at small clubs such as the Moonlight in West Hampstead. The promoter helped us build a following. In return, we would play any gigs whenever asked and get as many people down as possible. A promoter recently told me that he didn’t give a toss what a band sounded like so long as they brought people along. This is all very well, but I used to go to the Moonlight as a punter every Friday, as did dozens of other people. They new the promoter only put decent bands on, so it was a great night out. Do people still go to small clubs to watch bands they’ve never heard of? What this environment has produced is a generation of decent musicians who have little or no expectation of actually getting paid for anything. In the end, they give up. I am not sure how we address this. The mindset is too entrenched and everyone in the industry is feeling the pinch, so no one will go out on a limb.

What I do know is that unless the music industry has a radical rethink, it will be virtually impossible to develop new artists to the level where they can sustain a career in music. Would John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been so creative, if they’d had to work in a plumbers supply shop as a day job. Music has traditionally been a massive source of income for the UK. We produce far more and far better bands for the size of our population than anyone. London is the musical capital of the world. All of this has been done with no support at all from the UK government. I would never argue for financial backing for specific musicians, but I’d make a massive case for tax breaks for anyone or any company which invests in new talent. Studio complexes such as ours get nothing in the way of help. I would go as far as to say that the local authority have been as difficult as possible in some cases with regards to our business.

I think the UK will always be a hotbed of talent and music. What I am not so sure of is whether the way we are now will let talented people, who could light up the music scene, to thrive and develop a proper career.

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