Friday, 22 April 2011

The Music Business

Recently I wrote an open letter to Spotify, criticising them for their decision to heavily restrict their free service, and it generated a considerable amount of traffic. I had a number of people commenting expressing their agreement, but there were also those who criticised me for wanting something for nothing. What I intend to do here is clarify my position on music streaming, piracy and the music business in general.

I consider myself a good music fan. I buy a couple of albums a month, often shelling out for deluxe editions and box sets. I support local bands at their gigs and try to go to see at least two or three major artists a year (funds permitting – bear in mind that I’m a student!). I’ve got a considerable amount of vinyl that I’ve bought from various small independent record shops, and I have a fair bit of music merchandise. All in all, most of my disposable income goes towards music in some form. I don’t pirate music either; I believe that artists should make money from their work, and illegal downloading prevents that. Having said that, I do have a major problem with the way the major labels operate.

Record labels exist for one purpose; to make money. I don’t have a problem with companies making money, but I do have a problem with businesses that put profit before service. The music business takes as much money from both the artists and the consumers as possible; selling albums for extortionate prices while finding ways to keep as much of the profits as possible. Artists get paid an advance when they are signed, but that has to cover all recording costs and living expenses until they sell enough copies of the album to start earning royalties. Even when they do begin to earn royalties the figure is something like 10% of the value of the CD, the rest goes to the record company.

It’s not just the major labels who are screwing the artists and the consumers, high street music shops are doing it too. I went into a certain large UK-based high street multimedia outlet recently and was shocked to see that they were charging £31 for a copy of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album. £31! For an album which is of questionable quality (even Pink Floyd admit it). Genesis albums that sell for £8 online were on sale for £20 each! Is it any wonder people began downloading music when the price of these albums is so high? I realise that online stores have a lot less in the way of overheads, but surely a 250% mark-up is a bit excessive, don’t you think?

I realise that albums don’t distribute themselves, and that recordings have to be paid for somehow. I also realise that the independent route seems daunting to artists, especially the cost of studio time, hiring session musicians and paying for the mixing and mastering. Then there’s the distribution; having CDs pressed costs a lot of money, and getting shops to stock your album can be tricky. Promotion is another area that can be difficult if you’re going it alone; gigging as a means of promoting your album will get you so far, but getting music that doesn’t come from a major label played on the radio can be difficult, especially since the majority of commercial stations stick to top 40 music and other “safe” choices.

Having said all of that, there are ways that new musicians can take advantage of the internet to make a living. Self-run websites are a good way of making your music available, either as a paid download or as an online store for CDs. In my experience the internet is also a good place to meet other musicians, and if you can build up a network of musicians, sound engineers, promoters and venue owners then you’ll always be able to find work, even if it’s not what you expected.

In short, I want nothing to do with the major labels and the music machine. I’m quite happy to carry on as I am recording music and working as a freelance engineer and producer. I realise I’ll probably never get rich recording other people, but I’m pretty confident that I’ll earn enough to survive – that’s more than some label-based musicians have been able to do. The future is in the hands of the little guy, screw the big labels.
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