The Music Industry: What happens now all the money has gone?
Way, way back, before music could be recorded and stored and sold on a plastic disc, people would buy sheet music. An A4 pamphlet contained within the ‘charts’ or music manuscript to the latest tune or dance to be interpreted through the virtuosity or lack there-of by whom-ever sat at the piano and that was it. No records, no downloads. Nada.
Way back then, the only real money in music was in the ticket price.
A musician or singer had to rely solely on performance fees for an income. The PRS (performers rights society) which collects and distributes royalties in the UK, wasn’t established until 1914. However, there was a fully functioning music business with the full complement of managers and agents and bookers all of whom made a living and there were music stars.
There were even big music stars who made comparatively big money.
Then the game changed. Recorded music playing machines ‘Phonographs’ became popular, and increasingly affordable, the public could now buy that song and hear it by that singer, and they did ravenously.
Case in point: Singer /Comedian George Formby Snr. (Father of British wartime Singer/Comedian and famed Ukelele-Banjo player of the same name.) As an established name, Formby was earning £35 a week in 1905 performing to huge crowds in Theatres across the UK. One could say at the top of his game. In 1907 He signed one of the first recording contracts. In the following 5 years, his wages exploded and he negotiated a new contract reportedly worth in excess of £300 annually. All of a sudden there was real money to be made.
“I’m in plastics!”
In the movie ‘Telstar’, the biopic of the crazed genius of the studio Joe Meek, much is made of the real-life character Major Wilfred Banks.
“I’m in plastics!” The Major confidently announces standing proud in his industrious plastics factory as he imposes a manufacturing deal on the ill-fated pop producer.
Held in that unimpressive trio of words is the guts of the issue. At its heart, if it has one, the music industry is and always has been entirely and exclusively about shifting stock. Boxes and boxes of stock. Be it plastic toys, ballpoint pens or records, its stock and it needs shifting.
During the peak years of record buying, let’s say 1959-1999 there were often occasions where records couldn’t be printed quickly enough to meet demand. That demand translated to a lot of money. Money for artist development, money for lavish studios, money as they say for nothin’.
A casual Google of the words ‘Fairmont Hotel Queen Party’ and we begin to get an idea of the amounts of cash available to ‘grease the wheels’ or in modern parlance ‘network’ in the music industry of the 1970s and 80s. All of that came from shiny black plastic discs.
As long as those shiny black plastic discs sold the people who financed the whole thing were happy. Stories of excess were ‘good for the image’ and good for sales. Companies took risks on new artists, allowed them to develop.
Then the Game changed again
The compact disc didn’t have a great effect on sales, merely changing the stock from black plastic to silver plastic disc. But digital downloads did. Over a short number of years downloads, whether pirate, legal or from pay-monthly sites utterly decimated physical sales across the board. The Fairmont party was over.
Case in point: Skip McDonald. Skips career saw him come from Hip-Hops legendary ‘Sugar Hill gang’ house-band to signing to Real World records. At Real World, he was a respected musician, given time and funding to pursue his particular sound over three spectacular albums. Then came downloads, the accountants took over at Real World. Skip was unceremoniously dumped alongside other acts.
Even the worlds most famous artist began seeking backing outside of the decaying big record companies. Madonna signed a deal with Live Nation an international live production and event company. Michael Jackson travelled to the Middle East to Bahrain and hence came 2Seas Studio.
The big record companies have now retreated into an ever-narrowing ‘make what we know sells’ mindset and won’t even dip their toe in the water as far as new ventures are concerned. They are strictly interested in that narrow wave-band somewhere between Coldplay and Katy Perry. For a while, in 2017 as many 1 in 3 songs played on a London commercial radio station was an Ed Sheeran Track.
And the good news is?
This means of course that there are now thousands of independent artists out there un-touched by record companies, who in this modern internet age can reach a global audience bored of the bland narrow wave-band record company fare. An increasing amount of these artists are full-time professionals, working hard as independent musicians. In an entirely different world to Coldplay, Perry and Sheeran.
“Its art, it shouldn’t be about the money anyway” said 2 Seas Session artist KING SIZE SLIM. “If I were in it for the money or even for the fame, I’d do better robbing a bank”
The truth is the money hasn’t gone. It’s just not in hands of the Music Industry, instead, it is in the hands of those thousands of independent artists across the globe.
In terms of the manufacture of physical C.D’s and records. ‘Short runs’ or those of less than 1000 copies now far out-way longer print runs in the 10s of thousands. Who orders short runs? Independent artists do. There is the good news.
Written by: R. Vee – 2018
Artists and music referenced in this article:
George Formby – “Standing on the corner of the street’:
“Telstar” – Movie Trailer:
Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald – “Killing Floor”:
Madonna – Live acoustic:
Micheal Jackson – ‘Who Is It’ Acapella:
King Size Slim – Full Set @ 2SeasSessions: