Net Gains

Record browsingBefore the internet, when each morning’s post brought a new pile of vinyl to my desk for listening and review, I came to regard the schoolyard as one of the music biz’s most underrated assets.

Here, boys (exclusively) shared the fruits of hours of bedroom listening. Personal musical explorations were enthusiastically pooled for the greater good. Later, commitments and kids would take it all away.

I never encountered a record company exec who shared my schoolyard theory. They were all convinced that their A&R ears, dogged pluggers and chart rigging were the only tools they required. Musicians were a little different – some of the older ones, at least. They realised that listening tastes were often frozen at the time education gave way to employment, and dating became duty. For certain established artists, this understanding has allowed a successful musical formula to sustain careers indefinitely.

Some of those schoolboys have found their way back into music through playing. A ‘function’ band that can cover its members’ costs and contribute to a family holiday is both a domestic triumph and a valuable contributor to the MI industry. But now the playground is calling, once more.

Caught in the net

Record company montageThe vinyl stopped arriving on my desk. The recording industry experienced a seismic shift. Music went mobile. And the internet arrived.

Now, along with fast news and instant reference reading, internet social networking is reviving my music-sharing model. And it has sidestepped the ‘grade stratification’ of school groups, allowing all kinds of music to be shared across generations as well as between friends both real and virtual. YouTube links, Pitchfork reviews and Last.fm radio playlists are daily fare. And the internet itself is becoming an active participant, making its own algorithmic listening recommendations.

Where aspiring artists once relied on demos and gigs, careers (profitable and sustainable ones) can now be built entirely online, using audio, video and interactivity in ways that would humble yesterday’s A&R ‘gods’.

We won’t be going back to that daily delivery of vinyl any time soon, but music now has an audience resource like never before. Just as in the playground, music recommendations can be made and received in bite-sized chunks in convenient moments. Minimal effort that is well rewarded. And vinyl’s not done yet, either. Just as print publishing is failing in the face of online news delivery, vinyl is re-establishing itself in line with its greatest asset – the audio quality that downloads lack.

Driven by a massive decline in advertising (US revenue has fallen by 60 per cent over the past five years), newspapers are beginning to move away from daily news towards less frequent, high-quality content. Similarly, short-run vinyl pressings are becoming viable business again, as a connoisseur’s choice.

Last.fmLaunching his fiftieth album this week (The Diving Board), Elton John has seen the music biz through its apogee and perigee, and into its new orbit. It’s not the internet that troubles him, but the television ‘talent’ shows that are desperately trying to wring the last drops out of the old-school music biz. An outspoken critic of the talent programme format and those who serve as its judges (‘nonentities’), he is most fearful for the artists that pass through their hands.

‘Television and video have done a lot of damage to music,’ he told the BBC Today radio programme this week. Talent shows ‘propel people into stardom that aren’t ready for it and can’t sustain it, and they are only as good as their next song. It is going to be hard for you to stay sane and it is going to be hard for you to maintain your career, and you may end up being a bitter nonentity.’

The real music biz, however, appears to have undergone a regeneration that would make Dr Who envious. It is still testing and exploring its new body, but it is fit, sharp and better dressed than ever before. And ‘schoolyard sharing’ is its perfectly cast travelling companion.

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