piece on the music business killing music and blaming the fans, Robert Barry asks exactly who, or what, this monster really is" />

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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Music Industry? In Search Of The Beast
Robert Barry , June 29th, 2011 06:57

In a follow-up musing to Wyndham Wallace's piece on the music business killing music and blaming the fans, Robert Barry asks exactly who, or what, this monster really is

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Who is this music industry? Everywhere I go these days I hear about this bastard called the music industry who keeps ruining everybody's fun and blaming it on the kids. The music industry is old fashioned, we hear: a dinosaur, a useless old relic. The music industry is unreasonable, larcenous, preposterous. It's sexualising our children. Probably a paedophile. Perhaps the News of the World can give me his address so I can go round and have a word. But, without resorting to the pages of Mr Murdoch's febrile little organ, how else might I go about locating this 'music industry' - where might we point the finger so that we can bring the villain to justice? It seems whoever we care to ask, the culprit is always elsewhere. Like Macavity, T. S. Eliot's feline master criminal, "with movements like a snake" the music industry has always left the scene of the crime before we can lay hands on the blighter.

How about the people who sell music? That sounds reasonable. And yet, if we look for the man at the top of the biggest music retailer in the world - that is, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, Inc., the owners and developers of iTunes - we find repeated reference to Mr Jobs "taking on" the music industry, even "killing" the beast. Do they mean he has committed suicide? I don't think so. His business appears to be in rude health.

OK, so how about the people who make music? One might presume that the producers of a given commodity might be considered a fairly central part of a given industry. Few people would deny that chemists have a role to play in the chemicals industry, milliners in the hat industry. Musicians, then. And yet, just like Mr Jobs, musicians everywhere seem to be complaining about the music industry, railing against its follies and excesses, pointing the finger somewhere else. Nowhere in particular - just so long as it's somewhere else. It wasn't me!

The people who buy music, perhaps? They must be in the loop somewhere. Or the people who distribute and promote music? The people who write about music and produce magazine and books about music? But everywhere we look, we find a finger pointing elsewhere. The music industry escapes us, like a spectre, a cipher. This is a problem, not least because, etymologically speaking, the word, 'industry' is related to a certain diligence, to labour carried out with care and attention. So, in a sense, when we ask, 'Who is the music industry?' we are asking, 'Who cares about music?'

Evidently, there are an awful lot of people today making use of music in some way or another, maybe more than ever before. But then, a couple of centuries ago, there were an awful lot of people in the American South who were making use of black slaves, but I am not entirely convinced that they cared very deeply for them. The argument is often made these days - I believe it originates with an entrepreneur and brand strategist named Gerd Leonhard - that, today, music is like water. But who cares about water? Only those for whom the supply has broken down.

Recently I decided to take the assertion that 'music is like water' seriously. So I stopped paying for my water. When the water company wrote to me and told me they were going to cut me off, I wrote them back and told them they were dinosaurs who didn't understand the new realities of Web 2.0. Now I just stare at images of waterfalls on YouTube. I listen to the sound of the waves on my iPod. But somehow I'm still thirsty.

Reading some of the arguments currently available regarding the present situation with regard to music, we might find that music is rather less like water and rather more like money. Because money is abstract, easily reduced to a series of ones and zeros and transported around the world on the internet. And the people who claim they love money the most, who gather the greatest amount of it through their own labour, are also the ones most likely to see it as their right to palm off a little bit extra, free of charge.

But we don't like to think of music as being like money. It's somehow unseemly to even contemplate them in the same breath. Still, as we hear so often these days, that's the way things are, like it or lump it, you better get used to the New Reality because things ain't gonna change. In the collective memory of the British people, the doctrine that There Is No Alternative was until recently most associated with the Thatcher administration in power a quarter of a century ago. There Is No Alternative, we were told, to economic liberalisation, free trade, free markets, and capitalist globalisation. Curiously, many of the same people who a quarter of a century ago insisted that there was, indeed, an alternative, and one worth fighting for, are now parroting the same line, in a different, though perhaps not unrelated, context. If we were able to recognise, twenty-five years ago, that There Is No Alternative was itself not a statement of natural science but a political argument and therefore one open to contestation, why is it that we are blind to the same possibility today?

A quarter of a century ago we were in the midst of an economic recession, unemployment was rising sharply, and public services were being systematically dismantled (sound familiar?). And yet still people found the money to pay for the music they listened to, even though it was much more expensive than it is now. Today, as the musician, independent record label boss and music magazine editor, Chris Cutler, put it in The Wire recently, we pay the plumber and the electrician, we pay the telephone company and the internet service provider, "so why so careless of the musician and the struggling label?" Perhaps he is the music industry everyone is complaining about.

When we hear about people who work in the car industry losing their jobs or having their earnings slashed, we tend to think, how terrible! Something should be done! We don't tend to think, well, that'll sort the wheat from the chaff; the best workers, the ones most passionate about cars, will doubtless survive, and anyway, there are too many cars in the world anyway. But we have a strange attitude towards musicians, one that, to a certain degree musicians - and people who write about music - are themselves responsible for. This attitude is best described by the psychoanalytic concept of envy. We cherish a fantasy that musicians are privy to an excessive enjoyment - of life, their work - and we resent them this enjoyment. We do not want what the musician has, but we desperately want them not to have it, and so we harbour a secret desire to destroy their ability to enjoy it, even though this acts against our own best interests. For we all want to continue to be able to listen to music, and deep down we know that our continual enjoyment of music requires musicians who will keep on producing it. And we all deep down know that poverty is a major cause of depression and that depression is a debilitating illness which frustrates your ability to work and to produce. All this we know very well, and yet still. . . We need our myths, our spectres.

Allow me to let you into a little secret: the major multinational record labels are laughing. In some ways, things could not be going better for them. They have been able to get away with things over the last decade that they would never have achieved under other circumstances. The so-called 360 deal is a case in point. This is now the standard on all recording contracts and it gives the label a cut in every stream of revenue a musician might ever hope to tap into, from touring to merchandise to publishing to sync rights. You name it. Before very recently it would have been obvious that you would have to be a total mug to sign such a deal. But now There Is No Alternative.

Of course, they have to have their show trials. But really, that's all they are. The labels know full well that their claims are often ludicrous, but my God, it's just such an easy way to make a quick buck - providing you have access to the most expensive lawyers in the world. We may laugh at the RIAA for demanding $75 trillion from LimeWire, but the RIAA walked away from that demand with $105 million, and 105 million dollars is an awful lot of money. So who's laughing now?

So tough news for LimeWire, those crazy outlaw pirates who were so selflessly providing us all with that free music that we all love so music. How could this bunch of hacker kids possibly afford a $105 million out of court settlement? Well, I guess when you're owned by Lime Group LLC, a company that also owns a stock brokerage, a hedge fund, and a medical software company, when your creator is less some crazy outlaw hacker kid than a CEO with a personal net worth of $10 million and an MBA from Harvard Business School... I guess the money turns up somehow. And before anyone starts shouting about the benevolence of Spotify, check out who owns Spotify. That's right - the major multinational record labels, all of whom were given significant shares in the company in exchange for the ludicrously tiny royalty being paid to their artists.

For too long the argument over the future of the music industry has been framed in terms of big, dumb Old Media versus hip, exciting New Media. So when a non-profit organisation representing songwriters like the PRS is in conflict with a massive corporate behemoth like Google, everyone leaps to the defence of Google because Google are seen to be giving us something for nothing. Yet all the while they are making you into their most precious commodity, a commodity to be bought and sold like any other. Such has been the primary purpose of the mass media since its inception - to sell audience to advertisers. There is nothing new in this model. And for the most part, the hip, exciting New Media companies are owned by the same hedge funds and stock brokers as the Old Media companies. BitTorrent, for example, has corporate partnership deals with Fox, Paramount and Warner Brothers.

I'd like to propose an alternative, one of those alternatives that we keep being told don't exist. You are the music industry. We all are. Because, after all, we all care about music (don't we?), and we are all implicated in its future. And if we wait for our supply to be cut off it may already be too late. We have been suffering for the last quarter of a century because the last time we were told there was no alternative, too few people insisted otherwise. So perhaps it is time we started, collectively and cooperatively, to take some responsibility for it, instead of waiting for this nebulous ghost called 'the music industry' to take responsibility for us.

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Jun 29, 2011 11:37am

So what do we do to make everything alright again? Buy more CDs? I'm not sure i get the point.

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Jun 29, 2011 11:38am

"Whose laughing now?"

Sorry to be a pedant - I love the site but some of the spelling and grammar over the past few days has been terrible.

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Jun 29, 2011 11:46am

Very nice piece. Whether we like it or not a large share of the responsibility for the music industry struggling has to lie with everybody (including myself in the past) who has made a conscious decision not to pay for music.

Despite the ethically dubious practices of some labels, you can't put the blame for shoplifting on the shopkeeper - the fact is the majority of music consumers would simply rather not pay for the music they consume.

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Jun 29, 2011 11:48am

That was me above, forgot to put a name - JW

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Angus Finlayson
Jun 29, 2011 12:05pm

Like Charles I'm afraid I don't really get what the central thrust of this is. Plenty of valid points but they don't quite coalesce into something meaningful. I can't help but get the sense that, between these pieces in tQ and the new regular feature in the Wire, this 'state of the music industry' thing is being run round and round in circles by very smart people who don't have the answer.

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Angus Finlayson
Jun 29, 2011 12:06pm

In reply to Angus Finlayson:

...circles which confuse the rest of us

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Jun 29, 2011 12:09pm

From what's being said in this piece, it seems the big companies are doing ok, the independents aren't and the musicians are being shafted. What's changed in 25 years? It's still difficult to sell people something they don't want.

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jim bob
Jun 29, 2011 2:34pm

I think I get it... we do what has always been done.. Get out on the streets bang our pots and pans and sing a song.. oh hang on, wait a minute, that involves leaving the warm fuzzy aura of the computer screen, mmmm, warm fuzzy glow, tell me what to know.

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Jun 29, 2011 3:14pm

Who is this music industry? EMI, Sony, Warners and Universal. What do I win?

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Jun 29, 2011 5:15pm

The Music Industry is everyone in the world.

Labels represent but a fraction.

Artists and Musicians have always come last when it comes to getting paid.

I say pay those who create the music first and pay all of them well...then Mr. Big Shot Label, you can have all that is left.

Short of that, stay Indie and build your own place in the the market and to hell with all the label. Indie Success = True Blue Fans .....

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Chris Ruen
Jun 29, 2011 5:52pm

Nice job, Robert. I think you will enjoy my book.

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Jun 29, 2011 9:34pm

You've got to be kidding, right? Is this article a hoax? The Music Industry are the labels that charge 18 dollars for a CD and giving the artist 1 dollar for each disc sold. They are the people who put stickers on newly released vinyl that say "you haven't heard it til you've heard it on vinyl" which was exactly how they sold us on CD's in the 80's. The Music Industry are the people who sold us CD's in the 80's. They are the companies who constantly release the same music in "newer" and "better" formats. They are the record company execs pulling in 6 figures while the artists declare bankruptcy. They are the people who sign bands and then don't release their records or give the master tapes back to the bands. They are the radio stations whose playlists remain forever stuck in 1979 (I'm talking about Pink Floyd, The Eagles, etc. here, not Wire, Joy Division or The Fall). They are the people that for years and years bilked black-and white--artists out of their royalties. In short, they're the talentless people who get rich from exploiting the talented people.

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Jun 30, 2011 1:55am

I'm just so glad JW wrote back to say that was his comment.

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Jul 1, 2011 12:22pm

I feel like Bill Hicks watching the news when I encounter another think piece on the music industry and piracy.

All I here is 'recession, death, famine, war, poverty, aids, recession, death, famine, war...' then I look out the window and all see is crickets chirping.

I've been downloading music my entire music buying life, and nothing seems to have changed in this time.

Well, almost by whole music buying life. I spent a year or so buying CDs but generally got bored of it.

I'd hear a single I really liked and buy the album to find out it was mainly crap. Then, I remember reading an article in Kerrang, with some artist or other, who opined that record labels get bands to record a couple of good singles, then get the hype buzzing, rush an album out and people would buy it on the strength of the single no matter how crap it was.

Cd buying put me off music for a while there.

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Lou M
Jul 8, 2011 12:07pm

But do you pay for your download, that's the issue?

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Jul 9, 2011 4:17pm

This is actually the first article on this subject I've read which has dared to make the valid point that sound recordings are luxury items and so why shouldn't people pay for them?
If the albums you buy have 9 crap songs and 2 good ones you're buying the wrong albums. If you think the music industry is corrupt straight through you're probably right but then so is the film industry, the fashion industry, the set-ups that run football. Why do we view the music industry as being uniquely contaminated?

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Jul 17, 2011 3:46pm

In reply to Charles:

I'm not sure there will be an "everything alright" - times change, trends change. The traditional "industry" is in transition, but fact is, musicians are still making music, and those who make a connection with a large enough audience will be able to continue making music.
So - what do "we" do? It's quite simple, really - if you find music you like, support that artist by paying for their music and then telling your friends about that artist - if want to discover indie artists and support them directly, check out bandcamp.com - there are artists of all genres on there. They take less of a cut than iTunes. http://marimack.bandcamp.com

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Aug 11, 2011 1:01pm

Good article, thank you.

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Aug 12, 2011 8:41am

Good article, though you ask lots of questions but provide few answers (of which there are many complex ones). Basically, I am in total agreement that 'we' are the music industry. You have mentioned Limewire's, Spotify's, BitTorrent's and other's connections to larger corporations. But there *is* an alternative I feel. Sites like Bandcamp.com are growing by the day; sites which provide the service of hosting music, enable purchases and take a (very) small percentage of earnings for providing the service. They've enabled me to sell my music, they've enabled *some* musicians to make a living from it. All 'DIY' artists with no corporate backing or no promotional budget. The 'majors' will always exist, and they are one way of distributing music, however, I feel there *are* now alternatives, which didn't really exist before. This is the "new media" you refer to....not Google/Spotify/etc as they are well established.

Artists have been partly to blame also. Established, successful artists with a corporate deal have been happy to receive large advances, have their studio time paid-for and make some money. And accordingly, as they have become more successful, they have become more remote from their audience. To the point where they seem to be in an ivory tower. Many independent musicians communicate directly with their audience through social media; gaining and cultivating a fan-base without huge corporate backing. So, it seems, the new music industry is actually musicians, distributers, social-media and listeners in *partnership*.

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