The music industry – from a consumer perspective


How the music industry has changed – in my eyes.

I can’t help but thing the music industry was setting itself up for the most almighty collapse throughout the 1990s. I remember in the very late 1980s (when I was still at primary school) the emergence of the compact disc. My first sight of one was when I was round a friends house – Tim. His now sadly-departed older brother had what I remember was a mini-disco in his bedroom, and was the first person I knew of to get a compact disc player. He’d bought the then new Michael Jackson album “Bad” – and his version had the bonus track “Leave Me Alone” which did not appear on the cassettes or the LP – the latter of which my younger brother got hold of after a particular piece of housework.

I still had this idea that compact discs were like LPs, just squished into a smaller space. I knew nothing about lasers, the sharper sound quality or anything digital. The only thing I observed was the higher prices. Why would I want to buy a CD that seemed to be up to 50% more expensive than a tape or an LP? Remember that in early 1990s prices, you were expected to pay £15 for a new CD album. Work inflation backwards from £15 today and you get a feel for just how painfully expensive music was.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that I weaned myself of cassettes – I took a year out and worked full-time in a bank. Just my luck it was in one of the weakest years for music. It didn’t stop me from spending my first couple of salaries on lots of it though. It’s also just my luck that I didn’t think of going to charity shops. I was still in this vain period of my life where charity shops were not the place to be seen in. It was only when I went to university that this changed.

In part it was due to the culture of ‘rethink, reuse, recycle’, a backlash against multinational corporations and cash pressures at university that made me switch from traditional record shops to charity shops. I sort of went back to tapes for a couple of years – if anything because they were as little as 25% of the price of CDs in both charity and second hand music shops. I still have box-loads of them stored up somewhere. Brighton in particular in those days had what felt like a vibrant second hand music shop scene. As recently as 2002 my music collection was predominantly cassette based.

Between 2003-06 I moved away from (and have never since been back to) popular music. “The charts” used to be a central plank of my music collection in the mid-1990s (to the extent some called me “chart boy” because I never really took to grunge). Much of the music I listened to was around what I could dance to on a ballroom or salsa dance floor. There was little ‘down time’ in those days. From 2004 in particular, I was working full time (normally 10-6) followed by 7-10 at some dance class somewhere. The weekends were for sleeping.

Then came the advent of the MP3player. My first was an awkward piece of work – I refused initially to succumb to the industry leaders Apple. I just wasn’t prepared to pay 10x the price of my little gizmo until it got to the stage that converting purchases from the latter’s online store into a file format readable by my MP3 player was more hassle than it was worth.

It was only when I moved to London that all things Apple became a sound investment – lots of time on public transport. By that time I had diversified my tastes – as had the rest of the buying public that the music charts ceased to be of any note with perhaps the exception of Christmas number 1.

We’ve come a very long way in a short space of time.

…is what I am trying to say. Two decades ago, it was all LPs and cassettes. The manufacturing of the physical items was a significant industrial process indeed. The idea of a “Fast Forward” button almost seems quaint. (Who remembers the magazine of that name?) Today I can store my entire music collection on a memory card about the size of a postage stamp, and play it on a sound system not much bigger. The days of carrying sackfuls of cassettes and CDs on long journeys are a thing of the past for me.

You could say that innovation in the field of music was in part driven by the high prices. Who remembers paying extortionate amounts of money for the computer games of old? £40 was the going rate in 1993 for a 16 bit Mega Drive game. It made fortunes for the companies but bankrupted the rest of us.

There was then the exposure of record company tactics that sought to use the singles market as a means for promoting albums. In days gone by, records would slowly climb the charts and slowly fall back down again. By the mid-1990s there would be a flurry of publicity and airplay in the run up to release, followed by release in which a single would expect to make the top five, before disappearing without trace. What it turned out the record companies were doing was offering retailers lots of ‘free’ stock in the first week – or just enough to get it to peak in the charts. e.g. for every one single a store purchased in advance, the record company would give one for free – allowing the store to halve their sales price. This was one of the reasons attributed to Blur selling more singles than Oasis in the Battle of the Bands in 1995.

The above was exposed to the general public by Roger Cook, who hired former Tory Minister Edwina Currie’s daughter Debbie in an industry expose. I remember picking up on the publicity at the time – prior to Cook’s show thinking “This can only end badly” – not realising it was part of Cook’s set up. Yet by that time, the record-buying public seemed to have cottoned onto the deal. If you wanted a single that badly, the first week of the release was the week to get it. For the record companies, the best way to promote a single was to get it into the charts – given the publicity that inevitably went with high-selling singles.

Yet that still left the problem of people buying albums full of songs that they did not necessarily want. This was the genius of buying music online. Apple made it clear in the early days (if I recall correctly) that record companies needed to make songs purchasable individually rather than as entire albums. Combined with the pressures of people downloading music illegally and not paying for them, intuitively it made commercial sense to come to some sort of an agreement so as to at least get some of the otherwise lost revenue back. The figures from the BPI are stark on this change. Sales of CDs by 2008 were only a tenth of the level of 2002. It’s interesting to note the digital sales more than making up for the difference.

I do wonder what impact price has had. With digital sales you are not buying a physical product – so none of the post-production manufacturing costs are involved. With digital and social media, sharing of information – i.e. the ability to access and listen to music before buying becomes much easier. Remember the days when you could only listen to a handful of albums on some skanky store headphones? You don’t need to do that now. You can listen before you buy. My older brother has gone further with Spotify – streaming everything online. I’m not going that far yet, simply because of the dependence of an internet signal.

Live music

Until last summer, there was also the boom in live music festivals. The only one I’ve ever been to is the Cambridge Folk Festival – in 1996, 2004 and 2007. It’s close by. Essentially I’ve never had a like-minded group of friends to go to any of the big music festivals. During the last decade, my equivalent was spent on going to grand balls in continental Europe – Vienna twice and Zurich once. Does that count?

I guess I’m also not really a big camping/festival sort of person. If I was, I’d have been much more driven about finding others and going to them. The truth is that I’ve not really been passionate about any individual bands or musicians to the extent where I’d want to spend several days in the rain just to listen to them play. If they turn up somewhere close where I can pop along for the day – as was the case with the Folk Festival, then yes. (Ray Davies of The Kinks, The Levellers and Oysterband for the years above).

There’s also the cost too. There’s a lot of money to be made from stadium tours. The biggest (and best) gig I’ve ever been to was Oasis and The Verve in 1997 at Earls Court. Shows have since become more spectacular – and more expensive. “Security” – by which I mean the protection of advertisers’ and sponsors’ property rights has become more draconian. We’ll see far more of this at the Olympics I fear.

The VIPs

Anyone remember “Live8”? Exactly.

For those that don’t remember, in London there was some controversy around the VIP pit which put the front end of the normal ticket holders incredibly far away from the main stage. I guess there comes a point in corporate music where you have to have special arrangement for the super-rich and the well-connected. Again, something I fear we’ll see more of at the Olympics with the VIP lanes. Only this time it’ll be right in people’s faces.

The rent-a-popstar-for-private-parties has also got some of them into trouble – especially when those hiring are part of not-very-nice regimes. They say music and politics – and sport and politics don’t mix. Who remembers “Cool Britannia” with the Noel and Tony show? It all got a bit comical at Leveson with the release of those emails.

“Does that mean you and Jeremy will not be coming to Take That?”

Brilliant! No longer is it a night at the opera as of the politicians of late 19th Century UK I sometimes read about, but a VIP box for a stadium pop band. That’s not to say such shows are rubbish. Seeing say Sir Paul McCartney or U2 live are probably things I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to if given the opportunity. I just wouldn’t spend several hundred pounds for the pleasure. (Not that I have it anyway, but you get my point).

Music to dress up and dance to?

One of the things that I’ve been missing for quite some time is precisely this. Ballroom will always be one of those lifetime skills which once you’ve been doing it for so long you’ll never forget the basics. A bit like cycling or playing football. Yet in my mind there’s something a little bit too 2005 for me. (I recall someone saying Salsa was a bit 2001 on some internet boards some time ago). The music industry tried to jump on the ‘Strictly’ bandwagon with a handful of jive tracks, but finding really interesting, danceable to and that hasn’t been overplayed is a labour of love. I still go searching even though I’ve not been dancing this year.

In a sense, that search for music to dance to reflects the anarchic beauty of what we have today. Social media makes it much easier to share, much easier to find new niches and much harder for corporations to dominate in the way they have done in the past. For me anyway. It was through social media that I randomly discovered all things electro-swing kicking off in Vienna.

There’s also the invention of Shazam, which if you hear a piece of recorded and published music and want to know who it’s buy & how to get it, you point your smartphone at the speaker, press the app button and wait for it to listen, search and reply. Every so often I’ll be in a cafe somewhere, pointing my phone at a speaker trying to find a particularly nice piece.

On electro-swing, I’d love to go to an electro-swing night somewhere sometime. But they seem to be few and far between. Feel free to point me in the direction of one if you know of any.


One thought on “The music industry – from a consumer perspective

  1. I had tapes all the way through my teenage years. A CD would have been 2 weeks wages of my paper round (once a week); or about the same as 10 pints of beer. And tapes could be easily copied….

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