I don’t really think of myself as someone who has a great deal to make public about our music industry (much as I may rant to friends almost daily), but I think that today, I have occasion to write something down, because of an event I attended last Friday concerning the ‘future’ of the music industry, and because of the death of Amy Winehouse. Not her death exactly, but just a portion of the reaction to her death, that smacks significant. I could complain at great length about the press, the inappropriate attitudes to addiction, the deeply unpleasant ‘club 27’ aspect of social networking sites. But that should all happen elsewhere. And it is an article that does that rather well that has prompted me to write this down. In fact, it is a comment underneath the article that encourages me to type.
On Friday evening I questioned glibly whether the music industry was not flogging a dead horse, but rather dressing the dead horse up in a period waistcoat and fucking and eating it at the same time. (There may have been worse and more stupid language, I don’t recall exactly). It was clear to me that the future of the music industry has not really occurred to the industry yet, because arguably, the future of the music industry is already happening without them. A certain manager of a certain era, told us charming anecdotes about his roster’s drug use, and wild parties before enlightening us with his groundbreaking model for a ‘new’ industry, which was, to do exactly what every single DIY or cottage industry or even small independent label has always done. Ie/ don’t spend loads of money on PR, radio plugging, booking agent fees etc, Do It Yourself. Basically keep everything in house until you’re act is famous enough to sell on to a major. ‘Level 3’ he called it. This demonstrates to me the sort of fear that seems rife within the industry. And it is fear, ‘Oh shit, they might realise that they don’t need us!’ How can the businessmen continue to make a living from musicians?
The relationship between industry and artist has always seemed to me to be a bit like that of the female and male Angler Fish. Mutually parasitic, but without which there is no possibility for breeding in the Abyss. What is unclear now, is which is which? Is it the artist or musician of plays the role of huge female that the male attaches onto, fusing blood stream and dolling out sperm in exchange? It seems to work either way. Which cannot be right can it?
The point is, I suppose, that people don’t buy as many records any more. That is why the ‘crisis’. Most often it is ‘illegal downloads’ that are blamed for this. It seems quite reasonable. But I’m not so sure that that is the issue. Being of the age that I am, I used to have cassettes. Blank cassettes, hundreds and hundreds of them. Compilation tapes, stuff recorded off friends, John Peel shows taken off the radio. Everyone I knew had tapes. I still bought records, I even bought cds, but I had a lot of stuff I hadn’t paid for. Nowadays, the only stuff I haven’t paid for are mp3s my friend Daniel sends me of rare soul 45s or hardcore he likes (other stuff sometimes too), or stuff that bands are giving away, because they have realised that digital music in itself has little commercial value. I find it hard to accept that piracy is the cause for the bottom falling out of the music industry. I’m sure it’s a factor, but I am starting to feel that there is something less tangible at work, something more moral, something about the results of greed….
I think that it is conceivable that the search for product, the attempt to recreate those rare iconic sparks that we flock to see, has rendered popular music without fiscal or emotional value. We have made our stars so disposable that we cannot respect them, let alone be awestruck by them. We don’t care about songs, but their dresses, their lovers, and most importantly their flaws. We are bullying jackals snapping the heals of those more impressive wolves because we just don’t like ourselves to let them be slightly larger. Which brings me to Winehouse, underneath Laurie Penny’s article that quite rightly condemns the tabloids for their hypocritical part in Winehouse’s life and subsequent demise, someone has written this,
‘Are we seriously arguing that AW is ranked up there with the soul greats such as Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder?’
This is striking to me, not because it is right or wrong, but because it suddenly seemed that it was inconceivable that anyone at all might be ‘ranked up there’. So temporary and trite has our culture become. Nothing seems to be around long enough to earn a place among our pre-existing immortals. And if they are we hate them and mock them for it. But why should Amy Winehouse not be ranked up with those greats? Her voice is iconic, her songs vital and raw, spawning, in their wake a whole host of slightly Spectory, saccharine sound-alike women. (See? Product. Whatever special thing that gets through and moves people is cast again and again each time a little sweeter and easier to swallow. A little easier to ignore. There are surprisingly few steps from Kurt Cobain to Ricky Wilson, but who could possibly believe in the latter? It’s not Wilson’s fault of course, he’s just been mispackaged, sold as rock when in fact he is Bucks Fizz in a blazer. A vile and unhappy Brundlefly of the corpse of Indie culture and Cheryl Baker). But Winehouse seemed to me to have made in ‘Back to Black’ a properly classic album, definitive of its time, whether you liked it or not. Influencial and copied, setting the tone for what followed. Give her a position among those other icons I say.
Just because we have cheapened and made demonic or own culture to the point where acknowledging that something is good physically sickens us, and we laugh in the face of Stacey Solomon because we don’t like to conceed that we put her there, on the television, because in the morning we look in the mirror and see the tortured faces of Jedward staring back at us while they fist fuck each other in public just for another chance to be humiliated on some Panel show, because we cannot bring ourselves to part with money any more for the obscene music that we have made and demanded, that we know is shit, doesn’t mean that we should not bow down to those rare moments when somebody does something beautiful or real, that secretly and wonderfully we all understand. They still happen, and the future of the music industry is simply to not forget that fact.