SPOT festival: Bob Dylan, TopShop, and René Descartes
Sat in a hotel lobby amidst a music conference in Aarhus around 4am is a great way to argue, and a terrible way to debate. I am trying to convey that good music would exist even if the music industry didn’t, and that there is no correlation between the music industry and good music.
Meanwhile Telegraph critic Neil McCormick is candidly putting forward that Blood On The Tracks is the greatest singer-songwriter album, if not just of the Seventies but of all time. Both conversations fall flat mainly because I wasn’t as delicate as I needed be, and Neil’s case was too solid for any credible cross examination to be made so late into the night.
Setting the captaincy of Bob Dylan’s opus to one side, there’s a problem that needs addressing now. The industry is fast returning to a model whereby music is no more than a marketing device. A model where Blood On The Tracks would be sold as a soundtrack to advertising campaigns rather than as a double sided LP. A scenario in which hardline, passionate people are injecting equity into a world where traditional revenues are evaporating, especially for the artists.
What is happening is that because it is hard for much of London’s music industry to make money, notably the indie-bands genre found in the NME, it is turning to brands and TV to generate revenue. There is an industry in London – and many other cities, but mostly London – where a great deal of music is being produced for brands (shoes, drinks, augmented reality TV) rather than fans (sweet, malleable, lovers).
Once you have the brands on board you have the traction financially and publicly to find the fans. Obviously there is blurring here in terms of chronology but certainly not in terms of priority. For indie music, despite being less popular in the charts than other genres, is still cool for brands and is still existent in London.
Attending SPOT this year were companies such a FRUKT who do a fine job in finding new channels for artists to make money. They sell bands like Bastille to brands like TopShop in order to create marketing product. The logic is ‘why sell an album that no one wants when you can help sell some chewing gum, or a dress?’ It’s good business, but it’s nothing new.
At the primordial soup of London’s record industry, a trio of businessmen loomed over the cauldron. One manufactured typewriters looking to branch out to gramophones, the other had a patent to make records, and the third wanted to put these products to market. The way they did it was to employ a popular contemporary opera singer of the time, Enrico Caruso, and record his voice and music. That way they would find the market to sell their products: notably records and record players, and crucially not music. Over the hundred years in-between the finding and recording of the music would become outsourced and new technologies would drive the industry, from cassettes to CDs and the rest. Through the decade long trauma of mortising digital formats new revenues have been created, revenues that are closer to the industry’s prototype than ever before.
From a critic’s perspective this would be fine were it not for capitalism’s amorality. This brand driven model does not function because of an artist’s quality nor even despite of an artist’s quality, but rather irrespective of it. This trend only furthers the problem that the financial success of an artist is driven by fast returns and strong marketing, and not nurture nor curation, musicianship nor art. It is as saddening as it is unsurprising to see that the record industry’s answer to an existential crisis is to treat music as a marketing tool; a lifestyle accessory and an attention grabber. It is a business in regression, not progression.
For a festival and conference such as SPOT there is a core Cartesian question to be asked about reason for being. For my pal René and I were chatting, and although we both agree that the music industry exists, we are struggling to work out why. And in times of great transition it’s probably worth asking this question – frequently and violently.
Personally, I don’t believe music is a past-time people engage with expecting financial remuneration. Although it can be lucrative it doesn’t have the same image as say Premier League football. I don’t believe that the best music and musicians are motivated primarily by money. I know this sounds radical, but I believe they make it because they love making it. Unfortunately, this can sound very offensive when told at 4am in a hotel lobby to a man who gives life to bands like Bastille. Because let’s face it, we’re not expecting a Blood On The Tracks from them.Tagged in: SPOT festival
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