This blog follows on from a Facebook discussion which you can read here
Cliche it may be but when applied to the music industry it is fair to say that life used to be so much simpler. A world where subcultures were easily identifiable was a world in which marketing music to those subcultures could be based on a reasonable amount of certainty. Trying to sell the new Primitives single? Well, you can assume that a fair proportion of The Smiths fanbase will be interested, that NME and Melody Maker will be interested, that Peel and Kid Jensen will be interested. Given that the market is to an extent ring fenced you can gather your (no doubt meagre pre RCA deal) finances and aim in one direction.Your target market wears a fair amount of black, cardigans, brogues and is totally plugged in to all the above. Your live play will be University bars and the pub circuit built up through punk and early post punk. You are working with certainties. The results will vary of course, music has never been a given, but within parameters that you can aniticpate to some degree. You make a cheap video and can expect it to air once a month minimum on The Chart Show.
Contrast that with now. Irrespective of the genre you are working within, if indeed your artist actually could be said to fit into a genre, there are no obvious subcultures of any size that you can depend on with certainty. There is no given media that can access your anticipated fanbase. There are no norms.
In conversation with a good friend who runs a highly respected UK metal label I aired this opinion whilst suggesting to him that his world was the last bastion of the dependable market. He swiftly disabused me of this notion. Even metal, that hermetically sealed world, was now subject to the vagaries of modernity. He pointed to the fact that half the population under 30 now sport tattoos and nose rings, that the 'metal' scene is now confused by an influx of new bands that look metal but sound pop, and that, oppositely, bands that don't look metal have co-opted some of its sound and production into their music. Even in this world there was no conveniently definable subculture left to depend upon.
In one sense this is free market theory brought to bear in an environment that previously depended on an element of self induced protectionism. From punk through to Britpop, non pop bands were to some extent immune to the cut throat dynamics of the music industry. The truism that so many previously moderately successful indie acts (I'm looking at you in particular The Mightly Lemon Drops) failed when placed outside of the comfort blanket world of the indie scene seems only to demonstrate further that the ring fenced subculture of the 80s and 90s was a halcyon time when alternative music colluded with alternative media to create a hermetically sealed bubble in which artists and small labels could sustain a business model that would, just about, keep everyone from starvation. Looking back through my vinyl there are numerous examples of purchases made on the basis of cultural solidarity as much as aural excitement, donations to the idea of music rather than the actual tune contained within.
The death of this is, to some extent, linked to my previous post; a cutural pinpoint that stands for a wider political and societal disease. For that delineated music world was based on the idea of communities, of finding fellow feeling and idenitification within a group, a non reality that has now been distilled into an expression of pure individualism.
From a business point of view this offers an incredibly complex new world to navigate for artists, managers, labels and media. We can no longer depend on anything beyond results and it is no great surprise that the previous collective collusion that saw all defined by their genre has been replaced by demographics and market testing, a new search for a certainty in a very uncertain market. Interestingly, this removal of the basis of cultural marketing has created the very generational dislocation that so many commentators have been demanding since the last great musical / cultural shift of acid house at the close of the 80s. New artists, managers and industry members think less in terms of marketable groups and far more in terms of individual track exploitation. Applied to bands like the 1975, who prompted the discussion that led to this blog, that offers a much wider target market, albeit one that is far shallower and less dependable than those which preceeded it. As a side issue, it has removed the other previously precious pillar of music marketing, the novelty of the 'new' and replaced it with a wholly different, complex and challenging environment in which all those concerned with helping artists to succeed need to rip up what we know and start again. The newness of an artist, even whether they are still in existence, is irrelevant, music is now a strand of entertainment in business terms, the song is another marketable commodity to be exploited across all income streams.
For new artists, primary to this new approach is not how many social media followers we have or where we can secure our video premiere or which (if any) playlist we can get our song one but rather the primacy of the tune. We are now not just in competition with all the other new tunes but all the tunes that have gone before. Witness a day on 6 Music, the obvious radio outlet for an 'alternative' band and see how a new artist has to compete with classics on a minute by minute basis for exposure. Those old desires to frame a coherent PR campaign around media coverage have been blown apart by the change in the opposite side of the dynamic; the public. The public still want to hear music but not join a gang. A generation raised on streaming make no distinction between old and new and have no affinity towards a given subculture nor, conversely, a desire to reject music on the same basis. There are no golden bullets, our approach now has to be predicated on an ultra joined up attack on all fronts and, more crucially, an acceptance from all concerned that in all likelihood this is not a way to make a living, if not forever then for a fair amount of time.
This shift is already well underway at the major labels; a shift from prioritising the new to a mixed market economy in which catalogue, reissues, streaming, synch, live income and merch all coalesce to transform the business of making and exploiting new music into someting wholly different, a curation of music and its assocaited by products over time. Getting your track on a Spotify playlist is now worth a hell of a lot more financially than getting it onto the B List at 6 Music. The steady drip has replaced the sudden deluge. A similar process is in play at the independents, see Cooking Vinyl's mixed market of heritage artists and small label affiliation, a balanced business model that allows the possibilty of new success without betting the house on the outcome and is only one of many initiatives across the independent sector under the umbrella terms 'label services'.
Ultimately this means a continued shrinkage for the idea of the traditional music industry and its replacement by a semi-professional second tier where once those ring fenced indie labels stood. The generational shift for which us old timers hoped for has happened without us noticing because it was outside our experience and, therefore, our understanding. Where we desired a homogenous, easily categorisable musical movement we find a fragmented, non linear musical generation; predicated on its rejection of genre and, whether through choice or circumstance, focused on the temporary nature of is existence; a pick and mix, build your own image solution for a highly individualistic and precarious age.