In his last‑ever Doing The Business, Big George burns all his boats with some radical ideas about what should be done with the British music industry...
Over the past two‑and‑a‑half years of this column, I've alternately ranted each month about the shocking state of the music industry and passed on my handy tips on how to survive the disasters that will befall you on your journey into it (as well as telling you a few of my sad show‑business anecdotes, like the one about the time me and the band I was with mooned a coach‑load of nuns for almost half an hour along the M1).
Well, it's about time I put up (as there's no way I will ever shut up — unless I get whacked by the industry, that is). What you're about to read may not please everyone. In fact, I'm pretty sure it will piss off most of you, to some degree, but the way I see it — and allow me to use a time‑honoured piece of political phraseology to defend my views — if it's hurting, it's working.
The time to save music from the clutches of corporate business is now! For far too long the corporations that control the music industry have cosied up to the Government, and have been allowed to replace the genuine talents of this once‑great musical nation with insubstantial celebrity tosh. There is no room for pioneers, no excitement, no danger, no innovation — only slick packaging catering for the lowest common denominator. I truly believe that if the power behind the music industry was taken away from these bean‑counters and given back to people with creativity, not only would it be worth listening to the radio again, but the whole of society would benefit.
A good place to start would be a National Gig Circuit (a what?). In the olden days, when the world was black and white, every town with a population in excess of 20 people would have at least one venue regularly staging live entertainment. A town like, say, Luton would typically have more than two dozen shows at over a dozen venues every week.
Not only were these venues breeding grounds for every single all‑time great artist, they were also focal points for communities. These days, about one band a month play a gig in Luton, and invariably they struggle to pull a crowd. Yet just up the road there are a dozen pubs packed with Karaoke jams. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, the licensing laws mean Karaoke is cheap to stage and requires no special arrangements — whereas to stage a band (of any sort containing more than two people) there needs to be a special license, specialised fire regulations, and guarantees of potential audiences, along with assurances that they will all be dressed in their Sunday best suits and act like saints. Strangely, there is no requirement for a minimum fee.
Secondly, we live in a world where all it takes to become a big star (for a couple of days) is to be able to sing one song a bit like someone else (not differently, or even better than — just a bit like them). So Karaoke passes for both entertainment and a career opportunity. (The Japanese word 'Karaoke' literally means 'empty Orchestra'.)
So here's the deal: the music industry is filthy, stinking rich (mostly from reselling back catalogue from a more creative time at knock‑down royalty rates), and it's about time they invested in the grass‑roots of the next generation of music makers, seeing as they've ignored the last couple. Meanwhile, the Government have lost the interest and confidence of the younger generation and need to regain it, if democracy is to survive. (Drive through any town or city on any night and you'll see crowds of disaffected yoof with nothing to do and no interest in doing anything.)
If these two powerful bodies joined forces and used their immense might for good, the benefits would be simply wonderful. A National Gig Circuit funded by the industry and facilitated by the state would give bands a place to hone their craft in front of an audience, who in turn would pay one pound‑coin to get in. Advertising could be bought centrally through the half‑dozen local newspaper conglomerates and administered locally by a paid co‑ordinator, who would pay the bands a set fee. Established bands such as U2 and Blur would no doubt avail themselves of this network of gigs for unannounced warm‑ups, too.
Isn't it about time there was a body that oversaw the entire music industry — one that you could go to if a production company insisted you sign your rights away, or when a record company made your professional life unbearable in order to clear the way to dropping you, but leaving you liable for all their expenses?
You could argue that this is where the Musicians' Union comes into its own, and oh, how I wish that were the case. But, for whatever reason — too broad a remit with too narrow an expectation, or not enough music makers joining (and that means you!) — the reality is that the Musicians' Union has failed to both protect the interests of musicians and create a realistic framework of employment. Fact: the majority of orchestral sessions are now done in Eastern Europe because realistic agreements can't be made in this country. Fact: many programmes on TV will not allow union members to appear. Now that can't be right. Of course, at this point I would urge everyone reading this who is not a member to join immediately. It's the only way to make things better.
The home‑grown talent base (that's musicians, writers, singers, producers of all flavours based in this country) is getting a raw deal. There seems to be a conspiracy between the major high‑street retailers and the mainstream media. Shops won't even consider stocking a record unless there is a whole package of promotion, up front.
I suggest a levy is imposed on all records, films and videos coming in from the USA, to help alleviate the problem of lame, pointless, over‑hyped, pushy 'product'. That may seem racist of me, but go into any shop and look at the ratio of UK to USA entertainment products available, and I think you'll see I've got a point.
There is one sector of the music industry that is booming. Indeed, everyone involved is so busy patting themselves on the back that they can't see that there is no future in their labours. I'm talking about Further Education, from Media degrees at Universities through GNVQs at colleges, to sound recording workshop courses. Never have there been more people training for fewer jobs.
Nevertheless, these education providers are overjoyed with their productivity, and seem to have no interest in the fact that the vast majority of their students will end up, frustrated, embittered and unemployable. What's more, the vast majority of these courses are run by people who have never done anything in the sector of the industry for which they are supposedly training those in their care. They may have read a few books and answered some questions on said books (usually written by other people with no first‑hand knowledge of what they're on about), but that's by no means the same as actually having worked extensively in the industry. And before all you offended tutors start firing off letters to me, stating the importance of theoretical training, I've got two things to add. Firstly, theory is bollocks without knowing what a jungle it really is out here. And secondly, an overwhelming percentage of my postbag is from disaffected students and ex‑students who read the books, answered the questions, got the degree/certificate, and ended up flipping burgers or selling double glazing over the phone.
This isn't to say that there aren't some really excellent tutors around, who have seen action on the front line, but what I would say to you is: are you now in the educational sector because you believe there is a need to have ever‑more qualified members of the industry, or because the pay isn't bad and there's sod‑all else on offer in this business for you these days?
One last thought: over the past few years I've met literally hundreds of highly trained, bright and intelligent ex‑media students without a job or the prospect of one, but I don't know any plumbers, bricklayers or lorry drivers under 35.
Commercial radio stations have a lot to answer for, but what do they care? Successive Governments who have dished out their charters seem to be happy to have allowed all of them to flout their remits. This means they are free to completely ignore music and the people who listen, and concentrate on massaging listening figures and selling adverts. Their commitment to their localities is negligible: most take syndicated satellite news, and their playlists are centralised and designed to convince second‑hand car showroom managers that "because we only play the biggest hits from the '80s and '90s and the stars of today, you can be sure that no one will switch off."
Here are some facts: there are three companies that own the vast majority of the local FM stations in the UK (or as one of these companies likes to put it, Local Radio — Nationwide). At any one time there will be around 30 stations playing the same three track sweeps, followed by the presenter (who has no say in the content of their programme) telling the same topical joke (sic) faxed through from central HQ.
I call it brain‑dead radio, and it offends me that the sole purpose of these stations is to raise advertising revenue (yes, I know it's a business, but I thought that music radio was based on... er... music). But as much as I detest these advertising sales companies and the drab, boring people who run them, I would forgive them everything if they did the following three things:
1. Play the best local acts in the area during daytime (particularly on breakfast and drivetime shows). All the best bands the world has ever seen were 'local bands' at the beginning of their careers, and every great singer came from somewhere 'local'.
2. Air dedicated specialist music shows every evening. My suggestion is 10pm‑2am. There's not enough reggae, blues, hip hop, rock, garage, folk, jazz, world, funk, soul, or avant garde on the radio.
3. Allow DJs to pick some (if not all) of their own music. It is vital that the people who play the music on the radio are passionate about it. The down side to this is that it would lead to a lot more activity in the less‑than‑honourable world of the plugger, so safeguards would need to be put in place (any DJ or producer found taking a bribe or a freebie would be fired).
But I guess the most radical thing I would do about the music industry (and the one that I will, no doubt, get the most hate mail about) is reform the PRS (Performing Rights Society). At best it's a hit and miss operation, and at worst it's a lottery that favours the superstar elite.
Sums are collected for every shop, pub, town hall, cafe (and so on) that plays music, and then it is divvied out to artists pro rata (meaning that the rich get richer and up‑and‑coming performers have no chance).
The BBC pays the PRS many millions of pounds every year for the privilege of playing music on TV and radio. Every time a single is played on Radio One, the copyright owner is paid several pounds. They, in turn, pay a percentage to the composer of the tune and keep the rest themselves (supposedly to fund new talent, although you'd be hard‑pushed to find any evidence of this). Now, since none of the major publishers are British, that means that tens of millions of pounds leave this country every year and never return — except in the form of Mariah Carey's promotional budget. (NB: Most local radio stations do it a little differently: they return what they play on just three days every month. Those tracks are multiplied by 10, then the money is put in a pot and dished out arbitrarily.)
My proposal is simple: rather than pay the likes of Robbie Williams and Sting a few grand per week to promote their latest releases and see millions of pounds every year leave the country to bolster the share price of large multi‑national companies, I suggest the BBC keeps the money and invests it in music programming through its 38 BBC local stations. They could produce masses of high‑quality local music output, of all flavours, and pay the musicians (now wouldn't that be a novelty?), while at the same time exploiting the rich potential of this country and improving the performing skills of many artists.
Whether this would be of any help to the so‑called artists who get blanket coverage on the nation's radio and TV, but never seem to play or sing live (mime live, maybe, but I'm talking about music, not Marcel Marceau), is another matter. Have you noticed how, when you see these boy/girl/cardboard types perform two songs at a televised live event, they do the dance and sing into their Captain Scarlet earpiece microphones, but when they give it large with a "Whoa!" and deliver their "this is our next single" spiel, they need to use a different microphone. Why is that?
There we have it: an end to two‑and‑a‑half years of me venting my spleen and you putting up with it. It saddens me to hear so many people say "things will never change." WRONG! Tell that to Emmeline Pankhurst — and what about the Berlin Wall or the Poll Tax? Cast your mind back about a year, when there was a campaign during the census to have 'Jedi' recognised as a proper religion. Big Brother warned that if not enough people stated that their religion was Jedi, everyone who did could face a fine for including false information. But enough of us stood up for Obi‑Wan and Yoda, and now it's the law! (Or, at the very least, a cool Urban Myth.)
If like‑minded people can come together to do something fun, regardless of the threat of financial penalty, then I'm confident that music can win out over market‑share mentality. Therefore my fight goes on, but not through this column.
I wish you luck in getting your music heard by a wider audience. And my final thought is this: the making of music is the single greatest achievement in the history of humanity. It has been around since before records began. The ability to create music is a gift more precious than a percentage. The greatest artists in history made music because they had to — any fame and fortune that came their way was a by‑product. Do it for the fun of it, do it for art's sake, do it because you have the ability, do it to achieve excellence in your life! If you do good work without blind financial desire, the benefits will be great and plentiful.
Over and Ouch, and May The Force Be With You.
Three months ago, I used this column to write an open letter to Tessa Jowell, the Minister in charge of music, about the appalling state of the industry. I finally got a three‑page reply from one of her minions [reproduced in full, below].
To say that it didn't address any of the points I put is an understatement of ministerial spin‑doctor proportions. I doubt it will shock you to know that I shall be replying, calling foul.
Below you will find the full unedited text from the reply Big George received from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's Creative Industries Division.
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Creative Industries Division
2‑4 Cockspur Street
London SW1Y 5DH
1 November 2001
Dear Mr Webley,
Thank you for your email of 14th October to the Secretary of State, regarding the Government's policies towards the UK music industry. I have been asked to reply on her behalf. It appears that we did not receive your original letter/email of 10th September which you refer to.
I would like to begin by saying that the Government values the enormous contribution that music makes to both the UK economy and to our cultural environment. We recognise the diversity of the music industry and are working closely with all sectors of the industry to help ensure its continuing success. We make a conscious effort not to restrict our contacts with the industry to any one sector or interest group.
Your email refers to the membership of the Music Industry Forum (MIF). I should point out that the Forum is one of a number of channels of communication between the department and the music industry. It is not a formal decision‑making body and has no fixed membership. Rather, it gives the Secretary of State, who chairs Forum meetings, the opportunity to hear the views of a sample cross‑section of the industry on the key issues it faces. Individuals are invited to attend on a meeting‑by‑meeting basis, based on the expertise they can bring to the issue under discussion. As a result of discussions with the industry at various levels, including the MIF, we are concentrating our work on the following four broad areas which you refer to in your email, and which it might be helpful for me to expand on.
We recognise that this issue is of crucial importance to all sectors of the music industry. It is vital that creators and rightsholders are properly rewarded in the digital environment, and we are working with them to look at how these groups might best overcome the threat, and make the best use, of new technologies. Clearly, setting the right legal framework for creators to operate in the digital environment is central to achieving this aim, and we are working with the Patent Office (the Government Agency which leads on copyright related matters) to help ensure early implementation of the EU's Copyright Directive. We have also convened a group of experts from across the music industry to look at the impact of new technologies on the industry. The group produced the report 'Consumers Call The Tune', available from our website.
Small & Medium Size Enterprises (SMEs)
As our website states, the vast majority of the music industry in the UK consists of small businesses (SMEs). We recognise, for example, the importance of the independent recording sector, which generates more than £500m p.a. in retail sales alone, and represents more than 26% of the UK market share. Helping such businesses to get started and grow is, therefore, an important objective for DCMS. From discussions with the different sectors of the music industry, it is clear that access to finance for small businesses is crucial to their viability and future success. We decided, therefore, to commission a research project, carried out by Kingston University's Small Business Research Centre, to identify what funding options are available to small firms in the music industry, the difficulties faced in getting at those funding sources, and how these difficulties might best be overcome. A summary of the research, 'Banking On A Hit', was published earlier this month and is also available on our website, together with the full research report. The report makes recommendations to the music industry, finance providers and Government, and we will be looking at how best to take forward the recommendations with the relevant groups over the coming months.
This term is intended to encompass our work with the industry aimed at encouraging creativity and the creative process, without which, of course, there would be no music industry. We are working with agencies such as the Department for Education and Skills, Youth Music, the Arts Council of England, and Metier (the National Training Organisation for the entertainment industry) on taking forward the education and training agenda. This includes seeking to raise the profile of the arts and the value of intellectual property in the National Curriculum, establishing the Creative Partnerships programme (which aims to provide a bridge between schools and cultural organisation, particularly in deprived areas, giving pupils the chance to work directly with professionals in the creative industries) and developing and promoting the New Deal for Musicians, which aims to help musicians in the broadest sense move into careers in the industry. We are also looking at ways of encouraging the provision of live music, through, for example, the Government's proposals for reform of the entertainment licensing system.
This final area of work is aimed at sustaining and developing the industry's performance in overseas markets. The US market is a key focus of our work, and we are working with the industry to look at ways in which our performance in the States might be improved. We are also working with other Government bodies, including Trade Partners UK (TPUK), the Foreign Office and British Council, in a number of areas, including, for example, encouraging industry attendance at overseas trade fairs and promoting anti‑piracy measures in other countries.
You will appreciate that this is not a comprehensive list of our policies towards the music industry, but I hope it goes at least some way in demonstrating our commitment to helping ensure the future success of all sectors of the industry.
Music Industry Branch
Creative Industries Division
Big George's reply to this letter has since resulted in his being asked to speak in person to the Creative Industries Division about his views on the UK music industry.
The ideas I've put forward in the main body of this column are only an outline of what could be done, and I've already blagged three times my usual column inches. To detail every angle of my proposals would take the whole magazine twice over. But if I didn't believe in what I've written, and its workability, I wouldn't have written it.
So if you are someone with the power to implement any of what I've outlined, or maybe you've got a vested interest in maintanining the status quo and want to pick me up on my outrageous slurs, I'm not hiding.
Finally, I would like to thank the big cheeses here at SOS for allowing me to write my column without interference or influence. There is no other magazine available where this would be the case. My reasons for stopping are threefold. Firstly, I've said everything I had to say about what I know about this business, and I didn't want to start repeating myself. Secondly, there are other things I want to do with my life, like holding some seminars about the realities of this business, and doing a one‑man show about my life in it. (These two ventures alone will make me totally unemployable, enabling me to spend more time with my family.) Thirdly, I'm planning to record a triple acoustic album of my introspective mystical concept songs (that's a joke, for heaven's sake).
But, as Arnie once said, 'I'll Be Back'. Later this year I may turn up again, with occasional articles in which I plan to put the people who control the industry on the spot — from playlist compilers to A&R directors, retail stockists to celebrity managers.