While listening to Classic FM on the way home from the SOS offices recently, I heard something that set me solidly into rant mode. The feature concerned the London Symphony Orchestra, who had enterprisingly decided to start their own record label. The idea was that the players would do the session free of charge and instead take a percentage of the profits on record sales.
Apparently it's all going so well that other orchestras are planning to go the same route, but then, incredibly, a spokesman for one of the conventional record labels came on the same radio programme crying 'unfair!' His argument was that his company had to employ orchestras at the going rate, while the LSO could effectively record for nothing. He went on to say that if this state of affairs persisted, his company would have to 'take a view' as to whether it could employ said orchestra for any of its future recording projects. Given the monumental cockup that record companies have made of the once great British music industry over the past couple of decades, this simply beggars belief. In the LSO's case, the orchestra's members are effectively shareholders in their own enterprise, so what's the difference between a record company being funded by its shareholders (who expect to see a return) and an orchestra who use their time rather than money for the initial investment?
Moving back to the pop market, why do I feel traditional record companies have let us down? Firstly, they aim the vast majority of their output at people in their teens and early 20s, a demographic group well known for having diverse leisure activities of which music is only one. This is the same generation that also seems to feel all music should be downloadable for free! At the same time, record companies entirely neglect the strongest potential market, which of course is the baby-boomer generation and the one that came directly afterwards. These people (who grew up in the '60s and '70s) were fiercely passionate about music, they outnumber the teen generation by around five to one (as they cover the 35-55 age group) and have the most disposable income. Most would still like to buy records, but what are they offered? Back catalogue material and 'Best of' compilations. It's commercial suicide!
How did the market get so skewed? Rather than market records properly, record companies seem happy to let commercial radio do the job for them, and as commercial music stations traditionally have younger listeners, they play the type of disposable music that appeals to that age group, and in no time you have a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How could they do the job better? One answer would be to follow the examples set by American stores like Borders, fitting out record shops, and perhaps some other types of store, with listening posts where all their records could be explored by category, not just the top 20 or 40 albums. Given that MP3 files are good enough to make up your mind whether you like something, a single large hard drive could hold upwards of 140 hours of audio excerpts. Similarly, MP3 CD-ROMs could be freely handed out in major record stores, pop concerts, and just about anywhere else you could think of to promote alternative acts very cheaply. Don't even think about the Internet, because few people in that age group are going to spend half an hour online downloading a couple of songs they probably won't even like!
Instead we get naff concepts like Pop Stars, Pop Idol and even the ghastly Tot Stars (what's next, Pop Embryos?) where the test of 'star quality' is to be able to sing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' in tune while looking pretty. Be honest, what enduring artist would ever have qualified by such criteria — would John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Roger Daltrey? (These guys are only all old because that's part of the definition of enduring!) Perhaps that's why, when my 14-year-old daughter points out her latest favourite boy band on TV, I ask: "Do you know who that reminds me of?" And when she says 'No, who?', I reply: "Absolutely everybody else!"
Paul White Editor