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Rock Of Ages

By Paul White

Despite the UK record industry reporting a particularly good year, the general consensus is that the worldwide record business is in something of a decline, due in part to piracy in all its forms, but also I think due to it still largely ignoring the middle-aged market where most of the cash and the serious musical interest is. It's OK for rock stars over 30 (or even over 60) to go on selling records and make a fantastically good living, yet the record industry doesn't seem prepared to take the risk of signing anyone new who's old enough to go out without their mother! Most musicians don't reach the peak of their performance capabilities until they're in their 30s or 40s, so what we are really being subjected to is a market dominated by talented beginners. By the time they've matured, the record companies will almost certainly have scrapped them in favour of the next teen style icon.Paul White with mics.

But is part of the problem that musicians and their agents, like film actors, somehow expect to earn a lot more money than 'normal' mortals? If great musicians were hard to find, perhaps there would be some justification for this way of thinking, but in reality, there are probably thousands of very good musicians and songwriters for every act that gets into the charts (and hundreds of thousands of not very good ones!), yet we rarely get to hear them. And don't even get me started on TV reality pop shows — how many of the mega-huge pop icons of our age would have even made it through the first round? "I'm sorry Mr Dylan but that rendition of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' sounded just a bit nasal, your pitching was a touch off and we can't allow you to play your guitar as that's not the format we have in mind for the programme!" Even the Beatles wouldn't have got through the first round playing by these silly rules.

In most industries where there is gross oversupply of product, prices come down, yet in the music business, a small minority earn silly money while the rest get virtually nothing. For the cost of developing one totally anonymous-sounding gel-haired crooner, it should be possible to pay sensible wages to 10 equally talented people or, alternatively, to drop the price of recorded music to the point that piracy is no longer a desirable option. While the supermarkets often discount chart music to around the £10 mark or less, 'serious' music often still retails at £15 to £18, even when some of it is extremely old back-catalogue material.

Depressing? Maybe, but if the route to rock stardom looks difficult, what about those thousands of students on music technology courses who want to be studio engineers? Every year, many thousands of people take these courses, and a large percentage of them want to work in professional studios, but there really aren't that many big-league studios left, mainly because people like you and I have decided to go it alone and record most of our work at home. On top of that, many successful musicians also have their own private studios, and so spend much less time in commercial facilities. Of the big studios, each one probably deals with dozens of successful bands and artists each year, so it stands to reason that the total number of studios must be well below the number of successful artists currently recording. What this boils down to is that while becoming a houseshold name in music is incredibly difficult, it is probably still some 10 to 20 times easier than landing an engineering job in a first-division studio.

What's the answer? We followed the home recording revolution so now we have to carry that DIY ethos through to creating good records and marketing them as best we can. Some are already doing it successfully, although as with any artistic outlet, some projects will be more commercially viable than others. Either way, it's no good sitting at home and waiting for the record companies to come and find you, because that's no longer the way it works — if it ever did. If the world won't come to your music, then you have to find a way to take your music to the world.

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published June 2005