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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Like Pete Townshend, I miss the record companies

I've been reading the text of Pete Townshend's John Peel lecture. He makes the perfectly valid point that what record companies and music publishers used to do was a form of banking. You know banks. They're the people we tolerate when they're lending us money and despise when they're wanting some return. *Just* like record companies.

I've been waiting for this for the last few years. Now that record companies are not the force they were we get nostalgic about them. We realise the things they did and wish they still did them.

When you had to buy an album rather than cherry-pick a track record companies could afford to subsidise acts to go on tour.

When that album cost £10-£15 they could take some of that margin and spend it on marketing, which meant music magazines got advertising.

When record stores were the shop window, the companies could hope that your attention might be attracted by something you hadn't gone in there to get.

All that's gone now. People download individual tracks, which means even successful acts get a fraction of a fraction of the revenue. Record companies can't afford to spend money on promoting records. All that matters nowadays is getting into those few inches of space occupied by the home page of the iTunes store.

What used to work in the artists' favour, although they could never be caught admitting it, was competition between record companies, struggling to elbow each other off the airwaves, out of the front window of HMV and off the cover of NME. In order to achieve this they would spend lots of money. They'd pay big advances, invest in name producers, buy advertising spaces, press up lots of copies, distribute them and then spend more money on ballyhoo in an effort to move them out of the shops.

And when one record company failed to break an artist, as they usually did, there would be another one waiting to have a go. I don't buy the idea that artists are cast aside as soon as they don't sell. I'm consistently amazed to see how commercially unsuccessful artists keep on making records. This is the business from which NOBODY RETIRES. Hope springs eternal in the record business.

I agree with a lot of his analysis but I can't see iTunes, or anybody, adopting Townshend's recipes. I can't imagine lots of talent spotters sitting there patiently ploughing through MP3s. I don't know whether everybody who writes a song has the right for it to be heard any more than anybody who writes a blog has the right for it to be read. In the days when John Peel listened to every demo there was barely any email. He would only receive them from the relatively small number of people who could get up off their backside, make a record, pay to get it pressed up, buy a Jiffy bag, take it down the Post Office and send it to the BBC. Believe me, it's not like that today.