Each day I read a bunch of articles written by people involved in or associated with the music industries.
I do not do this because I want to learn all I can about the creative economy or how best to navigate the modern music marketplace or what trends I should be keeping up with (for that way madness lies…).
No, I mostly do it to reassure myself that I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.
I’m not being flippant. It needs saying (and saying often). We should all be very suspicious of those who speak with too confident an air about “the future of music consumption” and “strategies for independent artists” and all those other rent-a-panel issues that fly around the conference circuit and blogosphere.
Many balk at the quantity of new bands jostling for attention on social media platforms. But that’s nothing compared to the infestation of so-called media experts popping up at every opportunity like so many sardonic meerkats.
I read a piece the other day about how bands shouldn’t make albums anymore because lumping all your material into one release (as opposed to three EPs or a new download every month) means there are less promotional and touring opportunities available to you. I’ve heard that argument before and yes there’s a lot of sense in it. But it is only one argument. The problem is that whenever an article like this circulates on twitter it is typically accompanied by a “stop press: bands must now do this” tag. These little wisdom pellets pepper my feed much the same way as cat pictures and Dalai Lama quotes clog up facebook. After a while it all becomes quite meaningless.
For it can never be as simple as “don’t do that – do this” in the creative sector. No act is the same, just like no audience is the same, just like no fingerprint is the same. When my band tour in Germany people want albums. Physical full-length albums. The amount we make in record sales after a gig often equals the fee we got from the venue (which in the UK wouldn’t be much to brag about but on the continent things are a bit brighter). That in itself is not a universal counter-argument to the anti-album theory as such, it’s just about knowing your audience. On our first European tour people asked us for vinyl and we didn’t have any so the following year we pressed some but it was a 10″ release not a 12″ and people were kind of underwhelmed. So next year we’ll aim to return with a 12″ LP.
Or we won’t. It depends on where we’re at financially. Some things are worth chasing and others aren’t. We learn from our audience because we talk to them but we don’t do everything they want because sometimes it isn’t possible and sometimes we don’t agree. The band and I are very proud of that four track vinyl and we are regularly reminded of this pride every time we glance over at the huge stack of them we haven’t sold.
My point is that at the nucleus of all this has to be art. Or at least an art-shaped intention. If you start trying to stretch a creative project over the bones of some second hand promotional model you’ll end up with a monstrous hybrid that no one is comfortable with. And besides, in my experience the journalists who you hope will spread the word about this stuff don’t care overly much about the truth anyway (at least that is the case with most of the ones that have ever received and subsequently reinterpreted one of my press releases). What ends up in print tends to fit the publication’s agenda/word-count/mood more often than it does the artist’s/label’s. So what’s all this stuff about excuses for touring? I just don’t get it. Make up an excuse. Call it the “any excuse to tour” tour. Be creative. Who cares? Play the bloody music.
These “rules” are all so stupid. They aren’t even rules. There aren’t any rules. Sure there is common sense, there is taste, there is risk. But there are no rules. Didn’t most of us make the decision to build a career in the creative sector so that we wouldn’t have to bother with rules anymore? Why are so many of my peers falling over themselves to do what they are told?
Of course deciding not to make an album just because someone tells you the format is dead is just as stupid as making an album because someone has told you “that’s the traditional approach”. It breaks my heart watching artists pouring all their time and money into making some masterpiece that no one’s going to listen to because no one has heard of them yet. But that’s another matter. Such people should really spend a year or ten touring the toilet circuit and making a note of which songs please the drunks and which ones cut through the haze and stay in the memory long enough for the soberer ones to search them out on google the next day. Not much of an exact science but then neither is running a band.
And there it is. It’s not science. It is art. Art is something that gets endlessly debated. Unlike gravity or oxygen, art can exist for one person but not for another. No art can be disproved, it can only be discussed. There is only one important relationship here and that is between the art and its audience. There will always be commentators and they can be very helpful when it comes to context and classification but they will always be outside the conversation looking in. To be needlessly poetic: they can see the conversation, but they can’t hear it.
So of course listen to people who have an opinion. Listen to as many opinions as you can (including your own). But don’t blindly value one written by a guy who used to work at EMI over one from a guy who just saw you play to ten people in Aberystwyth. So what if the former is an industry “expert” and the latter is a barman? The barman has probably been subjected to just as many bands in his life as the EMI man (if not more).
There are a lot of people out there who are suffering from changes in the way music is consumed. We hear so much about artists being hurt by flagging album sales but let’s not forget that some of the biggest casualties are middlemen. Big labels are having to restructure themselves, there is less investment into new talent and, as a consequence, fewer people on the payroll nurturing the careers of emerging artists. And where do these people go, these orphans of the industry? They become consultants and managers and pundits, they tour the panel circuit and write books and dream up endlessly retweetable theories that young hopefuls can read on a mobile phone between tram stops whilst lugging their guitar amp from Salford Crescent to the Night & Day Cafe.
Their opinions and experiences are valuable. Just like everyone’s opinions and experiences are valuable. But some opinions and experiences come with more baggage than others. And all need to be questioned.
When I was about eleven my Marxist grandfather wrote me a letter containing a list of recommended authors. They were all right wing economists. By explanation he merely said: “know your enemy”. I didn’t read them (I was ELEVEN) but the message stuck with me. By all means read the stuff with juicy headlines like “The Album Is Dead” but then afterwards do what works for you, make a clover-shaped edible 45 in a marzipan sleeve if you like. But do it with your eyes open. Could the time/money spent on that be better spent elsewhere? Who are your audience? Do they like marzipan? Have you actually talked to them? There really is no excuse not to. It’s never been easier.
But above all remember: if some sensationalist blogger living for retweets tells the world that marzipan is dead, don’t believe a word of it. Yes, it’s not coming back. But that is because it never went away.