Words by Roy Weard
When the lift door swings open and the miner walks out covered in coal dust and sweat you are immediately aware that this man has been working. There is an implied reasoning behind his condition that informs you that the product of his toil has a value. When you click on a track on a music site or download a film do you have a similar feeling? Of course I am not suggesting that the composers of the tunes or the makers of cinema put the same type of physical input into their products but then neither do lawyers or bankers. In the real world the value of something is often described as ‘what you will pay for it’.
The problem that the creators of music and films have is that people see very little reason to pay for it, especially when they can get it for free. That is the situation we find ourselves in. Look around you on the bus, in the high street, anywhere, and you will see people plugged into headphones listening to music. Sit on a train and you will see people with tablets or smart phones watching films. Now wonder how many of these people actually paid for the items they are viewing or listening to. Why is it we discount the amount of work that people put into making music and films. Why do we think it is worthless and that the people who create this stuff can live on thin air? More to the point, how can we change this attitude and get something a little fairer? Are those people on public transport hurrying to their place of work and, if so, how would they feel if their boss turned round and said he was not going to pay them that day?
[pullquote_left]I know that you may now be thinking, ‘What does it matter if I deprive Madonna or any other member of the pantheon of stars of the 50p for the track I’m listening to?’ After all she has enough money. In truth, she probably does, but some of that money goes to the record company and, when their profits are higher, they start to look for people to invest in, the next Adele or Ed Sheeran, and that might just be you[/pullquote_left]
There was a time when the only music you could get for free was on the radio but the invention of the cassette tape changed all of that. Suddenly you could make a tape of the LP you bought and give it to your friends – and then came the Internet, the MP3 file and the rise of cheap CD writers. Suddenly music was free and the phrase ‘make me a copy of that’ became the norm.
I have a great deal of admiration for Amanda Palmer. She is a clever, outspoken and creative performer. Even better than that, she is also articulate, as the TED talk she gave in 2013, shows (link) It seems that, in her opinion, some of the fault lies with the artists themselves. They don’t actually ask you to pay for the fruits of their toil. That is considered too mercenary, like putting a pecuniary value on the hours they spent in the creation will somehow devalue the art itself.
Why does this concern us? After all we are all the consumers of the outpouring of the artist’s muse are we not? Why should we bother ourselves about paying for it? I suppose this concerns us because, for many of the readers of this magazine, we are artists too. The very name of this magazine, ‘Unsigned’ says it all. Take a quick poll of the musicians you know (and some you don’t know but know about) and see how many major labels have dipped their hands in their pockets to contribute towards the recording, production and dissemination of their art. For every Adele, Ed Sheeran or other ‘pop phenomena’ there is a swirling tide of unsigned musicians trying to make enough money to survive.
I know that you may now be thinking, ‘What does it matter if I deprive Madonna or any other member of the pantheon of stars of the 50p for the track I’m listening to?’ After all she has enough money. In truth, she probably does, but some of that money goes to the record company and, when their profits are higher, they start to look for people to invest in, the next Adele or Ed Sheeran, and that might just be you.
Of course you may not want to be the ‘next’ anything. You might want to be the first ‘you’. You might believe in the works you are creating and that may well be why you are ploughing that lonely furrow in the first place. That is another aspect to this. When revenues are low the companies take fewer chances. They go for the safe bets, the ordinary, and the stuff that appeals to the common consensus. In that process the palette of musical confection you are offered gets less varied.
Despite all of this there are still people who want to take the unusual journey, to make the music that is in them and not the pap. Back when I started getting involved in making music making a recording was the pinnacle I aspired to. Just getting something I had written recorded in a form I could listen back to was very expensive. Doing gigs, on the other hand, was easy. Most pubs put bands on and some even paid the bands for playing. These days it is pretty much the reverse situation. We can record a whole album, on our own in our bedroom, with a laptop and some (probably illegally downloaded) software. But doing gigs is harder, and getting paid for them is even more difficult.
Many older people regard the late sixties to the mid seventies as the ‘Golden Age’ with different types of bands making records which sold in the millions. On the whole the A&R men (Artists and Recording in case you didn’t know) who went out back then to find new people to sign to a label either looked for an act that mirrored one that was already famous or one they could splash money on to use as a tax loss. These days it is just the former because they can’t afford to lose money. Back in the mid seventies we had Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Lindisfarne, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and an enormous list of bands of many different styles. Some initially benefiting from record company investment but moving on to a musical career. Look around you now U2, Coldplay, One Direction, a handful of identikit rappers, Lady Gaga, Madonna and some solo acts.
There are still great creative musicians out there trying to get by and create but somehow we need to find a way to pay them for their output and stimulate the record business to give them the incentive to take more chances again.