Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Killing The Thing You Love

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Oscar Wilde wrote many a brilliant verse but none more troubling than the above.

I was reminded of it recently when a young man spoke to me about his hope for a career in the music industry.

Oddly enough, I never thought of such a step back in Wexford. Music was something I more or less fell into.

The conditions were very different; rock music was then on the cutting edge of politics and social change. Few people saw it as a business.

The genre has very little connection to politics nowadays as demonstrated by its pathetic reaction to the War in Iraq. Hip-Hop has long supplanted it as a vital social force, though more so internationally where it continues to fuel the Arab Spring.

I considered warning the young man about the heartbreaks ahead but he had the fire in his eyes. Besides he could spend his life in many a more boring and equally financially insecure career. The once $20 an hour jobs that he might aspire to are being downgraded to $10, sometimes even less; not to mention that most musicians get to sleep late in the morning!

Rock music, unfortunately, lost much of its social drive – and some would say, soul - when it was co-opted by MTV and the advertising industry in the plastic 80’s.

How ironic though that fans of the genre are now themselves killing the very thing they love by both legal and illegal downloading.

Not that there won’t be interesting “serious” artists and even superb cookie-cutter pop; those with the fire in their eyes will adapt to the changing fortunes of the biz. But the era of the independent rock & roll band touring the country is winding down because of the imminent disappearance of the CD.

Why so? Well, sales of CDs subsidize traveling bands, particularly if the musicians retain their proprietary rights and can manufacture them inexpensively.

What about downloads? Well, an album of them retails for $9.99 at the most, whereas a CD brings in $15. Do the math!
But even worse, most people nowadays download individual songs for 99 cents rather than whole albums. Give Steve Jobs his 30% and the vendor who has set up the deal another 10%, and you get the picture.

But that’s only a start. Many managers now advise artists to give their music away free; and they have a point, since 90% of downloads are illegal and available at no cost.

And forget about Spotify and all the other new fangled rip-off platforms – do you actually think musicians are getting much of this pie – no it’s a carve-up between the old baronial record companies, the few platinum artists and the new digital cowboy start-ups funded by investment bankers.

Depressing? Each man kills the thing he loves? Well, it’s just the way of the world. My generation downsized to groups from the larger showbands who in turn had shrunk the big band ethos. Life goes on and we’ve entered the age of the downsized, economically viable unit.

It often amazes me how few musicians are aware of the shifting ground beneath their feet. Don’t get me wrong, I love albums/CDs – the idea that an artist can stretch and deliver a work defined by a concept, sound or series of lyrics.

Unfortunately, “it’s the economy, stupid!” The new breed of musicians will more likely be entrepreneurs who record a series of singles at home using computers; they’ll come to terms with the financial reality of iTunes and Spotify, and supplement their income by branding themselves in the worlds of advertising, fashion and pop culture.

They’ll love music just as much as Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, Brendan Bowyer and Benny Goodman. Hopefully, some will be real innovators and, while creating music, will change society rather than merely reflecting it.

And perhaps they won’t kill the thing they love and prove old Oscar wrong once and for all.

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