OPINION // Downloading is dead. Discuss.

When did you last walk into a record shop, flickety-flack through the CDs (or 7″ records if you were too cool for plastic) and take your selection to the counter?

OK, that question is an old one, and the answer too (“not since I went to emit sad, hollow laughs at the last Public Enemy LP”), but the point is still a prescient one, though in a whole new way.

Downloading is dead. For those who obsessively follow technology news, then please roll your eyes and carry on planning your Web 3.0 start-up. For the rest of us, who use technology as a conduit more than a means to an end, this might be a bit of a surprise.

Actually, maybe it won’t be – if you’ve used Spotify* a similar thought may have pinged into your mind’s inbox recently.

A few years ago, music fans fretted over another harebrained scheme deriving from the record industry’s desire for ENDLESS CONTROL, in particular the mooted idea of changing the status of a customer’s ownership of the music itself.

This particular idea read as follows: even when you bought the CD, you didn’t actually own the music, and were in fact only paying for the privilege to listen to them, which made you wonder what would happen when EMI decided they wanted all their Robbie Williams songs back. (Answer: they released Rudebox, and the public did all the hard work for them)

This sounded like rank stupidity, and made the route towards downloading and owning a song seem even more tempting than before.

But as dumb as it still sounds, the no-ownership situation has come to pass, though perhaps not in the way the labels imagined. Music providers like Spotify make music ownership unnecessary now – and, most importantly, no-one cares.

It is an indication of how quickly people will change their minds if they feel they are getting a good deal. These online streaming services are exactly that: the wildest dreams of any music lover coming true.

If you’re happy to listen to an occasional advert, or pay a paltry sum per month, you can hear any music, whenever you want, however often you like. Why didn’t they sell it to us like this in the first place?

Downloading is, therefore, now defunct. It’ll still exist as a viable outlet for smaller bands, and it will work in their favour. These bands can foster a relationship with fans, and these fans are happy to pay to support them.

But for the Coldplay-buying public, spending time and money downloading from iTunes doesn’t make sense any more.

I spoke to some record label types recently, and they all agreed, with the quiet urgency of people who have just spotted the departing train and begin running just quickly enough to catch it without breaking into a undignified rush, that ad-fuelled/subscription streaming services like Spotify are the future.

I asked them about the future. They shuffled their feet and admitted that they didn’t even know what the music industry would look like in a year, let alone five.

Heady times, ripe for change. Let’s hope the bands and the fans – the people that, you know, count – get a better deal this time.

*And if you’ve not used Spotify yet – well, welcome back, Mr van Winkle; and now go here and prepare to lose the remainder of the day in slack-jawed bliss.

The View From… Coventry

My Spanish friend Diego, who is living in Manchester to learn English, finds the phrase ‘sending someone to Coventry’ endlessly amusing.

‘What is so bad about Coventry?’ he asks, over and over. ‘Please stop asking me and go and find out,’ I tell him – but now the lazy so-and-so could just read this article. Andy, who writes songs under the moniker Atlum Schema, is frustrated and heartened by both Coventry’s musical lull and coming renaissance…

After chatting to a friend of mine who is a drummer in a Leamington Spa based band my attention was swiftly brought to examining the state of the music scene in Coventry and Warwickshire.

What grabbed me about what he said was that the band had decided to diminish the number of local shows they were playing, looking instead to concentrate on bigger cities: Birmingham (19 miles west of Coventry) and London (95 miles southeast) where they would more likely be able to make things happen.

The question that came to mind was why they felt they needed to do this, was it indeed true that for any local artists aspiring to take their music to the masses they would have to get out of the area in order to make this a reality?

Is the local music scene in Coventry and Warwickshire really that deplorable?  There are, I think two answers to these questions – both yes and no.

When it comes to bands and music, Coventry has a small city syndrome.  It rests upon its laurels of past success and lacks any real progressive drive, finding itself an emulator rather than innovator of exciting music, stumbling on success instead of searching for it.

A perfect example of both these aspects is evident looking back to the late seventies. Coventry was on the map as an exporter of 2 Tone records and ska bands such as The Specials and The Selectors who made waves worldwide.

There is rightly great pride in the city for this moment in music history, but rather than building upon any success it has tended to sit back on it and aspire to the past rather than seeking out what could make them proud in the future.

That said there is still a huge amount going on in the area; it is often a stop off for touring bands of all sizes with lots of venues to accommodate all levels of need. It is not through a lack of places for local music to grow and develop that causes the desire for bands head to ‘the city’ but instead what I believe to be a comfortable, uninspiring and disparate music culture.

Coventry lads The Enemy are another, much more recent example of success for the city and their footprint is still evident, but again they are a band that somehow got through, due to huge strategic industry involvement rather than as a product of a flourishing scene.

They were a big deal in the area and their name was everywhere, but I knew very few people who had actually seen them play prior to their immediately massive success which thrust them full-speed into an industry fuelled hype-fest during 2007, and then… they were gone.

One problem in the area is that rather than interesting one-off events that promoters, artists and fans have time and reason to get excited about, there are loads of regular weekly nights (mostly acoustic) that attract sparse audiences. The cause and effect of low turnouts generally results below-par acts too.

Promoters are desperate to fill loads of slots with anyone willing to do it (generally for free too) – the need for quantity therefore far exceeds the need for quality. It is not through a lack of great bands in the area that there is this sense of mediocrity, it is rather through a grass roots infrastructure that has become stuck in its ways and very inward looking.

It is not all doom and gloom however as recently there has been an awakening in the area to the problem and artists, music lovers and venues have started to really consider how to make things better.

There is a rich culture of art, poetry and music in the city, which has massive potential possibilities if we band together and move forward as one rather than everyone getting stuck in their own little area of individual quicksand that no one else really cares about.

Despite the tone of this article I am actually on the whole excited about the music scene in Coventry and Warwickshire over the next few years.  I’ve been discovering many great local bands and believe that if they stick with it and actually do a little bit of work themselves to make the scene great rather than pining after the grass up the M6 or down the M40 it will be a fruitful and exciting place to be.

I would love to hear from anyone with similar experiences, wherever you are and any advice you have for moving things forward. In the meantime watch out for Being Jo Francis, Akeal, Post War Years, Don’t Move! Lee Mitchell and Men in Caves, just a small puddle in the huge pool of local talent.  Now let’s make things happen…

So why not help Andy make things happen? Listen to his excellent music and download his equally good album at  atlumschema.com.

The Trouble With Live Gigs: A Response

A few weeks ago, ANBAD posted two quasi-incendiary articles voicing concern with the music industry’s overwhelming focus on the Live Gig Experience, and the resultant negative effects on recorded music:

[The Trouble With Live Gigs, Part One]

[The Trouble With Live Gigs, Part Two]

The articles stirred up broad and vociferous responses. Peter Marinari, a musician who runs the excellent, long-running Philadelphia music blog Crushing Krisis, replied with a passionate defence of live gigs and their impact:

Peter Marinari: More handsome than YOU

I agree with the two articles, to a point. I’m with you on the false romanticism of concerts being invoked by big business just to manufacture excitement. That’s certainly tearing live shows away from their roots.

I think a lot of people’s favorite live experience amounts to “seeing [XXXX band] live at [XXXX venue],” which is unremarkable as favorite things go, and probably not much better than the record, anyhow. That sucks.

A good concert is like an epiphany. It’s different from the rest in one or more ways:

One is a band that is more fully-realized live than on record. When you posed your question one of the shows I thought of was Grace Potter at Bonnaroo. I have both her records, but they do not suck the breath out of my lungs like that set did. I still talk about it. That’s remarkable.

Two is the unexpected. The other show that came to mind was seeing Chantel Kreviazuk fill time for a late headlining, act, coming out again and again to sing cover tunes and chat with the audience. I don’t even like her, but only 500 people in a single venue ever got to witness that. It was unique and remarkable.

Three is an experience. The first time I saw Garbage I met the entire band, was first into the venue, and had Shirley Manson sing to me for an entire show. I’ll take that memory to my grave.

Concerts, along with merchendise, are the one major cash cow left in the music industry, and they’re being saddled down with unnecessary expectations, marketing, and sponsors to wring out more dollars.

It stops being an event of seeing a band you dig and starts being another product – priced at four or five times the cost of the CD to make up for all of the revenue labels are no longer making on records.

Every time you buy tickets for a concert, you are gambling for one of those outcomes (though the third is somewhat under your control). U2 and Green Day are probably not going to deliver them, but if you choose your shows wisely you might have an epiphany every time.

Digging a little deeper, I’m of the opinion that our bifurcated process of discovering and promoting new music has created a false dichotomy between great “live bands” and great “recorded bands.”

There are still bands building buzz by establishing a live following, like always. Organic, word of mouth. Those are bands more likely to be on indie labels and distribution out of necessity, as they have been releasing music all along.

But, they don’t break as big, and major labels aren’t scooping them up like they used to because the bands don’t need help putting together a profitable live machine.

On the flipside, lesser A&R budgets, the need for every record to be a commercial hit, and the YouTube-ification of music all favor bands with a strong concept or studio sound that don’t hold up live in a big room. The democratization of digital production tools means every band can sound professional in-studio or on video, and they are more able than ever to compensate for their deficiencies.

The resulting quality gap just makes it more tempting to ascribe the “great live bands” tag to anyone who can sing in tune and deliver a long or energetic set, even if it’s not particularly impressive. News flash: hundreds of thousands of musicians can do that. Being able to reproduce your music live is a requirement of the profession, not a bonus feature.

We’ve been raised to view the record as the document and the live show as the reproduction, not the other way around, but the record is really the soulless, herd-followed, instant-gratification marketing tool.

You don’t have to go out of your way to show your support, just buy this little plastic disc – or files that we’ll transmit to you over the air! Have your favorite band on-demand all the time! Hear the “definitive” version of a song.

It’s all fiction. You don’t know a band’s true intent just because they inflected a lyric a certain way one time. It’s just a one-time representation of reality. What it sounds like you’re lamenting is the death of an album as an event. The way all records could be in prior decades. The way albums by the biggest of the big bands still are.

The reality is that the future of music is probably not the record as we know it – and this is coming from a LOVER of records. People aren’t consuming albums like they used to, so it makes sense to alter strategy to accommodate the change.

So, I continue to exist on both sides of this debate. I neglect many concerts for the same reasons you do, but I’m also never satisfied to know a band I love only on the record. After all, it’s just a record.

Finally, an anecdote: The last two times I saw Amanda Palmer she sent her opening band around with a tip basket to make sure they could eat the next day on the road. I’m not going to romanticize DIY touring, because it’s hard and Palmer works her ass off, but THAT was a real concert, cabaret embellishments and all.

Now that’s an impassioned point of view. Thanks Peter. And while we’re speaking of supporting live artists, why not find out where he’s playing next and where you can get his songs from?