The notion that ‘modern music just isn’t as good as it used to be’ is as old as the hills, and has been held by every generation since music itself was invented. These days however, there’s increasing evidence that it is correct. Certainly, there’s been a fundamental change in the way that new music is sold, and many musicians think it isn’t necessarily for the better. Indeed, luminaries from Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and and pop chanteuse Sandie Shaw, to Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien have got together to form the Featured Artists Coalition, in an attempt to roll back some of the changes that in their view make it harder now for talented musicians to break through that it has been for half a century.
Martyn Ware is another leading light of FAC, and famously left The Human League in 1980, months before the band went on to record one of the decade’s biggest selling pop albums, Dare. With another ex-Human Leaguer and old friend Glenn Gregory he formed Heaven 17, who also subsequently clocked up vast international record sales in the first half of the nineteen eighties. “When we first hit the charts in 1982,” he told dCS, “there were many variants and beautiful hybrids, lots of different ways in which the musical eco-system could flourish at that time. But if you carry that analogy on to the current situation, the eco-system is strongly inbred now, hence the proliferation of sound-alike bands.”
Ware thinks that his band would likely have not made it now, because the modern pop music scene simply isn’t diverse enough. “Eclecticism was a common thing in the late seventies; there was a kind of ‘macro-gang’; when we toured with Siouxsie and the Banshees their constituent fans were largely skinheads! That fact that Siouxsie wanted the Human League as a support act was kind of strange if you think about it. They welcomed it with open arms and there was a much more open attitude towards ‘being in love with music’. Whilst you could choose to be in a tribe it didn’t preclude you from the other tribes.”
He argues that from around 1978 to 1985 there was an enormous explosion of musical talent coming out of the UK. “I am often shocked when looking at the charts from that period, and about seventy or eighty percent of the songs are still well known now. I can pretty much nail down the year when it all started going a bit wrong. It was when the record companies started employing a lot of market research types saying how effectively can we monetise our assets, and those people started getting into positions of power – firstly in the large companies and then the medium-sized ones.”
Ware tells the story of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, who had a meeting with record company Virgin around 1987. “First of all they were saying it would be great if we could get another album out of you. And then they had decided that his next album should have two-to-three hit singles, two-to-three ballads, one half-tempo song with some reggae elements. And he said, “just stop there” and walked out! It was almost as if they were now spending money on market research, while removing it from A&R.”
A&R is of course music industry speak for ‘audience and repertoire’. Historically it was the contact point between the music industry (looking to sell music to the masses) and the musicians themselves (wishing to get their music out). Ware, and many of his musician friends, think there was a clearly discernible break point when the music industry’s centre of gravity changed from encouraging new talent and letting it go its own way, to controlling new artists and packaging them like fast food.
Since then of course, CD rose to great heights and then began its slow descent. It’s not quite a legacy format, but the writing is on the wall. Music streaming services like Spotify are becoming all-powerful. Ware is wary; in principle there’s a lot to like about this model, but trouble with the way the royalties are distributed are causing headaches for the artists. He says that although seventy percent of the proceeds go to the rights holders, the music publishing companies aren’t dispersing them properly. “They’re sitting on huge amounts of revenue. I’d be surprised if more than £1 of that £7 actually gets to the artist”, he says.
For this reason, many artists are now moving to a direct sales model; they themselves become the publisher, the ‘record company’ and the distribution model. Heaven 17 are issuing individual, private download codes for each purchaser of their music. “Everything for sale is on our website. We are going ‘off grid’, it’s a bit of conceptual statement. Over the past few years there have been more and more middlemen, but publishers aren’t relevant anymore. If you were starting a new revenue model now then you wouldn’t do it this way.”
Whilst music streaming may work for many bands, others like Kate Bush have been creating their own online fan communities and selling direct to fans. This has meant that there’s actually more space to satisfy audiophiles; her latest album ‘Fifty Words for Snow’ is downloadable in superb sounding 24/96 WAV format at only a small premium over the standard CD resolution. Martyn Ware is also gearing up for high resolution downloads too; making his band’s finely crafted electronic music available in this format will be a real pull for audiophile-inclined fans. It’s fascinating to watch the future of music unfold before our very ears…