A shrinking market, slumping sales, and more music artists than ever... is it official? ...is there now, "No Chance to Succeed in Today's Music Industry"
Imagine for a moment that you're a music /entertainment industry music critic for a major news service. Every day they cascade in packages, thump-thump-thump, through the letterbox, five or six at once. More arrive in your email inbox as downloads or as digital streams. This past week you have had more than 30 to listen to: it would have taken you 24 hours to do so in full. So many albums, so little time.
As a pop critic, you would be overwhelmed and baffled by the quantity of new music you would be sent. Surely such fecundity reflects the busy workings of a healthy market. But isn’t the music industry meant to be in crisis?
Recorded music sales have slumped. In 2000 they totaled $26 billion globally; last year they were down at just $15 billion. A declining economic sector usually results in a shrinking workforce. But musicians march to the beat of a different drum. Despite the travails facing the business, their numbers keep growing.
In 2001 the UK’s annual Labour Market survey reported 25,000 musicians in full- and part-time employment. Last year there were 41,000. PRS for Music, which collects royalties on behalf of songwriters, reports a similar trend. Five years ago it had 70,000 members. Last month the figure was 112,000.
The 100,000th PRS member, joining in 2013, was Nicholas Rognli-Olsen Noble, frontman for a Sheffield band called The Gentlemen. FT Music tracked Noble down to the Norwegian town of Eidsvoll, where he now lives. Things haven’t quite worked out as hoped for The Gentlemen.
Formed in 2005, with roots in Christian music, they play melodically punchy indie-rock with arena-ready choruses (untested, alas, in such a setting). They sold 10,000 copies of their first album Smile Back at Me, and supported fellow Sheffield-ite Jarvis Cocker and soft-rock chart toppers the Feeling at gigs. But the label to which they signed, the Stereo Tree, folded in 2009, leaving The Gentlemen to go it alone.
“We were slightly naive in thinking, ‘Great, we can do whatever we want now’,” Noble, now 30, recalls. “But we couldn’t. The whole network the record label came with was very valuable, and that sort of went away. So whilst we still had a fan base, reaching them was a lot harder than we understood. It became a sort of cottage industry and our career lost a lot of momentum as a result.”
Noble and his three bandmates soldiered on, releasing albums up to 2013’s Departures. His father Keith was a songwriter too, and in the 1960s had been a member of the Screaming Abdabs, the band that went on to become Pink Floyd. “He says that back then, if you had a guitar and long hair, you’d get a record deal,” says the younger Noble.
Despite the publicity resulting from their front-man being the 100,000th PRS member, The Gentlemen have remained unsigned. They spent around four years working full-time on the band but, latterly, had to take casual jobs in order to support it. The band are still together — they’re playing a Christian music festival in Slovakia next week — but are no longer making new music.
In 2014, according to the Official Charts Company, 47,751 albums were sold for the first time. The comparable figure in 1994 was 11,654. The quantity of recordings has multiplied — and so too have listening figures. Although 1m-selling albums are in danger of extinction, the rise of music-streaming services such as Spotify has introduced a whole new order of superlatives. Ed Sheeran, for instance, was Spotify’s most-streamed act in 2014 with more than 860 million listens, while his album X was streamed 430 million times. That’s almost the equivalent of the populations of the US and Mexico added together.
At the annual Ivor Novello songwriting awards in London this month, the host, veteran radio DJ Paul Gambaccini, joked that Sheeran’s streaming success would have earned the Suffolk singer-songwriter less than when he was a busker. The great and the good of the UK music industry, gathered at a Park Lane hotel, laughed bitterly into their Châteauneuf du Pape. It is an industry tenet that tech companies are vampires draining money from music’s creators.
Technology has also transformed the creation of music by dramatically lowering recording and distribution costs. Sheeran is among those to have profited. In the days before he signed a record deal, he self-released his music as extended-plays (EPs), having recorded it in a professional studio costing £500 a day with a producer and engineer. Not only is that cheaper than in the past, but improved equipment reduces the time taken by recording sessions: two days in the case of Sheeran’s five- or six-track EPs. He then distributed his songs on the internet, the cheapest, most powerful self-promotional tool in history.
Sheeran’s do-it-yourself efforts, including a relentless schedule under which he played as many as 300 gigs in a year, led to his first hit with “The A Team” in 2011. Only then did he sign a deal with Atlantic Records, a self-made success, not one talent-scouted by the label. But not everyone with a guitar is the new Ed Sheeran. “Making music is cheap, but making a living from music is difficult,” says Noble, ruefully.
To compensate for falling record sales, musicians are seeking out other sources of revenue. Live music has risen in value — in 2008, its UK earnings overtook those from recorded music (£904m, against £896m), partially offsetting the sales losses. But gigging is a less lucrative option for smaller acts: there are too many intermediaries such as promoters and venue owners taking a cut.
Publishing rights represent a rising proportion of income. Gone are the days when a piece of music was seen to be ruined by association with an advertisement. Electronic musician Moby was scorned by bien-pensant music fans when his 1999 hit album Play became the first to have every track licensed for commercial use in adverts or film soundtracks. These days the practice is unremarkable. Dan Auerbach, frontman of the blues-rock duo the Black Keys, the most- licensed act on Warner Music Group’s roster in 2010, has dismissed “the whole idea of ‘selling out’” as an “archaic indie-rock ideal”.
“It’s a whole different ballgame being a musician in 2015 than it was even 10 years ago,” says Will Kennard, one half of the London dance music production duo Chase and Status. “The younger generation, who I’m working with really closely now, they don’t really understand the concept of selling out, whereas the generation before mine, the one I grew up listening to in the 1990s, definitely did think it was all about the integrity of the art form.”
Kennard and his partner Saul Milton, the “Chase” to his “Status”, have a successful recording career: their 2011 album No More Idols won double-platinum certification, selling over 800,000 copies. But they also produce work for other acts, including Rihanna.
“Artists have to be a bit savvier now about how to sustain their career if they want to continue in music,” says Kennard, who is also the co-founder of East London Arts and Music, a school for 16- to 19-year-olds specializing in music education, which opened last September.
It teaches business skills as well as performance and technology. “While we’ve got performers who are ridiculously talented, I’m more interested in finding that young rapper or singer who might not go on to be the next Jay Z, but who has a really sharp eye for artist-and-repertoire or management. There’s more to the music industry than being a pop star.”
Philippa Hanna, 31, is the wife of The Gentlemen’s drummer, Joel Cana. Based in Sheffield, she is a full-time singer-songwriter with a three-album recording career behind her, mainly self-funded. She has an audience in the niche Christian music market with her acoustic gospel-pop, selling 30,000 units in total, but is trying to break into the mainstream. “It’s true of lots of artists today,” she says. “We’ve only ever known a culture where you build your own career. I guess there was a glory day when people used to get scouted and discovered and it was more important to find a label at an early stage of your career.”
In the absence of record label patronage, crowd-funding is a popular method of raising money — today’s equivalent of 18th-century poets advertising for subscribers. Alexander Pope earned about £5,000 for his translation of The Iliad in the 1710s, equivalent to £100,000 today.
Hanna isn’t doing too badly in comparison: she has raised £25,000 from fans to be used to support her career rather than record an specific album. “The end goal”, she says, “is to take you to the next level, to where you can attract the right partner, either a label or a manager with some real clout.”
Recently she was flown to Nashville by Warner Music for a showcase. “You have to have the perfect pitch,” she says, sounding not unlike a contestant on The Apprentice. “You have to have a sales record, a client base, you really have to have a career to take to someone like a label and say, ‘This is working, would you like to come on board and invest?’”
The entrepreneurial pattern is repeated at the highest level. Dr Dre’s headphone empire Beats and Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal are prominent examples. Endorsement deals have deepened into “creative director” link-ups, a role that Lady Gaga played at Polaroid until last year, or “brand ambassadors”, as with Beyoncé’s work for Pepsi Cola. In a sign of the lengths to which stars will go to protect their own brand identity, Taylor Swift has successfully trademarked lyrics such as “this sick beat” for commercial use.
Nobel Prize-winning economist (and keen music fan) Paul Krugman calls this the “celebrity economy”. In March he appeared at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, with a panel including members of the band Arcade Fire, expressing the fear that an ever greater proportion of musical revenue is accruing to the one per cent at the top, those with the strongest name recognition. “I actually don’t quite understand how the bands I like are even surviving,” he said.
In the UK, there is a related anxiety that musicians are being driven away through lack of private resources. “It’s not possible for working-class people to sustain a music career . . . if they don’t have records labels and stuff,” former Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher complained earlier this year.
Yet even if the proposition is true — that music is growing more unequal — how to explain the question of why more and more people want to be musicians, or why my slush pile of promotional CDs is getting bigger and bigger?
Guy Fletcher, PRS for Music’s chairman, is a songwriter who has written songs for the Hollies and Elvis Presley. He remembers PRS’s membership of songwriters and composers numbering 6,000 in 1965. Back then they collected £6m — around £100m in today’s prices — in performing rights on behalf of their members. Now the figure, split between 112,000 people, is £665m.
The pot has shrunk while the number of songwriters has exploded and it has become harder to negotiate a path between success and failure. The rise of music-streaming and download services allows listeners to cherry-pick albums for hits, diminishing the bread-and-butter of the songwriter’s trade.
“It used to be slightly more even before the internet,” Fletcher says. “You didn’t have to have a string of hits to make a living. You could be a competent writer — I speak as someone who was a competent writer for many years. The mainstay of my income was the middle ground of stuff, album tracks. I’ve had album tracks by Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Cilla Black, Cliff Richard, not necessarily the hit tracks from those albums.”
Professor Geraint Johnes of Lancaster University’s Work Foundation relates the rise in numbers of people involved in music to historic changes in Britain’s economy. Services have replaced industrial production; hospitality is one of the fastest-growing sectors. “Large numbers of people aren’t getting anything like the compensation that the stars are getting,” he says. “They’re working in hotels at weekends or doing wedding receptions. A lot of them have regular jobs that they’re doing as well as music.”
But not all jobs in music are remunerated hobbies. The Labour Market Survey has recorded a rise in people describing themselves as being fully employed in music — from 15,400 in 2001 to 24,000 last year.
“You can’t look at the music market in isolation; you have to look at what’s happening in the labour market elsewhere to explain why people might be changing into music,” Johnes says. “In recent years, there’s been a decline in job security in many sectors of the economy. For some, the decline in security in other jobs may have made music appear more attractive, or at least less unattractive.”
It’s not a tremendously encouraging prospect for the swelling ranks of musicians. But there is something admirable in their economically irrational actions too, a determination driven by qualities that can’t be measured or even always accounted for — hope, fulfillment, ambition, doing what you want to do to.
“We are completely in agreement that we have no regrets,” says Nicholas Noble of The Gentlemen, surveying the wreckage of his band’s hopes. “We have had great times, but very little to show for it financially. I met my wife through the band, I wouldn’t have moved to Norway if it hadn’t been for the band. It has changed our lives substantially.” And who can put a value on that?