Venus In Furs – The State of Music in 2017

A look back at the year in the music world. Caution – Long Read!

“Finally, we have some good news”. Or at least that’s the way it must have felt for music industry suits everywhere when monitoring body the IFPI published it’s annual report earlier this year. The warm feeling sprung from impressive headlines detailing global revenues up 5.9% during the previous year to $15.7 billion. But context is important; this was the first year that number had increased pretty much since the Napster-inspired bloodbath of 1999, the figure overall still down by more than 30% since the turn of the millennium.

Despite the blarney this spike was more complicated than just a marketing miracle, but perhaps the real(est) news was that the turnaround’s main beneficiaries were yet another crowd of recent interlopers. After a brief fad for downloading had owned consumer behaviour in the early noughties, it’s decline is now precipitous: where the report told us that all “Digital” sales had increased monetary share of wallet by over 60% in 2016, revenue from downloading by contrast had decreased by more than 20%. RIP iTunes? Of course not, although a contributing factor has been Apple’s withdrawal of the iconic iPod, in doing so leaving a slew of low quality MP3 players in it’s salty teared wake.

But back to the new kids on the block. Streaming was a while taking hold – we Westerners need to own things, a psychological condition to which we’re institutionalized in almost from birth – but the story of it’s growth is both a positive mapping of Silicon Valley style technological emancipation, whilst the dubious payoff sees artists and labels balancing on another double edged sword. So now a teenager from the suburbs of Buenos Aires can now avoid catching dingy a bus into the city to buy the new Drake CD, as in this connected shangri-la all they need is a second hand smartphone with an internet connection. The flip side is that platforms like Spotify et al generally pay far less in royalties than is derived from physical sales, with the world’s biggest, YouTube, exploiting loopholes in American intellectual property law and forking out even less.

So, streaming = bad, right? Not necessarily. Take for instance Cigarettes After Sex, a Brooklyn via El Paso based quintet with a pleasant sideline in Lynchian dream pop. Twenty years ago they’d probably have made their album, sold a few thousand copies and then dissolved without anyone ever being hip to their existence. Now for reasons no-one seems to fully understand they sit proudly with over 100 million streams to their name (from which they’ve probably earned about as much they would’ve in the old days) the result being they’ve been able to tour in places where before lack of awareness would’ve made the idea a financial non-starter.

Rock’s backward looking dynamics mean the reverse applies for heritage outfits like U2, whose declining physical sales would be a concern for the diminutive Bono and friends were it not that they benefit handsomely from the boom in anaemic mega dome, mega priced shows. There’s no denying the phenomenon is as peculiar as it’s lucrative, with attendees of these “celebrations” willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to watch fifty somethings trudge through records they already have in three or four different formats. Perhaps the less said about Morrissey here the better, but on the subject of the ever-mushrooming boomerang album market his prescient words on The Smiths Paint A Vulgar Picture “re-issue, re-package, re-evaluate the band” gnostically forecast the current grubby age in which archive material is churned out regularly on the flimsiest of premises (This year I’ve covered more than one “Ten Year Release Anniversary Edition”).

Meanwhile back on the touring circuit U2’s former supremo Paul McGuinness spoke candidly about the “claw” rig used on their 360 degree tour costing $300,000 a day; thus he revealed the Irish band’s obscenely grossing live shows returned he claimed a substantially smaller net profit. For that and other reasons ticket prices continue to rocket in this niche at least, even if they’re fairly stable in the 1,000 capacity and downwards sector in the UK. Moreover in 2017 promoters, punters and even governments have been forced to come face to face with yet another feature that’s been weapons-graded by technology: digital touting.

Firstly, let’s get one straight here before the virtue signalling begins in earnest; there have always been people posing as legitimate businesses reselling “Event” tickets at well above face value. The sharp end of this scam used to be the cash only foot soldiers operating on the ground, but the disturbing side which has emerged in recent years has been way in which so called “secondary ticketers” – global organisations including but not limited to Ticketmaster, Seatwave, Viagogo and StubHub – have both shamelessly legitimised the 21st century version but also created the toolset for it’s industrialisation.

Using pretty rudimentary software kits individuals can effectively queue jump to purchase multiple tickets for multiple shows, none of which it would seem they have any personal interest in attending. As the most popular events rapidly sell out (partially due to this inflated demand) these “Agents” then offer them for scandalously high prices using…you’ve guessed it, Seatwave et al, who conveniently charge incredibly disproportionate administration fees to purchasers and also gleefully take a big slug of commission.

The secondary ticketers are of course full of bluster about the precautionary measures they take to prevent the supply-demand curve being exploited, but their vague assurances haven’t stopped politicians and standards officers belatedly scrutinising their operations. Tackling the problem fairly is a vexed issue – not everyone can for instance easily return unwanted tickets to a venue at short notice – and banning resale altogether seems draconian at best. The simplest answer seems to be for people to refuse to pay inflated prices and for performers to sing to half empty rooms, but this highly unlikely scenario is clearly a lose-lose situation nobody wants.

Of course this fairy dust only sprinkles itself onto a handful of persons of interest, but despite the struggle for many musicians at the lower end of the scale to make ends meet much beyond that of a decent job in a call centre, the underground continues to throw up some remarkably bold and inventive music, even if it’s commercial appeal is limited to fractional sales (A PR told me in summer that a well supported indie release picked up less than 500 downloads in it’s first week after release).

Away from those margins the distinction between factors for success in the singles and albums market continued to widen, with only a handful of acts – in particular the grimly beige Ed Sheeran – bridging the gap. Wizened champions of “Real” instruments/values/analog could take solace in Britain’s continuing fascination with the Gallagher brothers, both of whose weezy banter points to an appetite for a seemingly inevitable Oasis reunion in the near future, which in itself seems like bad news for their kinder-clones The Courteeners.

The sibling’s respective albums probably won’t be their last – they are after all stubborn disciples of 20th century gestalt – but the format’s days are probably numbered, at least according to research which suggested that the under 25’s prefer the comfort of auto curated playlists rather than 12 songs by the same boring old farts. This nomadic thing is particularly interesting when bolted into allegations made against Spotify that they stuff their content with the work of anonymous producers to avoid paying royalties. More on both those stories will surely come in 2018.

Across the pond being a pop star has never been a more thankless task, as American sweetheart Taylor Swift has found out to her cost with the backfiring campaign in support of Reputation. Swift is more important as a bellwether for the identity politics of celebrity than her creativity, but lead off single Look What You Made Me Do – essentially three and half minutes of gossip over clunky programming – spoke more about bad advice than her newly acquired soccer mom gone dominatrix makeover. Even with her every conscious and unconscious behavioural nuance picked over by commentators from coast to bitchy coast the US continues to embrace her though, along predominantly with music of black origin, even in an era where it’s culture is being torn to pieces by a reactionary president – a point not missed by many African-Americans.

It’s also a voice which carries back across the Atlantic. For years Grime, Britain’s homespun version of hip-hop had been ridiculed in many circles there as a limey sham, short on original thinking and charisma. Fast forward to now and the opening seconds of Vince Staples’ frantic Crabs In A Bucket showed how far it had come, a lachrymose, full pedal flow that could’ve come straight out of East London. It’s a movement showing real signs of progress; having conquered the charts long ago, newly anointed kingpin Stormzy gave us the remarkable Gang Signs & A Prayer, as church as it was street and a skywritten testament to how far the boundaries of British urban music could be pushed.

More good news was to follow for grime fans as the Metropolitan Police reluctantly scrapped a requirement for promoters and licensees to complete the by now infamous form 696, but this seemed like a rare win for people and the arts in a troubling year. Another was the removal by streaming services of material choked up by a small number of white supremacist punk and heavy metal bands, but here the line was far more blurry; to what point some of these outfits were using shock tactics to eroticise their largely teenage audience wasn’t always clear, with many critics pointing at far more high profile outfits like Slayer who have long contemptuously straddled the divide between metaphor and questionable taste in their lyrics.

What 2017 should be remembered for is the way that women confronted decades of sexual harassment in a field where it had become as much established practice as in the higher profile world of film and television. The mass fight back first gathered pace when victims first started using the #MeToo hashtag on social media to accompany their stories as revelations implicating some of the highest profile men in entertainment were made public. The strarkest case was in Sweden, where almost 2,000 women – amongst them Robyn and Klara and Johanna Söderberg of First Aid Kit – were signatories to an open letter sent to industry leaders what included specific cases of abuse anonymised to protect the victims. For it’s part the institutions responded by vowing to address amongst other things the structural flaws that enable abuses to occur, whilst acknowledging that this comes too late for those who’ve had to live with the shame and guilt of experiencing predatory behaviour.

These were difficult dialogues to have, but necessary ones. If the industry wants a truly globalised art form it must ensure that it’s people behave responsibly and show professionalism, underwriting the clear duty of care to men and women across the board it holds. This propriety is important not just because the medium should be seen as a role model for equality, but also because beyond sport, music is the world’s conversation, uniting diverse communities in shared experience at a level far above their differences. For this reason, it has to lead.

In summary, is back to growth good news then? Maybe. Far from being a signal of smoother waters ahead for the music industry, the more pan continental it becomes, the more the macro forces around it will continue to try and shape it’s destiny in their interests. From now on the only thing that’s certain is that no two years in a row will ever be the same; it may be wise to keep the champagne on ice for now.