Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

The big picture

Rule number one, look at the big picture. OK, sorry, look for the big picture. In the case of IRMA’s anti-piracy move and their most recent couple of hours in the news cycle, the big picture is not a pretty …

Tue, Jun 12, 2007, 12:21


Rule number one, look at the big picture. OK, sorry, look for the big picture.

In the case of IRMA’s anti-piracy move and their most recent couple of hours in the news cycle, the big picture is not a pretty one. Maybe that’s why so many people just aren’t bothering to take a close look at it. Or maybe we’ve just seen this picture too many times before.

Lets start back in the day, back in the day when vinyl was the drug of choice. Back then for a spell, many LPs came with a sinister warning inside the package. In much the same way as cigarette boxes carry blunt health warnings which most users simply ignore, the inner sleeve of many LPs bore a logo and some bold print which usually ran “home taping is killing music”. This was a record industry-wide effort to ensure music lovers would not tape their just-purchased album and pass the cassette to their friends.

But home taping didn’t kill music. That was never going to happen. Were musicians really going to stop making music because people were taping songs?

What did happen was that the record industry came away from that tussle with a few bruises and a bloody nose. For the first time, the music companies who did the deals with artists and sold their products lost out to technology. Arguments were made about sound quality, legal issues and the morals of taking money from the mouths of starving musicians, but the public voted with their C60s.

Then, in the most wonderfully ironic of twists, the companies who made blank-tapes went off and bought the record companies.

You could say that IRMA’s action through the Irish High Court was really set in train on the day when CBS boss Walter Yetnikoff did his deal with the Sony lads in Toyko and howled at the moon from his hotel-room window to celebrate.

When the record labels went for the big cheque, their power waned because someone else’s agenda took precedence. With the beancounters from the technology companies in control of the major label balance sheets, the emphasis switched to flogging the hardware. The software? The songs and records and stuff? That was just a means to shift more CD players and, later, more digital players and mobile phones. The record labels began dancing to another beat and this was not one they could control in any way.

What you are witnessing at the moment is the final play for the traditional record industry. Forget the copyright and privacy implications of court actions for a moment. Forget too about DRM and non-DRM tracks on iTunes. Forget also about MySpace and YourSpace and TheirSpace. Forget Terra Firma, private equity and EMI Music. Forget about how the long tail has made the underground as big as the mainstream. They’re really all distractions in one shape or another.

Right now, this is really about the death of the record industry as it has existed for the last couple of decades. It’s time to tie up the loose ends and move on. Nothing more to see here. Plenty to hear, though.

Of course, there’s plenty of spin to obscure this fact. Worldwide, record label lobby groups like IRMA are trying every trick in the book to curtail illegal uploaders and downloaders without any success whatsoever. Don’t hate IRMA or their peers for doing this. This is what lobby groups do, they represent and protect their members by all means necessary. Except in this case, they’re too late.

As IRMA’s coterie of highly paid legal eagles made their learned arguments in the High Court, the uploading and downloading continued unabated. And it will continue. Over and over and over again. Tracks uploaded here, tracks downloaded there. People getting their hands on the music they want. It will only end when the next way of transfering music comes into vogue. Then, the usual suspects will get in a snot about that.

But lets back to the big picture: the end of the traditional record label. These are the labels who made good money from selling music. These labels signed bands to tough contracts and the bands produced records which the labels sold through conventional retail outlets. The shops got their cut, the labels got a bigger cut and the artists got a cut of what was left over. It was a golden age for the labels.

But, like every single business operating in this new post-everything era, the record labels face change. To be honest, they have known about these changes for the last 10 years or so, but they have done absolutely nothing about it. Believe me, having worked with one major label subsidary on its internet policy a decade ago, nothing was done when the internet was just Web 1.0.

First, the labels ignored the internet. Then, they refused to engage with the telecoms and tech companies who came to them looking to get involved in the great internet goldmine. Naturally, the telecoms and tech companies went off and did their own thing. Finally, the labels did what old-school businesses do best – they sent in the lawyers.

It now becomes a question of what’s next. As our home-tapers discovered a long time ago, there will always be music. In fact, music has never been more prominient, used to pimp and hawk and flog every brand and bauble under the sun.

But what kind of companies and businesses will be around in ten years time making a buck from music? Some bets have already been placed (that’s why there’s a scurry of activity around to purchase various music publishing companies as a future-proof punt), but that’s just the sound of capital moving from one hedge fund to another. Others are set to become catalogue pimps, flogging the music of The Eagles, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in as many different ways as is humanly possible. Then, there’s the live music business which is currently making out like a bandit (but which will not invest one cent in developing new talent and future headliners).

No, what we’re talking about is the next wave of sharp and sussed young bucks who will see a way to make a living from selling music. That’s how the labels began in the first place, a bunch of kids who saw that there was cash to be made from selling 78s, 33s, 45s and what have you. Somewhere out there, there’s a bunch of folks thinking hard. They may already have had their bright idea or they may be just doing some good old fashioned pondering. But make no mistake about it, that’s where the new school will come from. Keep an eye out for them.