Into the abyss


The leaves are beginning to collect mournfully in corners and the last roses of summer, their droopy heads wizened and browned by wind and rain, are a pitiful sight - which means that, yes, it's that time of year again. Mists and mellow fruitfulness, nothing: with some 40 per cent of annual album sales taking place in the October/November /December period, autumn is the time when, traditionally, the record industry reaps a highly satisfying harvest.

This particular autumn, however, ominous rumbling noises have suggested that what is on the 38 billion-dollar business horizon is not an Indian summer, but a winter of discontent. A recent UK survey warned that as sales by well-established superstars drop back, the shelf life of new bands is growing shorter and shorter, spelling eventual doom for the disc merchants and giving credence to the complaints of industry mavericks such as Alan "Oasis" McGee of Creation Records, who has maintained for some time that the recording business faces an uncertain future. The latest sales figures, too, show that - as the British Phonographic Industry's Statistical Handbook for 1998 somewhat delicately puts it - "1997 was a modest year for sales of recorded music in the UK".

Go into any record shop, however, and you'll find yourself faced with a dazzling selection of different types of music available on an astonishing array of formats - from Boyzone and The Beatles to the Wu-Tang Clan through Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, from cassette singles to 12-inch vinyl to Digital Versatile Discs and minidisc. The choice is vast, and with many of the larger shops now selling books, computer games and assorted knick-knacks as well, the vibe is overwhelmingly good. Frankly, this just doesn't look like an industry in trouble. So where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere in between, says Willie Kavanagh, managing director of EMI Records (Ireland).

"The record market as a whole is undoubtedly flat right now because it's not being driven by new music and new bands. On the other hand I've read articles which claim that the growth in the Irish market has been phenomenal - that's equally a lie. It's not phenomenal, but it's steady; steady as she goes. And then there are some genres of music which are doing much better here than they ever did, like jazz and classical." The latter fact is evidence, according to Kavanagh, of a fundamental change in record-buying patterns. "One of the reasons that bands aren't coming through at the rate they were is that we haven't addressed the fact that our market is changing. It's quite popular now to know a little bit about classical music - not necessarily if you're 19, but if you're 26-plus, some classical records will sit nicely in your collection beside The Verve and the Fun Lovin' Criminals. Retail outlets in Dublin are telling us that they just can't keep up with the demand for classical and jazz - which tells me that we're getting an older audience profile, and also that people aren't being pigeonholed any more as to what they'll buy."

The very notion of a separate Irish record market is still quite a hazy one - the Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) has no specific sales figures for Ireland, which is still included in general UK statistics. But Ed Davies, general manager of Tower Records in Wicklow Street, has extensive experience in both London and Dublin, and points out that while there are obvious similarities between the two, there are also considerable differences.

"If you take the singles market, for example, virtually every single that's released in the UK is discounted, sometimes to as low as £1.99 or, on occasion, 99p. Here, singles are nearly all full price so you're paying £5 for a single as a matter of course. "That's one big difference. But one of the great things about the market in Dublin is that if people hear good music, they'll buy it - it's a lot easier to sell to people here by playing something in the shop than it is in England." This, he feels, helps explain the exceptional increases in sales of jazz, classical and blues albums over the past couple of years - as, strangely enough, does the influence of dance and hip-hop. "A lot of people are buying stuff they've never bought before. People's wariness of genres is diminishing, and I think that's really important. Say you buy a Beastie Boys album, or you buy the Unkle album, and you listen to the stuff that's sampled on there - sooner or later you're going to realise that it's all upstairs in the jazz section. Blue Note did a series of compilations called Blue Breakbeats - if we play one of those albums downstairs on a Saturday afternoon, it just flies out the door. People are going `oh, that's what that is . . . ' "

But John Dee of Freebird Records is not convinced. "Three years ago," he says, "you'd get somebody coming in who'd buy a dance record and an indie record and a soul record. Not any more. These days people come in and just go to the one section all the time." It's possible, of course, that Freebird, being a small independent retailer, attracts a particularly purposeful customer - at any rate, Dee has to admit that people do branch out occasionally, for a variety of reasons. "Drum'n'bass seems to have gone about as far as it can go for the moment, so people who would have been buying drum'n'bass are now buying techno. And soul, which a few years ago only sold to mods, is now beginning to sell to the dance crowd as well."

As for band loyalty, says Dee, it's virtually a thing of the past. "I think there always needs to be a big band to get people into shops. If they come in looking for one album, then inevitably they'll start looking at something else. But I can't see a band around now that would be as big as, say, The Smiths were 10 years ago. Everybody loved them. You don't see that with bands any more - even Radiohead, who are huge, are still nowhere near as big as the bands of a decade ago. Why, I'm not quite sure." Fragmentation of the market, that's why, says Willie Kavanagh. As rock'n'roll has grown up and grown older, so has its audience - gone are the days when records were only bought by the young and the rebellious. Gone, too, are the days when the young and rebellious bought only records. Now there are the latest computer games to be checked out - and it's de rigueur to keep an eye on the FA Carling Premiership, into the bargain. "I have a seven-year-old daughter who can tell you what singles are in the Top 10," says Kavanagh. "But equally she'll tell you that Andy Cole is playing very well this season. Football and music; that's what they talk about in school."

Record companies are more aware than most, he says, of the digital revolution which began when CD started to take over at the beginning of the 1990s, and will see today's seven-year-olds growing into tomorrow's DVD/minidisc/digital television subscribers. CD unquestionably rules the record industry roost just now, accounting for some 80 per cent of annual worldwide unit sales. But what happens next is anybody's guess. Minidisc, it is predicted, will kill off the cassette, and DVDs will do the same for video - but then, CD was supposed to kill off vinyl, yet good old vinyl, at the end of the millennium, has politely refused to die and has been hanging in at around the one per cent mark for the past three years.

"These are interesting times," says Willie Kavanagh. "Maybe what looks like negativity in the record industry is actually uncertainty. Maybe it's that people are looking into the future, and it looks a bit like an abyss."

Tomorrow: Is This a Record? Arminta Wallace talks to some of the biggest spenders on the Dublin record-buying scene, and finds out who is buying singles these days - and why.