Over the next 59 days or so, more money will be spent on recorded music than at any other time of the year. Yes, even more than Record Store Day and its overpriced, limited-edition, coloured-vinyl hoopology.
This is the period when the record business really makes its cash. Between now and 6pm on Christmas Eve, fresh-faced pop stars and hoary heritage acts alike will be pimping and hawking themselves with much aplomb.
It's why acts such as Lady Gaga, Michael Bublé, Metallica, Leonard Cohen, Alicia Keys, The Weeknd and dozens more are on the new release tip. We should be thankful that 50 Cent is still holding off confirming the release of his sixth album so that not all turkeys will be plucked and stuffed this side of Christmas.
What will be interesting about this year’s splurge is where exactly the money will be spent. Like so much else in the retail sector in 2016, most of the action will be online.
The record industry has long since recalibrated its spreadsheets in favour of digital revenue so they’re good to go with this change in circumstances after a couple of years of cribbing and whinging. The money you spend at any of the various streaming outlets, right down to the last cent, will make its way into the right coffers in time.
For those who want a physical musical tchotchkes to wrap and give as a present, it’s a different story. In years past, you could be fairly sure that Christmas was when many ventured into a record shop for the only time all year. It was up there with the release of a new U2 album as a reason to frequent a store.
Beige and safe
However, reliable well-stocked record stores are few and far between and this is not just bad news for the aul' lads who'd loiter outside the doors of HMV waiting for the chance to buy that new U2 CD. There are a few hardy, weather-beaten, independent music shop survivors scattered around the country, carrying on like Grizzly Adams with records instead of bears, but that's about the height of it if you're looking for an actual piece of plastic with music on it.
While the online sphere gives you every song ever, to quote author Ben Ratliff’s fine book on music listening, it’s a different matter when it comes to choice. One of the problems with the online world is the capitulation to an one-size-fits-all model, where all that choice really boils down to a handful of heavily promoted releases. It’s striking, for instance, that few of the major streaming services bother unduly with promoting Irish music to their Irish customers unless it happens to be on a major label. Even then, the choices tend to be beige and safe.
The capitalist in OTR has no problem with this way of thinking: Spotify and Apple Music built their respective networks so they get to set the house rules. However, when you look at the likely spend on recorded music in the coming weeks, you realise that the bulk of the money will be going to a small percentage of the acts.
For all the focus on how playlists help to promote new acts and what-have-you, the fact remains that the home pages, which remain the default launchpad for many, focus on the global high achievers.
As the streaming platforms take over more control of the music ecosystem, it may be a good time to look at just how they operate with regard to the entire playing pitch. You wouldn’t want another Irish radio situation to develop, would you?