Perhaps sitting in a room listening to people talk all day isn’t some people’s idea of fun. Then again, when you’ve got a prestigious panel together set to speak on a variety of pressing topics in an industry that you’ve got a passion for, who can resist? Generator managed to do that when they brought a host of music industry professionals to talk about the matters most affecting the business at the Sage Gateshead on Thursday. For us, it was a chance to see what other professionals had to say on the matters at hand. To say that we wrote more than a few notes is a bit of an understatement. So, strap yourselves in because this will be a long but hopefully enlightening look at what we saw during the day; though we didn’t make it to every session, hopefully this long Sunday read will give a flavour of what happened and what I was thinking at the time (all in my opinion, anyway).
In the first of the breakout sessions, we decided to pop downstairs into the Music Education Centre to catch some of the Insight Presentations, four 15 minute talks back to back on a variety of hot topics. Sammy Andrews, Head of Digital at indie label Cooking Vinyl, made her first appearance of the day, talking about the culture of playlists and curation. With Spotify having 1.5 billion subscribers, it seems that user-generated playlists might be the next platform for undiscovered bands in particular to get noticed especially, as Andrews points out, because of Spotify’s recommended playlists and tracks. But as Andrews also notes, certain areas of the industry are a little behind the times when it comes to creating playlists. Most festivals, for instance, don’t create playlists for the artists that they’re featuring, limiting the exposure of certain bands. Moreover, labels need to have a strong playlist strategy for bands in order to have the maximum impact on streaming services.
The issue of money looms large over all points to do with streaming though, and Andrews touched on two of fiscal areas with finesse. Firstly, there was the issue of artists gaining royalties for streams. Fascinatingly, in Scandanavia there’s already a platform – Soundtrack For Music – that provides artists with payment every time one of their tracks is streamed; you can only hope that this model becomes the norm across all streaming platforms. There’s also the rather sick-making issue of people paying for their artists to be featured on playlists (payola). “Fuck payola,” says Andrews, and she’s right. Payola is about as ethical as advertorial in the printed media (so not ethical at all then). Andrews argues that this stops people from being good playlist curators, but I’d argue that it would cause a further imbalance in the music industry too, with smaller artists struggling to be able to afford for their tracks to be played alongside larger groups. The two things probably go hand in hand, but Andrews’ overall point about payola being a danger to the currently relatively pure practice of playlisting was a powerful one.
Darren Hemmings of Motive Unknown was next to present with his talk ‘Own Your Ads, Own Your Data.’ Not being a particularly technical person, and someone with only a very cursory knowledge of how advertising actually works, this talk proved to be an interesting insight into the ‘business’ part of the industry. Hemmings started by taking us through the old and new models of how advertising in the industry worked. From what I understood (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), the new model means that work is often outsourced to an ad agency, who then give you daily reports and a final report after the campaign has ended, but they keep hold of the data. These reports are also, in a lot of cases, not particularly illuminating; without the actual data at hand, it’s difficult to tell what worked and what didn’t through a detailed analysis.
So Hemmings proposed a better model, one that reduced the need for mindless box ticking but wasn’t too dissimilar to the newer model. The major change was that all the work was done in-house, so that the data could be analysed more effectively and ads could be tested and tweaked when necessary. This seemed like a simple case of common sense. If you have control of the campaign, then you can have a better grip of how it’s working and tailor it more to your needs, rather than relying on a third party. It was perfectly logical, which made me wonder why it wasn’t more commonly practiced.
Moving on to retail matters – and a more emotive subject for many music lovers – Richard Davies, founder of ethical secondary ticket site Twickets, stepped up to tackle the subject of ticket resale. I’m used to still seeing ticket touts prowling the streets around venues, but they seem to be a bit fewer in number these days and that’s probably because of the rise of sites that re-sell tickets through apparently legitimate means. I say “apparently” because, as Davies points out, there’s nothing particularly clean or ethical about many of these retailers. For him, there seemed to be two big problems with these websites. Firstly, that they become tied into deals with venues and promoters to sell their tickets, leading to them inflating the price to three or four times more than their face value. The second is the issue of ticket speculation, where people buy tickets that essentially don’t exist, waiting for the third party to obtain them on behalf of the customer after the money has been exchanged.
The bottom line was that most of these sites were essentially breaking the law. Although legislative change came in to try and crack down on some of these practices, it isn’t working because of a criminal lack of enforcement. Davies highlighted a quotation from current Business Secretary Sajit Javid where he suggested that these practices were legal in a free market. But how can this be a free market? It’s a problem that doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon and, as we all know, the losers will always be the genuine music fans looking to see their favourite bands live who are priced out of the market. Tickets just aren’t reaching their intended audience and without proper regulation and a more ethical attitude to resale across the board, that won’t change. Twickets happen to be at the forefront of this attempt to change the culture, selling tickets between fans at a maximum of face value, but sometimes less. More companies need to follow in their footsteps.
It was time for a change of pace. It was time to bring on Gary McClarnan, manager of Mr. Scruff. McClarnan’s presentation mostly revolved around the concept of authenticity and the importance of maintaining a solid brand that people can invest in both financially and emotionally. Through the years, in his work with Mr. Scruff, the pair have attempted to keep their level of authenticity intact by making sure that they only teamed up with companies who they considered to be a bit ethically dodgy (their relationship with Tetley tea was soured by the fact they were owned by TATA) but weren’t so preoccupied by being cool that they couldn’t let Virgin Atlantic use a tune in their in-flight movies.
But McClarnan had an even more important message to put out, one that he skipped over a little but ended up being the most pertinent thing he’d said. All along, through all his work with Mr. Scruff, things have always been fun. He suggested that’s why their time together has been so sustainable. Without that level of fun and enjoyment, would their relationship have lasted? Indeed, would Mr. Scruff as a commercial artist have lasted? Maybe, but maybe not. Not everything in music industry life is enjoyable (there’s still those terrible boring jobs everyone has to do to keep house) but if it’s giving you joy on the whole, that’s an amazing thing to cherish. Especially when you’re confusing the living daylights out of people by drawing giant tuna on the side of hills.
THE REBIRTH OF RADIO
We’re on the radio you know, every week on Spark FM. We spin tracks by artists we love but are probably unknown to your person in the street and we have a bit of fun in between. So naturally, the panel on ‘The Rebirth Of Radio’ (not ‘The Death of Radio,’ or ‘Is Radio Dying,’ or ‘Is There A Crisis In Radio’) was probably put together just for us. Joe Harland, Head of Visual Radio at BBC Radio 1, Karen Pearson of Folded Wing, Pete Downton of 7Digital and Sammy Andrews of Cooking Vinyl were all on the panel chaired by Chris Price of New Slang Media. What unfolded was an hour-long conversation about Beats 1, licensing and how we can get young people listening to the radio in the age of YouTube and streaming services.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: visual radio, the apparent oxymoron. Chris Price said that Harland probably has the most important job in the industry right now, but what exactly does he do? Well, according to him, he finds ways of filming radio that can create an impact on visual media. It’s not advertising and it’s not TV, he maintains. He gave the example of David Attenbrough recently introducing the latest single by Adele as an example, a small slice of visual information that added to the experience of hearing it happen on the radio (thanks to a series of rather humorous events that happened alongside of it but would have remained unknown to a purely listening audience).
It’s the type of concept that’s not likely to change anyone’s opinion about Radio 1. For anyone who think it’s obnoxious and filled with personalities who care more about themselves than the music (harsh considering breakfast presenter Nick Grimshaw and the likes of Annie Mac actually do care about the records they’re spinning), then the idea of trying to appeal to the Facebook and Twitter generation seems like a grabbing of the zeitgeist in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Facebook likes don’t always mean ‘like’ after all (in his insight presentation Darren Hemmings was right to say that most younger teenagers in particular like almost everything they see without really thinking what they’re doing, which was met with ripples of knowing laughter). But even if you don’t quite believe in the idea of ‘visual radio,’ you have to at least acknowledge that it’s trying something different in an attempt to keep the medium alive. Radio 1, whether you like it or not, are only doing something slightly more than most radio stations, who pretty much all have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Even we post photographs on the Spark Twitter account on a weekly basis in an attempt to keep the feed more engaging. As anyone who’s ever managed a social media page will know, if you don’t have a visual element of some kind then your posts can get lost in a complete minefield of other information. Even a photograph can generate interest, even if it’s a cursory glance instead of a mindless swipe.
Apple are a company who have understood this better than most over recent years, so it’s unsurprising that their latest venture Beats 1 came up a fair bit in conversation. I remember the days when iTunes would be putting out their series of Originals, having artists pre-record segments of chat about their own records before giving them a spin. It was an album-podcast hybrid that was often compelling (Bjork did one around the time of Medulla that was particularly interesting to my teenage self). Pete Downtown might have been the only other person who remembered these hour-long segments of wonderment, reflecting on his favourite collection by REM, With Beats 1, they’ve almost gone back to that format by having some well-known DJs like Zane Lowe sit alongside musicians in the scheduling (thus Haim, Ezra Koenig and Elton John all have shows). It’s an oddly archaic format that doesn’t seem to be breaking many boundaries, except for the fact that it causes a huge problem for licensing. With a global radio station, where do you even begin to think about gaining the licenses for music to be played? So there was some agreement that one day there needs to be a global licensing system. That of course would be both a gargantuan and nightmarish task though. I don’t envy the person who tries to set it up one day.
On the level of the listener though, Beats 1 is a flawed concept. Karen Pearson brought up the issue of production. For her, as a producer, while some of the shows were of good quality, others didn’t have those high production values that you’d normally expect from an Apple product. That counteracts the trust that Apple followers have built in the company because of their high-quality products. Sammy Andrews pointed out that Beats’ existence as a global radio station was far too ambitious; having a station that spanned all those time zones nullified relations and prevented meaningful relationships. If you think about how some programmes in the UK are only broadcast at night or on the weekend because of their appeal to a particular demographic, it’s easy to see where the hole in Beats’ concept is.
While these are good points, there was an obvious flaw with the staffing that didn’t make sense and which wasn’t picked up upon by the panel. I began to wonder about the hiring of the likes of Haim and Ezra Koenig. The sisters and Vampire Weekend are both very active bands now. Haim in particular are apparently working on their new album. What happens when they go on tour? We’re not talking a couple of weeks around the country here; these bands are likely to go on huge world tours for months at a time. Now, Apple have enough clout and finance to fill that hole with a new artist without any problem. But what about the listener? If you develop a relationship with a presenter, then you’re part of an established listenership who invests in the personality as much as the music and overall show concept. But if you change the presenter due to other commitments then you lose that bond.
You can try to fill that hole with an artist similar in musical style but there’s no guarantee that the same listenership will be as loyal. You can hope that a new listenership will develop – and it might – but having to continually change around to fit with the commitment of these musicians seems like a high-risk strategy. Recording a few episodes of a musician talking about their work or the records they love – as Andrews did with Billy Bragg – is feasible. Having a long term strategy in place when it contains very active bands and artists becomes more difficult.
So when Pearson predicted that radio would actually swing the other way and become more local in the coming years, it sounds and feels more logical. Whether she means ‘local’ as in national level or regional level was unclear (in the context of talking about the global reach of Beats 1), but being able to have that control over scheduling and tailor a broadcast timetable to target specific demographics is still one of the most important elements of making radio that connects. Indeed, Pearson was passionate about the human connection that comes from radio. Yes, it’s about the records that are being spun too but without a belief in the DJ and being able to buy into their love for that music, it’ll become more difficult to break a record through radio in the future. There’s a reason why names like John Peel are continually bandied around in the industry. Whether you like the records that he spun or not (I personally can’t stomach The Undertones but ‘Teenage Kicks’ was famously one of his favourite songs), Peel’s knowledge and passion for what he was doing – indeed, for the medium itself – was what made him great and what makes Beats 1 a shaky, potentially unsustainable concept. Accuse me of being a glassy-eyed nostalgia fiend if you will, but connecting with people is what makes radio great.
Harland’s work at Radio 1 might be unpalatable to some, but his work is trying to keep that human connection alive. Being able to see those magic moments and even just seeing the hard work that goes into producing a radio show might help to demonstrate to the younger generation that they should care about the medium. It’s a rocky road and not everything will work but if we can reconnect with audiences in any way, that can only be good for the medium.
CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?
Did somebody say ‘crisis’? I don’t know about anyone else but whenever the words ‘music industry’ have been uttered in the news over the past few years it’s normally always followed by the word ‘crisis,’ unless you’re talking about award ceremonies or how well Adele is doing at the minute. Usually the crisis is about album sales or streaming. So the fact that this discussion started with how, out of the 156 new artists signed by major labels last year, only 2-3 managed to sell a platinum album. So it was up to Jim Chancellor of Fiction Records and Caroline International, Alison Donald of Columbia Records and Nick Gatfield of Twin Media to discuss what’s going on with panel chair Tim Ingham of Music Business Worldwide.
So what’s going wrong? Well, this panel had more than a good dose of honesty in it, which was ridiculously refreshing from three people who’ve been involved with the majors for decades. Alison Donald said something that I’ve personally been thinking for a long time: some bands can make albums, others can make tracks and others are great in the live arena. It’s not all that often that a few of those things come together (which probably explains why Nick Gatfield said he’d only seen true genius maybe two or three times in his career, and he was in Dexy’s Midnight Runners). If you listen to most pop records – especially now – they are often front-loaded with the hits and filled out with mediocre songs there to extend the record a bit. Katy Perry’s last album Prism was a fine example of that, though on Nicki Minaj’s Roman Reloaded a couple of years back they did take the unusual approach to put all the pop hits at the back end (not a reflection on the artist, I’m sure).
Donald used the example of Calvin Harris, who often has massive singles but doesn’t do quite so well in terms of album sales (although his last LP 18 Months sold decently). For her, part of the problem is that the industry is fixated on album sales rather than overall revenue. If ‘success’ was measured by all the revenue streams together, then there would be a clearer picture of who is actually doing well and who isn’t. This makes sense in the more dynamic world of the industry, where streams and individual downloads are just as prevalent as physical copies, yet there’s still resistance to using these different platforms as indicators of success. This always baffles me when it comes to live shows, as this is a concept that’s even older than records. So many bands make most of their money from gigs, yet this is never counted as a measure of success. Why? Well, I can’t work out why and seemingly neither could the panel; it was just an archaic mechanism that was proving to be a barrier to success and nobody could really fathom why anything was done about it.
But what if there was a real problem at the other end of things? Maybe the acts that people are signing just aren’t good enough to get a platinum record. Donald related the tale of George Ezra, an exceptional talent who had been incubated by Columbia and almost given a kind of boot camp training around Europe before being unleashed in UK, with successful results. She revealed that Josef Salvat – another personal favourite of ours – was undergoing the same kind of process. These acts force you to go with your heart and not your head.
Jim Chancellor agreed with this notion, saying that you just kind of know when it’s right to sign an artist. It’s almost an instinctual thing, forcing you to go by the courage of your convictions and not worry about whether you’re taking on a ‘hot band’ or not. ‘Hot bands’ aren’t always that hot anyway. Tim Ingham asked whether Chancellor would ever sign anyone purely on the basis of their Twitter followers or YouTube views and the answer was a resounding no. Without being offensive, he wasn’t sure the general public were in the best position to differentiate between a good and bad artist, using the example of The X Factor. He admitted it was a slightly crude example, but he’s right. With the exception, maybe, of Leona Lewis, most of the acts who have gone on to greater success from the show have come third, fourth, even fifth on the show, One Direction, Olly Murs and JLS being prime examples. Does anybody actually know what happened to some of the winners? Matt Cardle? Sam Bailey? James Arthur? Leon Jackson? For Chancellor, you can have basically no one following you or watching you, but if there’s a spark there, there’s still potential.
Of course, no discussion that started on the topic of platinum selling albums could go without the dreaded question that’s been lingering over the industry since downloads became commonplace and streaming rose in popularity. So here goes: is the album dying? For these three, no. Donald was resounding in her conviction that there’s still a lot of room for the long-form version of an artist or band, even if not every artist suits having their music played in that way. As such, she wanted to see more bespoke offerings, where artists who just weren’t suited to making albums weren’t tied into these contracts and instead would enter into more flexible singles deals. When you think about how many massive singles someone like Rihanna has had in the past half a decade – and how poor the overall quality of her albums are – this seems to make perfect sense.
Gatfield had something quite interesting to say about the rise of vinyl. He noted that while some people do genuinely buy vinyl to listen to it, even more people buy them not as an audio format but as a piece of merchandising, something to hang on the wall. I would be inclined to agree somewhat with that, as I’ve overheard many people at gigs spouting the words “this would look great on my wall” while picking up a beautiful record, though that’s definitely not wholly the case. Chancellor evoked an almost audible groan from my end of the hall by saying that he’d rather listen to CDs because they have better audio quality. The muffled audience reaction irked me here. The CD has been wrongfully maligned, possibly because it’s seen as a cheap and not particularly bespoke way of owning music. But Chancellor’s right, at least for me. It does sound better than vinyl. And it doesn’t get scratched to hell and destroyed as easily either. As someone who has grown up listening to vinyl, I can say that most of the records my family own have deteriorated so badly that they just don’t sound good anymore. Having discovered Kate Bush, Roxy Music, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Depeche Mode, David Bowie and countless others through the medium, I know all the crackles that those vinyl records have. And I’ve bought them all again on CD so I can listen to them as the studio intended. While I love the romance of vinyl, I stand with Chancellor on this one: CD all the way for sound quality.
Though, all this discussion did leave me wondering where the cassette stood in all of this. Now, cassettes are even more of a nightmare than vinyl; get the tape mangled and you can spend ages trying to get the things in working order. But yet again, I’ve discovered numerous of my favourite artists from cassette tapes – Bjork, Massive Attack and Portishead in particular – but I remember my copy of Post being almost stupidly fuzzy-sounding from being overplayed, so I ended up just getting it on CD as well. Still, the cassette is having a resurgence (there was even recently a Cassette Store Day) and I wondered if it could be the next cool retro format that record companies decide to tackle once again. That topic was left untouched, but it would have been interesting to know if the likes of Fiction or Caroline International in particular would have considered going down that route (they did, after all, create 75,000 vinyl copes of Tame Impala’s last album Currents).
With all that done, things turned briefly to our favourite topic: new artists. What new bands had they signed that they thought would go on to bigger and better things? Chancellor picked The Amazons, Donald was impressed by Rag & Bone Man, while Gatfield tipped Allie-X. At a conference that was all about predicting what would happen in the future, it was good to end on a positive note and acknowledge those breaking through.
Words: Eugenie Johnson