Look what you're doing with your torrents! close

Nick Woodbine
Nick Woodbine
In Musings
15th February 2011
Look what you're doing with your torrents!
The thoughts of Rachel : Friend, erstwhile Music PR Bod, current Ukulele maestro and regular contributer to The Independent and The 405.

The business model of a record label is a funny one. It has been said that about 8 out of 10 albums lose money, so it is the 2 out of 10 that hit the jackpot who have to bail out the losses of the other 8. It is a ridiculous system, but in an industry that is at the mercy of fickle music lovers alongside vast production costs, it seems an unavoidable one. In the ‘olden days’, when fans were happy to part with cash money for records, the labels had enough revenue to nurture new bands, spend a bit of time in the studio, develop talent for a long term career – think Bowie, Rolling Stones, U2. Things are a little different nowadays. With the advent of torrent sites, P2P sharing and legal streaming sites such as Spotify, Last fm and Pandora, the labels simply aren’t making money anymore. Or at least, not as much money. Pair that with the falling cost of CDs, forced down by loss leaders in the market such as Tesco and Asda, and what we have is a great big money-haemorrhaging mess. The labels were slow to recognise the vast potential the internet offered an industry such as theirs, playing catch up with sites such as Napster, Pirate Bay and Limewire, but when they finally got round to monetizing digital music on their own terms it was too late. The public had seen the goods, and the goods were free.

With a burgeoning P2P and torrent ‘scene’, naturally the profits of the labels are reduced and so new measures have to be introduced to maximize the money making potential of their products. Where at one time bands would be signed because they showed long term potential, now artists are being signed because they are already fully formed, instant and a dead cert in terms of record sales. A & R scouts are less likely to take a punt on a new artist unless they have clear commercial potential and Labels don’t necessarily have the money to spend on developing new talent over a 5 album deal. What they want are record sales, and so dawns the era of disposable pop music, artists who are here today, gone tomorrow along with the descending production values that brings. It’s a strange time when the ‘one hit wonder’ becomes the norm. There’s huge pressure on artists to score a number one hit on their debut single and album, and if they don’t, they are deemed to have failed. Of course, this isn’t the case with every single band or artist signed to a label, but it is definitely a growing trend, brought on by the need to make money, and to make it fast. It is a frightening thing to think that if this had been the attitude fifteen years ago, Radiohead would have been dropped by their label immediately after their poorly received first album, Pablo Honey.

Independent labels have always been the quiet, underlings to the behemoth majors and have tended to have a less commercially minded approach to their artists. However, they too are suffering from falling record sales. Even independent labels need a big hitter to pay for the rest of their roster. Domino Records have Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand; Beggars Banquet have The White Stripes and Adele; Rough Trade have Arcade Fire and The Strokes. Although artistic integrity tends to remain intact longer at independent labels, they too are shying away from new signings that don’t at least show some commercial potential, demonstrated by the recent influx of break through artists signed to the smaller labels.

Some artists have done away with record labels altogether and have recognized that music has lost it’s value - the only real way to make money in today’s climate is to sell out massive stadiums tours. This doesn’t help unsigned or new bands in any way, but it sure as hell helps the likes of Prince, who gave his last album away free with The Daily Mail, but played 21 sold out shows at the O2 for huge personal profit. He’s not daft, is Prince.

All of these changes come from a need to make money in a market with shrinking revenue streams. The Internet is the maker and breaker of the music industry as we know it. We have unprecedented access to music from all over the globe at our very fingertips, unsigned bands have a forum unto which they can distribute their music, promote themselves, do away with the shackles of a record label. But at the same time, the Internet has destroyed the value of music. Great for music fans, not great for brand new bands who want to make money or get signed. Because you can’t touch it or see it, people seem to think that music should be free, regardless to the hundreds of skilled and talented people involved in producing an album. Labels are faced with the ‘bottled water’ quandary: How do you get people to pay for something that they can get for free? Evian seem to have figured it out. The music industry, however, have some way to go.