Why does the NME present a ‘godlike genius award’? Because of Romanticism, that’s why. Romanticism promoted ‘the ideal of self-expression’ and ‘the idea of genius’. It also identified ‘the hostility of modern society to talent and sensitivity’. It was anti-capitalist in nature. The last three winners of NME’s award were Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher and Dave Grohl, each of them an old man. Why? Because the Romantic ideal is dying.
Romanticism used to serve the record industry well. During the 1960s and 1970s it helped to sell records. In America, income from record sales rose from $700m in 1963 to over $1bn in 1967. In the UK, album sales rose from 22m units in 1963 to over 80m ten years later. Many of the best selling artists were anti-corporate in nature: the Beatles (‘love is all you need’); Jimi Hendrix (‘mister businessman, you can’t dress like me’); Jefferson Airplane (‘all your private property, is target for your enemy, and your enemy is we’).
While there was a large market for commercial music, there was an even larger one for hippie ideals: a market that liked to think it was not prey to market forces. This audience felt that the major labels’ investments in military weapons, car parks, funeral parlours and brain scanners might perhaps be inimical to art. This was the era of the physical record and this audience was suspicious of its manufacture, making the connection that the standardization of the duplication process would lead to the standardization of the creative process. They thought that the major labels would want music to be neatly packaged and alike.
But the majors wanted a slice of this audience. Consequently, they turned to Romantic ideals. They promoted some of their artists as genius outsiders; rebels who were opposed to the system. Jon Stratton has argued that this ‘served to distract the consumer from the commodification which had taken place’. It also ‘allowed cultural products to be viewed as something other than simply more commodities’. Music was made to feel special and unique once again. As such, capitalists used the anti-capitalism of Romanticism to sell more products to anti-capitalist consumers than they might otherwise have bought.
The major companies downplayed their involvement in the creation of the music. Their aim was to promote the artist star rather than the corporation. Albums replaced singles and consequently the cover sleeve (focussed on the musicians) replaced the single bag (focussed on the record label). Jon Stratton, despite exposing Romantic ideology, was blinded by this process. He constructed a flow chart in which the artist ‘creates the music’ and the record company merely ‘buys music and places it on vinyl and tape’. But weren’t record companies involved in the artistic process too? (They certainly claimed authorship of the finished recordings, as can be witnessed by their ownership of sound recording copyrights.)
Things have changed. The download has taken over from the physical record and consequently duplication is becoming a thing of the past. Popular music might still be ‘samey’, but its standardization can no longer be linked with factory processes and procedures. In fact, some Romantic idealists argue that artists and consumers no longer need record companies at all: musicians now have the ability to transmit their recordings directly to their fans.
This has got the music industry worried. In response, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) has produced a promotional report: Investing in Music (2012). This document outlines the reasons why artists should still think of industry: without the music business they will not have the financial clout to conquer new territories; they will not have the know-how to market their music; they will not have the ability to collect the money they are owed.
Investing in Music overturns the Romantic ideal. If godlike geniuses can now go directly to the consumer (hello Radiohead), the industry wants to promote a different type of artist. These days the labels are as likely to talk about collaboration as they are about self-expression. One of these collaborators is the label itself. Going against earlier industry practice, IFPI proudly proclaims the record company to be a creative partner in the birthing of new songs. They state that ‘behind the highly visible world of artists and performers […] is a less visible industry of enormous diversity, creativity and economic value’. They also depict the industry as the match-maker between artist and artist: record labels ‘can help developing artists by opening the door for them to work with the best talent in the music business’; labels have ‘the ability to allow artists to go in with fantastic songwriters and producers’.
These collaborations can be intimidating. New artists have always been wary of gatekeepers; the people who will permit or deny them access to success. But whereas in the days of mass reproduction it was mainly industry personnel, media institutions and retail outlets that were standing sentinel, today established artists have joined them on their watch. Andrew Nosnitsky has depicted the scene in hip-hop, where newer artists can only get a foot on the ladder by guesting on older artists’ tracks: ‘it’s become almost impossible for a middle-tier rap artist to ascend to [hip hop’s] upper tier without the explicit cosignature of existing upper-tier rap artists’. This works all the way down: middle-tier artists invite those below them to rap for eight bars on their tracks, and those on a lower tier also have someone who needs a leg-up from them. Similar scenarios are taking place beyond the world of hip-hop. Collaboration is a way that new R&B and EDM artists can first reach the charts.
In the end, though, it is the record companies who permit these collaborations: they are the final gatekeepers of every hit that has a ‘featuring’ or ‘versus’ credit. The IFPI report hammers this point home. And so, if you have ever wondered why so many chart hits are collaborative, just think which type of artist the industry now needs.