I’ve had a couple books on the go recently and they’ve both had something to say about the status and economic worth of vinyl records. First, there’s The History of Live Music in Britain, Volume 1: 1950-1967, a brilliant collaborative venture between Simon Frith, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan and Emma Webster. The book seeks to redress the balance of most accounts of the music industry, which, as the authors rightly point out, ‘over-privilege the recording sector at the expense of the sector in which most musicians in all genres have been located historically: the live arena’.
In the period that this first volume covers even the most well known musicians made more money from touring than they did from recording. The authors quote Gordon Thompson, who states that in the mid-1960s ‘recording contracts provided so little money that a band such as Herman’s Hermits needed to tour because most of their income came from live performance’.
As so often, what was true of Herman’s Hermits was also true of the Beatles. The second book I’ve been reading is another opening volume: Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his trilogy of books covering the Beatles’ history. The book is unusually forthcoming about recording contracts. It reveals just how little the Beatles stood to earn from their record sales. Lewisohn writes:
the everyday business of management was the stage. No ‘pop stars’ could live off broadcasting fees and only the very biggest of chart stars could live off record royalties, so miniscule were the percentages. No one even tried. The sole object of making records was to attract a bigger profile and so earn higher fees from concert and ballroom shows – and, if the artists were lucky to be chosen, to appear in summer seasons in seaside resorts.
The Beatles’ initial contract with EMI gave them a royalty rate of one penny for each single sold (taking into account both sides of the record). This was payable on only 85% of sales (the other 15% was kept by the record company in lieu of ‘records returned and/or damaged in transit and/or used for demonstration of advertising purposes’). Albums were calculated proportionally, ‘usually as six or seven singles’. The royalty rate was halved for sales outside Britain. Lewisohn does the maths:
In the Beatles’ case, this penny they’d get on 85 per cent of sales would have to be divided five ways: 15 per cent to Brian [Epstein, for his manager’s commission], the rest split between John, Paul, George and Pete [Best]. If they sold a thousand records, they’d get fifteen bob each, and if they ever managed such a famous, gilded, pinnacle-of-career accomplishment as a million-seller, they’d each get £750. If this happened in America – which was, quite obviously, ludicrously unlikely – it would be £375.
He also has the figures for their first EMI royalty statement, which rewarded the band for the sale of 36,868 copies of ‘Love Me Do’. The total received was £130 11s 6d, out of which the Beatles took just £27 15s each. Lennon and McCartney earned more from their songwriting royalties for the single than they did from their record contract. According to Lewisohn, the ‘mechanicals’ for this volume of sales would bring in £325. After Epstein’s 20% commission on this income, this would give the composers £130 each. However, this songwriting income paled in comparison to the money the band was earning from live performance. At the time of ‘Love Me Do’ the Beatles were commanding £50 for each concert appearance.
And yet it was not live performance that the band venerated, it was records. Here’s Ringo, recalling the experience of seeing ‘Love Me Do’ pressed up as a 45:
[It was] The most momentous moment – that we had a record out, that we had a bit of plastic with us on it. Just the idea of being on a bit of plastic was really incredible after all those years of playing. My God, a record that you hadn’t made in some booth somewhere . . . you don’t believe how great that was.
Ringo, lest we forget, would earn less from recordings than the other Beatles. He wrote the fewest songs. He’s not alone, though, in lauding the moment of seeing yourself on record for the first time. Here’s Keith Richards, talking about the Rolling Stones and their contemporaries:
In a way, in those days, being able to get into the studio and get an acetate back sort or legitimized you. ‘You’re now a commissioned officer’ instead of being one of the ranks.
If only someone would ask him, I’m sure Peter Noone has a similar quote up his sleeve.
Reading these books made me think about my own work. In Vinyl I argue that one of the distinguishing features of the analogue disc – from the 1880s to the present day – is that it is very difficult to manufacture copies within your own home. This is a format for professionals. As Keith Richards says, it legitimizes you, and it does so in a way that live performance can never do.
Thus far Ringo and Richards back up my claims. I have paused for thought, however. In the fourth chapter of Vinyl I write about the desire of musicians to escape the commodification process, focusing in particular on the the negative comments rock musicians have made regarding the transformation of their art into serially produced consumer goods. However, it is clear that most musicians (myself included) loved the experience of being pressed into a record for the first time. Consequently, I would now temper my analysis in two ways. Firstly, mass manufacture is not always spurned. There are many artists (and consumers) who place their faith in the most multiplied of products. Jimi Hendrix was amongst them (at least when it came to guitars). According to Charles Shaar Murray:
he seldom bothered with special left-hand models, both because right-handed guitars were more plentiful and easier to obtain, and because – with a touchingly American faith in mass-production – he believed that they were likely to be manufactured to a higher standard.
This depiction of the performer as consumer leads me to the second aspect that I would now change. In the chapter I make a crude distinction between artists and audiences. In doing so, I draw upon the work of Jon Stratton, but I now realise he may have led me up the wrong path. Stratton’s argument is that, in creating a vinyl record
The music is not only commodified; in the process it is also distanced, alienated, from the artist, and becomes an object which is understood to exist in its own right. It moves from the private domain of the artist to the public domain of the market place. Reciprocally, the artist experiences a distancing from his or her music as it becomes product, and is experienced as existing in a different social context. The record company, like a book publisher, acts as a gate-keeper shifting the experienced position of the music from the artist’s individual identification with his/her music to the experiencing of the music as a commodity in the market place.
He suggests that, as this happens, the artists aren’t only distanced from their music; they are distanced from the fans. The musicians stand at one end of a process, their audience is at the other. In between is the apparatus of recordings, gatekeepers and mediation.
He’s clearly right that the music becomes a product and that it exists in a different context. He’s wrong about other things, though. By entering the market place, the music isn’t distanced from the artists: they are consumers too. In fact, one of the reasons why artists are excited about seeing their work on record is because it enters shops in which they have browsed their whole lives. This isn’t alienation; this is coming home.
What’s interesting to note, though, is that artists’ excitement about the commodity form always seems to come in relation to their first record releases. In the Beatles’ case they each knew by heart the R4949 catalogue number of ‘Love Me Do’. It had become etched into their memories as they had gazed at the record label for so long. And yet, once they had a few releases under their belts, the band members struggled to remember in which order those records were issued or which songs each album contained. Maybe the point at which pop stars become alienated is not when their music is turned into product, but when they stop hanging out in the market.