Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The Rough with the Smooth

I caught a cab at the weekend. The driver was listening to Magic radio. Virtually all London drivers listen to this station or to Smooth FM. Magic promises to ‘play more of the songs you love, keeping the UK in a good mood whenever they listen’. It offers the biggest and most comfortable hits performed by major recording stars. Smooth FM is similar. This station will provide ‘your relaxing music mix’. Like Magic, it plays big hits by big names.
            I asked the driver why these are the preferred stations. He told me that it’s not for the passengers. It’s hell out there on London’s streets; the atmosphere is intense and aggressive. The drivers need this music to keep them calm. Many of the songs have a low tempo; they slow the drivers down. My driver told me that when he’s not ferrying passengers he likes listening to the frantic pop of Capital Radio. When he is driving he likes the Carpenters and Lionel Ritchie.
            There’s another reason too: these soft songs are made of tough stuff. They may not be aggressive, but they are certainly durable. They became hits for a reason and that’s because they bear repeated listening.
            He was a nice bloke. I felt calm too.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Playing the Margins

One way to tell the history of rock ‘n’ roll is to look at changing profit margins. Musicians follow the money.
Jason Toynbee has argued that popular music is characterised by a high degree of ‘institutional autonomy’. Artists have freedom from capitalist jurisdiction. Toynbee believes that the music industries 'cede control of production (writing, performing, realizing) to musicians themselves’. I think he’s mostly right. Although popular music ‘belongs to capitalism’, popular musicians are not entirely in thrall to their employers.
One of the reasons for this is because musicians' jobs are diffuse: they write, they perform and they realize. Importantly, their employers in each of these fields are different: artists sign separate publishing deals, record deals and live performance contracts. They have further areas of activity that escape totalising control. Even the 360˚ deal is not all encompassing.
            History enters this matrix because the profit margins for each of these activities change and artists change direction accordingly. At present, for some, it is live music that is most economically rewarding. These performers are now making records to promote their tours, rather than the other way round. Publishing income has often outstripped recording income. It is this economic imperative, as much as an aesthetic urge, that had led many performers to become writers.
            Musicians are also subject to profit margins in the wider economy. There is money in live music for heritage acts and global superstars. At a grassroots level, however, the live music scene is struggling. In the UK many venues are closing. Upcoming artists are getting paid less for their performances. Sometimes they get paid nothing at all.
            One of the factors in play here is the profit margin on a pint of beer. This was greater in the past. Hence pubs and clubs could afford to give more money to live performers. They also wanted music because noise sells beer. As profits on alcohol have declined, bars have sought other ways of making money. One of these has been via food, on which the profit margins are high. The changing pub economy has not been great for performers, particularly loud or left-field ones, as noisy popular music does not go always go down well with a meal. The gastro-pub arrived in the 1990s, at which point cookery was being described as ‘the new rock ‘n’ roll’. It was also killing the old one.