Friday, 12 March 2021

Music Creators’ Earnings in the Digital Age Survey

 

 


I am involved in a research project that is examining music creators’ earnings in the streaming age. As part of this project, we're looking for UK-based music creators, at all stages of their careers, working in all genres to take part in the debate by completing a short survey: https://bit.ly/3l3MKtx. The questions should take around 10 minutes to answer and all contributions are fully anonymous. 

 

The survey has been devised in consultation with representatives of songwriters, composers, performers and producers, alongside stakeholders from the recording and music publishing industries. It has been prepared by AudienceNet, and is funded by a Research England grant to the University of Leeds. It forms part of the Music Creators’ Earnings in the Digital Age project undertaken by the Universities of Leeds, Middlesex and Ulster, which has been commissioned by the UK Intellectual Property Office in partnership with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre.

 

Please make sure you participate before it ends, midnight on Wednesday 24 March 2020.


Saturday, 26 December 2020

Music by Numbers: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in the Music Industries

 

As a Christmas present this year, I received hard copies of Music by Numbers: The Use and Abuse of Statistics in the Music Industries, a book that I co-edited with the great Dave Laing.

            It has been a long time coming. Dave proposed the idea for the book at the inaugural Working in Music conference, which took place in Glasgow in January 2016. What a five years it has been since then. The Trump presidency has come and nearly gone. The UK has had the Brexit vote and is set to leave the European Union at the end of this week. Covid-19 has transformed the world.

            On a personal and professional note, the saddest event has been Dave’s death. He passed in January 2019, having kept from me how seriously ill he had become. Music by Numbers is the last book project that he worked on. I hope that I have managed to complete it with the care and skill that Dave’s legacy warrants. One of the most satisfying aspects for me is that this edited collection contains chapters by many of his friends.

Music by Numbers provides the first in-depth examination of the use and abuse of statistics in the music industries and addresses five key areas: sales and awards; music industry policy; live music; music piracy; and digital solutions. Its aim is to expose the culture and politics of data. The book has been published by Intellect, with the brilliant help of production editor Aimée Bates. It can be ordered via this link.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Vinyl in the Time of Covid-19

 

On Thursday I was interviewed on the fruity American television programme LIT Entertainment News about a turnaround: in America vinyl records are outperforming compact discs. Trade figures for the first half 2020 demonstrate that vinyl sales constituted 62 per cent of the revenues for physical formats. It was the first time since the 1980s that vinyl had generated more money than CDs.

            This is something that had been predicted. Sales revenues for vinyl records have increased every year since 2006. Sales revenues for compact discs, in contrast, have declined annually since the millennium. When 2019's trading figures were announced it was predicted that, if trading patterns continued, vinyl would be on course to surpass CDs. Some people called this a long time ago. In my book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, I quote the music journalist Adam Woods, who stated in 2004, ‘it is easy to believe that the format could thrive even as the CD begins to lose ground to the Internet’. I also have a 2011 quote from Lyor Cohen, who was then the CEO of the Warner Music Group, stating that ‘vinyl will definitely outlast CDs’.

It should be noted that vinyl is outperforming compact discs in terms of revenues but not in terms of units sold. One of the reasons why vinyl is generating more money is because each album typically costs two and a half times more than a CD. It is also the case that, in our time of lockdowns, it is more likely that consumers will purchase vinyl than CDs. The former format appeals to collectors and remains accessible via mail order. The latter format is more casually purchased and will be neglected in times of shop closures. Trade figures also indicate that the overall market for physical records is paltry. Vinyl accounts for four per cent of the American market. Streaming, on the other hand, accounts for 85 per cent.

Yet the figures are still remarkable. Vinyl looked on course for obliteration twenty years ago; it is now firmly established as a recording format that both consumers and the recording industry will invest in. Pressing plants have struggled to keep up with demand. Equally impressive is the fact that vinyl sales have continued to increase despite the strictures of Covid-19. In the United States they are up four per cent year-on-year. In the UK the trade magazine Music Week has reported that vinyl has defied ‘coronavirus chaos to post big rises’. Sales for the third quarter were up 41.4 per cent on 2019. This is largely due to the rescheduling of Record Store Day, but is demonstrative of the public’s commitment to this format.

After fifteen years of sales increases and a resolute performance in the face of coronavirus we should probably stop talking of vinyl’s revival. Instead, our focus should be elsewhere. The compact disc has been defeated. Will it now become an object of fetishism for collectors?

 

 

Sunday, 25 October 2020

Radiohead’s Kid A and the Anti-Globalization Movement

 

This month has witnessed the twentieth anniversary of the release of Kid A by Radiohead. The occasion has been marked with numerous press articles and broadcasts, which have served to remind me what a fantastic album it is. I’ve also revisited an essay I wrote about it shortly after it was released, which I’ve now posted on academia.edu.

The essay was written for an MA in Popular Culture that I was then studying at the Open University. The brief was to analyse a piece of music drawing upon various strands of theory explored in the course. Hence it has references to Theodore Adorno, Antonio Gramsci and my personal favourite, Raymond Williams. It’s real theme, however, is the links between Radiohead’s work and the anti-globalization movement. I saw the album as an attempt to capture the spirit of Naomi Klein’s No Logo in sound.

            I still hold with much of what I wrote back then, but what has interested me on revisiting the essay is how it reflects a moment in time. The anti-globalization movement was at its zenith at this point. It really did feel as though it could ‘construct new alternatives to globalisation from the bottom up’.

            Then something happened. On 9 September 2001, the Twin Towers in New York were attacked. This diverted attention from the campaign. On the one hand, western allies were rallying together, with foreign nations choosing to declare ‘we are all Americans now’. On the other hand, some of the amorphous energy of the anti-globalization movement was channelled into opposition to the war in Iraq. Radiohead were swept up in this tide. Their next album, Hail to the Thief, was released in 2003. It swapped the drift of Kid A for targeted attacks on George Bush, and was overall a far less impressive work.

            I argue in the essay that Kid A was never a difficult or obscure album. You just had to be in tune with the emergent ‘structure of feeling’ of that time. It says much, then, that Kid A still resonates. 9-11 might have brought the most intense period of anti-globalization protests to an end, but the impetus behind that movement has not gone away. If anything, the need to disappear completely is felt more keenly now than it was twenty years ago.

 


 

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Kyle Devine 'Decomposed'

 

My review of Kyle Devine’s book Decomposed has appeared in the latest edition of the Popular Music journal. As I state in the review this is a brilliant book which addresses a subject with which we should all engage. Devine looks at the environmental damage that is caused by our consumption of recorded music. He deals with this issue by dividing his analysis into three periods: the shellac era (1900-1950), which witnessed the industrialization of music; the plastic era (1950-2000) in which the production of vinyl, cassettes and CDs implicated the recording industry with the petrochemical industry; and the era of data (2000 to now) in which the consumption of music has moved online. Importantly, Devine disabuses us of thinking that our consumption has consequently been dematerialised. He calculates, in fact, that the environmental costs are ‘higher than ever before’. Decomposed draws upon a wealth of materials in its analysis, including my own book Vinyl, which he has used to create a thesis beyond anything I had imagined. As I note in my review, some of Devine’s calculations can be questioned, but the importance of his argument cannot be gainsaid. My review can be accessed via this link. Devine’s book is available from MIT Press.


 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Mute Records: Artists, History, Business, Paperback




Last month, Bloomsbury Academic published Mute Records in paperback. I co-edited this book with my colleagues Zuleika Beaven and Marcus O’Dair. It was compiled in honour of Mute Records fortieth anniversary and as a tribute to Daniel Miller, the head and founder of the label, who acts as a visiting professor at our university. He is a great person. The new edition currently retails at £26.09, which, while still expensive for a paperback book, makes it more readily affordable than the hardback edition, which costs £86.40. According to the blub:
This edited collection addresses Mute's wide-ranging impact. Drawing from disciplines such as popular music studies, musicology, and fan studies, it takes a distinctive, artist-led approach, outlining the history of the label by focusing each chapter on one of its acts. The book covers key moments in the company's evolution, from the first releases by The Normal and Fad Gadget to recent work by Arca and Dirty Electronics. It shines new light on the most successful Mute artists, including Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Erasure, Moby, and Goldfrapp, while also exploring the label's avant-garde innovators, such as Throbbing Gristle, Mark Stewart, Labaich, Ut, and Swans. Mute Records examines the business and aesthetics of independence through the lens of the label's artists.
I co-authored the introduction and contributed the chapter on Moby, which addresses his album Play and has received some notice in reviews. Writing for Punk and Post-Punk, Paul Hollins has described it as a ‘fascinating and important chapter’ that raises ‘disturbing questions of “truth”  and “illusion” though Moby’s “borrowing” and extensive re-use and re-purpose, without artistic credit, of sampled black voices of the deep South in the United States’. In her review for Popular Music, Veronica Skrimsjö states that this chapter is a ‘particular highlight’ and notes how I compare Moby’s use of samples to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. For  Skrimsjö, This notion appears quite unique, but Osborne provides a very robust and convincing argument that, should one accept it (which this reviewer does), changes the discourse surrounding ownership and sampling considerably’.
           This chapter has a long history. Although it is now looking back on Play from a distance of twenty years, I began work on it when Moby’s album was still in the charts. The first version was completed in July 2000, as an essay for an MA in Popular Culture that I was taking at the Open University. I reworked it four years later for a course on metamorphosis at the London Consortium. It was at this point that I introduced the minstrelsy theme. One of the tutors, Colin MacCabe, liked it so much that he suggested I submit it to Critical Quarterly, the journal he edits. I reworked it again and it became my first published article. Finally (for now), it seemed apt to revisit it when my colleagues suggested compiling a book about Mute Records.
           Something remains missing, nonetheless. What none of the iterations capture is that, despite questioning Moby’s practice, I do like some of the album. There is a particular song on it that has always has stopped me in my tracks. I was going through a hard time when the record was released. Moby’s ‘Why Does My Heart Feel so Bad?’ captured my mood and helped to alleviate my pain. It still gives me the chills. This is one of the recordings that samples black voices, however, and it is indicative of the complexities and emotional power of popular music. While it might be necessary and even important to highlight instances of cultural theft, we are nevertheless all complicit in appropriation. The very act of listening draws us into other worlds and, at the same time, encourages us to situate those worlds within ourselves. There can be a fine line, however, between exploitation and empathy. And that’s what Moby sets in play. 
           

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Black Lives Matter


The music busines is responding to the death of George Floyd and its reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement. On 2 June it held ‘Blackout Tuesday’ in which many companies and organizations ceased business activity for one day in order to ‘disconnect from work and reconnect with our community’ and seek ‘an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change’. Affirmative action has followed.
            In the first instance, there has been a funding pledge from entertainment companies and artists. The major labels, Universal, Sony and Warner have between them committed $225m, which will be used in support of black charities and to address ‘internal’ and ‘institutional’ change. YouTube has announced a £100m fund dedicated to ‘amplifying and developing the voices of Black creators and artists’. Stormzy had donated £10m to black British causes.
Secondly, there has been a semantic rethink. The One Little Indian label has changed its name because of ‘the violent history of the terminology’, the US Recording Academy has dropped the term ‘urban’ from two of its awards, and more broadly there are a number of labels who are rebranding their urban divisions. ‘Urban’ is being resisted because it is ‘rooted in the historical evolution of terms that sought to define black music’ and has ‘developed into a generalisation of black people in many sectors of the music industry, including employees and music by black artists’. Ultimately, its abandonment might result in structural as well as semantic change. The hope is that its departure will bring an end to the ghettoization of black employees and artists. The move is not universally welcomed, however. There are black music bosses who argue that this ‘we are all the same attitude’ will not work in a society in which some are more equal than others. They fear that the removal of barriers will result in white executives taking charge of black repertoire because they feel they know ‘better than anyone else’.
There is a manoeuvre that has received less attention but which could result in unquestioned good. One of the ways that racism has been ingrained in the music industries is through black artists receiving exploitative contractual terms. As such, it is not surprising that artists such as Kelis and Erykah Badu have retweeted a statement by the American professor, Josh Kun: ‘If the music industry wants to support black lives, labels and platforms can start with amending contracts, distributing royalties, diversifying boardrooms, and retroactively paying back all the black artists, and their families, they have built their empires on’. This has already had some effect. On Tuesday 9 June, BMG’s CEO Hartwig Masuch declared that    
Mindful of the music industry’s record of shameful treatment of black artists, we have begun a review of all historic record contracts. While BMG only began operations in 2008, we have acquired many older catalogues. If there are any inequities or anomalies, we will create a plan to address them. Within 30 days.
It is not only statues that are falling.