Month: February 2014

Majors, Indies, and Internships

The Brits have been and gone. Which was excellent for me, as there was something to flick across during the breaks between Ultimate Emergency Bikers and Mrs Brown’s Boys. It also meant there were several buildings along Kensington High Street that were empty since about three o’clock yesterday, as the music industry celebrated another year of growing music revenues by wearing a bloody tie for once.

But wait – the music industry is more than the three majors headquartered in the Royal Borough, isn’t it? Well, yes. But it doesn’t always seem that way. As John Williamson and Martin Cloonan have pointed out, the distinction is quite happily and frequently blurred, not just in informal conversation, but by the media, government and academia too. Even trade bodies and umbrella organisations fly fast and loose with terms like the ‘music industry’, ‘record business’, and so on, as if it were one homogenous mass.

This is, of course, understandable when the BPI and IFPI want to present a coherent public face, lobbying for policies regulating digital services and so on. But even if these bodies talked only of representing record labels (which they don’t always), in reality, the majors’ market dominance means that they tend to have somewhat more influence within the umbrella organisation – if this were not the case then AIM would not exist.

Considering the Brits is a BPI initiative, therefore, my embarrassing mistake in confusing major record labels with the music industry as a whole might be forgiven. After all, in all the nominations, across ten categories (not including British Producer), there were thirty-eight separate artists in total – of which I counted five not currently signed to a major label (Arctic Monkeys, London Grammar, John Grant, Macklemore, Passenger). Impressively, Bastille (Virgin-EMI) and Disclosure (Island) gained four nominations each. In statistics, as well as aesthetics, this ratio seems to be fairly representative of the country’s mass listening habits (whether you go by the OCC or Spotify streams) – and we can argue over whether increased market concentration impacts negatively on musical diversity, as Richard Peterson and David Berger did in the nineties and Lily Allen did at the start of the year – but fair enough.

In the run up to the Brits, while most of us might have been planning sleepover parties in our PJs, while the executives practiced their carousing and Prosecco-swilling techniques, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs saw an opportunity to announce its latest campaign – cracking down on unpaid internships in the music industry. Particularly taken to task by HMRC’s tiresome insistence on following standard employment law are what they call the ‘Brit Awards Record Labels’ – in other words, as they helpfully go on to point out: the major labels. The minister for employment relations Jenny Willott was wheeled out to add her warning in support:

The music industry is often seen as a glamorous industry to work in, particularly for young people. However, that is no excuse for interns not to be paid at least the minimum wage if they are employed as a worker. We need to make sure that interns who want a career in music are getting a fair deal and are not being exploited.

Stern stuff. The trouble is that, as far as I’m aware, unpaid work in the majors is generally the stuff of yesteryear (at least in the UK). It’s a legend from an era before corporate social responsibility initiatives suggested that, if you’re trying to prove to the world that you’re not as exploitative as they think you are, you should probably get your house in order first – plus, in an industry founded on constant innovation, it just doesn’t make long-term business sense and perhaps even contributes to a lack of diversity in musical output. To quote UMG, they now pay all interns the London Living Wage as the unpaid positions they offered before 2009, ‘narrowed the talent pool as not everyone could apply’ – not great if you don’t want to replicate the past forever. For this move, the company was described in the House of Commons as a ‘fantastic leader in the field’.

In their press release, HMRC state that thirty five letters have been sent out, but they do not name names. The Mail reported that, amongst these, was one addressed to Simon Cowell’s SyCo label (although Sony also seem keen to officially distance themselves from unpaid internships) – but if true, then this must be the exception considering it has been explicitly outlined to me by both Warners and Universal Music Group that they do not allow anyone to work unpaid (outside of short-stint work experience) – this includes, in particular, interns. But even if all three majors were unfeasibly behind the trend here, then this would still constitute a tiny percentage of the overall number – unless HMRC have been contacting these companies’ label divisions separately (which would be weird considering they all have centralised HR operations).

So why the focus on ‘the majors’ as the main offenders? Clearly hopping on the back of a well-publicised award ceremony featuring celebrity artists attached to these three companies is a sure-fire way of getting the message more widely heard – and perhaps this is forgivable considering the worthiness of the cause. Internships are indeed a real issue and the intern perhaps the defining symbol of work in our time (alongside the consultant) – their transitional status between education and employment is a murky and ambiguous grey-area that can be difficult to police. But, though majors continue to set the tone in the US context, wording like HMRC’s conveniently underplays the essential role unpaid interns play in startups, SMEs and independent record labels (even if they do call them ‘volunteers’). Focusing on large, visible corporations inaccurately suggests that these are the only environments in which ‘exploitation’ (as Jenny Willott MP would have it) occurs, ignoring ways in which precarity is increasingly the default experience of work in general.

This relies on a particular understanding of what a major is and, more to the point, what an independent isn’t. In a recent music business seminar I observed, a group of Masters students were asked how they would distinguish between majors and indies. They came up with the following list:

Majors Independents
Economic power: Vertical integration – control of multiple levels of the supply chain

Organisational structure/division of labour

Repackaging

Big income

Big hits

More resources

Faceless business distanced from artistic creation

DIY

Small groups of fluid, multi-skilled workers

New products

Small, consistent income

Fuck the hits (difficulties meeting demand; problems of scale)

Unreliability

More accessible individuals with interpersonal skills

It’s a reasonable list, and probably one with which few people would argue – I would add ownership structure and political influence but I’m being nitpicky.  Those representing the majors (though perhaps not all) would most likely suggest that these differences are superficial at best, and totally outdated at worst. Indeed, many of the individuals that I speak to about my PhD research question its major label focus on exactly these grounds.  I’d suggest the distinction is a murky one – but perhaps can be explained in the following terms.

1) There is no essential (or, to be technical, ontological) distinction between the two. 2) The differences outlined by the MA group are implicitly qualitative (differences in approach, attributes or ethics) but 3) these are only essentialised in as far as they reflect a deeper quantitative difference (in scale, available resources, or income).

That is to say: Companies grow either through investment in innovation or through acquisitions, or both, and it is one of the inherent contradictions of a capitalist economy that the profit-motive relies on competition but tends towards monopoly. Consequently, there is no reason to think that an independent label that managed to grow to a similar size wouldn’t carry itself in the same way as a major, if it wanted to succeed in the same market conditions. You will find as many passionate and accessible individuals at a major label as you will find hits-hungry artists signed to independents – and if you enjoy talking about ‘exploitation’, then you will find much to entertain you in a book like How Soon Is Now?This doesn’t answer the problem though.

The unpaid internship (like all invisible labour) is a phenomenon that does no one any favours and it is perfectly correct to continue to draw attention to it in this way. However, essentialising the problem in terms of a simple ‘indies good : majors bad’ narrative may help news outlets to pick up on your story – but, ultimately, scapegoating one or two companies misrepresents the field, demonstrates a poor understanding of the industry, and distracts attention away from broader socio-economic issues which it should be the government’s priority to address.

20(…ish) Things to Read from (roughly) The Last Year

So I think that studying the music industry is very important and very now. I’m sometimes asked what I can recommend to back this claim up, so below are 20 recent books and other bits of writing that were all more or less published in the last year or so. I’ve organised them around three main topics:

–          the politics and economics of new technologies and business models
–          economic markets and creative work
–          narrating the industry – representation, image-management, rhetoric

Within these topics I’ve not distinguished between books for the academic sector, for public readership, websites, policy reports and so on – this is deliberate. I think each should be taken on its own terms and read (critically) against the others, so that more productive dialogues between traditionally distinct industries and markets might start to emerge. Some books may not be rigorously referenced but they can nonetheless present new perspectives and unheard voices; academic writing is not tailored for the needs of industry or everyday reading (and often runs the risk of being dry) but this distance can produce insights that reach a little further and deeper as a result.

At the bottom are some forthcoming books to keep an eye out for. It’s a necessarily idiosyncratic list, and I don’t endorse everything on it, but it’s a useful collection I hope.

On the political economy of digital music:
–          Chris Anderton, Andrew Dubber, Martin James, Understanding the Music Industries
An undergraduate/initiate’s entry to grappling with the complexities of the modern industry’s greater focus on content-management alongside retail consumption

–          Tim Anderson, Popular Music in a Digital Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry
The music industry as a state of perpetual ‘becoming’ as it moves from (ownership-based) product retail to (access-based) service industry

–          Jim Rogers, The Death and Life of the Music Industry in the Digital Age
Challenges the dominance of the ‘rise and fall’ narrative of the music industry, suggesting that existing power structures have been consolidated rather than dismantled.

–          Jeremy Silver, Digital Medieval: The first twenty years of music on the web… and the next twenty
A digital music consultant’s argument for more fluidity between music and cross-media platforms

–          Jonas Andersson Schwarz, Online File Sharing: Innovations in Media Consumption
Important examination of the attitudes and justifications of Scandinavian file-sharers

–          Don Passman, All You Need To Know About the Music Business (8th ed.)
I always recommend this book when people ask me about introductory texts; it is now twenty years old but the fact that it has had so many updates is telling – this new edition came out last year

–          London School of Economics – MPP, Copyright & Creation (Media Policy brief)
A masterclass in how academics can take important debates that could usefully flesh out a dialogue that’s already being had in the public sphere – and then killing that opportunity with hollow argument and needless antagonism

–          International Journal of Music Business Research
Launched in 2012 with interesting people on board, two further issues appeared last year – it’s an interesting experiment in potentially crossing commercial and academic interests.

–          David Beer, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation
Cheating, as this isn’t strictly about music, but it’s as relevant as it can get without being so

On music markets and creative work:
–          Lee Marshall (ed.), The International Recording Industries
A closer look at emerging music markets…

–          IFPI – Engine of a Digital World
…and the industry body’s official perspective on the same

–          Nick Wilson, The Art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age
Historical case study of the emergence of a now well-established market – the early music movement in classical performance – from the perspective of its entrepreneur-artists

–          Matt Stahl, Unfree Masters: Recording Artists and the Politics of Work
Recording artists as workers or as property owners? Placing the argument within a broader social context of contemporary US labour markets

–          Mark Banks, Ros Gill, Steph Taylor (eds.), Theorizing Cultural Work: Labour, continuity and change in the cultural and creative industries
Cheating again. Not a proper music book, but lots of important chapters in this regarding creative industries in relation to their history, their literature, intellectual property, and so on

On criticism and narrating the industry:
–          Devon Powers, The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism
Important questions being asked about the industry’s relationship to its media commentary (should be read alongside Powers’ other articles on criticism, ‘hype’, and ‘company freaks’)

–          Kristin Lieb, Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of  Female Popular Music Stars
I’ve not read this one but it’s a timeless theme in a significant historical moment. Old school cultural studies meets the star system – I hope it’s not as clunky as it clearly has the possibility of being

–          Tim Wall, ‘The X Factor’ [in Pete Bennett and Julian McDougall (eds.), Barthes’ Mythologies Today: Readings of Contemporary Culture]
A chapter – but significant that SyCo’s iconic brand is considered one of today’s most telling mythical signifiers (also an acknowledgement of how important I think Barthes is to these discussions…!)

–          Morrissey, Autobiography
The one man myth-machine narrates himself,

–          Bob Stanley, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
And further commentary on the meaning of popular music from the perspective of an artist and connoisseur.

–          Dave Hesmondhalgh, Why Music Matters
The social significance of music’s emotional ties, from a key voice in creative industries scholarship. Resemblance to the BPI’s awareness campaign is coincidental, so I am told, but not inconsequentially so, I don’t think.

–          Toby Bennett, The Libidinal Economy of Music Videos
Had to get a plug for myself in here somewhere too, of course…

Forthcoming in 2014:
–          Mark Mulligan, Meltdown: The Music Industry in a Digital Age
Respected music industry consultant’s perspective on what digital means and where it’s going

–          Mark Rye, Over Under Sideways Down
More myths, stories and purported realities from the people behind the Rock History interview blog

–          Martin Cloonan, Shane Homan, Jennifer Cattermole – Popular Music Industries and the State
A global policy perspective on music’s social value based on three national case studies

–          Simon Napier-Bell – Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay
The manager-author delivers another volume of his industry experiences – this time mapped against his own history of the industry

–          Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek (eds.) – The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies: Volume 1 & Volume 2
Everyone knows that music is mobile now – the academic voices here are key in working out what this means in terms that are not strictly technical or economic, and how music might be experienced in a different way as a result.

–          Timothy D Taylor – New Capitalism, Music and Social Theory
After studies of sync licensing and advertising, this could be an interesting entry into developing a field of music industry studies.

TOWARDS MUSIC INDUSTRY STUDIES?

I’m convinced that Music Industry Studies is an emerging and important field of scholarship. Admittedly, these are strange epithets to describe something that already exists and in which I’m heavily invested. But bear with me.

1) An emerging discipline

It’s ‘emerging’, despite the fact that there are many courses on offer in colleges and universities that serve as introductions to the music industry, some of which are even titled something like ‘Music Industry Studies‘, ‘Music Management‘, or ‘Commercial Music‘. But there are competing ideas of how these courses should be taught and the emphases they imply: broad or specific?; contemporary or historical?; local or global?; artist-focused or business-led?; theoretical or vocational?; critical or sympathetic?… I often hear criticisms from the inside to the effect that understanding how the music industry works is something that can’t really be taught (it is experiential, to use the educational jargon). Nonetheless, graduates of these courses often, in my experience,  find their way into some capacity of music work (often via internships) – only to find that the understanding they bring with them is necessarily contingent on the personal preferences and experiences of their module leaders.

Similarly, I see it as emerging right now because, even though there have been plenty of books written about different aspects of the music business over the years – academic ones, journalistic ones, novels, biographies, trashy hagiographies – it seems that we’re increasingly moving beyond the most visible and specific aspects of this world (e.g. famous executives, artists, and music) and towards thinking in terms of broader social and political trajectories. Consequently, there are convergent conversations to be had between all these different genres, as well as with others in similar fields (film, musicology, anthropology, marketing…), and a consensus of approach has yet to settle.

2) An important discipline

It’s ‘important’ for the same reasons – because it is a contested site, with multiple voices claiming ownership of it. In a world where universities spend increasing resources on knowledge exchange initiatives and academics are told they need to have ‘impact’; where a university education is no longer an elite pursuit, such that graduates and post-graduates fill entry-level work positions that do not strictly require a degree; in the same world where Google and Facebook run inductive research programmes that aren’t purely about responding to market trends; where the ideal of employment is less about a job for life than consultancy opportunities and the portfolio career (while its reality is short-term, temporary, and precarious)… In this world, establishing some sort of groundwork for productive conversations to take place between those who think and those who do – and, more importantly, understanding that those two groups are the same, so that such conversations will and should take place inside individuals as much as between them – seems to be quite a key step forward.

Ultimately, of course, it’s important because we’re talking specifically about music. And just as music can help to sell a brand, so too might it enable conversations to range across an enormous array of topics – technology, policy, industrial organisation, work, creativity, emotion, social relationships, representation, criticism, the role of academia, and so on – while still remaining coherent, accessible, and urgent. It helps us think about how what happens ‘out there’ relates quite closely to what happens ‘in here’.

So, while there are and always have been countless people from all walks of life interested in talking about the music industry, I’d suggest that only now is it really starting to be thought of as a discipline – albeit one based on interdisciplinary principles. Thinking about how this is coming to be (in terms of education, technology, political will, commercial impetus, and so on), and about the kind of conversations that might start to emerge, are the two main reasons that this blog exists.