“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side…”
– Hunter S Thompson
Over the course of the five or so years I spent working at a major record label, and since I left it, I came across this quote many times: in the press; online; in conversation; on email signatures; it even opens Louis Barfe’s oral history of the recording industry.* It’s a shame that Thompson never said it (or didn’t quite). But that doesn’t matter, it’s still a great quote.
What’s interesting, however, is how symptomatic it is of the love-hate relationship that the music industry has with itself. It’s a business built on stories, rumours, myths and legends, which travel down from generation to generation like memes, getting slightly transformed and distended along the way, but remaining close enough to the truth to retain an alluring, if cautionary, edge. These stories have their own market, consisting of books, TV shows, websites and so on, consumed primarily by those who are in it – and those who want to know what it’s like. I call it the ‘music industry industry’. It creates a sense of community on the inside and a sense of mystery from the outside.
I’m not interested in unveiling the mythology to show off the naked reality underneath though (I couldn’t if I tried). Myths and stories are really important – perhaps even more important than facts – because they give you an insight how people see themselves and how they want to be seen. That’s doubly important in an era of high-speed communication (I used the word ‘meme’ above deliberately), fluid boundaries, and infoglut; and triply important when you’re accused of having been slow, complacent, and inward looking, as the music business was at the turn of the last decade.
The industry has quite clearly changed since then, adapting and adopting new technologies, finding new means of communication, and supporting artist-consumer relationships with new economic infrastructures. How it understands its role in this new digital economy is going to be increasingly key as it continues to change – and the people working at the coalface of this transformation are going to be best-placed to articulate it.
That’s what I’m interested in.
*The quote appeared unchecked in the 2004 hardback edition of the book – in subsequent editions this appears to have been corrected.