SAM_2351Any embryonic art form with commercial potential is looked upon by envious eyes, just as the Martians observed planet Earth in the late nineteenth century, according to HG Wells. The first such art form in the age of the mass media was cinema; a glut of little film companies sprang up in the early silent era, many of which grew into the giants we all recall from their memorable idents – MGM’s lion, Paramount’s mountain, Universal’s spinning globe, 20th Century Fox’s giant logo illuminated by searchlights and so on. Smaller companies that had flourished during the heyday of the silents had been absorbed into the larger outfits come the talkies, which soon achieved virtual dominance of the global cinema market. Running parallel with the rise of the Hollywood studio system was the music business, first through publishing and then the formation of record companies to facilitate the advances in reproducing recorded sound.

There were mutually beneficent relations between the movie studios and record labels in the pre-rock age, when the majority of hit records emanated from hit movies or hit Broadway shows. Songwriters rated higher than performers in terms of earnings, as the same song could be covered by a variety of singers, giving rise to the ‘standard’ that no individual performer had an exclusive claim on. Singers were little more than serfs as far as record companies were concerned, limited to pitiful royalty rates and chained to contracts signed without reading the small print.

At the beginning of the 1960s, British record companies such as EMI and Decca were headed by Old Etonians who could just as easily have been running the Bank of England, addressing everyone by their surnames; their recording studios were staffed by men in white coats who treated the job like any other 9-to-5 occupation. Maverick outsiders such as producer Joe Meek were very much on the fringes of the elite, running cottage industries from their own homes and leasing the end results to labels, as had been the case during the brief eruption of US rock ‘n’ roll before it was eaten alive by the big bucks of the big boys.

By the end of the 60s, the logo in the centre of the vinyl had not only become as identifiable as the movie studio ident, but many embodied a particular style of music, giving the listener an inkling as to what to expect even before they placed the needle on the record. Most majors had an offshoot label to cater for the more experimental end of the pop spectrum, and the men who ran these offshoots were often counter-cultural dudes with a business brain, a long way from the titled toffs at the top of the pyramid – at least on the surface. Even if there was an apparently extreme contrast between the man who condescendingly welcomed a new signing into his office with a tray of tea brought in by his secretary and the one who opened a box on his desk housing several ready-rolled joints, what headmaster and head-boy shared was a very British sense of amateurism. To use old cricket terminology, they were gentlemen rather than players.

All that changed in the 70s and 80s; the phenomenal money-spinner that the 60s had turned pop into gave birth to what was truly a music industry, and the players wrestled control from the gentlemen. Despite Punk spawning numerous independent labels, these were gradually bought up by the majors to supersede the old subsidiary labels that changing musical fashions had removed from the record racks. Improved awareness by artists as to just how much their predecessors had been ripped-off was matched by the new professional rock manager, personified by Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant.

Few acts that sprang to prominence during the halcyon days of rock as business saw ownership of their golden eggs slip through their fingers via poorly-executed deals as The Beatles had suffered. Record companies as well as their artists and management were now all well enough versed in the pros and cons of making a mint from music to run the industry with a slick ruthlessness that ensured a splendid time was guaranteed for all.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s evident that record companies assumed this state of affairs would be permanent; as they began buying each other up in an act of corporate cannibalism, the new kid on the block called the internet was poised to shake up an industry that had grown fat and complacent on the profits of past glories. The arrival of illegal downloading sites such as Napster opened a divide between producers and consumers that would issue a challenge to the Godlike authority of record companies that the record companies thought they could dismiss with a campaign similar to the short-lived ‘home taping is killing music’ crusade of the 80s. They claimed songwriters and performers would be denied their due royalties if the public weren’t prepared to pay for music, yet copyright on the likes of YouTube can be easily implemented, thus neutralising any income the poster of a song or music video stands to derive from it.

A couple of months back, assembling a Beatles CD compilation for my own personal listening, I sourced the songs I needed via YouTube, as all my Beatles albums are on vinyl. I had no problem locating the material and the CD was put together quickly. Typing in other Beatles songs for a different compilation a couple of days ago, I found most of them had disappeared. Those that survived in visual form only were without their musical content; the excuse given was that the copyright was ‘owned by UMG’ – not Parlophone, not even EMI, but UMG. UMG – who’s he when he’s at home? The record industry’s very own Judge Dredd, that’s who.

UMG stands for Universal Music Group, a behemoth of a corporation that is a subsidiary of the French media monster Vivendi, and is based in California. It owns the vast majority of pop’s most valuable back catalogues and has sought to counteract any unlicensed music videos appearing on YouTube with its Vevo brand. Famous names that fall under the UMG umbrella include Geffen, Chess, A&M, Capitol, Island, Def Jam, Decca, Polydor, Motown, Virgin and EMI. The latter was purchased in 2012 for £1.2 billion. UMG has recently started throwing its weight around online, cracking down on anyone daring to post favourite songs that UMG ‘owns’. It would be nice to think UMG is simply a collective of music lovers ensuring songwriters and artists are paid their due royalties, but it isn’t. It has more in common with News Corps, but is very much in synch with a one-time art-form that is now little more than a leisure industry whose aim is to generate a feel-good factor to its fast-food consumers. So, RIP the record company, from Sir Joseph Lockwood to Colonel Sanders in fifty years.

© The Editor

25 OR 6 TO 4

25When Oasis released their third album in 1997, the phenomenal hype and media build-up to the event was founded on three remarkable years in which a band that would previously have been ghettoised as ‘Indie’ in the old-school 1980s sense of NME front covers and singles peaking at No.26 actually became mainstream ala Take That – chart-topping 45s and sold-out stadiums. It’s easy to forget that before Oasis, that simply didn’t happen with new guitar bands. The only acts that topped the charts and sold out stadiums prior to the arrival of the Gallagher brothers and their cohorts were either 80s survivors like U2 or boy-bands. But something changed in 1994. The toppermost of the poppermost was suddenly scaled by Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Supergrass et al, as were tabloid headlines and household name status. The alternative had ceased to be alternative.

However, once the third Oasis album became the fastest-selling LP in British history and the record-buying public listened without prejudice, ‘Be Here Now’, a coked-up extravagance of self-indulgent recycling on a grandiose scale, proved to be the killer nail in the Britpop coffin. It was downhill from then on and things gradually reverted to where they’d been before, when Annie Lennox scooped her annual Brit Award year after never-changing year – only this time, it was Robbie Williams; the rise of the Cowell franchise was just a kiss away.

A few weeks ago, the record held by ‘Be Here Now’ for eighteen years was finally broken. Oasis had established the record in 17 days; Adele’s third album, ‘25’, managed it in ten. The worldwide figures for ‘25’ so far are astonishing. It sold 800,307 copies in its first week in the UK, with 252,423 being downloads (which broke another record). This kind of instant success was simultaneously repeated across all the major European territories; and in the US, ‘25’ sold 2.3 million copies after just three days on sale, making it the best-selling album in America this century. By the end of its first week on the Billboard charts, ‘25’ had become the first album in US chart history to sell more than three million copies in seven days, setting one more record. Quite frankly, I could go on; and on; and on. But I would begin to sound like a smug record company executive if I did, so I won’t.

What makes the level of sales for this one newly-released album remarkable is that we are supposed to be living in a day and age in which recorded sound on a physical artefact is as relevant as a wax cylinder when it comes to the listening experience. But there are two ways of looking at the unprecedented public response to the record.

Firstly, if we backtrack a little to the acknowledged golden age of the LP – the 1970s – we see that the removal of one all-encompassing bandleader as had existed in the previous decade inadvertently increased the variety on offer in the big-bucks stakes as a myriad of acts jostled for the top spot. Led Zeppelin’s fourth, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’, Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’, Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellowbrick Road’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ and the Bee Gees’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack album all individually shifted the kind of units that are today the province of one solitary artist. Forty years ago, talent was spread far and wide, for we haven’t even mentioned Slade, T. Rex, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Status Quo, The Eagles, Wings, ELO, 10cc, Abba, Queen, Roxy Music, Blondie, Kate Bush or The Sex Pistols.

Secondly, for the past fifteen years the decline in record sales, largely attributed to illegal downloads, has run parallel with the rise of the TV talent show as an Open Sesame for young hopefuls who adhere to a strict formula that negates a voice with something to say in favour of someone yer mum will like. Many even graduate from a school that teaches them how to be a pop star – how to write a song, how to sing it and how to sell it. The majority of those whose impact in the 70s still resonates wouldn’t have made it past the audition stages – and rightly so.

Compared to this interchangeable production line of acts that all sound the same and look the same, someone like Adele is bound to contrast sharply with the competition. For one thing, next to, say, a beanpole glamourpuss skank like Sheryl Cole, Adele is plump and plain; for another, she’s less unreliable and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ than someone like Amy Winehouse; she’s the Bobby Charlton to her predecessor’s George Best. Adele is what Amy Winehouse could have been had the beehived diva of the noughties not been such a spectacular car-crash. But that’s partially what made her such a fascinating figure and what makes Adele so dull. And the mass record-buying public like dull. Just look at how many records Mariah Carey or Celine Dion have sold.

There’s also the must-have fashion-accessory factor where this latest Adele release is concerned. Just as the nation’s bookshelves once bulged with unread Harry Potter or Bridget Jones books, having a copy of ‘25’ sitting casually on the coffee table when guests visit earns you membership of the ‘in’ club, the club that says we’re all ‘in’ it together. The CD could consist of Adele belching for ten seconds and it wouldn’t really matter. Whatever musical merits it possesses, ’25’ is essentially leisure industry merchandise with the aesthetic value of a T-shirt. Such is the era in which we reside.


Jug EarsIt was announced yesterday that the last surviving member of the original cast of innuendo-riddled 70s sitcom, ‘Are You Being Served?, passed away at the weekend. 81-year-old Nicholas Smith played jug-eared Mr Rumbold, anxious middle-man between the shop floor and ‘Young Mr Grace’, throughout the series’ 13-year run (1972-85); but there was more to Nicholas Smith than one memorable role. His biggest break prior to being recruited to the staff of Grace Brothers was as PC Yates in ‘Z-Cars’, a bullish albeit humorous copper whose unsung contribution to an ensemble cast has recently been resurrected and reassessed via the magic of DVD. He also belonged to that durable post-war generation of television character actors whose faces were more recognisable than their names; they proved to be the strong support system for the leading men and women who ascended to superstardom and were in work for the best part of five decades. For those of us who enjoy viewing British TV from the 60s or 70s, the passing of Nicholas Smith is another chapter closing on an age that is slipping away quicker than a double-entendre rolling off the tongue of Mrs Slocombe.

© The Editor