To my mind, the idea that the record industry is in crisis is inherently flawed. Firstly we must contend with the implication that the music industry has been healthy and, if this is the case, heathy for whom? Most of us cherish music and consider it essential to the human experience, yet the people we […]

To my mind, the idea that the record industry is in crisis is inherently flawed. Firstly we must contend with the implication that the music industry has been healthy and, if this is the case, heathy for whom? Most of us cherish music and consider it essential to the human experience, yet the people we are grateful to are not the record label executives and copyright lawyers but the artists and composers who please and tantalise our ears. I believe that the idea that there has been a point in history where artists have been supported by the record industry is largely fanciful. The bread and butter for almost all musicians, from the classical period to today, is earned on the stage, meaning that the record industry has always remained its own industry – primarily a supporter of itself as opposed to the musicians we so cherish.

While music has remained part of the fabric of society since the dawn of humanity, most historical access was live and local, with church being one of the only places that ordinary people could listen to the works of the classical canon. Composers like Bach, Handel and Vivaldi were in the employ of rich and powerful patrons, who would pay them a living in exchange for a constant stream of music. When composers produced works, they were not in themselves valuable. It was the kudos attained by the people who funded the pieces which carried the value. Musicians would access the scores in order to play them but there was no market around the manuscripts themselves and very few musicians were paid well for their craft.

Music historians refer to events surrounding Mozart’s death in 1791 as being the first moment when any form of music was sold to the public. Recent developments in printing allowed the genius composer’s widow to sell manuscripts of his work at his funeral and the inaugural performance of his requiem. The market for musical manuscripts grew steadily from this point but only developed into the main component of the music industry much later, with the advent of music recording in the early 20th century. Until this point, profits for music fell mainly to printers and distributors. Musicians themselves still profited modestly from live performances, much as they do today.

The market for recorded music developed rapidly over the 20th century – from luxury, privately owned gramophones to the more populist radio and readily available vinyl in rapid succession – leading us towards the current state of affairs. It seems a common misconception that the period between the 1920s and 2000s was the golden age of the recording industry. Artists and customers were increasingly influenced by a wider range of genres and acts, but a trend towards large scale, commercial distribution has always been present. By the late 80s, the ‘Big Six’ record companies – EMI, CBS (Sony from 1991), BMG, PolyGram, MCA (Universal Music Group from 1995) and the Warner Music Group – were already dominant in the market, snatching up any commercially viable music to the detriment of many smaller labels. Almost all of the music that has endured this long period was released by a major record label, often through a subsidiary imprint. Even the anarchic Sex Pistols were on EMI. The winners here were the record shops, promoters and major labels themselves. Musicians were largely in the same position they had always been in – paid for their live performances, but with only the most successful making a good living out of their craft through royalties.

On the face of it, the internet has spun the record industry into crisis, but in reality all that has happened is the continuing change in the mediums we use to access music. The recording industry still dominates popular music in terms of profits and many artists make less out of their recordings than ever before. The internet may have dented the bank accounts of major record labels, but ultimately it will not threaten their grip over what we hear and who gets the money we spend on it. While the independent music scene is as strong and as invigorating as ever, very few labels have the spending power to match the big guns and the vast majority of music being released today is still owned by a small collection of powerful labels and entertainment conglomerates. They have never been in crisis and the money they make only trickles down to the artists in a small percentile of cases. If you want to support music, support musicians – support them onstage, support them on the internet, tell them you love them and tell your mates about them. They are the people who need your help.

Fred Oxby.