I was asked to give a talk at a conference recently on the future of the music industry. Most of the feedback I got on the subject was doom and gloom. We know about the declining sales of recorded music. There's been plenty said about how touring and gigs are the only thing that's kept the music industry going. But I believe there is another, more optimistic story that doesn't get as much of the limelight.
On a Sunday morning I sat listening to "Supermensch" and legendary manager of Alice Cooper, Shep Gordon talking with Fabien Riggall, founder of Secret Cinema. Fabien has developed one of the great cultural brands of modern times and he explained the thinking behind Secret Cinema and how he worked to create a complete experience in which the film was just a part of a 'world' within a world. Shep told fascinating anecdotes about the beginning of rock n roll and his encounters with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison but it was his thoughts re himself and his fellow hippies creating their own alternative world that got me thinking.
This alternative world was one of incredible album covers from the likes of Santana, Cream and Pink Floyd. They were works of art in themselves and often the designers became famous too - Hipgnosis for example. A vibrant and experimental underground press gave an insight into what the bands believed in and thought. These magazines merged the visual and written word in a way that hadn't been done before - incredible layouts bringing colour and new writers too. Then there were the actual gigs. I remember going to see Eric Burdon, Canned Heat and Blind Faith in front of an enormous crowd in Hyde Park just weeks after The Stones famous concert for Brian Jones. Watching it on Sky Arts recently I was fascinated to see there was absolutely no security, no merchandise and not even a proper stage...oh and it was free!
Rock and Roll started out as a Lewis Carroll type alternative reality. A secret universe that you could feel part of, that your parents or teachers or other authority figures couldn't understand or access. But incrementally music became homogenised and packaged. Record labels actually started to call it "product". Then the system broke, as the record industry ignored and even worse feared the rise of digital. The audience began to drift away. The idea that somehow music was part of a culture had long gone. Technology had caught the record industry on the hop.
But now, although it's taken a long time for things to realign, digital is doing for the industry what the pioneers in the 60s did. Streaming is finally beginning to pay but it's not just about access. Digital has given both the artists and the consumer a wonderful freedom. The artist can create EVERYTHING themselves if need be. The music fan can not only listen to the music but also communicate with the artists via Twitter and see how they live their lives via Instagram.
Certainly, given the intensity of our political times and toxicity that's been released into the atmosphere by some of the fringe politics there's no shortage of material for musicians to get angry and write songs about. Yes, a bit of the mystery might have been lost but the power of digital has made music a force to be reckoned with again. Not just the music itself but the whole art form feels like it's back where it belongs, at the heart of a vibrant popular culture.