Music and Technology - Awkward Bedfellows

With hindsight, I am pretty sure that the record industry, in fleecing us over the price of a CD, sowed the seeds of their own downfall once the internet and Napster showed music fans that they didn't have to pay for recorded music if they didn't want to...

When I was barely in my teens I was obsessed with Jazz. My brother beat me up for swapping his Shadows records for some New Orleans Jazz EP's that a mate of mine had inherited from his Dad. I saved up my pocket money and eventually bought all six of the jazz albums that were stocked in my local record shop (the guy who ran the shop was a classical music fan and only stocked a handful of non-classical records). Fortunately, those records were all quality: Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker - what a line-up! The thing is, I never once questioned the price I was paying for those records; it never occurred to me that I might not have been getting a good deal. As far as I was concerned what I was buying was utterly priceless. I can't remember how much I paid (probably about twelve and six in old money) but if those records had cost ten pounds each (again, in old money) they would have been worth every penny in my mind.

My school mates, Yes, Deep Purple, ELP and Pink Floyd fans to a man - trying to convince them of the power and beauty of a Johnny Hodges solo was a total waste of time - never spoke of record companies or the price of records. Whatever music you liked you would pay anything for and there was never a question of value for money. You might hear someone say "I bought so and so's album the other day but I don't think it's very good". I don't ever remember hearing anyone say "I bought so and so's album the other day but it wasn't worth the money".

My folks took me on holiday to Italy when I was fourteen and that was my first exposure to bootleg albums. I came home with a dozen or so albums that I had paid next to nothing for and was mightily disappointed when I heard the appalling sound quality of the recordings, lesson learnt I thought. About this time I got my hands on a Phillips cassette recorder and it was a revelation. Here was my first exposure to "new technology" and it was utterly mind blowing. It was also, looking back on it, my first exposure to obtaining music for free, or almost free. By the end of that year I had a shoe box full of cassette recordings of the weekly radio show, Humphrey Littleton's Best Of Jazz. Humph and his amazing choice of records expanded my love for and knowledge of jazz music and I still have those tapes to this day. Did I even once consider that I was getting all this wonderful music without rewarding the creators? Probably not, I still bought jazz albums but the truth is I would have bought a lot more if it weren't for my box of bootlegs under the bed. The recordings were made by holding the very basic Phillips microphone to a transistor radio and the quality was very poor, I guess I hadn't really learned my lesson.

The point I'm trying to make here, apart from having a self-indulgent stroll down memory lane is that this was my first exposure to new technology and what did I do with it? I used it to rip off the labels and, to a much lesser degree but still true, the performers and writers. The first time I saw a cassette tape to cassette tape recorder - it looked just like one of those totally cool silver boom boxes beloved of pop art directors these days and was about the size of a small suitcase - my first thought was that I would be able to copy my Roxy Music music cassettes and hand the copies on to my mates thereby making more Roxy fans. Again, technology robs the industry. The music industry tried to stem the tide of home copying with an ill judged campaign "Home Taping Is Killing Music" and CBS Songs took Amstrad to court in a failed attempt to prevent Amstrad from selling its double cassette recorder but the Genie was very much out of the bottle.

Interestingly, the next real innovation in music carriers was used by the record labels to rip off the fans (and to a lesser degree) the performers: CD's. Marketed as a huge step forward in sound quality, virtually indestructible and with an infinite shelf-life; what a load of old tosh. In reality, CD's were often less of an audio treat than well maintained vinyl and, as we all know to our cost, were anything but indestructible, as for the accursed jewel case? Don't get me started. Nevertheless, the CD was mana from heaven for the music industry. On the basis of the aforementioned false claims, we were all persuaded to buy our record collection all over again at vastly inflated prices and whilst the big name acts may have seen eye watering royalty statements most of us had to put up with all sorts of deductions from royalties hidden away in the small print of our record contracts as a result of this new technology. Incidentally, I was in an HMV shop the other day and I saw that they were selling Paul Simon's Graceland CD for £2.50, £2.50 FFS! Less than the price of a large cup of coffee, I suppose I could have just written that for this blog and it would have said everything I wanted to say about the perceived value of recorded music in 2015.

With hindsight, I am pretty sure that the record industry, in fleecing us over the price of a CD, sowed the seeds of their own downfall once the internet and Napster showed music fans that they didn't have to pay for recorded music if they didn't want to. In Stephen Witt's excellent book, 'How Music Got Free', he catalogues all of the various attempts that the tech pioneers made to try and persuade the fat lazy record company executives that the MP3 and portable digital audio devices were the future. Bloated and detached as a result of over ten years of feasting on the profits from CD sales, they simply could not picture a future without their beloved CD. At the same time, the fans felt able to justify their wholesale pillaging of recorded music as retribution for having suffered years of overpriced CD's; as far as they were concerned they were "sticking it to the man".

What I haven't done in this blog is talk about the innovations that new tech has brought to the process of making and capturing music. My interest is in the effect that new tech has had on the music business. I don't need to go into detail on how the industry has been well and truly rogered by the emergence of the internet but the fact remains that, yet again, advances in technology have not been kind to our business. Nevertheless, it could be that not all new tech is damaging, there is increasing interest in something called the blockchain which may be a way of maximising and safe-guarding direct to fan income, only time will tell.

In the meantime streaming services will probably remain the method of choice for music lovers for the next few years and if our call for performers to receive a greater share of digital income bear's fruit, then hopefully we can start to rebuild a fair and equitable music industry.


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