Art Is The New Rock'N'Roll

03/07/2011 18:56 BST | Updated 01/09/2011 10:12 BST

In the last few weeks there have been art events all over the place - The Hong Kong Arts Festival, the Venice Biennale, the Basel Art Fair, the Royal Academy's summer exhibition, and the Hayward Gallery's retrospective of Tracey Emin. In popular music, that would mean five of the year's biggest rock festivals happening in the same month.

Art is booming as never before. Booming creatively, booming commercially, booming subversively. At every level, art is the number one popular expressionism of the moment. Music has fallen to second place.

Coming from the music business, and having only entered the art world in the last year through taking on the management of an artist, the most noticeable difference between the art world and the music industry is freedom. Freedom from being dictated to by major record companies.

Imagine if, all over the world, every art gallery in every city in every country belonged to one or another of four major corporations. In order to have their works shown every aspiring artist had to go to the local office of one of these multi-national corporations and present his work to the art equivalent of an A&R man, someone who would make his decision based on the lowest common denominator of public taste. That's how the music industry has dealt with newcomers for the last twenty years, and if a similar thing happened in the art world the only artists having success would be Jack Vettriano and people painting cats.

In the early 70s rock music was at a high point of creativity. Not only were there plenty of independent companies but artists who signed with majors were still given freedom in creative matters. Since then, as major record companies have amalgamated, the space for artistic freedom has grown smaller. Success with a first album is obligatory and the need for corporate profit at all costs has caused X-Factor and American Idol to become the industry's major showcases.

Never mind! Before long the internet and downloading will cause record companies to disappear completely. New music makers will have the same artistic freedom that painters and sculptors have long had. But although major record companies will cease to be the doormen of the industry, creative young people dreaming of becoming superstar artists may no longer find the music industry the best place to be.

It's true there won't be A&R men standing between the artists and their potential audiences. But although the internet will offer everyone exposure, there'll be a much broader spread of styles. Audiences for each artist will be smaller, which means there'll probably be no more mega-rich rock superstars.

There are already more millionaire painters and sculptors than millionaire pop and rock stars. To make money from music, huge numbers of people must have homogenous tastes and buy the same record. In the art world, a work of art is more tangible and needs only one buyer. And these days there are millions of them. Not just the super-rich arriving in their yachts for the Venice Biennale, or the millionaires who queue all night at Basel to rush in the second it opens and buy the place dry. There's the more ordinary folk who flock to the Royal Academy's summer show, or the millions who buy lithographs and prints on line from websites like

What attracts all these people to contemporary art is its incredible diversity of style and subject, its wonderful freedom. And in sharp contrast to the world of music where creativity has long been stifled by profit-obsessed corporations trying to second guess what the public wants next; whether it's Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds, Tracey Emin's bed full of tampons, or Allora & Calzadilla's upside tank with a running machine on top, the artists most likely to create blockbuster hits are those creating art primarily to please themselves. As it once was with music.

The music world is in debate as to what lies ahead. Record companies will soon be gone. No one's crying. But new musical artists are wondering how, in the internet age, they will get sufficient focus on themselves to rise to the top. Bit by bit fresh promotional mechanisms will emerge; in the meantime the new style music industry would do well to keep an eye on the world of art.

For young people with something to express, art is the new rock and roll.

Find out more about Simon Napier-Bell's work and interests at