I remember reading Lester Bangs' review of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, where he theorizes that after that record, which Bangs erroneously assumes to be electronically made, rather than created from guitar feedback, music will be taken over by a technological, rather than an artistic impetus.
Whatever the truth of that, it seems true to me at least that most of the bands I really think are still out there pushing the envelope are looking at a huge technological set-up, which is as costly as it is complicated. Thinking about TSM, or SVIIB, does a man have to have two amps and a bank of pedals to create something new? I certainly came to that conclusion largely on my own years ago, and it's telling that the non guitar artists that I've come to respect over the last couple of years have seriously complicated and expensive equipment- Fears and Charlie Barnes to mention two- and in guitar rock, let's not forget just how much kit bands like My Vitriol, Amplifier, Muse and Oceansize use.
I couldn't get this thought out of my head a couple of months back as I watched Imogen Heap. I'm not going to talk about the show (it was mind-blowing, by the way), but just say that to recreate her songs live required what looked like, at a guess, the following:
- A Moog synth
- A Keytar
- At least one Korg KAOSS Pad
- Several sampler pedals/units
- Two further Keyboards
- One computer (presumably a Mac)
- Miscellaneous percussion
- A Gong
- Bespoke microphones
...and that was just her kit. Her band added to that:
- A drum kit
- Two acoustic Guitars
- An acoustic Bass Guitar
- An electric Guitar
- At least three Keyboards
- Numerous pedals and samplers, trigger pads and midi controllers
- Two microphones
- A Cello
Where am I going with this? Well, for a long time I've thought that the start up costs of big amp and decent guitar have put a decidedly middle class bent on rock n' roll in this country. I remember that on the '70s Live In Pompeii concert film, in interview Pink Floyd joke (with probably a little truth) that Dave Gilmour was chosen to fill Syd Barrett's shoes purely because he could afford the equipment needed to do so (at a glance, from the video, a wall of amps, several echo chambers and four-or-so Hiwatt heads). Back to the point: Imogen Heap was one of the only acts I've seen in a long time that actually brought something distinct and new to the table, but if the price tag for doing so is thirty or forty grand, doesn't that price most musicians out?
Besides this discussion, there's an entirely bigger one for many; how long can a living wage be paid to smaller artists in today's musical climate, let alone the cash required to buy the gear listed above? Answer: possibly not very long. To quote Frank Turner when I spoke to him the other week- “we're rapidly approaching a time when recorded music will be free”- and that's from a man inside the industry. This unofficially is quickly becoming the orthodoxy and it's why in recent years there's been such a focus on the hit début album- two of my favourite bands, Vex Red and The Crimea produced technically brilliant, but underselling first albums and were promptly dropped by their label.
The really interesting thing about this example is that The Crimea soldiered on, releasing their sophomore, Secrets of the Witching Hour on the internet for free. Most people I know own or are aware of this album (it went Gold in terms of individual downloads- Feeder's last album, for example, sold a lot less than that last time I checked), and yet The Crimea are too small to even tour the UK anymore. Radiohead's feted In Rainbows was eventually released on CD supposedly because nobody paid for the download. Nowadays, people have somehow got the impression that music should be free and that any payment is simply a reward to the artist. I will say this: music is not free. A decent album frequently costs over a hundred thousand pounds to record, and especially if an artist is on an independent, this money is reinvested in others on the label. Example: for the dual reasons of high cost and high risk nobody was prepared to back North Atlantic Oscillation's recent début, Grappling Hooks, so the band financed it themselves and then cold called labels until Kscope took them on and distributed their record. Before you say something like 'whatever, niche band, not relevant', I direct your attention to Exhibit A: it was Zane Lowe's Record of the Week when it was released.
Take the implications of fan apathy and and record company un-adventurousness and soon the consequences become clear. Consider this: Loveless, by My Bloody Valentine, one of the most influential albums ever, cost (allegedly) over a quarter of a million pounds to record. If no fans had paid to buy this album, Creation Records would have been bankrupted before they could release Definitely Maybe. I fucking hate Oasis, but I know the more than 7.5 million people that bought that album would disagree.
The simple fact is, the venues and the labels and the record companies are in a syndicate together whereby they promote their joint interest (i.e. profits) at the expense of the artists. You're not fucking the labels by downloading music- you're creating an economic model where the small or young artist will get neglected first. I can get self-righteous, but attitudes aren't going to change- so an accommodation has to occur.
Madonna has set the example by signing with LiveNation over a record label- now her records promote her tours; everybody knows that live music is the only still-profitable sector the industry has. Is this the way the industry has to adapt? A strategy where records promote tours, and the labels integrate into venue ownership, in the same way as a brewery owns pubs? It remains to be seen, but the labels are going to have to take two things into account- one, that breaking even on a record may now become the yardstick of success; two, that in order to do this, the artist must once again be put at the centre of the business model. People will pay to support an artist, but not a bureaucracy with a negative reputation. Unless the majors can divorce themselves from this image, they will die.
So no, we're not at the end of music, but has the technological revolution that once democratised music with the internet, downloading and cheap recording software now shown its true colours? Only time will tell.