The State Of The Music Business
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 5, 2021

In a recent interview, one of many he gave in tandem with the release of his most recent album, The Future Bites - if I'm not mistaken, it was a video interview by a Canadian radio station - Steven Wilson reflected on the extraordinary circumstances that had the release date of his album transferred from June, 2020 to... right now, after a very long and detailed promotional campaign designed to titillate potential buyers.

Wilson recalled how conversations with various people all agreed that a New Year release would be more than enough when it comes to cautiousness. "Who could imagine, last year, that after all this time the situation would still be so severe?"

I have to admit I found Wilson's line of reasoning to be quite peculiar. To release, or not not to release, this is the real question. Even more so when the "theme" of an album - a dance-hedonistic dimension as is the case with the most recent album by Dua Lipa; a self-reflexive gaze on extreme consumerism in its hedonistic-identity appeal as is the case with Steven Wilson's new one  - appears to be quite "dissonant" when compared to today's prevalent "mood": panic, uncertainty, isolation, saying goodbye even to those banal everyday activities that in normal times one doesn't even perceive as "actively put into action" anymore, so much an ingrained part of our social being they are.

It's easy to recall that practically nobody saw the notion of a vaccine being ready in a very short time as something feasible. And we know that the "physical" act of vaccination requires time, the same being true for the act of making all those items - the vaccine itself, sure; also those syringes, those special refrigerators, and so on - that are an indispensable part of the whole plan.

It's only a notion such as "the summer will make everything go away, with its hot temperature" that would explain such an optimistic attitude. But could one imagine such a well-read, rational being as Steven Wilson (as I imagine him to be) entertaining such a simple-minded idea?

My memory gives me the line "The future's uncertain/The end is always near". Anyway, the moment when everything will return to "back to normal" appears to be more and more distant with each passing day.

Last summer, while the most widespread expression when it comes to "it's time to go back to the movies" was "Holiday Season", a friend of mine who works in the movie industry told me that, behind the screen, all involved had already agreed on "Summer 2021". (I haven't seen him in a while, dunno about the rest of the story.)

In parallel, Glastonbury, Coachella, Primavera, and all the main Summer Festivals cancelled, the same being true of Summer 2021, or so it seems.

Foreseeing the future is obviously an impossible act. What we can do is to examine that part of the future that's now in the past, to see what became of those "trend lines" that were already visible.

Being isolated has obviously favoured the expansion of those movie channels - from Netflix to Disney+ and so on - that readers know so well.

Will people go back to the movies as soon as humanity goes "back to normal"? Will those movie theaters need investment on such a scale as to make movie-going a profit-sucking line of business?

Meanwhile, life goes on.

The first large-scale surprise of 2021 is a song sung, and co-penned, by US singer Olivia Rodrigo titled drivers license (yep, that's the title), released on January, 8th. While personal opinion about the song is fatally bound to differ, when it comes to numbers there's only one truth: the song shattered all records, all over the world (even in Italy? Yes, a week after release I did a check about its real "real-time" spread).

Choosing almost at random from all the records it shattered, I saw it was the most requested song on Alexa in a single day, and the one with the highest number of streams in the world for a female artist, with more than 130 million streams (so surpassing the previous record, by Mariah Carey, with All I Want For Christmas Is You).

Olivia Rodrigo - so I learned - is a main feature in the Disney+ series titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. So, her name is the most recent specimen in a long line of artists: Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguileira, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez. But while there are a few cases like this - going backwards: Billie Eilish, Lorde, Taylor Swift - when it comes to Olivia Rodrigo it's also about those technological innovations such as TikTok that made her explosion happen so fast, in ways that were simply not possible before. Let's have a look at Wikipedia: "The TikTok hashtag "#driverslicense" amassed over 888.5 million views in one week".

Readers who are wondering where this will lead are invited to be patient for a short while.

I bet you've read about Bob Dylan selling the copyright to his songs.

"Bob Dylan Sells His Songwriting Catalog In Blockbuster Deal", was the title of a piece penned by Ben Sisario which run in the New York Times on Dec. 7, 2020.

Six hundred songs, yours for (unofficially) a mere "$300 million".

Though unprecedented, this is only the biggest case in a long series, in a trend that already saw Stevie Nicks, Blondie, Rick James, Barry Manilow, Chrissie Hynde (of Pretenders), and many more (fifty thousand songs, or so I've read) sell their copyrights, the most recent cases being Neil Young, and the sale of the Sun Records catalogue (minus Elvis Presley).

In a world that increasingly adopts the "streaming" model, owning the "catalogue" means real money. There's also the world of advertising, and all those movies and series - it's reasonably logical that, at the present conditions, the "on demand" slice of the pie can only increase - that will translate into larger profits.

If I'm allowed to talk "in the first person", in the last year I've noticed how the legal control on all copyright has become more rigorous, in parallel with the process that has the source of profits increasingly go from the "physical" to the "virtual" sphere.

It happens more and more that a cover version of a very celebrated song by a very famous artist as sung by a "minor" artist in a club, and later posted on YouTube, simply "disappears". Which is perfectly legit, of course, but in my opinion makes the landscape poorer. Let's say I have yet to get used to it.

There's also the case of song texts appearing online, some of which I could only read after more than forty years had passed. I mean, there were no legal alternatives available. So, no texts.

Here I want to stress that I'm not talking about those websites that offer the song lyrics to the "hit" songs of the day as a kind of "bait", and that carry ads.

There was something called lyrics.wikia where for a couple of decades I looked for help when trying to discover the lyrics to this or that song by, say, Spirit, or Amon Düül II. Recently, a colleague of mine argued that the website was not what one would call "a trustworthy source", and I know that having song lyrics where one could find things such as "(?)" or "(...)", to indicate passages where an agreement could not be reached, is definitely not normal. But given the fact that a lot of those lyrics were "caught by listening", for those among us who don't speak English as a first language, well... it was much better than nothing. But after one year when the name lyrics.wikia was replaced by lyrics.fandom, it was the end.

This shows that, at present, the trend is to make full use of one's copyright even if only as a "future". Which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, now that all those lyrics can be found "nowhere".

For a while now, people have discussed the many ways musicians are supposed to survive, in a world where it appears there's no "level playing field".

An event that was discussed a lot - to me, this indicates that it's not something very common - was the show "on demand" by Dua Lipa titled Studio 2054 having five million viewers, many of whom - no official figures here, sorry - paid $10 to watch it streaming.

Could this be, some have asked, the new way to have concerts, and artist, survive? So, on came the "simulations": what kind of theaters, what kind of artists, at what price, all leading to the unavoidable question that goes "Would you go and see...?", etcetera.

In parallel, the eternal debate about how much artists are supposed to get from Spotify, and how it's possible for artists to live earning such meager figures, and so on.

Here I have to warn readers that these are not simple issues to grasp, but one thing I can say:

that it's not true what one can read everywhere (which is a quite intuitive notion nonetheless, and one whose application when it comes to real life many clamor for): that the fact of earning $3.000 for song x getting a million streams on Spotify at moment y entails that the same amount will be earned "in general", abstracting from time and geography (what is usually called "a flat value per play").

Readers may have heard about Gary Numan getting about $300 for a million streams of his hit song Cars (I'm sure readers have heard about many cases, but let's concentrate on this one for now).

But let's have a look at a few figures now, to read this fact in context:

Top Hits on Spotify get 40 million streams a week;

Ed Sheeran's album Divide on Spotify has 10 billion streams;

in 2020, The Weeknd's Blinding Lights had 1.600 billion streams.

It's the same old story:

"If you get an enormous audience, you'll make a lot of money. If you don't, well...".

In today's panorama, chances for musicians to survive are almost nil, unless one has access to public funds, or fan support in its various guises, such as Patreon, and so on.

So we can see that today the system that took the place of the "old type of organization" - the one based on record companies - has determined the modern types of consumption. And I's like to say that, in the past, I publicly defended the old system, as I was perfectly aware of what was in store, which I imagined as being much, much worse.

Let's recall those who - on both large and tiny papers - spit venom on the old system, calling artists to rebellion, in parallel with those who speak against the Unions or any National rules, described as "an obstacle to man's freedom". One doesn't need to watch a Ken Loach movie to know how this ends.

Today every artist is free, and alone. And one can't help but recall the famous dictum which says: "Maximum freedom equals total irrelevancy".

Here I'd like to end my piece with two facts which are not, strictly speaking, "new", but that I could not previously discuss because at the time my webzine was still "in suspended animation".

Those two episodes did not receive the attention they deserved, for reasons I'd say are not too difficult to understand. Ten years separate the two episodes, which have one thing in common: fire.

A fire of respectable proportions - thick smoke showing traces of highly inflammable chemicals - broke on February, 6th, 2020 in Banning, California, in Riverside County. The building collapsed, the content was destroyed.

The firm that was located in said building - Apollo Trasco Mastering - made about 90% of all "acetates"-"lacquers" in the whole world that are used to make the "masters" from which vinyl records are made (the remaining 10% being produced by a tiny Japanese firm currently working at capacity).

I'll immediately say that Europe - and part of the United States - use mainly a different technical procedure, called DMM (Direct Metal Mastering), which doesn't need lacquers and "masters".

These are complex issues. Here I'll only say that the more the source is a digital file, the less important the process "lacquer-master" is. Inversely, in the case when an analogue master and the "sonic signature" of a careful mastering engineer are considered important, this is very bad news. And since usually mastering studios don't keep an inventory of "blanks" of more than fifty (this is stuff that deteriorates easily, so engineers require that they are fresh)...

The second episode, much more important in its scale and consequences (though I did not see much about it in print), is the giant California fire that in 2008 devastated a Universal warehouse where whole catalogues and discographies of artists that are considered as important in both cultural and market terms were housed.

The "scoop" exploded in the pages of the New York Times, on June 11, 2019, with a very long article penned by Jody Rosen titled The Day The Music Burned.

It was so revealed that a giant fire had destroyed whole discographies with many of the artists, and their legal representatives, being totally unaware. In fact. there were those who, after reading the article, finally understood while their label appeared no to be able to locate those original album tapes, nor those unreleased performances and songs that could make their new boxset an "impossible to resist" purchase.

A second article by Jody Rosen, appearing on June 25, 2019 with the title Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed In The UMG Fire added 700 (!) more artists to the 100 already mentioned in the first installment.

© Beppe Colli 2021 | Feb. 5, 2021