Friday 20 October 2017

Phil Lynott would turn in his grave at what passes for music in today's online world

Record Store Day is a lovely occasion - but it distracts us from the fact that the internet is ruining music

The Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott
The Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott
Phil Lynott
The vinyl frontier: Karl McCrone from Sandyford and Angie Sheehan from Stoneybatter at the Tower Records outlet in Eason's on O'Connell Street for Record Store Day Photo: Tony Gavin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In a way there's something heartening about Record Store Day, a series of events held last weekend around the world - including in Dublin, where there were DJs and live music in several of the biggest shops.

The idea was partly to promote the importance of physical records in a digital age, which is something many people in their 30s and older might get excited over. Even those who aren't music nerds will hark back to a time when browsing through dusty record shops was part of the thrill of fandom. The rich sonorities of vinyl were never replicated in MP3s and the meditative process of actually putting the record on the deck, with that beautiful pause of crackling expectation before the music began, was all but lost to a generation.

But none of this is why Record Store Day is so significant this year. Its appearance instead highlights that society has come to an impasse with music and how we consume it. Relatively speaking, records are actually doing OK, but the music industry as a whole is barely staggering along. Like media, it's not that people aren't consuming music, it's that the channels through which it is monetised are more inequitable than they have ever been.

Incredibly, more money was made from vinyl sales in the UK and US last year than from all the billions of views of videos on YouTube put together. The BPI, the record labels' association that promotes British music, this week said that YouTube exploits the "value gap" between what it makes from online advertising shown around music videos and what finds its way to the artists' pockets.

As if to add insult to injury, news of the paltry level of payouts came a day after figures showed that Google, and subsidiary YouTube, took home the lion's share of the £10bn spent on internet advertising in the UK last year.

Spotify and other paid services, which have a fraction of the users of YouTube, generate billions for the music industry, while YouTube is estimated to only generate for the record industry about $1 per year, per user, of the site.

The vinyl frontier: Karl McCrone from Sandyford and Angie Sheehan from Stoneybatter at
the Tower Records outlet in Eason's on O'Connell Street for Record Store Day Photo: Tony Gavin
The vinyl frontier: Karl McCrone from Sandyford and Angie Sheehan from Stoneybatter at the Tower Records outlet in Eason's on O'Connell Street for Record Store Day Photo: Tony Gavin

The tech giants are aware that this doesn't look great and have begun crafting a counter narrative. In December, YouTube said it had paid more than $1bn globally last year to the music industry from advertising that is positioned around videos on the site. It claims it is generating money from "light" users who would never subscribe to a paid-for music service, so this is, in effect, money labels and artists would not otherwise see. It also says it is generating revenue from identifying and putting ads around fan uploads, which now account for half of the industry's YouTube revenue, and is a bonus.

"YouTube is working with the music industry to bring more money to artists, labels and publishers," said a spokeswoman. "YouTube is contributing a meaningful and growing revenue stream for the industry."

This is, on the face of it, a persuasive argument to the average consumer, who enjoys the free treasure trove of music that YouTube offers. Aren't there still plenty of spoiled, rich young pop stars?

For all the nostalgia that surrounds it, Record Store Day, also serves as a reminder of the horrible old days when you had to buy a whole CD of dross just to get to the one track you wanted. We wouldn't want to go back to that. And there were always industry fat cats, so why should we care if they are smooth talking tech CEOs or Simon Cowell?

The answer is that as bad as the old system was, it ended up being a fairer deal for the people who make the sounds we gorge on for free. Artists still made very little on each record (Michael Jackson had one of the highest percentages historically, Tracy Chapman one of the lowest). The way the current system operates, where there is almost no real transaction between artist and fan, and artists in effect work as free advertisers for Google, is slowly ruining music for everyone.

This may look like a victimless crime. But when you turn a profession into something that one has to do for free - in hope or expectation of future payment - you limit those who can enter that profession to the wealthy and the sure bets.

Almost all creative work, from writing, to music, to comedy, has been transformed by the internet in this way. It has meant that publishing has become more celebrity driven (sure bets) and that pop music has become more obvious and predictable and slowly middle class. This is partly why we see private schoolboys like The Coronas and Hozier beginning to dominate the Irish charts and less of the working-class boys - the Thin Lizzys and Undertones - of yesteryear.

When that process is complete, something will be lost. You only have to listen to those four acts to know what that might be.

The war between the music industry and YouTube is set to reach its climax in Europe later this year. The industry believes YouTube unfairly takes advantage of "safe harbour" laws, which protect it from liability for the massive amount of copyrighted material illegally uploaded by its users, so long as it is removed on request. The labels believe YouTube's ability to make money from videos without a licence puts it in a position of power. (Services such as Spotify need a licence before they can make music available.)

Last year, the European Commission proposed to make YouTube and other such services subject to the same copyright rules as other streaming services. The EU parliament will vote on the reform this summer, though YouTube is lobbying against it.

As much as we depend on the tech firms, and as much as we are addicted to the free treasure trove of YouTube, we should hope the company (owned by Google) fails in this.

Ireland is heavily invested in music. We have a unnaturally high quotient of pop music geniuses. And the fact that there is no money in selling music any more has had one nice knock-on effect - it has meant many of these legends have continued to gig heavily. But what it will also do is eventually ensure that we never secure the pipeline of brilliance.

And in the future, when the charts are the preserve of boy bands and private schoolboys, we'll understand that not paying for something that was always free was the ultimate philistinism.

Sunday Independent

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