The day the music died?
Did download kill the album star? Will the music industry ever again be able to nurture talents like Thin Lizzy and U2, or are we condemned to a bland diet of radio-friendly artists like Beyoncé and Michael Bublé? John Meagher looks to the rocky future of the Irish music industry
Published 19/07/2013 | 18:00
In 2002, the year that Apple's first iPod was released in Ireland and Britain, HMV's then managing director, Steve Knott, dismissed the threat download culture posed to his business.
According to the record chain's advertising strategist, Philip Beeching, Knott had the following to say at a board meeting: "Downloadable music is just a fad and people will always want the atmosphere and experience of a music store rather than online shopping."
As a pronouncement for the future, it's not far off the infamous prediction from the IBM chairman in the late 1950s that the world would have no need for more than five computers – and baffling, too, as Napster had already demonstrated how far-reaching the consequences of peer-to-peer sharing could be.
As anyone who has even taken a cursory glance at the music industry will realise, download culture has turned the entire business on its head in the 11 years since.
Contrary to what Knott imagined, consumers did not stay loyal to the old-fashioned ideals of shopping in stores such as HMV. Instead, they either paid to download music on sites like iTunes, moved their spending habits to online retailers such as Amazon, or – as so many have done without compunction – simply 'ripped' the music for free online.
Yet, at the time its former director was rubbishing the cold, hard reality of downloading, few could have envisaged that a chain as firmly established as HMV would be forced into administration a decade afterwards. It didn't take astonishing powers of lucidity to feel that some independent stores would struggle to survive, but a retail giant like HMV would surely withstand the storm.
That it failed to embrace online selling can't have helped and its reluctance – until quite recently – to sell goods at a price comparable to the Amazons of this world helped seal its fate.
Its flagship Irish store on Grafton Street – a fixture there since the firm's arrival in Ireland in 1986 – shut at the beginning of the year and its old premises will soon be occupied by the Spanish clothes retailer, Massimo Dutti.
2013 has been something of an annus horribilis for the music industry in Ireland: besides the closure of HMV across the country and the loss of hundreds of jobs, the venerable record company EMI shut its Irish operation last week and the label and distribution firm PIAS also pulled out of Ireland earlier this month.
These developments come in the wake of – to quote the title of a new Bell X1 song – a thousand little downers. Everything from the closure of the outstanding, but short-lived music venue Tripod, to the demise of the much-acclaimed record store, Road Records, has chipped away at the quality of experience for the Irish music lover in recent years.
And yet, so much of this negative change has been driven by the consumer. While it's true that we were grossly overcharged for new releases throughout the 1990s – I remember paying £12 for Radiohead's OK Computer on CD in 1997 – the model has turned full circle and, today, too many of us feel it is our entitlement to take music for free.
Just as there is a cohort out there who see no monetary value in newspapers – online or traditional – so too is there a growing band who are unwilling to stump up even a few euro for an album, happy instead to help themselves to the music once it has leaked.
While such practices might mean a fiscal hit for behemoths like U2 – whose last offering, 2009's No Line on the Horizon, sold several million copies less than they had averaged in the preceding two decades – it can ensure that lesser-known acts struggle to survive.
David Kitt's first album proper, 2001's The Big Romance, sold more than 30,000 copies in Ireland. His most recent album, 2009's The Night Saver, shifted just 2,000 copies here – despite being critically lauded. His subsequent membership of Tindersticks was as much about keeping his head above water on a financial level as it was about artistic expression.
Even a band as internationally respected as Grizzly Bear – who played Dublin's Iveagh Gardens last night – have it hard. In an interview with New York magazine last year, they revealed the pitiful returns they have had from album sales and why so many bands like them have to remain on the touring treadmill in order to make enough money to survive.
In an environment in which music retailers have become rare commodities on our streets, the business of buying albums from the likes of David Kitt and Grizzly Bear becomes that bit more arduous. A friend, who used to manage a Choice-nominated band, reckons almost half of their album sales were accounted for by HMV.
Supermarket chains like Tesco may be happy to stock product from tried and trusted figures like Adele, Beyoncé and Michael Bublé, but they have little truck with the latest offerings from non-household names.
Thanks to the buying power of these chains, the painfully conservative tastes of daytime radio and the insidious appeal of reality TV shows among other factors, a large chunk of chart music feels more homogenised than ever.
The record company giants that still exist must shoulder a large part of the blame, thanks to their willingness to sign up new acts that sound exactly like the current flavour of the month. Just think of all the bland, uninspired bands that followed in the wake of Coldplay, including the mystifyingly popular Mumford & Sons, who pulled 40,000 people into the Phoenix Park last weekend.
But while event junkies swarm to such concerts – and often seem spend their entire time there posting "selfies" on Twitter – less heralded shows can struggle to pull a quarter of capacity at venues countrywide. There's no doubt the recession has taken its toll and, as the promoter John Reynolds told me some time ago, many of his potential customers have either emigrated or are on the dole.
Yet, it's not all doom and gloom. Download culture has helped to popularise the single once again and figures in Britain show there has been an increase in singles sales for each of the past five years. In fact, its Official Charts Company last week predicted that 2013 will be the biggest year for singles sales in UK chart history. Ever.
In Ireland, the Golden Discs chain continues to grow, with a large new store recently opening in Patrick Street, Cork, and smaller indie stores like Wingnut Records (Limerick, Galway and Waterford) and Elastic Witch (Dublin) appeal to discerning customers, many of whom favour vinyl over any other format.
And there has never been a better time for music festivals. The latest kid on the block, Longitude, kicks off today, but what's even more striking is the proliferation of smaller, bespoke festivals that have thrived in this recession: think of the family-friendly Body & Soul and the surf-and-music Sea Sessions.
A new crop of promoters are offering attractively priced packages which not only reflect these tough economic times, but also the fact that attendees are more worldly and demanding than even a decade ago.
It's also encouraging to see home-grown acts of all hues pull on the strengths of their fanbase to generate the money to make new albums.
The Walls, Nina Hynes and Fight Like Apes are just three to have gone down the crowd-funding option and each has discovered that there are many people who value what they do and will put their money where their mouths are. It's the perfect riposte to download culture.