Everybody’s Happy Nowadays?: The state of independent music in the 21st century – April 21st 2010

Saturday 17th April 2010: third annual Recordstore Day, a chance for the little guys:  independent record shops, to get together and celebrate their diversity, passion and knowledge and highlight to music fans everywhere that there’s plenty of choice beyond the ever decreasing racks of Tesco’s and HMV. Recordstore Day purports to be an event centred on the customer, offering limited releases and live performances to entice fans back to the recordstore and away from the evil behemoths Sainsbury’s and Amazon. All sounds rather worthy, good for independent music, good for music consumers – everybody’s happy right?

Well, not quite, in the past few years many independent record shops have gone out of business due, in some part, to the rise of online retail, lack of support from various record labels and the continuing trend to illegally download. So, when Recordstore Day came around on Saturday, where did the majority of music fans go to pick up their Blur or Rolling Stones 7-inches? They couldn’t just pop down the high street to visit their local indie because it no longer exists and their usual port of call (and only option) for such releases (Recordstore.co.uk – that’s us!, Norman Records – to name just two) couldn’t help because we’d been excluded like truant school children for being merely online retailers (you had to have a “proper” shop to be part of their gang you see). It didn’t matter that we (and Norman) are the most independently spirited record stores out there, keeping prices fair (unlike some of our more famous indie brethren) and with a history of offering limited and exclusive releases to our customers.  It didn’t matter that we are often the only lifeline for new and exciting music to hundreds of music fans across the globe. We were excluded meaning that  countless music obsessives out there were excluded too, leaving their only option to scour eBay in search of some unscrupulous seller with a high street record store in walking distance to screw them out of a couple of hundred quid. Hardly fair or in the spirit of inclusion that independent music should be about.  It smacked of elitism and an old-boy network mentality that has no place in the modern music industry let alone the independent music sector.

But that’s not all that stinks in today’s musical climate. Whilst many are quick to blame the public for illegally downloading or supermarkets devaluing the art of the record there are plenty of other factors across the industry that contribute to the general malaise. As an independent record shop (yes, that’s what we are Recordstore Day!) we don’t have the buying power of Play or HMV (I know I used to work for HMV) and although there are a majority of labels still happy to give us a level playing field with the big boys there are a handful that act as though they are doing us a favour by letting us sell their releases. So, as an example, as much as I loved the first two Band Of Horses albums on the wonderful Sub Pop the band’s recent shift of label means that, for their much anticipated third album, we won’t have the perks of price or free gifts like our illustrious online neighbours to make us an attractive buying destination. It’s this kind of thing that brands many independents as “rip-offs” when the truth is anything but. With a little help from the label (much less than they would give Amazon for instance) independents would be able to offer their customers a reason to stay loyal.

Meanwhile, the government is determined to prosecute anyone who downloads outside of the law – failing to realise that it’s essentially a modern day version of home-taping which hardly destroyed the industry in its heyday.  Instead of going after the small minority that set up the arenas for this activity, this witch-hunt style legislation sends out a message that it’s an “us against them” war between the music industry and the very people that keep it going – the fans. Elsewhere live venues treat fans like they are a cancer ready to spread throughout their sticky floored, overpriced beer selling establishment (check out the Word Magazine Blog for a firsthand account) and some artists (I’m not naming names but regular Recordstore watchers will know who I’m talking about) treat fans with a level of contempt rarely seen outside a Rangers Vs Celtic game.

 For those that are in bands it can be even worse. Greedy promoters who take all the profit but do none of the promoting, venues who insist on a pay-to-play policy, bills that are cobbled together from disparate acts who have no interest in supporting each other, labels that tie bands up in unwieldy contracts and then drop them after the first stumble.  It’s a wonder anyone even makes any new music outside of X-Factor finalists anymore. In my other life I co-run a DIY night in North London and I know how to get a good crowd, great bands and pay everyone fairly (in fact we’re completely non-profit making that’s how DIY we are) – it’s this kind of spirit that keeps music alive, keeps people buying records and creates a solid community of music fans (but more on that in a forthcoming blog).

Whilst we have initiatives like Music Matters trying to tie up the links between the consumption of music and the artists that create it (worthy though it is) it’s not going far enough and puts the onus on the music buyer rather than the labels and sellers. Instead of establishing divides like the current digital economy bill, or bloody recordstore day we should be celebrating the fact the music is an all encompassing passion that touches so many people every….single….day. The music industry needs to take a look at itself and decide are short term profits garnered from overpriced products, suing fans and wriggle-free contracts really the answer? Shouldn’t it be trying to work out how to give the best possible experience to the people that actually matter – the fans and the bands? Because, without them, we’ll all be out of a fucking job.

Any Thoughts?



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