NOISE GATE: Do geeks know anything about the music business?

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An almighty beef has kicked off between Idolator and Listening Post, where the former has blasted the latter with a headline accusing them of stupidity, claiming that “online nerds” don’t know anything about the music business.

It started with the disclosure of EMI’s financial data the other day. In that, it was revealed that 88% of EMI’s artists make a loss, almost 50 per cent of CDs were returned unsold in April and May 2007, and the label spent £700,000 on taxis in London in the last financial year. To anyone but old-school music business people, that would seem ridiculous and not a good way to run a company, right?

Listening Post commented that EMI’s now in a bit of a mess after the recent high-profile departures of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and Radiohead. Given the ridiculously large fanbases of those artists, it’s hard to argue that losing them is anything but a body-blow, but Idolator claims that future releases by those bands don’t necessarily have any value. The value’s in existing catalogue – which EMI still owns.

That’s a worrying point of view for a number of reasons. Firstly, saying the future has no value completely ignores the effect of innovation in a marketplace. A new album by anyone has far more marketing power than an old album. Secondly, and relatedly, Idolator seems to be advocating that record labels cease to produce new music entirely and become catalogue farms where old records go to die.

Lastly, given that almost all the past releases in question are available in a DRM-free format already (the CD) and on several free streaming services, there’s a good chance that 90% of the fans own 90% of the back catalogue already. Why would they want to buy the old records again?

What worries me most about the whole post, however, is the petulant, teenage “you just don’t understand us!!111” attitude that it exemplifies. There’s no question that the recorded music business is in freefall, with CD sales going through the floor. A friend of mine who works at Warner told me the other day that only 6 or 7 bands have been signed this year, as opposed to twenty or so in an average year.

Record labels should be searching far and wide for inspiration, be that from tech blogs, or from newspaper columns, or just from the fans of their artists – all of which have long been saying “things are broken – here’s how you could fix it”.

A newcomer to the business, like Guy Hands, is going to be a far better person to fix things than someone who’s very good at selling plastic discs but doesn’t have a clue what MP3 even stands for (MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3, in case you were wondering). Innovation comes from many places, and the record industry, if it has any sense at all, should be listening to anyone and everyone’s on how to fix things, not sticking its head in the sand.

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Duncan Geere