Where Have All the Good Times Gone? by Louis Barfe

The day the music died
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The Independent Culture

"Cash from chaos" was Malcolm McLaren's managerial motto for the music business. It all depends what you mean by chaos. For that particular Artful Dodger, it meant the punk spectacle of outrage and excess generated by a bunch of iconic outsiders, at exactly the time weary youth needed the excitement. Make the chaos enough of a phenomenon, and someone in the biz will try to commodify it: that is, to make the unruly little bastards turn up for recording sessions, commit to gigs, slouch through TV shows and mumble through press days.

Much of the internal drama of great rock'n'roll can be traced in the structural tensions between the Romantic freedom of musicians, the labyrinthine apparatus needed to make money out of them, and the managers and A&R men who face each way like Janus. We have no shortage of accounts from the first and third elements: the rock star's odyssey of indulgence and the Svengali's tales of chicanery and cocainery. But what Louis Barfe's meticulous, nerdishly written account of "the rise and fall of the record industry" gives us is the voice of the men (and occasionally women) who make and forge the machinery of the music business.

How many stars or managers have ever visited the shop floor of a CD-pressing plant? Precious few. Yet the basic realities of distributing and selling the "product" underlie the glitter and sashay of rock, pop and soul. As Barfe says, how many industries in the world have the kind of century-long continuities of tradition (if not ownership) represented by EMI, Bertelsmann and Warner-Universal? Contra McLaren, it would seem, rock'n'roll is about cash from order, too.

However, Barfe's history appears amid one of the periodic meltdowns of the music-business model, occasioned, as ever, by the arrival of new technology. The internet's download culture has turned music companies into litigants against 14-year-old schoolgirls who strayed on to Kazaa or Napster, looking for a stray Britney Spears track.

At the same time, companies are cutting deals with hip computer outfits such as Apple to help them to promote their "rip, mix and burn" technology, which positively encourages piracy and copying. And they're also finding an unexpected revenue-stream in adapting melodies to the ringtones of mobile phones - now generating as much cash as the singles market.

So the lament implied by Barfe's title is surely, even by his own history, only temporary. Whether it's Edison fighting against rivals at the turn of the 20th century, or Ed Bicknell, Dire Straits' manager, realising how important it is to ally his band to the CD format, the music industry is an opportunity-rich sector: the economist Schumpeter's "creative destruction" exemplified. I have no doubt the business will eventually make the right series of decisions to perpetuate its existence.

Partly, that's because the very Romanticism of musicians compromises their ability to challenge the structures of the business. After 10 years of cyberculture, with technology becoming ever more powerful and accessible, it does seem a bit strange that we don't have a strong, artist-led "counter-music business". The early mavericks in that endeavour - such as Prince and George Michael - are back distributing records with the majors they once ostentatiously spurned, as Barfe acerbically notes. Technologically literate musics such as hip-hop, for all their vaunted connection with "the street", are driven by as much desire for product control as any conservative rock. Musicians have miserably failed to use the chance for a direct relationship with their fans that broadband and download affords.

Is that because most music these days is a kind of precisely targeted demographic therapy - Norah Jones for fearful adult homebirds; Blue and Busted for the new child consumer; Franz Ferdinand for punks young and old - whose message sits all too comfortably with controllable formats? Is music still a medium whose impact might demand a different mode of distribution and reception? It would seem that documentary-makers such as Michael Moore are more rock'n'roll than any of the artists currently tugging their forelocks to MTV or Clear Channel.

Pat Kane's new book 'The Play Ethic' is due from Macmillan