The awful truth of commerce

BY GREG COTMORE
Last updated 13:19 27/03/2009

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Back in 1981 when Roger Shepherd founded NZ record label Flying Nun, computing technology for the general populace was just starting to come out of the science fiction closet.

OPINION: Hare-brained ideas like MP3s, iPods and indeed the internet are now reality and doubtlessly will be supplanted by even more lunatic-sounding technologies (hologram home concerts by Jimi Hendrix, anyone?).

Nearly three decades on, everything has changed, except the attitude of record companies and the moral compass of audiences. Which means nothing much has changed, apart from the gadgets.

Faced with the proliferation of "online theft", Shepherd argued that the now-scrapped Section 92A of the Copyright Act would have helped protect recorded music (March 20). I have my doubts, and these are founded on basic, and sometimes base, human nature.

I have a confession to make. Back in 1981, I did not buy The Clean's Boodle Boodle Boodle EP, but rather recorded a copy on a cassette (remember cassettes?). I suppose I could have waited and recorded it from the radio, just like I did in the early 1970s when I collated recordings of Bowie, Roxy Music and anything else that took my fancy.

Sadly, Wellington commercial radio stations 2ZM and Radio Windy did not feature Boodle on their high-rotate playlists. Or any playlist. Pity - one of its many highlights, Anything Could Happen, was such a radio-friendly tune.

Maybe I could have recorded Boodle during one of Radio Active's then sporadic broadcasts, but as I was an announcer on Active at the time, it just seemed easier to dub a copy.

You get my point. We all owned cassettes with songs recorded off the radio or with dubbed copies of LPs (except, it would seem, Roger). It was all so easy. Where there's a technology, there's a will.

Apart from the global and faster means of distribution, what makes MP3 file-sharing and cassette swapping so different in principle?

I have another confession to make. Although I did not buy Boodle, on the strength of what I heard, I bought tickets to The Clean concerts. Not once, but twice, and maybe even three times. And I did not go alone. I enlisted a few friends. More tickets sold. You get my point. If it had not been for my bootleg copy of Boodle, I would not have gone to the gigs.

Many artists have seen the writing on the wall and realise that there is more money to be made from concerts. Consequently, bands tour like there is no tomorrow.

Even the most colossal and long-toothed artists (eg. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan) tour as energetically as when they started out back in 1964.

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Instead of sitting on their laurels counting the royalties they receive after the record company takes its percentage, many artists are resorting to going out on the road to earn a living. Just like in the days before the record companies took over.

Commercial channels change with technology, or at least should. Adapt or die is the awfully cruel Darwinian truth of commerce. The dearth of any imaginative response to the advent of file-sharing beyond legal threats belies an industry faced with commercial extinction.

Maybe Flying Nun should, to use the vulgar jargon, "reinvent" itself as a touring company? Yes, that would involve a fundamental change, but at least it would keep the company solvent, if not relevant. The modus operandi of record companies, as they have been configured since the 1950s, is no longer valid.

Record companies served a definite role in the analogue age, but their existence in these digital days is less clear cut.

Once, buying a single or album covered a multitude of necessities: performance and publishing royalties, recording and distribution expenses. Everyone took their cut, from the artist and company to the retailer. In a digital world, this is kaput.

The internet has become the great liberator, freeing artists from self-interested record companies, providing a global and instantaneous promotional platform, and encouraging performers to get back out on the road and connect with audiences.

When a group as artistically and commercially successful as Radiohead offered their album In Rainbows online, downloadable at a nominal, name-your-own price, you could smell corporate death in the air.

The challenge facing us is to find a workable and contemporary model. Legislation and lawyers is not the answer. To use a Cleanism, "point that thing somewhere else".

* Greg Cotmore is a former Radio Active programme director, and is the marketing manager for a national arts organisation. This is his personal view.

- The Dominion Post

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