The Golden Goose

The Music Magazine 00-11-1990

The music industry is aware of it – a massive shift in public tastes and demands is taking place. Not since the mid-50s have the music recording moguls faced such a revolution. What future for the golden goose?
By Christopher Long

If, as my old father always says, a stockbroker has a better-than-evens chance of predicting which way the market would move, he certainly wouldn't be telling you or me. He would keep very quiet and clean up on his own account instead.

Similarly, the mega-million music industry would give many a corporate arm and leg to know which way public taste is moving and how to profit thereby. This is hardly surprising. Dependent upon massive capital-intensive long-term investment, locked into necessarily long-term contracts, feeding off long-term 'royalties' and 'rights' of all sorts, the fiercely competitive moguls of the music industry stack the shelves high and sell the goods at even higher profit-margins. But their position is no less chancy than the concert hall impressarios who, when they misjudge public taste, must be tempted to haul the homeless dossers from Cardboard City and literally put bums onto embarrassingly empty rows of seats.

The fact is that the whole music industry is at a cross-roads. Not since the mid-50s has there been quite such a wholesale shift in public taste. Then, with hindsight, the revolution was inevitable. The war had introduced America to Britain in the celluloid form of Hollywood and the physical form of millions of young GIs.

Then came peace and the desire for a fresh start. The universal appeal of the music hall as the factory and test-bed for popular recordings gave way to more convenient appeal of television. The post-war baby boom produced millions of high-earning, high-spending 'teenagers' by the late 1950s, a lot of whom are the moguls of the music industry now. It is they who have grazed for 40 years on the lush pastures of pop, rock, blues, soul, jazz, MOR, pop-classics and 'eye-brow classics' (as one barrow-boy-turned-mogul once described his products to me).

Hanging around Underneath The Arches with Flannigan & Allen in post-war austerity had little appeal when you were defying war-weary, de-mobbed (but still regimented) parents, putting on your Blue Suede Shoes and fantasising about having, or being, My Venus in Blue Jeans.

Vinyl emerged to make cheap, unbreakable records. Wurlitzer came up with the jukebox in every coffee-bar and Dansette produced tiny portable radios and record-players.

None of this unsettled the classical music industry too much. Nearly every home still had a piano – needing sheet-music. Most children were encouraged to play an instrument – good news for Chappell's and Boosey & Hawkes. The concert halls were still cheap, and, thanks to Malcolm Sargeant and Robert Mayer, did a better job at marketing themselves than many now recognise. Gramophone and the worthy BBC catered admirably for the needs of the classical enthusiast, not then worrying that audiences were ageing and diminishing.

It was, therefore, the cute, sentimental, popsy slush of the decade 1958-1968 upon which the the modern industry was built. On the vast profits that resulted from records, sheet-music and guitars (and the hardware upon which to play them) developed the industry that burgeoned to still more fabulous wealth from the vibrant and increasingly political rock, metal, punk and protest music of the '70s and '80s. But no-one stopped to wonder what would happen next. A&R was replaced by the FCAs among the chartered accountants who were brought in to 'milk' the industry, concentrating, as is their wont, on the past and present rather than the future.

And still the classical end of the market pottered on. The performers still dressed in the white-tie-and-tails of the previous century. The maestros and prima donnas still condescended 'reluctantly' to grant a few words to a grubby journalist. No one felt that money or flair needed to be spent on interesting record sleeves and, generally speaking, everyone concerned (from Radio 3 announcers to concert programme writers) conspired to make the ever-shrinking field of classical music as obscure, as elitist, as inaccessible and as pompous as they possibly could.

Oh, how the great composers of the bawdy, earthy, worldly C16th, C17th and C18th would have groaned if they had seen their work rarefied and emasculated in the late C20th – with just the same tendency to suicidal banality and irrelevance as many felt was simultaneously being achieved in many other areas in the arts.

And so the roller-coaster continued into the '80s. No one ever questioned what it was exactly which dictated the shifts in public taste. Very few of the industry's decision-makers were in close touch with the desires and aspirations of the street. The accountants saw record sales drop dramatically. Less and less sheet music was sold. The family piano had, years ago, been smashed up and fed through an 18-inch steel hoop to raise money for the local Scout Hut. State schools no longer offered music tuition or musical appreciation on the curriculum. Radios were saturated with balding DJs from the Swinging Sixties (locked into long contracts with the BBC). And despite the fact that '60s and '70s saw the appearance of an immensely rich and innovative body of new classical compositions and the arrival of extraordinarily talented new performers, Radio 3 inspired no one to go out and buy a record when its closeted announcers continued to dredge up ever more obscure 'Composers Of The Week', introducing them with the sort of toe-curlingly embarrassing 'twaddle' that Peter Sellers would have killed for as comedy script.

What happened was that the public became increasingly disenchanted with the sort of music they were being asked to buy. Sure, they liked the Acid/House/Hiphop/Rap/Disco fare dished up in the clubs – because that's what you could dance to. The industry rather liked it too – it's dirt cheap to produce and synthesisers don't demand fees or royalties. The downside was that it only needed a handful of record sales to a handful of club DJs to keep millions of the world's youth satiated with multiple-orgasmic electronic pulsations. Re-mixing lost the industry another large slice of its former market.

So, what on earth were people going to buy to put into their brand-new hi-fi systems, Walkmans and CD players?

Ah, CD players!

This was the next jinx. At anything from £200 - £1,500 each only the rich could play this game and buy disks (at more than a tenner a time). And in the '80s being rich meant taking care of your image – or vice versa. And the image was the image the advertising industry had prepared for them. All of a sudden, on TV, they were being offered expensive cars to the accompaniment of Carmina Burana, the World Cup with Nessum Dorma, cigars to the tune of Bach's Air on a G String – while the Thatcherite privatisation of industry was backed by Beethoven's Eroica No.3. All around them – them being the aspiring, ladder-climbing and arriviste products of the '80s mirage – could be heard the strains of Carmen, the duet from The Pearl Fishers and Janacek's Sinfonietta.

Classical music was born again!

Out of the wood-work crawled the hype-merchants, the PR people, the merchandising boys...

Yesterday they told you 10 secrets you didn't know about Madonna.

In their next issue they'll reveal the name of Nigel Kennedy's hairdresser and what Evelyn Glennie thinks of men.

"It's all great, man, t'riffic, magic!" say the Music Moguls.

"Yes, but is it art?" reply the Mainstreamers.

"Know any other good tunes?" ask the Creative Directors as they realise that they've already used all the 'good bits' out of Elgar.

"This chap Tosca... dead is he? Out of copyright?" ask the FCAs.

"We're buying the futures in Monteverdi," says the Smart Money.

"And we're going to clean up," say the Japanese.

And the clever guys are indeed the Japanese. First they produced tape recorders (which made the British and German gramophone obsolete) plus the cassettes to go into them. Then hi-fi systems. Then videos and their cassettes. Then CD machines and another lot of disks. In this way they had control of all the hardware which the hardware-dependent music industry lives off. Finally they're beginning to buy up the software, or as much of the profitable music-publishing and music-rights industry as they can. Very wisely they have bought past, proven success.

So, what music will the public buy tomorrow? It will buy what it has always bought – a strong melody, a sympathetic rhythm, and words which, whether they are understandable or not, nevertheless stir the emotions.

If the piece in question is to remain merely 'popular' these qualities alone will suffice.

If it is to be outrageously successful, then it will help considerably if the writer/composer/performer has the lifestyle, looks and attitudes with which the listener can identify.

If the piece is to be bestowed with the accolade of 'Classical', it will require added ingredients: an appeal or challenge to the intellect; enduring quality in both composition and performance; and, if possible, references in both composition and performance identifying it with, or distinguishing it from, works which have already earned 'Classical' status.

Cynics, of course, would say that this 'Classical' label is a load of tosh. Genuine, copper-bottomed Classical music, they would say, is any music which is still a nice little earner for the publishers years after the composer's rights lapsed.

But then they're just cynics.

It will break my old father's heart to see me hand out these secrets with not a penny-piece to show for it. It will break the heart of many a music lover to see me over-looking the admirable efforts, in the classical field, of the BBC orchestras, the Proms, the enlightened producers and the combined experimental and creative genius of hundreds of composers and performers over the past twenty years. I don't deny any of them one word of the credit they deserve.

But here is a warning. If you are a brilliant or merely talented musician, your future will depend upon the music 'industry'. The industry has had nearly thirty years on the rock/pop roller-coaster in which to learn that hyping what's easy to sell is profitable (for a while). Killing a Golden Goose doesn't sound too good, but it looks great on the balance sheet.

If they can they'll find a sexy 'all-teeth-and-tits' flautist, get her to churn out the 'good bits' from L'Après-Midi d'Un Faune, flog it to a Saatchi's coffee ad, hype it all over Wogan, Women's Hour and assorted chat-shows, plaster the tube with titillating posters and turn a fast buck doing to the great masterpieces and building blocks of culture what Disney does to literature.

True, this approach may succeed in introducing many people to music that they would otherwise have dismissed. But, if you are like me, you may well feel that the most magical delight in all great music (indeed what defines great music) is the slow, steady, growing appreciation we gain from whole works with each new interpretation varying but casting new illumination on an increasingly familiar theme. This is a process which, like the greatest love-affairs, may last a life-time.

Just as opera-going became a trivialised lifestyle accessory for a season or two of yuppydom in the pre-crash '80s, so would the music industry find it all too easy and profitable to flog off a few nice little earners from the classical repertoire until that too had been trivialised to death.

We must be very, very careful that we don't allow the music industry to do to Classical music what it has just done to a great Popular music tradition. And if they succeed it will be largely the fault of the elitists in their ivory towers who have failed to make the enduring delight of great music accessible and available to everyone.

This article appeared in the first issue of The Music Magazine, which the author also launch-edited. The magazine went on to become one the BBC's most successful flag-ship titles throughout the following decade.

© (1990) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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