LifeStyle: Labels Must Wise Up to Digital or Ship out; Andrew Cowen Charts the Decline of the Compact Disc and Offers Some Advice to the Major Labels Which Are Currently in Crisis

The Birmingham Post (England), January 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

LifeStyle: Labels Must Wise Up to Digital or Ship out; Andrew Cowen Charts the Decline of the Compact Disc and Offers Some Advice to the Major Labels Which Are Currently in Crisis


Byline: Andrew Cowen

EMI's recent announcement that it is to shed a third of its staff must have sent shivers down the spine of anyone working in the music industry.

There's no doubt that there is a crisis at the heart of the major players in this most precious of trades, a reaping of the whirlwind sowed when the labels ignored prevailing trends in our listening habits.

A recent article in The Economist reports from a focus group held in London, where a group of teenagers were asked to share their thoughts about the industry, is highly illuminating.

"At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. 'That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,' says a person who was there."

For years, the teenage audience has been treated cynically by the record labels, force-fed a diet of packaged pop pap or product from bands that have been carefully groomed for stardom.

Bands come and go as often as this target group change their jeans as artists are milked for a fast buck and then dumped in favour of the next big thing.

The labels arrogantly believed that kids would put up with this and focused their efforts in promoting established acts who would flog albums to an older peer group, or peddle repackaged back catalogues in new "definitive" editions.

However, the kids, being computer-savvy and hungry to look cool, turned away from the safe CDs they were being pushed and embraced the digital culture of the internet. The massive take-up of broadband sped up the process and there was a huge increase in downloading sites, mostly illegal.

The iPod became ubiquitous and, suddenly, the only use for the compact disc was as a bird-scarer on grandad's allotment. Simply, it was a coup d'etat and the labels' only response was to threaten downloaders with lawsuits.

Not a good idea. It's commercial suicide to sue your target audience and, besides, like the fall of the Communist Bloc, force of numbers had already won the argument.

The four multinational record labels are still reeling and none has come up with a convincing plan to stop the decline in their fortunes, although they all make noises about adapting to this brave new world.

The MySpace phenomenon has meant that bands no longer need record labels and traditional cash cows such as Radiohead and Oasis have now taken back control of their careers.

The Rolling Stones look like being the biggest band yet not to sign a new contract and we can expect more and more big names to do the same after their contracts end.

To return to Radiohead, a massive fuss surrounded their decision to release their excellent new album, In Rainbows, on the internet, allowing fans to pay as much - or as little - as they wanted. …

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