A new model for music non-production?

laptop musician

The laptop musician - not an instrument in sight

I can’t believe I’m about to write this.  It’s a bit of a change in thinking for me, and I might be wrong.  Let me know what you think.

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the music industry.  My recording career consists of a few sessions playing keys for a local label (highest chart position 41, though my parts were inaudible on the final mix anyway) and lots of gigs played to ‘crowds’ of fifty or less.  Like many young aspiring musicians, I spent far more on recording equipment than I made from selling what I made with said equipment.  On the consumer side, it took the purchase of an iPhone 3G to make me use iTunes and I only found out about Last.fm after it had already been superceded by Spotify.  But, all the same, a late-night driving argument with a friend and fellow musician got me thinking about our current setup of major record labels, internet distribution of legal and illegal music and everyone feeling rather unhappy about their lot.

See, a lot of the music I’m listening to recently has me cursing the lack of real musicians.  Bat For Lashes followed Madness on Jools Holland a couple of months back, and though I was more inclined to favour Natasha Khan’s style, her laptops-and-loops performance was painfully anaemic compared to the brilliant power of a full band.  I then thought about Richard Hawley, and wondered whether he would be able to make his two brilliantly retro albums in a world without major label backing.

The problem, you see, is that musicians need to get paid.  I’m not talking about the rock stars, who learn three chords and sing in a contrived local accent and rocket to the top of the rich list aged 17.  Nor am I talking about the hobbyists, who do what they can in their evenings and weekends.  I mean the guys who study, train, practice and bum around London for years trying to find enough ‘session’ work to pay for the next vintage instrument, not to own an antique but to chase their ‘ideal tone’.  (I’m sat with one as I write this, visit him here.)  The guys you see in the background at an Oasis gig, or playing with Eric Clapton.  These people have decades of experience and are the most talented musicians working in pop.  How can one dedicate a lifetime to practising, recording and performing if there are no labels to front the money to make an album?

Richard Hawley and session musician Shez Sheridan

Richard Hawley and session musician Shez Sheridan

My friend suggested that nobody should be able to make an expensive first album.  Do away with the labels, he said, let them stand on their own two feet.  Make it at home, using virtual string sections and synths.  If they sell enough records and gig tickets, then they’ll be able to hire an orchestra next time around.

I’m not convinced.  Don’t misunderstand me, everything about depressing lowest common denominator approach to music commodification makes me despondent for the ears of our young people.  I am fully aware that only a complete idiot would purchase a Lady GaGa record or an Akon record.  But those who make money from being used to trick unsuspecting teenagers into thinking they like music which was designed purely to be sold to them actually pay for the talented, ambitious few to realize their artistic dreams.

So let’s not bring down the labels just yet.  They are depressingly cynical, for sure, but they are also the only thing holding us back from a generation of bedroom musicians taking over.  And if that happens, despite their enthusiasm and thrift, we might finally forget what real music sounds like.

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