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Music For The Masses - I think not.

We live in a world of technology - exponentially increasing breakthroughs in all


things scientific. So fast that we can't even keep up with it. So why is it t
hat the audio quality of music is degenerating? Music 'sounds' worse. We have
stopped listening, we don't have time. We only have time to be smacked in the f
ace by the loudest, most attention-grabbing blast of souped-up noise imaginable
until ear fatigue sets in and the desire to 'change the record' takes over. Why
are the adverts on TV twice the volume of the regular broadcasts? It's the onl
y way to get our attention in the VOLUME WAR.

In recent years, a revolution in processing technology has instigated a change i


n the way albums are mastered. In order to compete, A&R men, producers, even th
e artists are demanding that mastering engineers, via digital compression, crank
up the level so high that all dynamic range is callously sacrificed.

(Compression essentially increases the volume of the quieter elements within a m


ix while holding steady the peaks of the louder parts)

The effect of excessive compression is to obscure sonic detail and rob music of
its emotional power leaving listeners strangely unmoved. In fact, the ear natur
ally compresses high volume blasts to protect itself - this is why we associate
compression with level. Our sophisticated human brains have evolved to pay part
icular attention to any loud noise, so initially, compressed sounds seem more ex
citing. It is short lived. After a few minutes, research shows, constant volum
e grows tiresome and fatiguing.

True excitement comes from variation in rhythm, tone, pitch and a wide range of
dynamics which in turn provides space and warmth - something you're unlikely to
find in much of today's rock/pop music. If you want a good example, listen to T
he Arctic Monkeys 'I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor' for a bombardment of
the most unsubtle, one-dimensional noise.

The download spiral...


At the moment, MP3 compression allows a smaller file to be created by excluding
the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of th
e information left out is at the very high and low end (MP3s don't reproduce rev
erb well for similar transience reasons). So when the already squashed CD maste
r is then consumed via MP3, the flattening effect is enhanced further. The resu
lt - an unsatisfying, brittle, indistinct, hollow experience with no punch.
Just as the CD replaced vinyl, we all know that MP3 and other digital formats ar
e quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. This means
more convenience but inferior sound (although that may improve over time). Even
the audiophiles have moved on to multi-media - the iPod or iPhone being the 'mu
st have' item of choice. Many have lost interest in high-end stereo systems whi
le younger listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music that the
battle has already been lost.
But this is not the whole story. We are seeing the ramifications of this subtle
but significant listening shift for the record industry. You see, it's not jus
t about audio quality. It is about craft, toil. It's about art...
Art for art's sake
I am slightly out of the ordinary in that I am not a hugely 'successful' artist
in terms of commercial sales and in that sense, I struggle to be heard just like
millions of other musicians. However, because of my background in Depeche Mode
, I am secure, which has meant (and continues to mean) that I don't have to tail
or what I do to conform in any way. The market shift hasn't really affected me
that much. It certainly doesn't change how I approach making music. It does re
inforce my cynicism towards the injustice of so much good music lost in the mêlé
e of dross. But that is nothing new. The nature of mainstream radio hasn't imp
roved in any way; magazines have minimal impact, television exposure is more lim
ited than ever - notwithstanding MTV channels which have become more and more ma
rginalised. In fact the best way to get your music heard is through a TV advert
isement.

Leaving viability aside for a moment, I would like to see a return to high quali
ty art, embracing all the wonders of technology and science, delivered at a pric
e that reflects the time and effort the artist has put in. Call me old fashione
d. Just as one would expect to pay for a hand-crafted piece of furniture or a d
esigner dress or a beautifully printed photograph. Rather than pandering to mas
s media, why not also produce higher resolution audio - maybe on DVD since that'
s a format most people can engage with without having to buy new equipment? Com
bine this with lovingly produced artwork which, if a printed option is too expen
sive, can at least be downloaded.

Collectors items are becoming a way to escape the turmoil. It makes a lot of se
nse to subsidise the production of an expensive format for those who really appr
eciate quality and collectibility by allowing a wider audience to cough up a min
imal amount for the fundamental elements.

Some have tried. For instance, Magne Furuholmen (A-ha) released and sold 300 co
pies of a special 10" vinyl picture disc with hand-painted original sleeves, acc
ompanied by a CD containing all the songs, a poster and a documentary charting t
he creation of the artwork. The package sold at 100 Euros a piece. Afterwards,
all songs were made available on-line for free via MySpace. Hats off to a bold
approach which effectively encouraged each serious fan to also become a kind of
personal investor.

The successful implementation of a DVD/art/film package such as this by a major


company largely remains to be seen. No reason for it not to work as long as the
label takes a pragmatic view about downloads - that they can only really act as
a promotional tool rather than generating a sustainable source of income.

But really, coming up with a format is the least of the challenges - the difficu
lty as always is how to sell it.

Certainly trying to get any sort of coverage in the record stores ceased to be a
viable option some time ago. The chains themselves are on their last legs (not
e the recent demise of the excellent 'Fopp' stores) or they are mutating into so
mething different - focusing on games, merchandise, iPod accessories and so on.
To ensure their own survival, with their 'no returns' policy, the record stores
exert heavy pressure on the record companies by only agreeing to stock 'dead ce
rts' - just the best selling artists, in order to avoid being left with excess
stock.

As for marketing and promotion, I want the first listening experience of one of
my records to be exactly as I intend it to be heard. For that reason, no longer
will I be offering up advance copies for charlatans posing as journalists to se
ll on E-bay or upload to The Pirate Bay 3 months ahead of release. Considering
the amount of advance promotion I get these days, it won't make a blind bit of d
ifference to the sales performance.

Not that there aren't any positive sides to fan-shared files. Clearly, people i
n remote parts of the world - Siberia for example - can potentially be exposed t
o my music this way, albeit not, as yet, at optimum quality. It's not ideal but
better than no opportunity to hear it at all. Even with CDs, in Russia, they a
re impossible to buy outside of the major cities which is why we get sharp, entr
epreneurial fan sites buying up all the city's stock and selling it on to others
outside for a small profit margin.

From Russia with love


Recoil recently released an enhanced CD including a film and a special booklet.
Let's take a look at the process. The 'Prey'/'Allelujah' package was brought a
bout through fan pressure; by those that want a physical product - completists m
aybe, but also music lovers who prefer the audio and tactile quality of a CD ove
r downloadable 'faceless' products. The tracks had already been available as do
wnloads but it wasn't satisfying for many. The generation gap is showing.

Following a successful promo appearance in Moscow, a local DM/Recoil webmaster m


anaged to persuade Gala Records (EMI's local label - Mute's partner) that it wou
ld be worthwhile to release this disc. They agreed - not without conditions min
d you. So what was agreed?

Firstly, the promo trip was instigated by an Electro club manager. The club pai
d for and largely organised the visit. On the back of that, Gala arranged some
radio, press and TV. The results were more than encouraging but despite this, t
he conditions of a release meant that: the fans had to pay for the manufacture o
f the disc, the fans had to implement pay structures and distribute the disc via
their own website, other Recoil fans produced the artwork for a 28 page booklet
that accompanied the disc, another fan produced and directed the 9 minute film
that was included for 'Allelujah', the artist (me) produced the music in his own
studio, the artist funds its own website along with a dedicated webmaster that
works for free, the artist and the fans took care of the on-line marketing, prom
otion and sales support. All these services were provided as labours of love -
no cost except for time and effort through sheer will to make it happen. Astoun
ding. And it warms the cockles of my heart.

So what did the record company do, you ask? A good question. The record compan
y organised the parts into a manufacturable product - this means making a produc
tion master from existing music mixes and cobbling together a two-page inlay wit
h label copy from existing artwork. The local licensee added cyrillic legal jar
gon to the inlay and alerted some press and TV. Not much really is it?

Ok, this is not the norm and as such, slightly unfair. It was a kind of one-off
experiment. Gala/Mute might argue - a favour. But it is most definitely the w
ay things are going. Why won't they release the CD in the usual way? Because t
hey don't believe the demand justifies the effort and manufacturing costs when t
he trend is for cheap or free downloadable music.

The Russian project was an interesting experiment but it could only expect limit
ed success given the current view of that country and the customer mistrust that
seemed to permeate the whole enterprise. It wasn't an ideal way to try to sell
a product but that doesn't preclude the process itself becoming perfectly worka
ble - as long as solid logistics are in place, making it simple and reliable for
the customer.

(Note: despite the obvious hurdles, in fact we still managed to sell all the pla
nned stock prior to release, such was the demand)

Pop will eat itself?


So why bother with a record deal at all? And that is what many artists are now
asking themselves. Why wouldn't they when they are being told that their compa
ny just can't afford to spend any money? Or that the company wants a cut of the
artist's live income to pay for marketing. This is why we see the mass exodus
taking place, squeezing the already crippled record industry. The artists that
find it easiest to walk away are those that are already highly successful, compo
unding the problem still further. Why? Because the likes of Radiohead and Prin
ce can afford to give their music away as a cheap promotional gimmick in order t
o create publicity for their respective machines. They get noticed for doing so
and benefit in other areas. So with everyone now expecting free music, all the
other artists lose what little income they could expect from record sales, even
though the love and money spent producing their product hasn't changed.

I've long since given up expecting to make a profit from what I do. And you mig
ht expect that I would be full of resentment and bitterness toward my own record
company but that's not really it. Mute are victims in all this. The reality i
s that all the companies are suffering and are desperately clinging on by their
fingernails trying to come up with solutions as the rug is pulled from beneath t
hem.
In Mute's case, EMI have inflicted so many spending restrictions and are 're-sha
ping' and 'streamlining' with department 'centralisation' and the reduction of t
he artist roster. EMI big cheese Guy Hands describes his business as 'an unsust
ainable model' with a need to 'reduce waste'.... Garbage collection. Thinly ve
iled rhetoric meaning CUTBACKS! He talks of 'eliminating duplication and bureau
cracy'. Bottom line: 2000 jobs have to go.

More worryingly, he also offers us the information that currently about 3% of th


e entire roster is profitable and that those that never will be profitable, no m
atter how the model is changed, can kiss their arses goodbye. That is about as
far away as you could ever get from what I understood as the Mute philosophy, wh
ere the profit from major selling acts is used to nurture all the other artists
on the label. Art. A record company does not sell baked beans, it exposes art
to the masses. An unquantifiable thing. Baked Beans - a quantifiable thing.

But is that philosophy realistic in these times? Clearly not if you're ruled by
a private equity conglomerate. The Mute home (now part of the EMI building) is
a shadow of its former self. A few lost souls wandering around in a post-apoca
lyptic daze, like a scene from "28 Days Later". There are some good people at t
he label who have their hands tied. And their feet bound. And some gaffer tape
d firmly across their mouths, helplessly kidnapped having been lured into the co
rporate machine.

Of course Mute can't just up and leave. It would be like trying to put your hou
se up for sale when you're only renting it. I imagine Daniel Miller is as conce
rned as the next tenant. He is contracted to EMI as Mute's label boss and his o
wn future I imagine is unclear. Maybe he is tired of the whole business, his or
iginal vision impaired beyond repair. I'm sure he is just as passionate about
music as he ever was, but who would want to start a new record company in the cu
rrent climate?

And can the musician act as entrepreneur? Is it fair to expect our scatterbrain
ed creative songwriters and virtuosos to also hold a degree in business manageme
nt? Formulating their own strategies and marketing models as they go? I mean wa
sn't this the whole reason record companies and managers came into existence in
the first place? From my own experience, simply trying to 'stage manage' what h
as been a very small-level experiment has taken up most of the first 3 months of
the year - valuable time which I intended to spend composing new music.
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Business acumen will vary but it is essential for artists and their representati
ves to try and stay ahead of the game, to think up new endeavors. One could see
the return of small art-focused indie labels employing a new modus operandi (it
's already happening if you look around) with minimal overheads, operating more
as logistical support to the artists, organising the manufacture and effective m
ail order distribution via the artists websites and other associated outlets. Ta
king the strain. (This doesn't mean one has to abandon the idea of mass availab
ility via iTunes or similar)

By the time I finish another album, who knows if I'll have a record deal at all?
It would be a shame to end my association with Mute after such so many good ye
ars but I've got a feeling the decision could be out of my hands. Much depends
on the future of Mute/EMI and indeed all the companies. It could be that the ma
jor selling artists on Mute just get sucked into the EMI machine and all the oth
ers fall by the wayside, including the Mute label itself. It will be a sad day
indeed.

So who shall we blame for the whole mess? Do we stick two fingers up at the rec
ord companies who have sat around twiddling their thumbs, peddling overpriced re
-issues for years while their A&R men bombard us with shallow, faceless pop idol
, X factor boy bands? Is it fair to say '... well, you had it coming'...? Or d
o we accuse the casual 'non-listener' with the attention span of a three year ol
d living in a disposable, homogenized, Paris Hilton-obsessed society, over stimu
lated with too much life choice? A society that places value in triviality and
accepts mediocrity without much question? Or perhaps the devaluation has evolve
d from the cult of the DJ, where anyone can regurgitate the very essence of rock
'n roll by lifting an entire 70's funk classic, adding some rap drivel over the
top and calling it their own work? Is modern music regarded as an art form at a
ll anymore? Or is it just another business now?
Alan Wilder (Thanks to Bernard Van Isacker for his input)

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