The Music Industry Is Yours

by James Hitchings-Hales

I look back to life a year ago, and the world seems different. I had just endured a car crash breakup, hit accelerate on a summer backpacking tour of South East Asia, and, most crushingly, had written my last column for PearShaped Exeter. I think an English degree happened somewhere around that point too. Today, friends that still remember what it feels like to be chucked out of Arena for public indecency have started paying towards their pensions. Remember that bloke you had a deep chat with that one time whilst getting cheesy chips at 2am? He now cycles to work on a tax-free bicycle scheme to save money. The girl who first introduced you to Aphex Twin after a heavy one out at Timepiece? She’s just moved in with her boyfriend to afford to live in a room with mice in South London. And me? Somehow, inexplicably, I’ve just completed a year working as a paid Marketing Intern at RCA Label Group UK, a flagship recording label of Sony Music UK.

The intern life at a major label isn’t easy. It’s a full time job, where you learn about the music industry for the first time whilst navigating a constant series of storms and near-misses. Yes, there are perks. Committing to memory what Nicole Scherzinger orders anonymously from Nando’s may be one of them. And you’ll never forget how many sugars’s need to go into Dame Shirley Bassey’s decaffeinated coffee. But the tea round is a myth, or occasionally, a choice. You’re thrust right into the center of life at a label: complex budgets, impatient suppliers, frantic phone calls from management. You’re a part of the team, and the work you do is crucial to keeping that team above water. It’s challenging, but exhilarating. If you want to learn more about the music industry, don’t read the latest Thom Yorke thinkpiece blasting major labels for giving up on artists. Get involved. You’re the person the music industry needs, especially at a moment in history where it’s changing faster than ever before.

Let’s quickly clear something up. The music business is just that, a business. Yes, this is stating the painstakingly obvious. I can hear you groaning in the back. But approaching the industry for the first time as a fan, as a romantic, it can be a surprisingly alien fact to navigate. To pay people to be a part of it as a livelihood, records need to be sold. And in 2015, that job is harder than ever. The emergence of streaming platforms as major players has meant that consumers are less likely than ever to part ways with their cash for the music that they love. Unless you’re Adele, fewer and fewer albums are being sold every single year, and digital downloads will keep shrinking until streaming takes over completely. In terms of the market, this could be good news. If somebody who buys only one or two CDs a year is now paying £120 annually for a music subscription, then this is all new money. Piracy is down, and people are just investing in different ways. But in terms of the artist, it makes it harder than ever to break a new act. Your £120 is going to Spotify, with a fraction of that going to the label, and even less going directly to the artist. If people are listening, then the artist will get paid, but as a result, you’re investing less in the artist as an individually emotional proposition. You’re listening to more of the music you like, but discovering less of the music you love. Which essentially means the label, as the street vendor, the flogger, the ones getting the track played on your radio or written about in your newspaper, have an incredibly hard job to do.

But the industry has never been more exciting. Everything is changing, and power is shifting to new places. In the past year alone, we’ve seen the launch of Apple Music loaded with millions of marketing spend. We’ve seen Beats1 steal Zane Lowe from Radio 1 in the infamous “Apple Crumble” of BBC talent. Spotify has accrued over half a billion dollars in investment to compete, whilst everybody from Amazon to BitTorrent are setting up pay gates to gain some ground in the streaming war. Even Jay-Z has cried for his A- List Avengers to assemble around a posh boardroom table to proclaim that although the gloves are off, we will never see Daft Punk remove their helmets. We’ve witnessed NME go free, Adele break all the records she’d already set for herself, and, against all the odds, even Justin Bieber has become cool. See? Nothing is off the table. And there’s never been a better time to pull up a chair.

Major labels notoriously get bad press, but nobody seems to write about the blood and sweat that the people behind the labels pour into every artist they sign. I’m talking about real music fans, laying their sanity on high-speed train tracks every single day to get great bands a big break. The new Everything Everything album Get To Heaven, possibly one of the best releases of 2015, was marketed by a woman who studies a Fine Art degree in a her spare time. The Nothing But Thieves project was led by a guy who, at 30, has just started learning to skateboard this year. Pharrell Williams is product managed by a woman who once swam in bloodied water with sharks without a cage, for the kicks, whilst Billie Marten and WHITE are two fascinating emerging artists that are looked after by a girl who collects vinyl disco records off the clock. If these projects excite you, then that’s a good start. But it’s the people that make the projects worth working. There’s no “soft boiled eggs in shirts and ties” at major labels. Just passionate people working on powerful projects. It could be you.

Nobody knows what the future of the music industry holds. If the streaming model breaks down, then everybody loses. If the BBC faces service cuts, then new music will be the first to fall. Everything is uncertain, but guess what? New rules will replace the old. The world is consuming music more than ever before in history, but in a way that’s obliterated all precedent. For us, social media is now a second language. The new world is founded on ideas that come easy to those who never knew anything different. And if you’re willing to work your arse off, if you’re open to learn new skills in a challenging environment, if you stumble on a few lucky breaks, and if you really, truly, live for art and innovation, then the music industry is yours for the taking.