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Ok, you weren’t expecting to find Noel Coward here were you?  Well, it’s about time you had some proper culture instead of all that pop music nonsense.  In the play “Private Lives”, the character Amanda has the memorable line “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”, which has been quoted virtually everywhere.  The broadsheets love to give pop thinkpieces an intellectual feel by throwing this one in, but there’s a whole new slant on it now.  Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich (and a few others) are having hissy fits about the financial returns from Spotify, but they’re missing the real target by a country mile.

The problem isn’t that consumers are only willing to pay a small amount for music.  Most of the traditional teenage pop/rock/r’n’b (add your own genre as applicable) music consumers have grown up with the assumption that music is free if you know where to look for it, so why would you ever pay for it?  Things used to be really simple; you heard a song on the radio (or in a club) or read about it in the NME and went to your local music shop and bought it on 7” vinyl, 12” vinyl, cassette or CD, depending on your age.  The record company took a huge slice of the profit, but the artist got paid, particularly if they had a good lawyer and they wrote the song.  The music business panicked in the seventies over home taping, but still pushed the development of digital technology in the eighties not realising they were opening a can of particularly fat, juicy worms.

Digital recording and processing; you can make and keep perfect copies of everything and there’s no degradation no matter how many generations of copies you make.  No more tapes or master discs to worry about storing (or having stolen by the band when they don’t like the mix or don’t think their piece of the action is big enough).  And then the realisation dawned that if Sony (other labels are available) could make perfect copies, then it was only a matter of time before some under-nourished geek in a bedroom in Dollis Hill worked out how to crack the code and make their own perfect copy, which they generously circulated around the world with that new internet thing.  And they were actually complicit in the process when they got behind recordable formats such as Minidisc and Digital Compact Cassette (ask your dad, kids).

Of course it was easy to do a quick and dirty remaster for CD on all of your back catalogue and get the punters to pay to hear them again with a clarity you promised they wouldn’t believe.  Have you heard some of those early remasters?  Some of them are actually painful to listen to, but we bought into it and duplicated our vinyl with CDs.  But the physical CD market was quite healthy because the audio files were massive and transfer speeds on the internet were painfully slow.  So, there would only be a problem if someone worked out a way of speeding up the internet and making audio files much smaller; that wasn’t going to happen, was it?  MP3 and broadband sorted that one out with a little help from those lovely people at Apple and soon we were downloading MP3s as well.

Of course the music industry tried to defend itself with copyright protection systems (which didn’t work) and litigation (which also didn’t work), so we’re in a position now where creativity has virtually no value.  Bands are being asked to pay to play in venues, musicians are being asked for permission to use their work in films for free (for the exposure value) and music writers and photographers are working for peanuts.  It couldn’t get any worse, could it?

Of course it could.  In a typical “four legs good, two legs better” move, the music industry is showing an interest in Neil Young’s PONO full-fat, uncompressed music delivery system (which Shakey’s been trying to flog for years now, with no success) after years of squeezing sound files as small as you can to get them to sound good on an MP3 player or a phone.  It’s CD all over again; if this system ever makes it to the market, then it’s an opportunity to persuade the small market sector that still believes in paying for music to shell out for their favourite albums yet again.  But we won’t get fooled again, will we?