February 15, 2004
Did you ever want to be in a band? Of course you did. Every self-respecting teenager wants to front a tight four-piece, blasting out three minute wonders.
Oh the glory of it all – the gigs, the tours, the pretty groupies, all that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Unfortunately, no one told me that the “great” bassists of the time, from Sid Vicious and Mick Jones to Bruce Foxton, had devoted time to learning an instrument that made Inter Cert science seem fascinating. Yet after the Rats, everyone in Dun Laoghaire thought Top of the Pops was only months away.
My suburban hopes dissipated after only two garage jams, breaking up ultimately over a packet of Major and the pressure of honours maths.The closest we came to Dublin’s rock and roll scene was a bloke called Dave Farrell who lived down the road and played lead guitar for Free Booze,who were regulars in the Baggot Inn. For a short while in the early 1980s, Dave was God.
Over the past 20 years, the dream has remained more or less the same. Maybe for a while dance music elbowed out the axe-man in favour of the DJ,but the buzz of making your own music, making your mark or doing your own thing is almost primeval in teenagers.This urge leads to the usual rows going on all over Ireland this morning after a difficult Saturday night between “square” parents and their hormonal offspring whom the parents “simply don’t understand”.This scene usually culminates in the “I didn’t choose to be born” routine,which is followed by hours spent locked in the sanctuary of the bedroom – listening, empathising, taking solace and being taken seriously.
However, for many successful dreamers, making music not only offers a great escape but also a first brush with the corporate world.This can be soul destroying because when the Suit meets the Artist, sparks fly and the Suit normally wins.The traditional music industry, controlled by the large record labels, is one of the most fascinating and, some might say, disingenuous of all.While it masquerades as hip, the music business is probably one of the most conservative, tightly controlled and tightly regulated businesses. Just witness the actions of MTVover the Janet Jackson boob controversy this week. Instead of standing by Ms Jackson’s surgically enhanced gland, MTV hung her out to dry, sanctimoniously and hypocritically kowtowing to the moral majority while at the same time pumping soft-porn into America’s pre-teen bedrooms via Britney and the like.
The reason is very simple: the music business is a commodity industry dictated by sales and nothing else.The possibility that America’s moral majority might boycott JustinTimberlake, Janet’s dancing partner at the Super Bowl incident, forcedTimberlake to make an arselicking apology at the Grammy awards this week. His performance was more 1950s petrified seminarian than 21st century rock’n'roll hopeful. (“Wardrobe malfunction” – now there’s a good one.)
But that’s how the mainstream music industry works. It is a business and product is shifted by radio play lists and marketed accordingly across the globe.
In many ways it is the antithesis of the creative forces coming up naturally from the street. As a result, the Super Bowl half-time slot is the holy of marketing holies for the music industry and this explains why there was more coverage of Janet’s boob-flash than anything else in the US last week.
In many ways, the industry is a commodity business that might as well be selling detergent.Sony probably relies on similar techniques of mass marketing, focus groups and TVadvertising as the likes of Unilever. Arguably, the independent, creative urges that drive teenagers to make their statements are millions of miles away from the corporate headquarters of the music industry with their marketing executives, accountants and shareholders. But the industry is changing and the success of Irish singer Damien Rice suggests that there is another business model for young musicians to follow.
Before getting onto the Damien Rice phenomenon, it is worth considering the dramatic changes that are taking place in the way people buy and listen to music. In 2003, 25 per cent of retail record stores in the US closed down. The retail market for CDs is taking a kicking from the internet. In Ireland, total CD sales fell in 2003 to ï¿½108.5 million from ï¿½135.9 million the year before.
Universal Music in Ireland saw its turnover fall from ï¿½28 million in 2001 to ï¿½23 million in 2002. Also, “burning” music from the net and internet piracy continues to grow exponentially.
Technology is also changing the way music is recorded, liberating individuals and bands from the grip of the big record labels. In the past, recording an album involved hiring a huge, expensive 28- track studio, replete with tech-operators, sound engineers and producers.These days, huge advances in technology mean that musicians can rent or buy the equipment much cheaper and can record albums on their own, often in their own bedrooms.Thus the cost of making, selling and marketing a CD has collapsed and some bands and musicians have recognised this. Damien Rice is one such character.
Rice fronted a Celbridge-based band called Juniper that started making noise around town in the mid-1990s. In 2000, Juniper secured a five-album deal with Polygram.They were on their way. A couple of singles followed along with the hype and lots of favourable press coverage.The signing party took place in La Stampa, and the producer of the Manic Street Preachers, Mike Hedges, stepped up to produce Juniper’s first CD.
Just when things couldn’t have been going any better, Damien Rice announced he was leaving. He seemed to be saying that the only way he could thrive was by being in total control of his music, his songs and his talents.
Rice re-emerged in 2002 doing things his own way. He released,without a record deal, a magnificent CD called O. It has just gone platinum in Britain selling more than 300,000 copies. He has sold tens of thousands of CDs here in Ireland and over 200,000 in the US. How did he do this? Is this an example to every young band?
The first thing to say about Rice is that he is a one-off, a unique talent, and he does things his way. He rarely does interviews, he gigs constantly and a quick gander at his website (www.damienrice.com) reveals that his current British tour is a sell-out. Although his gigs and the strength of the music are the catalyst for CD sales, he uses the web to its full advantage. Obviously, he is making much more money than the “normal” successful band or musician with a record label because the proceeds of the music sales go to him and not to the expense account of company accountants.
Whether the Damien Rice success can be replicated is impossible to tell because the talent is not for cloning. However,the changes going on in the industry suggest that some of the developments heralded a few years ago by the internet gurus may be slowly coming to fruition.
There is now an alternative to the major record companies, and to the corporate dominance that has poor lads like JustinTimberlake bleating pitiable apologies about how “Janet made me pull the flap” which unleashed her left boob upon an unsuspecting public.
That alternative is there for those selfconfident enough to do it themselves.