More than 30 years on, I still break out in a cold sweat at the opening bars of ‘Careless Whisper’. I am back in the teenage disco. Once the saxophone ushered in the full, rounded tones of George Michael, red-haired lads like me knew the night was over.
The slow set wasn’t designed for redheads. It didn’t matter how much spadework we had put in, the slow set separated the redheads from the rest. Us carrot-tops may have been able to compete in the chats, laughs and yarns, but when it came to the holy grail of teenage south Dublin — the successful slow-set snog — redhead boys hadn’t a prayer. Only the very brave or very drunk teenage girl would regard a redhead as a scalp.
That was just the way it was.
A vicious, adolescent apartheid operated at the slow set and hunky, dark, Mediterranean George Michael tended to signal the beginning of the end for walking Duracells like me. It seemed to me that redhead boys were more likely to be refused entry into bars and clubs than others. I was sure the bouncers hated us.
And so the earliest iteration of my relationship with George Michael is bittersweet, but — wow — he was such a talent. The stories of his generosity are legendary. He supported nurses and miners, not to mention the fact that he gave his less-talented Wham! partner, Andrew Ridgeley, the rights to ‘Careless Whisper’ just so his mate would have some cash. This was a decent bloke.
Listening to the range of his music is a pure joy.
George Michael was, like all creative people, a completely independent soul, who was prepared to take on the industry when he felt his art was being hijacked by the machine.
Before most artists, singers and writers copped on, Michael realised that the artist had to control his material. His legendary rows with his record label, Sony, centred on the control, as well as the timing, of his album releases. The record company wanted a neat, evenly-spaced schedule, allowing the company to extract as much as possible from each album before milking the fans with the next. This was how the normal commercial product cycle played out. Michael didn’t agree with this sequential approach. For him it was all about the inspiration.
He paid heavily for this stance. By the late 1990s, when he was a world superstar and should have been enjoying an unparalleled purple patch, his prodigious output was damaged by ongoing legal battles with the record label.
But his legal battles signalled the end of an era and the beginning of something totally different, whereby disruptive technologies have destroyed the music industry business model. The irony is that the George Michael versus Sony battle was the last great battle of the last big war. Today, neither the artist nor the record company gets the money. Now the lion’s share of the cash from music goes to the owners of streaming platforms.
This is a travesty and the same process will afflict other industries in time.
In a sense, George Michael was the last superstar of an old age. He was involved in such a lengthy legal battle with Sony because of the enormous financial clout he had. There was simply too much money at stake for the record label to back down.
In truth, he was one of the last generation of songwriters to be paid properly for their work. Today musicians with amazing talent aren’t paid because the advent of streaming has gouged the value out of the artists and, worse than giving that value to the music industry, the internet is transferring value to the owners of platforms like Spotify, Google Play and Pandora.
Now people expect to get music for free and the income goes to the owners/shareholders of these platforms, rather than the old industry producer, record label or the creative artist.
Let this be a warning to all of us. The music industry is a cautionary tale of the massive damage disruptive technology can do to assumptions underlying existing business models and career choices.
What is happening now to musicians is also happening to journalists and others who write for a living. Many journalists can’t make a living because people want their information for free and aren’t prepared to pay for it. Ultimately, if the consumer doesn’t want to pay, the producer goes bust. Automation is making this process endemic.
In time, so-called safe professions like lawyers and accountants, and indeed doctors, will go the way of musicians and journalists. The disruptive technology that will make accountants obsolete is already here. Any job that is formulaic and repetitive, such as bookkeeping, accountancy and the law, will be made redundant on an industrial scale. I mean, why pay a human when a machine can do it for free?
Technology is the silent killer of the bourgeoisie. It knows no boundaries, limits or nationalities.
Think about what has just happened in the past decade in George Michael’s industry — the most glamorous, best-financed industry in the world, where the consumers weren’t just buyers of products, they were fans! If technology can destroy such an industry, it can destroy any industry.
So what do we do in the face of the relentless march of technology?
Well let’s go back to the teenagers — or at least go back to what we tell teenagers today. In Ireland, we are training teenagers to obsess about Leaving Certificate points as if the professions, which the points system aims to perpetuate, are stable and certain in the face of such technological assaults. This is nonsense. The professions are over.
We shouldn’t be training our teenagers in the chimera of fake stability. Teenagers need to be trained to deal with ambiguity, not certainty. The key characteristic for a sovereign life, one that ultimately doesn’t depend on the suit you wear or the title you possess or the company you work for, is not to be fragile. It is essential to be robust in the face of adversity. This means we have to show them how to embrace uncertainty.
George Michael was an original in an industry that is disappearing. What happened to music in his many decades at the top will happen in most industries. The only difference now is that change is happening quicker.