Back to the future

In the 1930s there were million selling records but every act had a career on the road, in films or on the radio, sometimes all three. That’s where artists got their breaks. Music radio wasn’t yet the sidekick of the record industry, radio wanted the acts live on air whenever possible.

There were big record labels and distribution but no Major labels. The 600-pound gorillas of the music industry were managers and agents. Bidding wars involved managers building stables of artists and venues trying to attract the best acts. The stars were able to name their price for record deals and there were no long exclusive contracts. (Film studios pioneered that kind of business before it spread to records.)

Starting out was hard work and newcomers had to be good. Of course, there was always the establishment. You needed to get a gig with an existing name or work your way up through one of the entertainment empires before your manager could get you into the best venues, films or radio. But the whole industry was built the right way round, it depended on getting punters through the door. If there was a better act, a better venue or a better film in town you would have to up your game.

It seems to me this is where we’re headed again, right now. The Major labels have lost their grip on media, distribution and retail—the Internet provides all three, for everyone. Already we have a new generation of managers and independent acts. The Majors can no longer afford bidding wars and don’t control the front page of the iTunes store. Recording is once again a secondary outlet for acts who have built a reputation on the road and online.

This time round audio may not regain the traction it once had. Any band would rather have a cut in one of the Twilight films or an advert on TV than have a top ten single. The Internet is a multi-media experience. Live work is a multi-media experience. Audio is often a background for jogging, driving or web surfing. But now music has escaped the radio-friendly chart format we may even see serious listening return to the mainstream. Music discovery blogs and sites like Pandora and Pitchfork provide useful filters. Choice is no longer limited by the top 40—word of mouth is multiplied by the web.

Amplified records and radio, and cinema sound and colour, were the new entertainment technologies of the 1930s but it took decades for the incestuous grip of the Majors, MTV and radio to take hold. Technology is a wonderful thing but Web 2.0 isn’t going to throw up a new music business overnight. If you want to understand the “new music business” take a look at the way things worked back then. Let the TV talent show winners have their Christmas single. All that is just a sideshow now.