marcus westbury

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How music is changing – often for the better – and a Ride clip!

September 28th, 2010 by marcus

Ride, Vapour Trail. I once spent 6 hours on a train to buy this album.

THE music industry has seen massive changes recently — both for better and for worse, as musicians have adapted to changing times, technologies and audiences. In many ways they might be the canaries in the mine for many other art forms.

I had an old-man moment not long ago. I was explaining to someone in their 20s that when I was in my late teens I would regularly make a six-hour round trip from Newcastle to Sydney to load up on imported and specialist niche books, records and CDs of the kind you couldn’t get in a large regional city. I learnt very quickly that the idea today that CDs and books might be something so scarce and hard to come by that you needed to travel vast distances to get them is not only old-fashioned — it’s inconceivable.

Those intervening years have totally upended the old music industry. CD sales have plummeted. Record stores — entire chains of record stores — have collapsed. Record companies and some musicians have suffered as falling revenues from a surge in downloads — both legal and illegal — have undermined old business models. For many it has been disastrous — a long slow decline that has overturned pretty much all the certainties that many careers were based on.

But it’s not all bad. For teenage kids there has never been a better time for finding and loving music. Despite what you might hear and fear for a lot of musicians, it has been a golden age.

For those many musicians — like the obscure indie ones I used to travel to collect — who were never of great interest to record companies in the first place, the technological changes have been liberating. Artists who could never get played on the radio no longer need to worry about it. The same digital downloads that so scare the major labels allow them to find audiences everywhere.

Bedroom musicians who could barely afford to press vinyl or manufacture CDs no longer need to worry so much about it. Where they would have once fought a losing battle for valuable space on record shop shelves, and struggled with expensive distribution, they now find their music available for sale almost everywhere.

There’s a record store in many people’s pockets now. Some smaller acts can actually make more money from recorded music than ever before and many have found ways to build audiences for their tours, live shows and merchandise who would never have found them otherwise.

What it really means is that music niches are global nowadays. Your audience can be virtually anywhere. Many bands with a dedicated and appreciative audience of a hundred or 200 people in Melbourne can probably find a similar-sized audience in most major cities around the world. A couple of years ago I was walking with my brother in Bangkok when he heard his flatmate’s band blaring out of an inner-city apartment building. Though they had a global audience and they lived with my brother, I’d never heard of them.

Why is this relevant to other artists? The balance of power is changing. What’s been happening to music is already happening to other media-based forms. Film, video and books are all in different stages of similar transition. Design and digitisable visual arts such as photography have also become international in many ways already. Even some of the more traditional performing arts are open to the same possibilities. Small-scale, high-concept works and ensembles that can readily and easily tour have new audiences and opportunities opening up around the world.

It does raise some interesting questions. The need for more smaller venues is growing. A world where hundreds — if not thousands — of bands and performers are travelling the world to play to hundreds of people requires a very different infrastructure than one where dozens are playing to thousands.

For Australia the technology creates a paradox. This generation simply hasn’t felt the tyranny of distance. Yet in a world of global touring circuits, the costs of getting on those circuits from here leaves us at a small but significant disadvantage. Australian acts may not quite have the same capacity as their European and American counterparts to get to the other side of the world to build their audiences.

Against all this change I’m reminded of a larger point. The cultures that can thrive are changing. The places where young artists and audiences look for inspiration and opportunity are changing. The challenge for all of us is to keep changing with it — even old men like me.

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3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 bassling Sep 28, 2010 at 11:00 am

    The other change with the shift to digital distribution has been people giving away their music for FREE! People like me, why not hit the ‘like’ button here and I’ll share some with you?

  • 2 Margie Borschke Oct 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    To what extent do you think your train trip to buy the ride album was influenced by hearing Ride on the radio, specifically on Triple J? The service went national between 89-91 (and introduced playlists around this time, apparently to the disgust of early listeners) but I suspect its influence in Newcastle would have been considerable as the pre-playlist JJJ began airing there in 1980. That Ride record was no shrinking violet. It was #11 in the UK charts and in Australia they made the JJJ top one hundred of all time that year. They even toured Oz.

    I’m not trying to knock your teenage street cred but why you hauled yourself on the train is worth thinking about (apart from the obvious fun of heading to the big city.)

    Today’s teenagers might be listening to music in a digital format but media like radio and tv (now joined by videogames) continue to influence what they go looking for online. (Also worth noting, contrary to perception and media hype, studies show that teenagers don’t spend as much time online as adults do.)

    Yes there are great opportunities for promotion and distribution online but I think its time to temper our enthusiasm for the idea that the internet somehow levels the playing field. There seem to be a lot of indications that it doesn’t and the big players are getting bigger. There is considerable hope that the balance of power will change but its not really clear that this is the case.

    In addition I’m concerned that the so-called global market for recorded music can also mean reinforcing certain global centres at the expense of regional communities and regional sounds (especially in niche areas.) Are we thinking globally when we should be thinking locally. Does the internet erase the so-called tyranny of distance or does it give us the illusion that place doesn’t matter. And when we have these discussions we rarely consider the amazing reach of underground distribution channels BEFORE the advent of the internet.

    Incidentally, Austrade does get involved in “touring, publishing, label and synchronization deals” (Eliezer “Austrade Helps Acts Synch And Swim To U.S.” Billboard, May 24, 2008).

  • 3 Alisha Oct 19, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Newcastle is famous for the festivals in all over the world. You can enjoy a wonderful weekend of jazz and take a chance to catch up with family in Australia Jazz wide. This year, the Newcastle Jazz Festival is celebrating its twenty-second birthday and continued to grow each year. Festival has some of the best jazz musicians from Australia and Blues artists. This year, artists will be heard in five different rooms at the town hall. Mattara, king edward park hill climb, rainbow visions festival and many more festivals are celebrate in Newcastle.