The recent and rather speedy downhill plummet in the prospects of HMV highlights huge uncertainty in the future of the music industry. The first HMV store officially opened in 1921 by the conductor and composer Edward Elgar. HMV then grew from one shop on Oxford Street to a multinational high street entertainment giant. In January 2013, after two years of attempting to get its finances in order, the chain slid into administration.
I remember buying my first CD and I remember the days when the newest album was a brilliant birthday present and perhaps this is a mark of my generation. It seems that now, with the cheaper and quicker option of downloading music, CDs have lost some of their former attraction. What used to be a work of art and an outpouring of musical and visual identity has in some cases become a collection of almost identical tracks with no overarching structure, story or theme. As Wallace Collins (an entertainment attorney in New York) puts it, the music industry has moved from being album-driven to single-driven.
A common reaction to this is despair for the quality of music and nostalgia about the skill of creating an hours-worth of meaningful beats. It seems though that this change, like many, may have a silver lining. From the point of view of a listener, yes – you are less likely to find a ready-made package of entertainment that is compelling throughout, but you are also given a new creative freedom; an increased level of control over how and what you listen to. The download-based audience of today are free in a way they were not before to pick single songs as they see fit and to create collections of tracks to suit their situation. Playlists are the new album and if interactive is the buzzword of technology of the future, they exemplify it perfectly. Artists must be aware that singular songs are now their vehicles for expression and communication; listeners may listen to what is produced in conjunction with whatever they like. The listener it seems has a new-found musical independency.
From the point of view of artists and record labels, this development throws up issues that cannot be ignored. The single, a smaller space for expression but a quicker thing to produce, must now be their main aim. In the past, bands have hyped up the release of a long awaited album and then been relatively free to work on the next and tour for a long period of time. However, now they cannot rely on the sale of the more expensive product and so may have to think more about keeping their name in the game with a constant presence in the singles charts. Of course creating music takes time and demands a level of creative space if it is to be music of any value, so this constant demand for short but sweet outbursts of emotion in the format of at most a 4-minute track could understandably burn out even the best of artists.
A single is undeniably simpler to construct than an album, although not necessarily easier to construct well. In a world of fast paced demand for new songs in the charts, in clubs and in shops, quality could worryingly become the least important factor in the popular music industry and to an extent this may have happened already. For record labels the game is now about speed and simultaneously keeping in line with the tastes of the masses of today and predicting the tastes of the masses of tomorrow. Albums and the prolonged investment in building up a strong public image and presence of the artists associated with them may no longer be worth the investments in time and money that they demand.
A good side to this? Well if the industry is now about ‘variety’ in terms of a new song every day, perhaps it will be easier for lesser known artists to get a foot in the downloadable door. It does also raise the issue of what exactly is the point of a record label? If singles are where it’s at then artists will increasingly be capable of producing their own products. The record label’s main job would then be advertising – something which may be just as effectively achieved through live performance and social media.
So, perhaps the down fall of HMV signifies a greater change in the music industry than just a lack of money in the hands of the audience and the dealers; perhaps it is a sign of an increased level of power for listeners and artists alike. It demands at the very least a direction change and at most a potential end to the role of record labels. Above all it is a symptom of an industry, one of the few remaining industries the UK can be proud of, undermined by illegal downloading – essentially theft. Perhaps, as some artists have suggested, downloading songs for free may do as much good as it does bad, but it does show that an adjustment in the law and how artists and record labels operate is long overdue if the music industry has any chance of surviving. For the quality of popular music to remain or be salvageable as a governing factor in the success of an artist, the artists must have a reliable source of money in order to have time to create art. HMV, it seems, is to be a sad loss to some high streets, but is in some ways a hangover from the music industry from the days of dial-up internet. Its survival now depends on how it adapts.