U2 are going on tour this summer. Nothing new in that as a statement but this tour is a bit different. The run of shows celebrates the 30th anniversary of the release of their iconic album The Joshua Tree which they’ll be playing in full every night. Why was that record so significant for them? Well, it was the album that propelled them to their long-held status of biggest-band-in-the-world, a place from which they’ve built the rest of their career as a band.
At around the same time as U2 hit the stadiums of Europe, Red Hot Chilli Peppers will be wrapping up a massive North American arena tour- probably the hundredth one they’ve done over the years as they continue to leave younger bands in their bass-slapping wake.
How have these bands done it? How have they stayed so successful for so many years? There’s one thing they have in common. Time.
Time is a precious and scarce commodity in modern life and particularly in the music industry, where everything is supposed to happen yesterday, but it’s something both of these bands were afforded plenty of when they were starting out and establishing themselves. The Joshua Tree was U2’s fifth, FIFTH, album. Some would say they broke through with their previous album, The Unforgetable Fire, but that doesn’t change much as that was still their fourth. So they were given at least three albums and five or six years to mature as a recording and live unit before judgement was cast on them. The result? An album in The Joshua Tree so good people are scrambling to buy tickets thirty years later to hear the band play it.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers released their breakthrough record Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991. It was their fifth, FIFTH, album released seven years after their first (which sold a very modest 50,000 copies or so).
Can you see a pattern emerging? It is fair to say that, if either of these bands had formed in the last twenty years or so, we would have been robbed of some era defining music as the expectation would have been for them to produce those breakthrough albums first time around. I mean, who else is expected to produce the best work of their career when they’re just starting? No-one, that’s who.
How did we get here?
Sometime in the 1990s a perfect storm began brewing in music. A somewhat simplistic explanation goes something like this: The industry became a victim of it’s own success, basking in the glory of great records (thanks to patient artist development as discussed) and the explosion of the CD. Music lovers re-bought their vinyl/cassette collections on this shiny new format which combined quality and portability for the first time. Imagine that labels, imagine that: masters you have already paid for and already sold, burnt on to a CD and sold again for £20 (which is what they were priced at initially, and that was 30 years ago).
Whilst the industry was getting drunk on cash, big business started to notice and wanted to join the party (I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a piece of something cool and profitable?). This is where wise old A&Rs would say the accountants took over and the music people were phased out- labels that started out as rebellious indies were now brands of multinationals and big business usually means hungry, impatient shareholders. Sort termism, risk aversion and making a smaller return on a larger amount of artists became the norm as A&Rs and executives constantly scrambled to turn a profit and justify their existence. The result? Artists being pumped with money and hype upon being singed with the hope that they would go straight to number 1 thus bypassing the lengthy, patient, expensive artist development process. If they hit number 1- great. If not, the label would cut it’s losses and hope for better with the next one. The industry largely descended into a series of expensive long shots with the one that came off hopefully covering the losses of the others. I spoke to one major label A&R a few years ago who was on a 3 month rolling contract that would only be renewed if he managed a hit within that time. Compare that to the 7 years the Chilli’s team were given to sow what they would continue to reap 25 years after that.
Power To The People (Again)
Now for the good news. 2016 was a very, very significant year for the music industry. For the first time in about 15 years, it grew. And boy did it grow- by around 5% in the UK and US. Trust me, that is a huge number for any large industry. To put it in perspective, it was headline news last week that M&S’s Christmas trading had boomed by being up 2.5% year-on-year. An industry that had shrunk by over 50% during the dark years of the 2000’s (and I could write another blog about that) began to fight back thanks, almost exclusively, to streaming. Finally, the separate threads of years of (admirable) investment in the likes of Spotify (which is still yet to make a profit- but it will soon, and it will be huge), the affordability and availability of broadband and 3/4G and the normalisation for the public of subscription based consumption (thank you Netflix) came together to create a tipping point that we can all be thankful for and that could lead, in my opinion, to a new golden age for music.
In addition to the financial good news, this streaming tipping point is having another profound effect on music- Time. For the first time in decades, the power is back with the people, not just the artists but consumers too. For simplicity’s sake again, for years the only route to market was through a major who had the clout to get a single on the Radio 1 A-List, which would in turn lead people to buy the album. This narrow bottle neck wasn’t good for anyone. Now you can add a track to Spotify and if it connects with people (which they can tell from the number of streams) then they will promote that song through the tiers until it reaches the top playlists. There is still a need for marketing to make people aware of the song in the first place, but this evolution means that the great music will rise to the top- which is good for everyone. Labels can’t be lazy and throw anything out there for a quick buck using their advantageous connections because the people simply won’t listen to it, there’ll be too much good stuff right there at a touch of a button. Artists will be given time to develop again as labels release a song here, an EP there, to allow them to grow before the major album investment is put in- rather than blowing a million pounds on a raw talent before the inks dried on their contract and hoping for the best. They are beginning to understand that these early songs will need time to gain traction and rise thus helping to eliminate the snap decisions about an artist’s long-term feasibility.
A virtuous circle is re-emerging where this realisation amongst the industry of changing consumer habits (and their demand for good music) is forcing investment back into long-term A&R, which is possible thanks to money flowing back into the industry from streaming revenues. We can finally hope and expect the next generation U2’s and Chilli Peppers to finally be brought through.
Whether we realised it or not, we’ve all been praying for time, and I think this year is the year our prayers will be answered.