Freaks and Weirdos

9 August 2015

When I was at school you could roughly divide people into three different camps: firstly, most obviously, you had the cool kids. If, in another life, I had gone to class in Northern California I guess I would have called them jocks. You know the type.

At the other end of the spectrum – and classroom, frequently – you had the geeks. My school was a grammar school – you had to pass an entrance exam to get in. We had a lot of geeks.

In between is the interesting bit. These are the people that didn’t fit. Not athletic enough, or outgoing enough, or “normal” enough to be top tier, but also not book-smart enough, or obsessive enough, or “weird” enough to mingle with the geeks. They would flit between both tribes, never quite settling in either. The freaks and the weirdos, in the best way.

In my experience the music industry is overwhelmingly made up of people from that third group. And that, at least maybe a little bit, I think might be why sometimes it makes collective decisions that just don’t make much sense.

Considering that music is a cultural art form – that resonates deep within people, in their very souls – isn’t it curious how the music industry has turned that into something so competitive? There is a deep routed obsession with charts and statistics, and we are all so used to it we are blind to how odd it is. I’m not talking about measuring financial success either – which would make sense, it is a business after all – but the institutional craving of good chart placement or other visible metrics that make something appear successful.

This week, for example, The Maccabees and Lianne La Havas were locked in a battle for the number one slot in the album charts. Throughout the week as the sales came through they kept on swapping positions – one day one would be slightly ahead, the next the other. Both labels threw money at their campaigns in attempt to get ahead; TV adverts, billboards, instores, you name it. In the end The Maccabees got it – by a fairly slim margin – but, and here’s the rub, which artist actually made more at the end of the week? Isn’t that what should really matter?

Being able to shout about being number one is worth whatever it takes, seemingly.

And – of course – if I was in either of their labels position I would have done exactly the same. This is institutionalised, top to bottom, and so engrained that it actually does matter because people think it does. Which is maddening, if you think about it for too long.

Another perfect example of this is the current ongoing debate about on air on sale. For the uninitiated, this is the rather crazy notion that when you premiere a track on radio, you should make it available to buy at the same time. The very fact that this is something that might be up for debate probably tells you all you need to know about the very odd world view that the industry often has. The “issue” – as much as there is one – is how it affects your chart position: you start off low, and then move up the chart as your radio plays (and now streaming plays) grow, rather then the old way which was to build up pre-orders and demand until you release the track and hit the upper reaches of the chart in a blaze of champaign-fuelled glory.

Doing it the old way – especially in this age of streaming – is almost guaranteed to lose you sales and revenue, as any casual fan probably isn’t going to wait to get it, so it’s a no brainier – right? Riiiight…?

Of course not.

Time and time again perceived success is valued higher then actual success.

For the second time – this was all tried a couple of years back – the major labels have decreed (internally at least, so I hear) that they are releasing everything now on air on sale, and for the second time as more and more people break ranks, do it the old way and get surprisingly high chart results the whole thing will inevitably come crashing down.

I would love to put out a call that we should all stick to it, do on air on sale and band together for the benefit of the whole industry but it’s probably pointless; If you give someone running a project the choice between making a bit more money – which people at labels are almost never evaluated on – or getting a number one, what do you think they’re going to choose? Maybe I should have more faith. We’ll see.

Maybe for the music industry to truly reinvent itself, to modernise and focus on the things that matter it needs to start by moving away from a form of charts that was invented when we were trying to sell some form of disc pressed with music, and look at something that is based around revenue rather then meaningless units.

And this, in some roundabout way, comes back to where we started. The music industry lets the freaks and weirdos have success on a world stage. We’ll never be able to shake the competition out of the industry, but maybe we can try and make it just a bit more useful.

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