18 October 2015
If you work in the UK music industry, 2015 is probably proving to be quite a confusing year. Several elements that have been brewing for a while have now all snapped into relevance, turning everything upside down in the process.
For example, exactly how should you release a single now?
(No, go on – I’d like an actual answer if you’ve got one.)
Now, streams being added to the single chart happened last year, but it took a good 6 months for everyone to start paying attention, and then another 6 months for the majors to stick their flag firmly in the ground marked “on air on sale” and make it properly mean something. Or should that be “on air on stream”? Or maybe not? And just how long is a cycle at radio now? It seems to be simultaneously getting both shorter (in terms of on-the-playlist time before your impact date) and longer (if you have a track that beds in regionally).
Questions, questions, questions.
Let’s not even get started on the impact streams are having to the albums chart, and whether that makes any sense at all, because the charts are a weird place anyway ever since we all decided to up sticks and switch to releasing on a Friday.
It used to be that Tuesdays were the most important day for the charts (don’t let anyone kid you it was Sundays), because that’s when you – and everyone else – would first find out whether anyone was actually buying the thing you’re trying to flog. The mystery is lifted, and the cold hard facts of reality set in (good or bad) and you get to work.
It always struck me that Tuesday was a particularly convenient to day for this to happen. You’ve got enough of the week left to actually do something if you need to, but you’ve also had Monday free to get your week going.
But now, it happens on a Saturday, which it turns out is probably the worst day it could possibly be.
For a start, it doesn’t really bear any resemblance to the final chart. Because new releases are always lead by pre-orders, and because existing releases sell best on the weekend, the Saturday chart is massively overweighted to a new releases. I’ve seen plenty of records appear in the top 5 on the Saturday sales flash, only to barely scrape into the top 20 at the end of the week. With the old Tuesday sales flash the existing releases had two days of sales – Sunday and Monday – versus the one day of new release sales which while may have been unfair, it actually worked quite well in practice.
The lack of accuracy in the Saturday sales flash isn’t really the problem, though. It’s the fact that it’s on a Saturday. This has never been an industry that’s been very good at separating work time from the rest of your life, but now it’s even worse. Logging into the chart site on a Saturday morning, coffee in hand, gives you little chance at actually having a weekend as it drags your work right into it, like a head to an airbag. It’s not just looking at the numbers, it’s what you do with them that’s the problem – the thinking that churns straight out of them, the booking of ads, the checking of stock levels and the emails to managers.
But you suck it up. You do the work on the Saturday. And the Sunday. Then the following week you go to three gigs and two aftershows. One night you work until 9pm, because you had two planning meetings that dragged on and you haven’t got through everything. Four Ubers home. Drinks before the shows. Drinks after work. Wagamamas, Byron, oven chips when you get home. Lunch at your desk. Snacks at your desk. Coffee for breakfast.
Does any of this sound familiar?
This isn’t the hedonistic bombast that most people picture when you say “the music industry”. This is not “Kill Your Friends” or some amped up, hyper-colour vision of the sort of excess that does, sometimes, happen. This is the reality, which is maybe even worse, of an endless rat race in a business that isn’t contained or confined by your time at the office.
I was having a drink with someone the other day, and they were talking about how they were working with some artists on tour in the US at the moment:
“So I need to stay up until they’re off stage to post up photos from the show.”
“Wait” I say. “Isn’t that, like, really late?” (I have a terrible habit of saying “like” too much.)
“Yeah, normally I stop working at about 2am, but it’s not too bad. 2am until 8am is my off email time, any longer than that and things start going wrong.”
At this point I choke on my whisky.
Is it any wonder that I know of more people than I can count on the fingers of two hands that have ended up in hospital due to stress related problems? It’s not something that ever gets talked about, but this industry is institutionally bad for your physical and mental health.
It’s not talked about because everyone is desperately trying to appear “strong”, because any sign of not wanting to deal with the ridiculous demands that get put upon the shoulders of the people that work in it is seen as being “weak”. Not up to the job. Not “passionate” enough. Not cut out to work here.
I think there’s a common mistake to perceive commitment as the same as drive and passion. Drive and passion, the idea that you care about what you are working on and want to make it successful, is key to what makes the whole thing “tick”. No one would work in music otherwise. But this is not the same as blind commitment; working longer hours, going to more gigs, taking on more projects. Letting your job take over your life.
You can have drive, and passion, and can excel at your job without doing any of those things. In fact, I would argue that you need distance – you need to actually have a life – to truly be successful. Otherwise what really are you being successful at?
2015 has a lot of challenges if you work in the music industry – there’s a lot to figure out, old habits to discard and a whole host of new things to do. Let’s just all make sure we don’t kill ourselves in the process, shall we?