Thursday, 28 August 2008

Take Good Care of My Baby: The Fans Seek Custody of Music For Good

Look around for signifiers of a forthcoming apocalypse and you'd be hard pushed to find any more shaky pillar of civilisation than the music industry. Each week that brings a voyeurs delight - lurid accounts of a flailing, arcane system struggling with the new world order. Recognising the power of the masses is the name of the survival game here. This week, for instance, we've had the people's record label, where fans act as investors in a new band, thus passing the buck on what to do when piracy voids sale revenue. The industry has become obsessed by the need to include music lovers - but they rarely go about it on terms that'll chime with the instant gratification generation. The real issue is not money, but the time it takes to give fans what they want - or even what we tell them they want. Music PR is essential - but it must engage in a loving relationship with selling records, and stop being a tawdry one night stand.

If time is a conceptual free-for-all governed by corrupt sheriffs of meaning, then nothing is so much a rotten borough as music. Resolution takes longer than it ought, the results are sniffy to the public. Ms Winehouse's creative inertia since Back to Black has gone unchecked, with our heroine deployed on more tactical shock and awe campaigns. Meanwhile, Joe Lean and his band of merry men cancel the release of their slightly anticipated debut because its recording pre-dated their hype and they wanted to have another go. Of course, that's not saying the former isn't a savage affront to integrity, and that the latter is anything other than a brief plug in a burst sewer pipe, but it's certainly admissible evidence.

In music, more than comedy, timing is everything. The standard time between album releases has lengthened as other soul-brandishing PR campaigns take priority. Then there's the sluggish delay as the record label plods in pursuit of a blogosphere groundswell created overnight for Hot Nouvau 2.0. The lust for a new band often races ahead of their appearance in any record shop, public cheer flagging with the fatigue of overexposure - yet the internet is increasingly proving its worth in cutting out this fatal delay.

Critics will claim it was the In Rainbows digital car-boot haggle that won the bitter battle between the masses and the means of production, but Bloc Party won the war. A Thom Yorke pretender on too many levels but one, Kele Okereke rushed his band's third album out to a surprised fanbase last week - thus defining the map for how music will be consumed in our brave new world.

"Intimacy" enjoyed a birth devoid of hype, largely because no one knew it even was gestating, and was rush released online in advance of physical copies available next month. So everyone gets a chance to piss themselves with excitement, mop up the damp patch with their iPod and then move on to the next clean pants. That's the future. In present day, no sooner has a hackneyed couplet been penned by an over-hyped pretender than we enter a bloody season of "brand management". Fans' game anticipation weathers the release of stage-managed press blah - wherin someone from the band touches Peaches Geldof - before they disappear a few months short of release and befriend another hypemachine on Myspace. The effect on sales is achingly predictable - because of the rupture in time between bigups and point of sale, no one has the opportunity to buy anything but fluff.

Arctic Monkeys were probably the last band that could survive this, these days we're seeking escape from this stagnant central venn section. The sight of a lumbering record industry facing off with the instant jurors of the internet is embarrassing - we take no joy in its defeat. Time for digitalism to march to victory - not because it's free, but because it's fast. It can respond to the creativity, impulse and connectivity that musicians and fans have in common and that the industry fears. There's no question for those at the top: your time is up. The fans know what they want, and they'll get it quicker than you can sign a cheque.