This is the unedited version of an essay on the UK tv talent show The X-Factor for my old paper, the Sunday Herald. The theme I'm trying to explore is how the combination of conspicuous glitz and vertical business integration that the X-Factor represents is a response to the crisis of the music business, brought on by the internet and its decommercialising tendencies. But it's not the only model of how to make a living (if not a fortune) in the music biz post the web - and I show how me and my brother's band, Hue And Cry, are using the current landscape to our advantage. All comments, as usual, more than welcome.
Sunday Herald 'Opinion' essay: Joyous austerity vs. The X-Factor
5 December 2010
By Pat Kane
For the last five years, it's become a thunderous seasonal ritual, with only one blip in the procession so far. From 2005-2008, surpassing even the three year consecutive run of The Beatles in the mid-sixties, the winners of Simon Cowell's fiendishly brilliant license-to-print-money The X-Factor have grabbed the Christmas No.1 spot: Shayne Ward, Leona Lewis, Leon Jackson and Alexandra Burke. So far as the bookies are concerned, they're giving 8/15 it'll happen again.
Only last year, as you may remember, corporate multimedia pop didn't quite rule supreme. As a result of anti X-Factor activism on Facebook, the national yuletide favourite buzzing out of young people's smartphones across the land was Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name, with its invigorating refrain, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"
The leading candidate this year is called, wittily, Cage Against The Machine. This is another social-network campaign, aiming to defeat Cowell's phalanx of Matt, Rebecca and Cher with avant-garde composer John Cage's 4' 33'' (that's four and a half minutes of total silence). Available on Dec 13th, if you're interested.
So it's all fun and games in the new Roman circus: the emperors with their thumbs raised or dropped, the Christians bleating in their borrowed designer gowns, the vox populi whooping from the hall or voting with their far-off devices. And outwith the spectacle, disgruntled indie-music barbarians sulk in their bars and student halls, or occasionally get it together to throw boulders into the arena.
Is that it for the music business? With the BPI noting earlier this year that pop music has outsold rock music for the first time in decades, and with The X-Factor being credited as the single-handed saviour of the ITV network, is this the new model? Pop ingenues from the street squeezed through a variety of cookie-cutter genres by a series of grandstanding judges, who then shuffle to find their slots in a crowded release schedule run by probably the most cynical cultural operator in Britain?
Many musicians looking at the X-Factor would resist the artistic passivity and audience programming that it revels in. And I say can from my own experience that there's an alternative business model of music-making, where a more mature balance can be struck - a balance between the necessities of getting a money-stream from one's own material and performance, and the communal power of fans as they express themselves through digital networks.
But this is a vision of musical practice that comes much closer to the participation and sharing culture of folk, than it does to the conspicuous and plutocratic display of the X-Factor. Is Cowell's circus the commercial wave of the future, or the last lurid gasp of the hyper-consumerist past - and not just in terms of the music business, but for much of our public life as well?
Looked at from a great height (and yes, other actions could be performed up there) The X-Factor is a clever, comprehensive response by the traditional music business to the challenge of the digital generation- a generation whose mindshare has been scattered to the winds by a zillion media attractions, and whose consumer behaviour has been exploded by ubiquitous broadband and free filesharing.
From his experience in the pre-internet heydays of the 80s and 90s, Simon Cowell has remembered a few things and applied them ruthlessly. One is the continuing role of television in family life, particularly at a time when everyone's lost in their own media niches. Weekend telly provides a welcome shared experience for work-wearied parents, and children too young to go out themselves - one that won't present any ethical or moral challenges, but will generate some degree of excitement and involvement from the audience.
But one thing that's infuriating for the average A&R man are the media gatekeepers - producers and researchers - who control access to prime-time viewing. So Cowell created his own tv format: and in this, every element of the pop process - the broadcast show, the brandname, the performers, their rights and royalties, and their final recordings - is under one business regime. (Incidentally, there's not much irony in the name of Cowell's company, Syco. Much of the music business does indeed exist somewhere between psychopathy and sycophancy.)
So whether it's Rage or Cage against the machine, there is clearly a towering new music-biz "machine" before us - and that "all those people who don't seem to like X-Factor", as Cowell ruefully put it last year, are feeling oppressed by its operations.
In the last twelve months, this constituency has been self-consciously active in other areas too. Take the successful campaign to save the digital radio channel BBC 6 Music from rationalisation and closure. Or the (not-so-successful) tens of thousands that signed petitions to protest against the passing of The Digital Economy Bill, which will criminalise music downloaders through new powers of detection and enforcement
We have a Tory-dominated, services-cutting government, a clearly-identifiable musical establishment sunk in luxury and corruption, a general state of anxiety and dread .... So should we expect a 'new Punk' any day now, combining anarchy, technology and refusal? A new movement of street, campus and community music, articulating protest and advocating alternatives against a broken capitalism?
Well, let's see. But there's also currently a middling space between the top-down soul-shredding of corporate pop, and the bottom-up world of wikileaking and militancy about copyright. This is a territory, I would suggest, that most active musicians currently occupy. The question is: how can someone find a sustainable way to make music, for all those good reasons we love - to express what's inside you, to follow your aesthetic joy, to connect meaningfully with appreciative audiences - while at the same time, trying to circulate some cash around the situation?
This is where my own music career, with my brother Gregory in Hue And Cry, has operated over the last few years - and where many others are trying to exist also. There's an axiom we've been using which seems to sum up our the challenge of the sustainable music career in the digital age: use what is ubiquitous to drive people to what is scarce.
Unless there is a huge shift in how the internet is basically structured (and while that shouldn't be ruled out, it doesn't look likely), any recorded content that any musician releases will be able to be copied and recorded by anyone else. And that's no matter how intricate the restrictions placed upon each music file. The internet is a copy-machine plus a telephone - and infinitely so.
At the moment, even services that have figured out a simple way for people to pay for digital content - like iTunes or Spotify - are largely relying on the laziness of the consumer, as they use their well-designed devices. However, one teenager with a copy of a sound-grabbing program can easily defy every corporate programmer's control codes.
So there's the "ubiquitous" part - your content can be digitally everywhere, largely untrackable and uncontrollable. Deal with it, dude. But given that capitalism only works when you can make a resource scarce, and thus price it, what scarcity is left to the commercial musician? One is, obviously, the musician herself. Unless they've been taking too many illegal substances, even they'd have to agree they can only occupy one point in space and time. And so far, it's still the convention that a gig is an enclosed space, with entry requiring a cash payment of some kind at the door.
The primacy of the gig actually accounts for the relative health of the UK music industry. PRS for Music's 2009 report showed that live income rose by 9.45% that year, where games and DVDs has flatlined. Regionally, the report notes that Scotland "punches well above its weight", with 11% of the UK's music revenues generated from 8% of the population. The reason given is that festivals like T In The Park, Rockness and the Edinburgh Fringe support a lot of tourist-like consumer activity.
But this link between music and tourism can happen at the level of individual bands. This Feburary we'll be doing the second of our Hue And Cry Weekends at Glasgow's ABC venue - this one, tied to Valentine's Day, is called 'A Glasgow Kiss' (naturally). We'll make ourselves available to fans through meets, greets, and soundchecks, provide them with a guide to enjoying the city for a weekend - and get a chance to sing love songs for two days.
There's another other element of scarcity available to the musician: beautifully produced material objects with a personal, customised touch (the very opposite of the immaterial nature of digital music). For example, we have a facility called Songframes, where Hue And Cry fans can order a display frame containing a vinyl copy of a song from our back catalogue, with handwritten lyrics and music, and a personal dedication. It's hard work for us, but we're doing pretty good business; fans are devoting frames to children, spouses, lovers, departed ones.
I know this sounds like a very old scene of creativity. Craftsmen making objects for bespoke customers. Troubadors cultivating their audience as a community. Music operating as social currency as much as commercial product.
The crucial difference is that the internet allows the artist and audience to exist face-to-face online, building a virtual village square together (although populated by people across this island, and way beyond). In this square, the conversations and sharing come first - and from that collective enthusiasm arise opportunities to sell services and products of all kinds. But not to excess, and with a premium on quality and experience, not disposability and transience.
Does this new music-business model, the musician as community-minded enterpreneur, make you a living? Well, did the music business ever make a living for that many people? For me, it certainly has its place within a portfolio of earning activities - a craft conducted somewhere in the spectrum between professionalism and amateurism, and perhaps alongside some other specialised skill that society finds hireable (in technology, design or education).
Because the music business felt the brutal, de-monetising impact of digitality first, I'd say many musicians have been developing resilience and skills for survival that others could learn from.
Take journalism. Like musicians, journalists exist amidst a community of readers. As the internet unravels their protected revenues and saleable objects, how can journalists use their unique presence and skills to command a fee for services - and for what services, exactly? Also: where are the opportunities to create beautiful, treasurable and customisable objects of journalism? Does the iPad and other tablet readers represent a new way to combine ubiquity and quality - for a price?
The muddle-through (as opposed to top-down or bottom-up) strategies of the entrepreneur-musician might well result in a new stability for the music business. Artists will want to support music services that "feel like free" for music fans - giving users that sense of digital ubiquity that they love, but with some revenue (though certainly nowhere near as much as in Cowell's 80's heyday) collected through subtle licensing and contract agreements.
But the important attitude is to be sanguine and relaxed about these crazy times. It's a time for commercial invention and trying things out - not for panicked scaremongering about piracy and theft, which ends up alienating the most enthusiastic members of your audience.
The much bigger horizon is whether consumer-led economic growth, challenged by our need to achieve low-carbon targets, is actually an outmoded system. Beyond the Saturday night hoopla and the stadium mega-gigs, many musicians have been practising optimistic austerity for years. And that just happens to be the mindset which will enable us to cope sanely with drastic environmental limits on our lifestyles.
Beyond the baubles and conspicuous glitz of the Cowell circus, Generation Zero - preaching minimalist living and post-consumerist virtue - is waiting in the wings. And a participative music business, less concerned with high profit-margins and more concerned with the strong relationship between artist and audience, may be perfectly placed to answer their needs.
The X-Factor is at one level just some weekend fun, of course: no-one's frogmarched to the flat-screen to watch it. But from where I'm standing, some of its bombastic hysteria comes directly from the consciousness of its smug, but undoubtedly switched-on creator: I think he really believes the glory days of the 80's are back-back-back.
I'll certainly be voting to make sure John Cage gets to number one this Xmas. But the more enduring challenge to the X-Factor Machine will come from working musicians trying to figure out their new music business model, building it out across the networks and audiences, one event or recording at a time. For all his cat-stroking, high-waisted genius, I don't think Cowell understands the real X-Factor involved in making music at all.