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independent musicians

The demise of HMV and the implications for musicians


Three letters have dominated music industry news recently: HMV. Much has been written (quite rightly) about the sad fact that thousands of people may lose their jobs, directly or indirectly, if and when the chain disappears from the high street. We’ve also seen a lot of chat about the implications of HMV’s demise for the music industry as a whole. Will any independent stores crop up to fill the HMV-shaped holes on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee or Humberside? Is this the final death knell of the CD? With nowhere in Stevenage to buy CDs anymore, will any remaining (and heavily bearded) CD buyers turn to that Amazon thingy, where ne’er-do-wells roam the digital streets selling signed copies of classic albums for as little as 1p?

One question that hasn’t really been asked enough for my liking, however, is this: what does the closure of HMV mean for musicians? You would think that in any discussion regarding the death of a high street store, some thought might be spared for the group of people that are technically the key players in the supply chain – the bands and artists that make the product (that would be, ahem, ‘music’).

But I kind of understand why nobody has really been banging on about poor musicians losing an outlet to sell their wares from. This is because most musicians’ output was never anywhere to be found in HMV. There just wasn’t enough space in there to house everybody’s latest concept album about beans. As a rule of thumb, only stuff that sold in good quantities was stocked, and if it sold ok, it must have been made by a rock star, and all rock stars are loaded and just blow their money on charlie anyway, so why worry about them? To be fair, anyone thinking like that probably had a bit of a point.

The fact is, in a practical or financial sense, HMV’s closure means little for the average artist, who no doubt has global distribution for that album about beans sorted via iTunes, Amazon and so on...but can’t get a single copy into HMV to save his life (not, as we found out, that very many shoppers would be present in HMV anyway to buy that copy).

Nonetheless, I think that the demise of HMV does have a big impact on musicians: a psychological one.

You see, even in this age of digital-everything, being able to invite girls (or indeed boys) into a HMV store – under the pretence of buying some records – and casually hanging out beside the rack where your CD casually happened to be residing was a Very Special Thing. It was a) something to aspire to and b) something that sort of indicated you’d 'made it' to some degree or other. Yet now, the closure of HMV kills that noble dream of impressing girls (or indeed boys) by showing them your CD sandwiched between Simply Red and Jessica Simpson.

If you are still reading this blog post after encountering that last sentence, then congratulations and yes, I jest a bit. But there is a serious point here: making music is a bloody difficult, time-consuming and generally unrewarding business, and if you are in the middle of recording that incredibly difficult twentieth album and you see HMV closing down, you are bound to think ‘oh crap, it’s bad enough that nobody buys music any more but now there are actually NO SHOPS to buy it in.’ This, naturally enough, leads you to wonder what the hell you are making that record for.

Well, I’ll tell you what you’re making that record for: your ears, and the ears of other people. Yes, getting it into the ears of the latter group is a constantly changing process – enough to make you dizzy, give you vertigo and throw up all over the place. But this state of flux is nothing new; the music industry has always been completely entwined with fast-developing technology. Popular music used to be exclusively about playing live; then along came wax cylinders. That gramaphone that the HMV dog stuck its head into. Reel to reel tape. Vinyl. The humble cassette. CD. Minidiscs. The MP3. Pro Tools. The rise of Myspace. The fall of Myspace. Streaming. iPods. iTunes. Autotune. Spotify. The return of Peter Andre. Whatever Apple throw at us next. iDunno.

The difference for musicians today is that the pace of change has got to a point where we are now galloping along at insane speed; computers are doubling in power every 18 months, and as you've probably heard me say before, the music industry all happens on a computer these days. Which is why of course HMV, with its quaint emphasis on shiny plastic discs, bit the dust.

But none of this means that people will stop loving music – it’s arguably more popular than ever (it’s certainly more accessible). And that’s why, HMV or no, you should make that difficult twentieth album. Because it might be your best yet (or your first good one). Because you never know what good music can do, or where it can take you. Throughout history, and despite the music industry’s best efforts, good music has shown itself to have an endearing habit of sticking its head above the parapet and making itself heard.

So I guess the key thing that musicians can take from the demise of HMV is this: put it in context. This industry changes every five minutes. Don’t get too hung up on the methods of distribution and delivery, just make sure the song’s stonkingly great. Above all else, that is the key requirement for reaching all those waxy ears.

(Or just get a boob job and phone Nigel).

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Is social media really that helpful to bands?

Social media

I came across a very interesting article recently in The Guardian by the novelist Ewan Morrison, about how social media is not a 'magic bullet' that will bring fame and fortune to self-epublished authors, but actually a serious waste of time. His conclusion, after an in-depth study of the subject, is that it's best to avoid spending all your time as a self-publishing author trying to 'engage' a fanbase through posting status updates about cats, and focus on writing great books instead.

The parallels for independent musicians are obvious and, whilst I would not entirely go along with Morrison's pessimism on social media, I do think he makes some very good points about a) not placing too much faith in the power of social media to shift units and b) being very wary of social media gurus who offer all manner of expensive solutions / seminars that promise to take you, via Facebook or Twitter, from being a nobody to a superstar in a matter of weeks. Although a big part of my job here at Prescription is working with bands to improve their digital offering, I would never want artists to think that it's the kind of dream ticket to stardom that is often sold by digital marketing agencies to bands.

Rather, my own view on social media is that it's something that complements promotional activity and, depending on the context, can sometimes be a key part of it - but it's certainly no substitute for having great songs and a reason for people to find your act interesting in the first place. After that, when it comes to online marketing activity I'd be inclined to focus overwhelmingly on building up a great collection of email addresses - both of industry/media contacts and punters. Having this email database will mean: 

  • you can approach industry people about your band - still hugely important
  • you can sell direct to fans
  • you know your messages will, at the very least, get to people's inboxes instead of being hidden by a Facebook algorithm
  • you can import all the email addresses into social networks anyway.

Obviously I wouldn't neglect social media entirely; the point is that it often gets prioritised over more important stuff - like songwriting, or potentially more effective methods of online promotion. 

So do check out Morrison's article. It's a bit of a reality check! You can read it on the Guardian website here

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