opinion

Static feedback: Why the UK singles chart needs to keep on moving

Last week, for the first time in history, time stood still on the Official Singles Chart, with every record in the Top 10 a non-mover. Back in the day, UK fans would marvel at the moribund nature of the US ...

There's no app for this: How the music biz is winning the power struggle with the tech sector

A lot of things about the lavish UK iTunes launch in 2004 seem odd, with the benefit of 2019 hindsight. Steve Jobs’ confident declaration that, “Users don’t want to rent their favourite songs, they want to buy them” looks incongruous now that the streaming age is seeing the once all-conquering iTunes, if not quite killed off, then at least gently eased towards retirement. But the thing many of us who were there remember about the launch most is, even though Alicia Keys was present, most of the excitement and buzz was around the technology, and the technicians.  Napster and iTunes changed the narrative around music. Instead of each decade’s musical change and renewal being driven by fresh artists and movements, it became focused on new delivery mechanisms. The ’70s got punk rock, the noughties got Spotify and, with music in the doldrums, the tech companies held all the cards. Out here at MIDEM, from where I’m writing this week’s column, technology remains at the heart of most music discussions, as it should. But it seems like, slowly but surely, the key focus is shifting back to where it should be: the music itself.   Streaming services don’t own songs, they’re merely renting them. As licensing deals come up for renewal, it might be a good time to remind them of that   There may, of course, be another disruptive technological great leap forward around the corner. But for now, streaming seems to have established dominance in a way that downloads never quite did. Indeed, in a way, it’s almost the new CD: a format that benefits catalogue discovery or rediscovery as much as new hits. The CD era saw the music business hit new commercial peaks. But it was also a time when the business invested in artists, knowing establishing a quality catalogue would pay dividends in the long term. The rise of unconventional artists such as Billie Eilish suggests those days could be coming back. And the buzz about the avalanche of new music in recent weeks, whether it be from Taylor Swift or Liam Gallagher, Slipknot or Skepta, is once again centred on the quality of the song, not how we access it.  Even in pure financial terms, music has never been a hotter investment proposition, while most tech stocks languish amidst corporate pressure. And while label execs are still liable to be poached by digital companies – Warner Music's Dan Chalmers, bound for YouTube Music, being just the latest example – the brightest young things are just as likely to look at the music biz as their dream career as they are the tech sector. The biz has much to thank the streaming companies for, of course. But all of this should still herald a significant change in the relationship between DSPs and the music business. After all, the services don’t own those songs, they’re merely renting them. As licensing deals at many streaming services come up for renewal, it might be a good time to remind them of that.

Big breaks: Why it's better for today's stars to step away than burn out

There are many things to take away from the recent explosion in rock biopics, but one notable thing about Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody is the sheer amount of downtime artists used to have. The old cycle of album-world-tour-another-album was its own kind of treadmill, of course. And much of that free time was, inevitably, used to get into the sort of mischief that makes those movies such a rollercoaster ride. But it was also used to recharge creative batteries and live real lives, so that the next record could be as strong as the one before. With the audience’s constant demand for new music and the pressure to keep monthly listeners numbers up, today’s stars rarely get that chance. Especially as they’re expected to also maintain a constant presence on social media to keep the fans engaged (something that doesn't come as easily to everyone as it does to Lewis Capaldi). In commercial terms, the always-on approach to being a musician undoubtedly brings results. But, while there's no harder-working star than Ed Sheeran, he went dark for an entire year before returning with ÷, one of the best-selling albums of all time. Sheeran's taken a different approach this time for a very different project, and sounds fresher than ever, but in creative terms, many classic albums came along when an artist had time to reset their parameters and come back with something truly groundbreaking. Nowadays, of course, many artists are abandoning the full body of work in favour of a barrage of single tracks. That may seem like an easier option, but in fact the brutality of streaming means everyone is only as good as their last song. With it taking so much hard work to break through, you can hardly blame artists and their teams for wanting to making hay when the sun finally shines on them. But generally artists are better off stepping away from that light after both commercial triumphs and creative missteps. Fans’ attention spans are shorter than ever and artists’ careers will be too if we're not careful. Sometimes it actually is better to fade away, for a bit at least, than to risk burnout. Plus, movies about the class of 2019 won’t have any scenes of backstage debauchery to liven them up. If you want a vision of the biopics of the future, imagine a stressed-out pop star flipping open a laptop in the dressing room, checking their streaming stats and updating their socials – forever. Who wants to watch that? * To read the exclusive inside story of Rocketman, click here. To read about its lessons for the music industry, click here. To subscribe to Music Week and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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