opinion

Archives of pain: Why the music biz must safeguard its master recordings

The furore over the 2008 fire at Universal Music’s archive vault in California, housed at the non-UMG owned Universal Studios, much like the blaze itself, is showing few signs of dying down. While the New York Times investigation alleged as ...

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 charts, where records approached the summit with glacial slowness, in stark contrast to the fast-paced diet of high new entries, huge leaps and spectacular crashes on this side of the pond. The shift to streaming has inevitably slowed our countdown too, although the Official Charts Company has been swift in adjusting to the new environment with rule tweaks, such as limiting the number of songs by a single artist and adding video streams, designed to keep things fresh. Indeed, the OCC’s data shows that the chart is still producing more hits than it did. The first 23 weeks of 2019 saw 50 new Top 10 hits (six more than the same period last year), 88 new Top 20 hits (up nine on 2018) and 149 new Top 40 hits (up five on last year). So, how did last week's paralysed Top 10, headed by Ed Sheeran (pictured) and Justin Bieber's I Don't Care, happen? “The evidence indicates that this was an anomaly,” Official Charts CEO Martin Talbot tells Music Week. “We have put in place various measures over the past couple of years to increase movement in the chart and the stats show that there have been more new entries to the Top 10, Top 20 and Top 40 so far this year as in the same period last year. Indeed, this week we are seeing more movement in the chart and expect to see more again next week too.” The charts must reflect what's exciting right now But scoring a high, first-week new entry certainly feels like it’s getting tougher. This year, Music Week research shows there’s been an average of 0.91 records going straight into the Top 10, and 1.83 debuting inside the Top 20. Four weeks have produced no brand new Top 20 entries at all. The charts today are a better reflection of what people are listening to than ever before, but it’s also key they reflect what’s getting people excited right now. Brand new music is the lifeblood of the business, and those first-week listens are surely more elective than those for records that have been around for weeks or months, even allowing for the accelerated decline rules. Many execs ponder whether those lean-in streams should count for more than lean-back ones via playlists, in the same way premium subscriber streams are worth more, in chart terms, than free ones. The Official Charts Company is always looking at further rule tweaks – for example, the vexed question of whether soundtrack albums should appear in the compilations chart or the main albums chart remains under debate – so it will be interesting to see if this one rises up the agenda. Another static chart or two and it surely will. Because, while things look livelier this week, six of the Top 10, including the entire Top 5, remain unmoved. And few will relish a repeat of the repeat. After all, no one ever got excited about standing still.

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.

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