Monday Musings: My Musical Utopia, What It Is, How We Might Get There, And Why We Won’t

Posted on August 1, 2011


The critic plays.

Once when I was making my first, abortive attempt at getting a degree, I was sitting in a seminar discussing H.G. Wells’ The History Of Mr. Polly. It was stated, quite forcefully, by the tutor, that because it didn’t articulate a clear alternative, the book’s critique of Edwardian petit-bourgeois life was flawed and incomplete: I objected to this on two grounds. Firstly, the book’s central character simply goes off and does something he finds more rewarding, that attracts less status, and that is an alternative (that’s what I’ve done with my own life); and secondly, because I don’t see why pretending to know all the answers makes your analysis and critique of a situation any less compelling. In fact, to me, it makes it more compelling: anyone who thinks they know exactly how to fix social problems is plainly an egomaniac, and should be humoured at best (this is the prima facie reason for my distrust of politicians).

Having said that, it can still be a useful exercise to imagine the circumstances in which everything works well, everyone gets fed, all necessary social goods are properly delivered, and all views are accounted for. Idealism requires an ideal, not just in the sense of a value, but of an imagined perfect world, however vaguely it may be conceived. So what follows is not a rigorously organised plan for the music industry, and nor do I have any very clear idea of how to get to it, other than by everyone opting out like Mr. Polly. This is my idle fantasy: it’s what I’d like to see.


In my ideal musical world:

  • There will be no record companies. They will all have gone bankrupt (and during their death throes, they will have suffered). There will be some large organisations making money out of distribution, however. There will be digital distribution sites like Bandcamp, that offer a place where artists can make their work available, and that take a small cut (because if these sites are big, they only need a small cut); there will also be physical distro providers, like Big Cartel (and Bandcamp again); and there will also be postal services, web hosts, merch manufacturers etc taking their cut as well, which is all perfectly fair, and really doesn’t leave anything over for thieves and liars who contribute nothing (record companies I mean).
  • There will be no stars. Nobody will think anyone is amazing just because they’re famous. Listeners will have been educated to distinguish pap with hooks, that gives them a quick hit of familiarity, from music which speaks specifically to them; they will also have learned at school that music is a fun game that everyone can play, and so they won’t be impressed by rubbish any more. There will be artists that are better known than others, but I believe there is probably an upper limit to how popular anyone can become through organic discovery processes: I think that limit is high enough for some people still to become pretty darn rich (especially without larcenous middlemen stealing from them), but there won’t be anyone that is known to everyone on the planet any more.
  • Listeners will find music organically. Sure, artists will market themselves: there will be targeted adverts, and there will still be PR companies (the kind that do useful work for musicians who really can’t be arsed to do it for themselves, and can afford to pay). But word of mouth, social networks (on and off-line), personal exploration, record shops, and affordable gigs will be the principal means by which people come across new music. This is a topic which deserves an entire article in its own right, but that’ll do for now… The main point is that people won’t be getting into music because it’s famous and they think they need to know about what’s famous in order to be hip.
  • Everything will be done cheaply. Anyone who tries to tell you that it costs £10 000 to make a record will get their face laughed in. A big, braying guffaw of the sort that generates a lot of spittle. And that figure is a lot less than most stars (or ‘morons’, as we doctors call them) spend on recording an album. Tours will involve the band and whatever small technical crew they need to have with them, travelling cheaply, staying in modest accommodation, eating normal food and not partying continually (unless that’s what they do anyway). Basically, the gravy train will be gone, and the entourages disbanded, because all the stage shows, tours and recordings will be there purely to get the artists’ work before an audience, and they will all be expected to pay for themselves.
  • Everyone making music will be doing it because they love it. There will not be the promise of becoming a multi-bazillionaire; people will not associate ‘success’ in their mind with godhood, but with making a good living; and therefore, nobody will be making music whose primary motivation is something else. Because, lets face it, for all of anyone’s protestations that music is ‘work’, it is still the most insanely enjoyable thing you can do with your clothes on, and so the number of people who want to spend some portion of their life doing it will always exceed society’s capacity to support them. Those who make their living from music now are predominantly people who are so utterly obsessed with it that they couldn’t do anything else, and that tendency will be more pronounced when I am world president.
  • Everyone will be making music. I said it above, and I’ll repeat it: music is a fun game that’s easy to play. Everyone should do it. Our music education system is a total fucking tragedy. I’m not trying to argue that everyone can be really good at music, just that it is a rewarding participatory activity, a basic human faculty that everyone can exercise on some level. In my musical utopia, nobody will believe that for a musical activity to be valid it needs to sound like a professionally recorded CD; everyone will be helped to find the thing that they love to do musically, be it singing in a choir, bashing out some chords on a cheap guitar, stringing some loops together on their computer, DJing at their sister’s party, or screaming obscenities into the wrong end of a gramophone so that the needle scratches gnomic glyphs into the surface of a bowl of strawberry jelly. Musical culture is so much bigger than musicians, and its health is reflected directly in the number and quality of people dedicating significant proportions of their personal resources to creating musical art.
  • Musicians won’t assume they’re owed a living. Just because you work hard at making music (and it is work, even though it’s called ‘playing’), doesn’t mean you deserve to be paid for it. As I said above, there are too many of us who love doing this for everyone to take home enough to live on. I’ve made my arguments elsewhere about the property status of digital recordings, so obviously in my ideal world nobody will expect to get paid because some other people can hear their music, or are transferring data between different physical locations. There will always be absolutely wonderful musicians, producing unfeasibly high quality, fully realised performances and recordings, and failing to earn a crust at it: this is partly because what they do may not have as much intrinsic appeal to as large a number of people as some other music; but it is largely because the people who make their living from music, now and in the future (and in my utopia) are those who are most willing and able to do the things required to bring in some revenue. Such as telling people you meet that your work is worth hearing; such as occasionally picking up the phone and haranguing some venues; and all that other malarkey I don’t need to rehearse here. Music is music; and good music is good music; and I don’t mind if the makers of good music get their money from playing gigs or cutting down trees. They may be happier with the latter.
  • Listeners will value music. In my utopia, everyone will expect that they can hear and share recordings if they want to, and they won’t have to pay for the privilege. But they will also understand that music is not disposable, and that someone put an awful lot of work and love into making the music that they hear, and if it speaks to them, they will find a way to support it, by making a donation, buying a physical CD, paying the admission price on a gig, buying a tee-shirt or telling everyone they know about it. They will take this attitude because they make music for fun themselves, and so understand what’s involved, and also because they are engaged actively, as listeners, in seeking out new music, rather than having it presented to them on a plate by glossy magazines and big companies. Music, to them, will be a sound, not a person in a funny dress, and so the sound will seem to be something important.

This is an incomplete rant, off the top of my head. It plainly assumes some major changes, not just to the music business, but to society as a whole. I hate the top down bullshit that we live with every day, but to be honest, I don’t expect anything to change. There is a growing political awareness and dissatisfaction, but it’s still very much a minority thing, and I don’t expect to see a revolution any time soon. It’s a bit like The Matrix: most people will choose to take the blue pill, but some may be persuaded to take the red one, and opt out, like Mr. Polly and me. That way we can at least live as though the conditions I’ve described are in force, to some degree.