- Illustrations by Mr Jean Jullien | Words by Mr Peter Paphides
Dig, if you will, a picture. Outside London's most iconic building, a line of journalists, celebrities and music industry executives snakes down towards London Bridge station. It has cost Sony an estimated £12,500 per hour to hire The Shard's 72nd-floor viewing gallery for the playback of Daft Punk's feverishly anticipated Random Access Memories album. Such high-profile launches used to be commonplace. At the party at Camden's Roundhouse to celebrate the release of Pet Shop Boys' 1993 album Very, the last people left standing were the waiting staff tasked with the job of supplying the revellers with inexhaustible quantities of champagne. Similarly lavish was the OXO Tower launch for the Spice Girls' first album. For those who overdid it on sushi and the five specially devised cocktails (I could still taste "Ginger Spice" the following morning), those Spice Girls goodie bags certainly came in useful. Early in 2013, however, the most surprising thing about the Daft Punk launch was just how much it felt like a decadent echo from a long-lost era. Given the contents of the record - itself a love letter to the old, expensive analogue way of making blockbuster records in a more carefree age - it felt poignantly appropriate. "You'll never hear another record like this" seems to be the subtext of Random Access Memories. And the reason? Because people can no longer afford to make records like this.
The following day, I sat at my desk, clicked onto Twitter and learnt that iTunes was now streaming the record. What I heard through huge speakers overlooking the London skyline was now being live-tweeted by hundreds of people whose first impression of the album was mediated through their laptop speakers. Unsurprisingly, many were unimpressed. And among those who dismissed the record, few seemed to countenance the idea that it might grow on them. Perhaps you needed to be privy to both scenarios - the night before and the morning after - to fully apprehend the irony. If this is how easily prone we are to dismissing records such as Random Access Memories, then perhaps it's not surprising that hardly anyone makes records like this any more.
Of course, if the aforementioned scenes of excess remind us of anything, it's that the music industry has made it very hard for us to care for its wellbeing at times (many of us remember all too well being unable to work out why back-catalogue CDs by artists who had long recouped their advances still retailed at £15.99). The gold rush is over, and the irony is that if you go back to that era of unprecedented profit margins, it's possible to trace a direct causal line between then and now. The CD's swift rise to dominance was predicated on convenience - and, of course, the convenience with which information can be transferred from CDs and sent through cyberspace has also been the industry's undoing. Ubiquity drives down value. And music has never been more ubiquitous.
Every time I point this out, someone will feel compelled to tell me that I am bound to think that when I have record companies sending me music for free. And, actually, they have a point. I made the same realisation myself back in the late 1990s, when my enjoyment of music seemed to diminish. What had changed between my childhood - when listening to new music was an insoluble source of joy - and now? Only one thing: I had stopped going to record shops. So I reverted back to the method that served me so well when I was 12. I started going to record shops again and - if there was an album I really liked - I'd get it on vinyl. I'm not sure if the music sounded any better on vinyl, but I found I was certainly making more of an effort to get a return on my financial and emotional investment.
Fast-forward another 15 years. The resurgence of vinyl (a 32% rise in the US across 2013, according to Nielsen SoundScan - and that doesn't include sales of second-hand vinyl) suggests that I'm by no means alone in feeling this way. But, of course, vinyl isn't going to start shifting in proportions comparable to its heyday. For most people under 25, songs aren't something to be enjoyed on artefacts specially manufactured to contain them. If I were born 20 years later, the touchy-feely pro-vinyl rhetoric of older generations would be no more incomprehensible to me than if it was uttered in Flemish. Yes, it's still possible to get obsessed by a great song. I'm just not sure if it happens as much or as intensely as it did when great songs didn't sit in our pockets on hard drives alongside thousands of other songs. If I had Spotify Premium, I'm not sure I would have any incentive to let a song grow on me when I could just flick to the next one.
It's easy to hate Spotify, with the piffling revenue streams it offers to artists, but the fact of the matter is that Spotify isn't going anywhere - which perhaps explains why major record labels own a controlling share in it. And if we didn't have Spotify offering a user-friendly interface to fill a space once occupied by the likes of The Pirate Bay, perhaps artists might enjoy even less of a revenue stream. Spotify could only exist in a post-piracy world. It is both a symptom and cause of the fact that there's only so much most of us are prepared to pay for new music - and that's a fraction of what it once was. And because we're prepared to pay less money for music, it stands to reason that the music industry has much less money to invest in maverick new artists. The old way was far from perfect, but it did mean that with more money in the coffers to invest in edgy, not-always-commercial artists, the range of music to be found on major label rosters was more diverse than it typically seems to be now. As far back as the late 1960s, Polydor used money generated from uncool mainstream smashes by artists such as James Last to pay for left-field classics including The Velvet Underground's debut album.
If there's a squeeze happening, then it's somewhere at street level and with the new pop gentry - between GarageBand-savvy solo pop-smiths such as Tinie Tempah and Professor Green at one extreme, and the recent emergence of bands who have sprung from fee-paying schools: Mumford & Sons, Alt-J, Florence and the Machine, The Vaccines and The Maccabees. Good luck to them all. I wouldn't begrudge any of them their success any more than I would begrudge Nick Drake his posthumous fame for the fact that he studied at Marlborough College.
However, there are almost certainly great records that we will never hear because the bands that would have made them couldn't stay solvent long enough to deliver them. Until someone thinks of a way to make millions of people feel good about paying more for music, little looks set to change. That's not such an implausibly fanciful notion. Before Dr Dre's Beats brand descended upon the marketplace, the idea that a pair of headphones retailing at more than £200 could be a mass-market phenomenon would have been deemed preposterous. It's a view echoed by 24-year-old songwriter and producer Benjamin Garrett who, as Fryars, has just completed work on his eagerly awaited major debut album for Warner. "Someone will devise a way of making us feel good about paying more for music than we do right now. It could be a reconfigured Spotify or perhaps a Shazam store, where you're out and about and you hear something and, at that moment, click-to-purchase becomes easier than streaming."
Pending that elusive development, major labels will make the most of their investments in one of two ways: developing failure-proof global blockbuster releases by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars and One Direction; or hand-picking artists who appear before them as a finished package. Mumford & Sons self-financed their debut album, while Lana Del Rey developed her songs and image on the small 5 Points label before Interscope swooped in to take over. Lorde's Pure Heroine was developed and recorded inexpensively in the relative isolation of New Zealand, with the help of a tiny development deal from Universal. There's a hell of a lot you can achieve in 2014 as an ambitious young artist, but without the marketing muscle of a major record company or a globally established indie, you can't do it all. It's perhaps reassuring to know that, even in straitened times, talent isn't easily deterred from finding its natural audience. But we need to play our part too. Think about what your current favourite record means to you; now recall, if you can, what you paid for it. Somewhere between those two poles lies the size of the problem facing the music industry.