Why its always glass half empty for the British music industry?

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Laurence Kaye helps to run the Pirate party in the UK. They defend the right to get music for free on the internet as opposed to the music industry and musicians who see it as losing their livelihood and control. He sends us a blog stating that the death of the music industry has been excagerated…
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Why its always glass half empty for the British music industry?

a pirate asks 'Why its always glass half empty for the British music industry?'

Most of us have a mate who has a tendency to the glass half empty view of life. For every silver lining there is a cloud. When one door closes, so does another. That mate for bands and songwriters is music industry body, the British Phonographic Industry, affectionately known as the BPI. They never seem to miss an opportunity to rush in with an arm flailing press release wailing: “The pirates are coming! We’re doooomed! Doooomed I tell you!” Or to be fair, currently it’s “If it weren’t for the lovely, yet tax averse Adele, we’d be dooooomed!”

While most people were nursing their New Year hangovers, the BPI were preparing their latest missive of doom- aka music sales volume figures from the previous year. Top of the headline was “Music Sales Slip in 2011”, qualified by the next line “but digital singles and albums grow strongly”. So the glass empty half first, which would leave any reader with the impression that overall, things are getting worse. The Guardian certainly reported it that way, leading with “UK music sales decline for seventh successive year despite downloads”.

As it happens when you look further, there is plenty of good news. Fourth successive record year for singles sales. Digital albums sales grow by over 25%. Ms “state schools are shit” Adele had the biggest-selling album this century. However, the statements of the BPI folk were full of warnings of “chronic piracy”, “a creative crunch”, the Government is apparently “weakening copyright”, “the UK has already fallen behind Germany as a music market”. Much has been made in the media of the continued fall in sales of the CD album- that was the angle of the headline in the Financial Times version of the story.

But what did the figures actually say? Bear with me for some Maths. What the BPI gives us are UK market volumes, split in to 2 categories of albums and singles. Album sales were in total 119.9 million in 2010 and 113.2 million in 2011. Single sales were 161.8 million in 2010 and 177.9 million in 2011. Each unit represents that crucial moment when a fan decides- yeah I like that, I want to buy it. Total music sales- the sum of those moments- in 2010 were 281.7 million. In 2011 they were 291.1 million, a rise in sales not a decline.

So the BPI were not just pessimistic, they were out and out wrong. Given they have so much riding on maintaining the narrative of doom, you could perhaps at least not be surprised at them for putting their own spin on the figures. However the BBC, Guardian, Financial Times and the rest should have done much better than just regurgitating a press release. All they had to do was a simple sum- and think for themselves. A rare bit of individualism came from that most anarchist of publications Forbes Business, with the brilliant headline “Adele’s 21 Best One Year UK Sales of Album Ever: Online Piracy Blamed”.

A reasonable objection could be made to this argument – surely album sales matter more than single sales? We can’t know that, as no actual money, profit or loss is detailed. On the BPI’s preferred way of reporting, all we can conclude is that overall, music sales have gone up. Perhaps you think this is a kind of weasely, piratey Maths? Well, this is the way that the US Billboard music sales figures are reported. The first figure they quote is all sales- singles and albums together. The US showed close to a 7% rise in music sales, and an all time record, breaking the 1.6 billion mark for the first time.

The trouble is that the music industry is so bound up with the piracy narrative that it is severely affecting their perception. It is almost like it is impossible for them to put out an entirely positive press release for fear that the press and politicians will turn round and say- “What have you been moaning about then? Let’s bin the Digital Economy Act and free WiFi for all!”

The BPI don’t say how they arrive at the conclusion that “chronic piracy” is somehow depressing album sales, but not single sales. Or what they expect the government to do that will miraculously find millions of quids for the music industry when incomes are being squeezed. One of the few things that you can safely deduce from the rather brief back of the fag packet style stats from the BPI, is that you will sell more of something that costs a quid (singles) than 5 or 10 quid. But you shouldn’t really need consultants or statisticians to tell you that.

Yes, we are in the middle of a major shift in purchasing habits. But when has that ever not been the case in the history of recording? Out of total sales of 291.1 million, digital is 201.7 million, just shy of 70%. The music industry should be embracing the geeks, rather than attacking them. This is the point, the glass half full approach is becoming dangerous. The music industry is spending years lobbying for dead duck legislation, yet not advocating strongly enough for the vital part culture plays in our national life. They are spending time promoting state web censorship powers, rather than like us in the Pirate Party advocating a fit for purpose digital infrastructure which would maximize the earning potential for musicians on the web.

It’s time that all of us who earn money from music had a powerful mate more willing to see the positive once in a while. But that would mean that the BPI would have to admit that British music- and how we earn our money- is wider than their press releases and obsessions. Fill the glass. I’ll drink to that.

Loz Kaye
Loz is Leader of Pirate Party UK. He has also been a composer since 1994. His music has been performed all the way from Nashville, Tennessee to Okinawa, Japan.

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9 comments on “Why its always glass half empty for the British music industry?”

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    Well worth a watch.
    T

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