In the year 2000, Courtney Love – of all people – took time off from getting into trouble to deliver an articulate, precisely argued speech on major label sharp practice at an entertainment seminar in NY. The full text was carried by Salon soon after, and then, exponentially, by a million other websites. Artists griping about exploitative recording contracts is neither new nor uncommon, but Courtney’s Math – as it has come to be known – stands out for two reasons: first, it systematically picks at recording contract arithmetic to demonstrate exactly how, and by how much, an artist potentially stands to be gypped; second, it is of that crucial, uncertain time when the internet flung its first tentative spanner, in the form of Napster, into the traditional industry’s dark works. Courtney’s Math is both a historical document and a damning indictment: it should be required reading for anyone who takes an interest in the making and selling of music.
A number of things happened around the time of Love’s outburst. Lars Ulrich threw a high-profile hissy fit which brought the subject of copyright infringement into drawing room discussions; the recording industry, in turn, missed a trick and decided in favour of rigid heavy-handedness instead, spelling death for themselves and rightful mass derision for the RIAA. Big business greed and inertia, the extent of which had been guessed at but not fully grasped, was repeatedly exposed through this new medium which allowed instant access to worldwide opinion. And small bands, slowly at first, but then as a matter of course, ceased to consider “getting signed” as the only option available to them.
It’s all the fault of computers, of course: recording technology now allows anybody to cut their own album at home with half an imagination, a laptop, and a year’s savings’ worth of gadgetry. The internet ensures that you can have your songs available anywhere in the world in a matter of the few minutes an upload takes. The arguments against downloadable music haven’t shown themselves to have held water: the poor quality of mp3s will be – has been – solved by inevitable technological advancement. People’s love of a physical medium, something which they can hold in their hands, seems to be a bit of romanticising that isn’t surviving the pull of pure convenience. Everybody downloads.
But, and this is the tragedy contained in these happy developments: the major label address book – their network of contacts for retailing music, getting it airplay, advertising it, putting out promotional material, and scoring gigs worth noticing – has also gone out of reach.
The record industry has, so far, not shown either the sense or the inclination to be part of this process: their reaction has been to operate with ever-lower margins and ever-grubbier ways of recovering their escalating costs, misusing their resources, both in moral and in strict financial terms, repeatedly.
There will be no going back to the old world and its ways of doing business. Nobody needs an advance to go in and record, or some cigar-chewing dinner-party-hosting shark loaning them money to have their discs printed. But the new world hasn’t sorted itself out yet. I don’t fear for the fate of the creative urge – people will keep making music as long as they feel the twitch in their bones and the spark in their brains. But, unless a new, organised industry arises out of the anarchy to provide the basic services that small bands so badly need – the address book, the PR – we will continue to run the risk of small musicians making records only for their handful of friends. And, pleasant as that may be, it’ll go precisely nowhere.