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IT'LL ALL BE OVER BY CHRISTMAS

  • Steve Lamacq
  • 28 Nov 08, 02:30 PM

Usually the only dust-up you'd find in the music industry in the run-up to Christmas is a small bout of marketing-led fisticuffs over whose Greatest Hits albums have got the best shelf space in Asda - or the Gumball Rally style race for the Christmas Number One.

That's just the record industry dueling with a couple of wet fish.

But not this year. This year it is all out war. Not only are the major corporations haunted by another 12 months of falling sales, but there is a new battleground they're desperate for success on: market share.

The thought process, I imagine, runs like this. If year on year sales are down again, then at least we can get the biggest percentage of the sales that are left. More than that - there are some big characters at the major labels these days who take this percentage punch-up very seriously (and possibly very personally).

The consequence of all this has been a pre-Christmas release schedule to make your eyes water. It's insane. Last year in the months between October and December - when traditionally the business gets by on some big reissues or Best Of compilations - you'd have been hard pressed to find four or five major new releases from the Top Ten acts. In fact retailers were up in arms at the lack of big pullers.

This year though, there's been about four or five major albums hitting the shops in the last ten minutes. Already we've had, among the big alternative acts, Snow Patrol, Kaiser Chiefs, Razorlight and Keane. While the pop market has been swamped with Girls Aloud, Beyonce, Leona Lewis and Dido to name but a few - and that's without getting too deeply into the soul and R&B markets.

To say the market is saturated would be an understatement.

Which throws up an interesting question. In their efforts to send in all the big guns this side of Christmas, are the big labels starting to eat themselves?

Whether you like the music or not, isn't there something odd about the Sony BMG group overseeing the release of the deluxe edition of Leona Lewis' LP - complete with her cover version of Run - in the same week as their new Dido record? Thus depriving one of their own artists of the Number One spot (Lewis, benefiting from a return appearance on X Factor pipped Dido into second place, while Beyonce, another Sony BMG act, trailed in at Number 10 in the SAME week). Could the hand of Simon Cowell - whose own Syco label goes through BMG and whose pet project is Leona - be at work here?

Interestingly, in its latest edition, the trade bible Music Week describes both the Razorlight and Keane albums as "underperforming" at retail (colloquial parlance for "they've stiffed"). And while there's one argument that both bands are possibly past their career peak, they were both perceived as being pivotal records in the lives of these groups. So why were they both pitched by the Universal group into the pre-Christmas melee (alongside a dozen other big albums from the same group of labels)?

If there are a finite number of fans buying this type of crossover rock record, then isn't that just splitting the vote? You would think even a bad Razorlight record would hang around the Top 20 for a couple of months, but after three weeks on sale Slipway Fires is at 33, while the Keane album (which I rather like, as you know) is down to 39, just one place ahead of Oasis, who also seem to be suffering from the glut of albums out there at the moment.

And that's before this week's batch of incoming releases, including The Killers' album and Guns N' Roses (you take a million years to make an album which costs trillions of pounds and then you put it out at the busiest time in release history for a decade!).

No wonder U2 - long tipped to return this autumn - took one look at this bunfight and backed off 'til next year. If you're going to work intensely hard on a record - and I'm not criticizing the A&R of this season's albums - then surely you'd like it to have some time to breathe on the shelves.

To add to the competition in the high street shops, iTunes have pitched in and been selling albums by Oasis, The Verve and MGMT for under a fiver (which is terrific as a consumer but I imagine pretty lousy if you're the one waiting for the royalty cheque).

I know that the music business has always been about the survival of the fittest. And for some of us the major labels work like the stock market (they make money, they lose money, they come crying to us for help) and we have a wry smile on our faces when it all goes wrong. But I've become increasingly fascinated by this little playground bundle. And the knock-on effects it may have on the rest of us.

My house price might not start falling if this fight ends in tears, but I suspect it doesn't do much for the development of new acts or our trust in the industry machine.

Comments

  • 1. At 08:51am on 03 Dec 2008, Mr_Stew wrote:

    Interesting post Steve, personally the fact that so many of these acts albums are "underperforming" I think is a great thing, it means the labels will stop pumping stupid amounts of money into indie-lite bands and we won't be subjected to them all day long. We'll also perhaps get to some new bands breaking through rather than the same old stuff that's been around over half a decade.

    Maybe the labels will also learn you can't buy success, it has to be nutured as it takes talent to make a great album, not money. Razorlight's output has always sounded like a local bands demo tape to me, it always seemed as though their success was in marketing such poor quality music to the masses. Out of all the albums released this decade, we never did get an OK Computer or even pop album as good as Parklife. All we got were another load of albums by second rate britpop bands that arrived 10 years too late.

    But the saddest fact of all this is the Leona Lewis cover of Snow Patrol's 'Run' is perhaps better than anything Razorlight & Kaiser Chiefs have ever done. Although it's not my cup of tea I can see why people love it.

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  • 2. At 12:17pm on 12 Dec 2008, superflyingnimbus wrote:

    It all smacks of desperation. The major labels will always sign and push middle-ground acts above the truly remarkable because they are more sales-focused than at any time in history. The broad-appeal middle-ground is a safe-bet and they want guaranteed sales. But as the middle-ground is now swamped with mediocre similar-sounding pap, people are losing interest. It's debatable what the majority of the music-buying public like more: innovation or familiarity. But even if they prefer the familiar, then as you say, they're not going to buy three similar-sounding albums in the same month. It's all symptomatic of the collapse of the music industry combined with the global downturn. At the moment all we can do is watch the slow-motion car crash and wait to see what happens.

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  • 3. At 11:45am on 20 Dec 2008, oocares wrote:

    As millions of people get vouchers for Christmas the best day for a launch must be December 25th?

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  • 4. At 4:04pm on 13 Jan 2009, Wimbledon-Exile wrote:

    I'd echo Mr Stew to an extent, I would hope that the big labels reign themselves back in and concentrate on their core artists giving the smaller more independent labels more of a chance of signing decent artists.

    For many many years (after all Theodore Adorno talked about the standardisation of music in the 1920s) the big labels will jump on the bandwagon of a particular sound and then rape and pillage every facet of it until all commercial juice has been squeezed from it. Hence from the sometimes enigmatic but musically authentic indie scene of the 1980s/early 90s we got Britpop which may have spawned the odd decent album but was generally a method for the record companies to peddle the same old tosh for a few years and some of it was proper bilge.

    The difficulty will always be that the execs will sit there like vultures waiting for the "next big sound" in order to greedily snap up anything synonymous, and then pressure those fledgling acts to keep hashing the same stuff out 'because it works' and you get Mike Skinner's problem. Perhaps the credit crunch may force them to tighten their belts which would mean a bland canvass for those into the charts but a much better time for the rest of us which in turn, one can hope, may keep the smaller labels in business.

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  • 5. At 3:02pm on 20 Feb 2009, Richard_SM wrote:

    I'd echo Mr Stew to an extent

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