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Meeting Music's Nostradamus

For Radio 4 documentary The Pop Star and the Prophet, musician Sam York set out to meet Jacques Attali, an unorthodox French political theorist who predicted the decline of the music industry decades before it occurred. This is what he learned.

As a musician, I’d like to assure you that the crisis in the music industry is real. Behind all the anonymous statistics about declining album sales, and the pitiful incomes reported from streaming platforms, rank-and-file musicians are struggling to survive. Almost every musician I know has secretly confessed thoughts of jacking it in, finding some other income, because the future seems so hopeless. Many of those I’ve spoken to are the 'lucky ones’ who have gigs, audiences and recording contracts.

Sam York (right) with Jacques Attali
He told me about the intimate relationship between music and power"

It’s still unclear whether the the music industry is going through a prolonged transitional phase, soon to reach a glorious new equilibrium, or whether it has been permanently withered by events of the last decade and a half. It’s easy to find proponents of both views.

Throughout the turbulence of the last 15 years, the ideas of an unorthodox French thinker have helped me to make sense of these changes. Writing almost 40 years ago, as a political theorist far removed from the world of music, Jacques Attali claimed that the music industry was headed on a path towards self destruction. He foresaw a time when the vast number of recordings available would make charging for music impossible. He believed the record business would destroy itself through an excessive reproduction of recordings - like a cancer that destroys its host through an excess of cells. But it wasn’t all bad - he saw this as a new opportunity for musicians and listeners to reclaim music as a shared experience, free from the corrupting influence of money.

Importantly, he saw music as a pioneering cultural phenomenon - at the cutting edge of human societal development and a powerful economic and political harbinger. All of the major economic developments in human history, he believed, happened first in music. He claimed that the ways in which we created, consumed and shared music could show us where we were all headed.

I was fascinated by his ideas and what they might mean for me, as a musician, so I went to meet him. Standing on a rainy but elegant Parisian boulevard, hearing a thin voice crackle through an ancient intercom system, he invited me in.

I was extremely nervous about meeting Jacques Attali. No one in the music industry had seen this crisis coming, but he had - decades in advance. It felt like I was meeting music’s Nostradamus. Although, this was probably the least of his achievements. As well as authoring over 60 books on a vast array of subjects, he had advised French President Francois Mitterrand for over a decade, organised a G7 summit and become first president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. No slouch, then.

Here I was, a singer-songwriter, trying to find out if I could make a living.

We sat on a couch in his exquisite library. On the walls hung a large collection of tribal masks and weaponry - the room seemed to betray a fascination with ancient cultural history. His friendly ginger tomcat joined our conversation.

He spoke almost inaudibly. Very calmly, with great generosity and warmth. He is now 71.

He explained how this book he'd written in 1976 - Noise: The Political Economy of Music, which predicted the demise of the music industry due to what he called the “crisis of proliferation” - had seemed to come from nowhere. Yet these ideas he had laid out in this early work more or less defined the rest of his career - it contained the seeds of all of his later thinking. Even he had been shocked by the prescience of the ideas it contained.

He told me about the intimate relationship between music and power - how music revealed the inner workings of a society, and laid bare the struggles between authority and individual freedom.

He explained how his predictions for the music industry were only beginning to manifest themselves in the wider economy - how technologies like 3D printing were likely to transform mass-produced consumerism, just as the humble mp3 had revolutionised the music business. He told me the object would “wither and die”, and that we were facing a generalised crisis of proliferation.

He explained his theory that the vibrancy of African musical culture could predict its economic dominance in the century to come, whereas the cultural weakness of China showed it was unlikely to exercise a truly dominant role in future global politics.

Was he pessimistic about the future for music? In short, no - but he saw a treacherous road ahead.

Attali told me that the solutions we carve out to the crisis in the music industry could define our societies for decades to come. In particular, he saw a danger that the music industry could usher in unacceptably invasive level of surveillance. “It could open the door to dictatorship,” he told me. Again, as with music, so goes the rest.

I returned to London with a powerful counterexample to the advice “never meet your heros”. Attali was gracious, generous and full of new ideas. Yet, I left with as many unanswered questions as I arrived with.

The ideas contained in Noise have shaped my approach to music, and have illuminated recent transformations more powerfully than anything else I have come across. Attali is still producing unexpected ideas, but I wonder if his most radical work is behind him. All the same, his writing deserves a far wider readership in the English-speaking world - musicians and record executives could do with familiarising themselves with what he’s been saying for the last 40 years, therein they might find answers to many of the most ponderous questions we are facing. And a few sober warnings.

Listen to The Pop Star and the Prophet.