25 Jul 2004: The Observer - Page 15 - (915 words)
BUSINESS: Management: awopbopaloobopalopbamboom!:
FIFTY YEARS ago this month, a 19-year-old white truck driver walked into a recording studio in Memphis and almost by accident cut two lithe, sexy and ferociously self-confident tracks that redefined a culture and set the music industry on its ear.
Actually, Elvis Presley was far from the first recording idol. 'That's All Right' certainly wasn't the first rock'n'roll record, and although it was a sensation locally it wasn't even a national hit. For Memphis to claim 2004 as the 50th anniversary of the birth of rock'n'roll is self-serving braggadocio to rival some of the early rock'n'rollers.
Still, that's showbiz, an industry whose relationship with reality has never been more than a one-night stand. Ironically, 2004 is more likely to be remembered for the traditional music industry's funeral - killed off by the new economy in the shape of Apple's iTunes and GarageBand. These two innovative products, from a different industry altogether, let consumers download and share files over the internet and make their own music - that is, do what they wanted all along.
In fact, for anyone with a sense of history, the ghostly reverb of 1950s guitar solos is plainly detectable behind the unmaking of the industry today. For the downfall of the majors - the merger approved by the EU last week between Sony and BMG is the last bar of a knackered old record rather than the first of a new - is not so much the new economy as the repetition of a very old pattern of behaviour: such rapaciousness and stupidity was already well in evidence as rock'n'roll was born.
So hear my story, sad but true ... Like many adults ('Who is this Elmer Prescott?' asked my mother bemusedly), despite today's rewriting of history, the music establishment was initially baffled by rock'n'roll, missing and then denying the real significance of those first Memphis recordings as unerringly as it would do several subsequent industry turning points.
What Presley invented (and if he hadn't, someone else would) wasn't a new musical form but a new image for an old one. Quickly reinforced by a stream of contemporaries, he created a mass market for a black-inflected music that white radio stations would play and white kids could buy - which they did, in their millions.
The music industry was appalled. The effect of the incomprehensible words and sexed-up rhythms on the kids was one thing, but to the record majors the wider import of songs like 'Tutti Frutti', 'Great Balls Of Fire' and 'Rip It Up' was as clear as a ringing bell: they were losing control of the business. The inmates were taking over the institution and needed to be put back in their place.
By 1959 the establishment had pretty much succeeded. It bought up the indies' best artists, covered the originals with polite white singers, and watered down the lyrics. It helped that many of the main protagonists (Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochrane and Little Richard) had self-destructed or were otherwise out of commission. After just five years, the first wave of rock 'n' roll was dead.
Trouble was, in reasserting control, the industry had also flattened the market that the rock'n'rollers had created. It was only resurrected by another injection of self-generated energy, this time not from southern America but, improbably, from a north British seaport. In context, the surprising thing about the Beatles is not that an unfortunate A&R man turned them down, but that anyone had the gumption to pick them up. The same could be said of punk a decade and a half later.
Incomprehension and short-sightedness was also the story in technology, which twice baled out the industry in spite of itself. Tapes had the unfortunate drawback of allowing consumers to record what they wanted, but the record companies were soon reconciled by the discovery that the demand for music on the go didn't oblige them to do anything new, just sell the old stuff in a new format - a wheeze that was even more satisfying when pulled off again, more expensively, with CDs.
But the whirligig of time, as a more elevated wordsmith once wrote, brings in his revenges.
When, in the final instalment, the internet arrived, the music companies again missed the beat. It took ingenious young consumers and a computer firm to figure out how to make and distribute music in digital form. But by now the industry was out of luck as well as tune, its credit with both consumers and musician/suppliers as usable as a worn-out 78. They had been ripped off too often by poor quality, excessive prices and cynical issuing policies to experience anything but pleasure when technology at last offered them the chance to help themselves. Unsurprisingly, a commercial policy of suing the keenest consumers for piracy turned out to have limited effect.
Rock'n'roll is long gone, and Presley (another irony of today's celebrations) ended up not the king but the perfect symbol of the music's decay, corrupted into a grotesque parody of the sentimental 'entertainment' the music industry preferred.
But what rock'n'roll had briefly but exuberantly hinted at, the internet confirmed: although companies can control what, when, and how a product is delivered for a while, it can't do it forever. At that point, it's too late to discover that it's the customer that really matters, not the technology. Fifty years on, with a little help from their friends, customers have killed off the seller's market and the music companies that exploited it for so long. Read my lips: awopbopaloobopalopbamboom.
The Observer, 25 Julay 2004