For English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, a visit to UniSA’s Hawke Research Institute provided an opportunity to reflect upon the challenges of adapting to a music industry vastly different to the one he first explored as frontman of Lloyd Cole & The Commotions.
Thirteen years since the initial shutdown of file-sharing giant Napster in July 2001, the rise of the internet and the MP3 has proven an unstoppable game changer across the music industry, affecting everyone from bedroom battlers to 1980s pop veterans. For every positive opportunity for artists to build their audience through social media, the online world throws a spanner. The most obvious and infamous example remains the ubiquity of file sharing and digital music piracy, which for many artists has decimated their ability to make a living from record sales over the past decade. “In 1999, I realised not having a website was crazy, but building a good one was very difficult back then, and expensive,” Cole recalls during his recent Adelaide visit. “So I learned how to build websites myself, first learning to use Flash and then HTML when of course everyone started using Flash and I realised how much I hated it! “Now, as a retailer, I sell more CDs than Austria, Switzerland and Italy combined,” he says. Although this might seem an impressive tally, according to Cole it is actually a telling reflection of a shrinking global record market. It is this insight into the changing digital landscape that inspired Professor Anthony Elliott of the Hawke Research Institute to invite Cole to participate in a Visiting Fellowship in conjunction with MONA in Hobart. During his July visit, Cole worked with staff and postgraduate students at the Institute to shed further light on these changes, including the effect of subscription-based streaming services like Spotify on the music industry. By offering a low-cost, accessible alternative to sites like The Pirate Bay, platforms like Spotify have been hailed by their founders as the natural antidote to music piracy. With musicians earning only a fraction of a cent per stream, however, some artists have been justifiably critical of the service as a mere fig leaf for lost revenue. “It’s kind of like getting rid of the minimum wage because hey, it’s better than slavery,” Cole argues. “In the past, an album sold in a store might make you a dollar and one iTunes album sale might make you a dollar. With streaming, though, it can take thousands of streams to come close [to a dollar]. “[Streaming services] might have contributed to a downturn in piracy, but that’s only because they’re offering something so cheap. Maybe that is the new norm, maybe music is valued by society at a far lower market value… but if that’s the case we have to adapt,” he warns. Cheaper recording software and equipment might have made producing music less expensive, but without some degree of financial security Lloyd worries the days of groundbreaking studio opuses may be numbered. “Certainly it seems that if we were to have to rely on Spotify as our primary source of income it would be idiotic to continue to make ambitious records that take time and money to make,” he says. In lieu of recording royalties, Lloyd, like many artists, relies primarily on live performance to make a living. “It’s a huge misnomer constantly referring to the music industry as the ‘record industry’, because over the last 10 to 15 years there has been more money generated in the music industry than before, but it’s mostly been in live performance.” While this model is sustainable for artists such as himself, he worries the high start-up cost of touring will make it near impossible for new, independent bands to break through. Similarly, marquee acts like Radiohead can afford to experiment with the value of recorded music – as with the ground breaking pay-what-you-want model of 2007’s In Rainbows – while relying on their existing fanbase and lucrative touring to stay afloat, a luxury unavailable to the Thom Yorkes of tomorrow. These changes were the focus of an intimate masterclass hosted by the Hawke Institute that saw Cole work with students from a range of disciplines. “We had students from all fields from electronic engineering to communications and the social sciences, from young postgrads and faculty to people my age,” Cole explains. “None of us could agree which was the chicken and which was the egg; did artists see ahead and focus on touring as sales declined, or did they make less records out of frustration with the industry?” As record companies become less eager to front up cash to back new, unproven bands, crowdfunding sites such as Pozible and Kickstarter have rapidly emerged as a key tool for musicians looking to bankroll new works. Initially used by emerging indie bands to rally their grassroots following to back early recordings, now even major label veterans such as Eskimo Joe have embraced the prospect of maintaining the support of their fans while circumventing the artistic and commercial limitations of their previous labels. Cole has also has experimented with this fan-driven model, with his most recent album Standards partially funded through pre-sales snapped up by listeners eager to purchase the album before it was even recorded. Those who pre-ordered the album were then treated to a deluxe version with exclusive content not available on the officially released CD. Despite live performance overtaking traditional record sales as a breadwinner, for Lloyd the symbiotic relationship between the extra publicity and renewed interest afforded by a new release and ticket sales means that making new music is still a worthwhile commercial investment. “I think because the album has been well received I’ve been more visible – but it hasn’t necessarily sold any better,” he reflects, midway through a well-received Australian tour. “The real positive has come more from the fact that articles are more prominent and the reviews are better, which has enabled the demand for the live show to noticeably go up.” lloydcole.com unisa.edu.au/research/hawke-research-institute