Comment: It’s time to finish off the record companies

We are going from a top-down entertainment culture to a grassroots one. The age of record companies telling you what to like is over.

By Ian Dunt

For over a decade, the record companies have fought a rearguard defence against their inevitable decline. Thankfully, it’s a lost cause. They will not be missed.

Vince Cable announced today that certain parts of the old Labour government's disreputable Digital Economy Act will be delayed while others will be scrapped altogether. Even so, record companies will be pleased. Things in general seem to be moving their way. They've been blindsided. Legislative or regulatory change is a cul-de-sac. Technological and cultural change is the defining factor and that is most certainly not going their way.

This is a period of transition. We are going from a top-down entertainment culture to a grassroots one.

There are exceptions, most notably film, whose production costs are so high that the studios have a way to go yet before they become redundant, if they ever do. It's just economics, basic Marxism really – the means of production is your first port of call when trying to explain a political or social phenomenon. Other forms of entertainment, like books or comics are considerably cheaper to produce and therefore liable to have their industries changed rapidly and more significantly.

There are culture caveats to that process. Plenty of people still reject the idea of reading a book on an electronic device. They like the smell of the pages and a bunch of other intangible factors we can’t always predict. Similarly with comics, which are being hit hard by the advent of the iPad. Their collectability is protecting the industry to some extent, although not enough to stop executives at Disney and Warner Brothers worrying frantically.

Music has no such protection. It is much cheaper to produce than movies but does not have any particular cultural or social protections in terms of how it is consumed. As long as the audio file is of good quality and can be played on your stereo system, there's no distinction between it, a CD or a legal download.

Record companies would have you believe that they play a fundamental role in producing the music you enjoy. This is nonsense. They merely create the physical product, the record, tape, CD or minidisc. But that physical product is no longer relevant to consumers. The record companies are obsolete.

With their role as owners of the means of production disintegrating, they turned to new arguments. They needed to find and nurture talent, they argued. For every Beyonce there are countless acts which had money spent on them but never broke through. The assumption is that the audience needs marketing to bring its attention to new acts. For their part, acts needed the right producers to nail their sound. As any music fan will tell you, perfect albums only get made with the right producer.

These arguments are not only petulant; they are also very weak. The idea that record companies have a monopoly on artistic collaboration is laughable. The idea that audiences must be herded like sheep towards whatever record companies have decided is best for them is offensive.

We have the technology. We no longer need the middle man. The financial and social exchange can now take place directly between the fan and the artist.

What we don't have, yet, is the website. For a while it looked like it might be MySpace, but that incorporated so many other social functions it ended up going toe-to-toe with Facebook and consequently came a cropper. There is nothing preventing the creation of a website where punters can buy songs or albums directly from unsigned bands. By tracking your preferences and comparing them to other users' habits, it would be able to direct you towards artists you might like, without the need for a record company to deliver a lecture on your need to be propagandised. The first mainstream example of this process took place years ago when the Arctic Monkeys broke into the mainstream off the back of stunning online success. It's embarrassing that we haven't managed to normalise that process yet.

That being said, some bands have grabbed the bull by the horn. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have released albums directly to their fans, sometimes for a set fee, sometimes for free, sometimes for a price that can be decided by the user. Radiohead's last album, the beautifully titled The King of Limbs, was released for £6 – pretty much exactly what I would consider a suitable price for an album. When I was a teenager I used to save for weeks to buy albums that cost £13. CDs are one of the very few items which have actually fallen in price in the intervening years. The exploitative games of the record companies have been brought to a shuddering halt by the advent of new technology.

Buying The King of Limbs meant fans paid less while Radiohead received more compared to their studio albums. As lead singer Thom Yorke told Time magazine: "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one."

Of course, not every band has the profile to be able to release directly and get an audience, but that's why we need a website which can bring fans and bands together. It will come, and once it does, the days of the record company are over. Good riddance.

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