Category Archives: Music

209 – The economics of the music industry

In my early 20s I was in a rock band, The Bargains, playing the hotels of Perth. We got to be reasonably successful within the limited confines of the Perth original music scene at that time, playing about 150 shows and supporting some pretty prominent touring acts.

On Saturday night, I re-lived those fun days with a one-off reunion of the band, most of whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years. It was just fantastic. With not much rehearsal, we were able to pick up the old songs and put on a really satisfying show to a  highly appreciative audience, some of whom had seen us play way back when.

The event was organised to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of one of our members, Dave Rose, who was a great singer and songwriter. You can imagine that it was pretty emotionally intense at times, but it was also joyous to see old friends and perform together again.

Back in 1980-81, I wasn’t an economist, but I certainly got some experience of the economics of the  music industry. Like other areas of the arts, it can be really tough. A tiny, tiny percentage of performers become hugely rich, but for many who don’t make it into that elite level, financial security is a struggle.

It’s not too hard to explain this – it’s largely a matter of supply and demand.

There are many highly talented musicians trying to make a living from their music, so it’s a buyers’ market. Musicians have to compete with each other for a share of the market, and so the prices of music services are bid down. In another industry, like say plumbing, if incomes were that low, many plumbers would quit and do something else, allowing the incomes of plumbers who remained in the industry to rise.

Music is different. Many musicians can’t bear to face the prospect of giving up their music career. They are totally passionate about it, and are prepared to put up with poverty if that’s what it takes to keep playing, at least for a while. For myself, it was a huge wrench when I gave up performing in order to complete my degree.

There are also some who stay in music in the hope of hitting it big and getting rich, although that’s only a minority, I think. For most, it’s their passion for music that keeps them going. Clearly, music consumers benefit from this. In economist speak, the supply of musicians is high and the price elasticity of supply is low (i.e., even if you don’t pay them much, they’ll keep playing). These are both circumstances that  favour music consumers rather than musicians.

Another factor that helps to keep most musicians poor is the highly skewed demand for music. Most music consumers mainly purchase music media or concert tickets for very well known acts, who are the tip of the music industry iceberg. While this is understandable, it means that the huge number of less well-known acts are competing for a small share of a small proportion of the total income generated by the industry.

Musicians also cop it in the markets for inputs that they must purchase to undertake their work. My band used to spend an obscene share of our modest earnings to pay for the sound equipment (and someone to operate it) that we had to hire for each show. Good musical instruments, amplifiers, sound effects and so on are expensive, but they simply have to be purchased. In fact, many musicians end up buying many more instruments and much more equipment than they really need, because it’s their passion.

The result is that people in the industries that provide services and equipment to musicians do pretty well, even though most of their musician clients and customers are not well off. In economist speak again, the demand by musicians for services and equipment is price inelastic, meaning that they’ll keep buying them even if the prices rise – clearly a situation that favours suppliers over musicians.

Of course, there are other relevant factors as well, like the monopsony power of large music companies when negotiating with musicians (there are many sellers, but only one or two buyers, so the buyers are favoured), some unscrupulous business people in the industry, the naivety of many young musicians when it comes to business, the culture within musical circles that values originality and artistic integrity over commercial success, the faddish nature of musical trends, and the hedonistic lifestyles of some musicians. Overall, the poor economic conditions faced by many musicians are not at all hard to explain.

But enough of that … back to the music. Maybe you’d like to hear some. I haven’t yet got a copy of the recording of our reunion performance, but I do have studio versions of three of the songs we played (Hungry, Cunning Brew and On The Seventh Day), which are available for downloading from my page of home recordings, here.

166 – Best albums of the past decade

Something less serious to suit the time of year. It’s the end of the noughties, already. Time for a run down of my favourite albums from the past 10 years.

I think the decade in music was really strong, although there was no huge revolution in music as there was in the mid ’50s (rock and roll), the mid-late ’60s (the Beatles at their peak, and everyone else trying to keep up), the late ’70s (punk) and the late ’80s (hip hop). In the ’90s, the music scene became fragmented and increasingly specialised into many niches, with no single artist or style able to dominate as in previous decades. The noughties continued and accentuated that trend.

Musical preferences are personal, so your list would be different to mine. You won’t find any jazz, classical or electronic dance music below, but you might find some fantastic music that you would otherwise have missed. Just in time for Christmas!

1. Radiohead, "In Rainbows" (2007). The choice for top album of the decade was easy. This is an astonishingly beautiful and clever album. After countless plays I'm still getting more out of it. Radiohead also had what I think was clearly the best album of the nineties, "OK Computer".
2. Ryan Adams, "Cold Roses" (2005). Ryan was very prolific in the noughties, and the quality was consistently high, especially on this wonderful double album. It has country/folk/rock elements, and the songs are superb.
3. Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft" (2001). Who would have thought that Bob Dylan would release the best album of his entire career in 2001, at the age of 60? Hugely diverse, and consistently excellent.
4. Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002). This album grew on me slowly, but just kept growing. It's off-centre music, with all sorts of elements. Some pop, rock, alternative, country, folk, and sundry sound effects. It works brilliantly, because the songs are so great.
5. Rufus Wainwright, "Release the Stars" (2007). Rufus has the most beautiful and moving voice in the world, I reckon. He's an excellent songwriter, and his arrangements are rich and complex, but very accessible.
6. Muse, "Absolution" (2003). I discovered this album via a free CD on the front of a music magazine when it first came out. Nowadays Muse are huge - one of the biggest bands in the world. Everything about this album is great - the songs, the performances, the ambition, the arrangements. It's bombastic, perhaps even pretentious, but magnificent.
7. Elvis Costello, "The Delivery Man" (2004). Elvis did a bit of everything in the noughties: dance-influenced rock, cocktail lounge jazz, bluegrass, folk, rock and roll, symphonic orchestral music, big band jazz, New Orleans rock/soul, and Americana. Although it is one of his more conventional rock album, this one has a wealth of great songs.
8. Sexsmith and Kerr, "Destination Unknown" (2005). Ron Sexsmith, a Canadian singer songwriter, deserves to be much better known. He released a number of excellent albums during the decade. This one, in which he temporarily forms a duo with an old friend, is gentle and beautiful.
9. Bon Iver, "For Emma, Forever Ago" (2008). Delicate, quiet, solo album recorded in his father's cabin in the snow, over a few months. Lovely peaceful sad music, about a relationship breakup.
10. Bob Dylan, "Tell Tale Signs" (2008). This double album of left-over songs that didn't make it onto commercially released albums in the nineties and noughties is filled with gems. It's better than most of his proper albums, I reckon.
11. Wilco, "Wilco (The Album)" (2009). A much more conventional sounding album than "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", but still excellent. Wilco has grown in stature and confidence. Their live DVD that came out this year is also a strong favourite of mine.
12. Grizzly Bear, "Veckatimest" (2009). An unusual mix of ingredients, hard to describe. An online review calls it "rustic, ethereal, pop-folk". Some unusual arrangements for a rock album. Uses mostly standard rock instruments, but somehow it all sounds different. Melodic, often gentle, beautiful singing (reminds me of 10cc at times, with whom they share the virtue of having several lead singers).
13. Ryan Adams, "Cardinology" (2008). Ryan's last album released before his retirement from the music industry. I saw him in Perth on the tour to promote this album - one of his last shows before retirement - and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen.
14. Tom Waits, "Real Gone" (2004). Tom had several great albums in the decade, including a fantastic new live album called "Glitter and Doom", but this is my favourite despite the absence of any of Tom's lovely piano playing.
15. Bob Dylan, "Modern Times" (2006). Another terrific effort from Dylan. His first number 1 album for 30 years, probably helped by the fact that the only people still buying albums are people over 40, but truly the album deserved it.
16. Rufus Wainwright, "Poses" (2001). The most poppy of Rufus's albums, with some of his best songs, and that voice in great form.
17. Queens of the Stone Age, "Songs for the Deaf" (2002). Almost a concept album from this great heavy rock band.
18. King Crimson, "The ConstruKction Of Light" (2000). The decade saw a bit of a renaissance in the sort of music that has been King Crimson's bread and butter for 40 years - very complicated arrangements, complex time changes, ranging from very gentle to very heavy, impeccable musicianship. The best modern disciples are The Mars Volta (see below). Meanwhile KC themselves continued their own renaissance and released a couple of their best ever albums.
19. PJ Harvey, "Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea" (2000). Polly Jean ranged all over the place in the noughties, from relatively poppy shiny arrangements (for her anyway) on this album, to pretty dark swampy rock on "Uh Huh Her" and delicate, ethereal music on "White Chalk". She gave some incredible concerts in Perth.
20. Elvis Costello, "Momofuku" (2008). This album slipped out to almost no publicity, but it's really a gem. Unlike most of his albums for the decade, this one is a straight rock album with his band The Imposters.
21. Neil Finn, "One Nil" (2001). Neil's one of the world's great songwriters. I love the somewhat quirky arrangements on this album, which is as good as anything he's released with Crowded House or Split Enz.
22. Raconteurs, "Consolers of the Lonely" (2008). Unlike the music media, I'm not that keen on The White Stripes, but Jack White's other band, The Raconteurs is superb. Of their two great albums, I slightly prefer this one.
23. Elliott Smith, "New Moon" (2007). Released postumously following his suicide in 2003, these tracks are from early in his career when he relied on very simple, sparse arrangements, which suit his gentle singing voice and his lovely melodic songs.
24. The Mars Volta, "Octohedron" (2009). King Crimson for the modern generation (see above). This is their gentlest and most listenable album (relatively), but I like their more challenging ones as well.
25. XTC, "Wasp Star" (2000). After a long period of slowly losing members over their 23 year life, this was XTC's last released album, recorded as a duo. After this, there was only one member left! The album has excellent songs, and XTC's usual perfect Beatlesque arrangements. Deserved to sell millions (like most of their albums), but didn't.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

29 – Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Kings Park, Perth, Western Australia, 5 December 2004

Elvis Costello is perhaps music’s greatest and boldest adventurer. From his home base in lyrically brilliant rock music, he makes forays into classical, jazz, country, folk, orchestral pop, soul, dance and all points between. He has worked with the most extraordinary list of collaborators, including Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet, the London Symphony Orchestra, Tricky, Brian Eno, Johnny Cash, George Jones, the Mingus Big Band, Tony Bennett, Elvis Presley’s backing band, and so on and on.

In between, he periodically returns to home base, playing short pop/rock songs with his awesome band the Imposters (formerly the Attractions, plus or minus a bass player). That is where we found him on this tour – in a sense confounding expectations of being unpredictable by playing pretty well all of his early hits.

It was an intense show at a pace I haven’t seen since his 1978 tour. Songs tumbled out at machine-gun pace, with less-than-zero gaps between them for most of the show. The set list was also reminiscent of those early days, with almost half of the songs hailing from 1977 to 1981.

On his last trip to Perth in 1999, Elvis was garrulous and relaxed on stage. This time there were few words, and most of them related to his annoyance at being so far from the audience. The stage was set up over the back half of a small lake, with a pleasingly large crowd covering the gently rising slopes above. It was an idyllic scene, almost at odds with the intensity spilling from the stage.

“We came all this way to see your smashing faces”. He was clearly dissatisfied, but that’s not terribly unusual for Elvis.

At one point a couple from the audience almost stole the limelight, dancing in the lake, inevitably falling over, and bravely holding Security at bay with some well directed splashes. They provoked Elvis to say, “The least you could do is get naked!” and then to play “Pouring water on a drowning man”, during which the girl did appear to be drowning.

The Imposters were wonderful, as expected. Keyboard player Steve Nieve was understandably less prominent than in the duo shows of 1999, but he still shone. I do miss the incredible playing of Elvis’s former bass player Bruce Thomas, but there is no denying that “new” boy Davey Faragher is more than able, and his harmony singing is wonderful, adding a dimension that Elvis’s previous bands have lacked. Pete Thomas on drums was just perfect.

Naturally, the show featured a swag of songs from the new album, The Delivery Man. These went down very well, and did not sound second rate among a set list crowded with classics.

At times Elvis’s voice showed signs of being mid-tour but overall it was in fine shape, backing up after the louder songs to deliver wonderful renditions of the ballads.

The set included the usual showstopper, “Pump it Up”, but unusually not as the last song. It seemed like it was going to be last, when Elvis held up a finger to indicate “one more” before crashing into everyone’s favourite rant about inflation. But afterwards came three more songs, including the two quietest of the evening. The band version of Oscar-nominated “The Scarlet Tide” was particularly gorgeous. A highlight from a fabulous show.

Thus ended Elvis’s sixth concert in Perth (who’s counting?). Surely he can’t keep doing shows of this energy for much longer – he recently turned 50 – but I’m not making any predictions of when he’ll stop. Whatever he does next, we can only be certain that it will be different.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Set list

Accidents will happen

Tear off your own head (it’s a doll revolution)

Radio radio

Beyond belief

45

Bedlam

Country darkness

Blame it on Cain

Pouring water on a drowning man

(I don’t want to go to) Chelsea

Good year for the roses

Tonight the bottle let me down

Deep dark truthful mirror/You’ve really got a hold on me

13 steps lead down

Complicated shadows

Encore

 

The delivery man

Monkey to man

I can’t stand up for falling down

High fidelity

Uncomplicated

Alison/Suspicious minds

Watching the detectives

There’s a story in your voice

Oliver’s army

(What’s so funny ‘bout) Peace, love and understanding?

Pump it up

The monkey

Scarlet tide

Sweet dreams

Further reading

Review by The Age of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Melbourne show, 23 Nov 2004.

Review by The ABC of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Melbourne show, 23 Nov 2004.

Review by The Sydney Morning Herald of Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Sydney show, 26 Nov 2004.

Costello Specs by Dave Pannell

10 – The White Album

In 1968 The Beatles released a double album which is actually called “The Beatles” but which is universally referred to as “the White Album”, in reference to its stark sleeve art. Less slick than their most celebrated works, and all the better for it, I think it is still the best album ever released.

Unlike almost any other album, my experience of the White Album is that it rewards an unlimited number of plays. There is so much of it, and so much of it is brilliant. The album is sometimes described, with a hint of disparagement, as four solo albums, but that doesn’t go close to doing it justice. After all, the backing band on these solo albums is The Beatles, and they were at the peak of their powers.

white_album_1This album marks the start of what must surely be the most incredible 12 months of creative productivity by four musicians in history. Consider this. From mid 1968 to mid 1969, they recorded this double album, the Let It Be album, the Abbey Road album, enough additional material for the two CDs of Anthology 3 (a triple album on vinyl), five fantastic singles “Hey Jude”, “Get Back”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Let it Be” and “Something”/”Come Together” (eight of the ten songs on them appeared not at all or in different versions on the albums), made the film Let It Be, and released the film and soundtrack album Yellow Submarine.

In the same period, outside the Beatles, there were five (five!!!) Beatles solo albums recorded or released (one film soundtrack by George and four highly experimental albums, one from George and three from John and Yoko), a landmark single from John (“Give Peace a Chance”), Ringo acted in a major film with Peter Sellers and Paul wrote and produced big hits for Badfinger and Mary Hopkins. As well as all this, they wrote quite a number of songs that turned up later on solo albums. And in the middle of all that, two of them got married. John’s wedding was staged as a protracted media circus as part of his campaign for peace. They did all this in just barely over one year, and it was a year when they weren’t always getting on well. It’s not as if this extraordinary productivity caused the quality to suffer either. Not all these outputs are classics (the solo experimental albums are pretty hard to listen to in fact) but much of the year’s output stands among the best music ever made.

It is interesting to compare this output with the usual release schedule of major acts these days. For example, through the 1990s, U2 released three albums, for an average of about five songs per year. An average of 15 tracks per year is extremely high, probably reached by only one or two major artists. The Beatles’ efforts in this incredible 12 months spawned over 110 tracks that were released at the time or subsequently, not even counting their non-Beatles work, and not counting the unreleased Get Back album, or its relative, Let it Be … Naked, which finally saw commercial release in November 2003.

white_album_2

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia