April 21 2014
A few times during this interview, Dave Allen refers to himself as a “lone wolf”. The bass player in post-punk band the Gang of Four and later Shriekback has a lot to say about the music industry and technology, and few people with his calibre of CV are expressing similarly erudite views on technology.
At a time when many musicians have entrenched views about the state of the sector, and especially what they see as the corrosive influence of technology on their earning power, Allen is coming at things from a slightly different position.
Allen sees the current stance as a form of cognitive dissonance, especially as many artists try to hark back to a golden age when they made money from record sales. “There is an understanding that everything has changed, but there’s a lack of acceptance about what comes next,” he says. “It’s a tricky proposition. We have to follow where a younger demographic are going with regard to accessing music. We’re going to see more decline with the old archaic structure.”
He wonders about the existence of this mythical golden age when musicians made out like bandits from sales of recorded music. “I’ve often talked about how there’s never been this golden era where everybody got equally compensated and we were all having a great time. I’m working on coming up with data, going back to the 1950s, on how it really was when it came to money from record sales.
“Yes, we all think Elvis made a ton of money and other lesser musicians made less, but we can’t say that for sure without data. My gut tells me that there was always this 10 per cent who made a lot of money for the labels and themselves and the other 90 per cent had to share what was left in the pot.”
Allen will be relying on a team at Beats Music to come up with the data points as he recently joined Jimmy Iovine, Dr Dre, Trent Reznor and Ian Rogers’s new streaming service as director of artist and music-industry advocacy.
So what will this ambassadorial role involve? “My job is to talk clearly and openly to musicians, labels and music managers who have concerns about where this new industry may be going . . . It’s my job as an advocate to say ‘look, the users have spoken’. They’re mobile, they want access to music wherever they go, streaming services offer that and we all need to work together to make things more robust.”
He’s getting a mixed response as he goes around the houses with this message. “Some interesting people at senior levels on the major label side are definitely coming around to understanding that the future is not yet written, but that it will not be a return to the past.
“Something has to change. But when you talk about the new opportunities that are available, I’ve noticed some people will react with fear to that, as if they can’t get their heads around it. It’s interesting to use the word ‘conservative’ for rock’n’roll, for what was, going back in time, a sexy and dangerous thing.”
Some individual acts are more than ready for what’s ahead, Allen points out. “If you look at young artists who have embraced the internet 100 per cent and used it as a highly efficient platform, they have been very successful. If people want to use those technical distribution systems and give away music while growing their fanbase, one has to accept that musicians will keep doing it and will find an audience. If they give away music, they may find they’re filling clubs and making their money that way.
“Ironically, it’s no different to how Gang of Four started out. We had to play two shows a night because we didn’t have a record deal in the US at first. It was hard and crazy, but it was fun and enjoyable. But there was none of what you get now where bigger artists are suggesting that they have to help out the artists who are trying to climb their way up the ladder. We didn’t get a call from the Rolling Stones offering to pay our hotel bill for a few nights.”
One of the big problems Allen sees with the current debate is the “inflamed rhetoric” on all sides. “These things are complicated, but all you hear is shouting and yelling. You don’t see people apologising when they realise they’re wrong. I feel I made that apology when I wrote a rebuttal to David Byrne’s views on Spotify. I said I believed I was wrong when I initially wrote about it, when I said I wasn’t sure how streaming would work out or could work out. I changed my tune very quickly when I realised how many people had switched over to streaming to access music.
“But all you hear is that it’s not fair. I hate that word more than anything, that fair thing, as if all things should be democratically distributed, like music talent, which we know is not.
“I don’t want to add fuel to any of these fires but I’d love to sit down and have a proper debate to get across some opinions that are based in fact and are not hyperbole. If people then disagree, we could go on to have a moderated debate in front of an audience to talk about the reality of the situation. It would be awesome. That’s me pushing a rock up a hill, but that’s what I signed on to do with Beats.”
Dave Allen will speak at the National College of Ireland on April 23rd. Link