Mobile ‘won’ music. Only oldies use ‘hi-fis’ to listen to their favourites songs now. But mobile companies didn’t win. Tim Green ponders what happened to Sony Ericsson PlayNow and the rest…

Do you know when today’s music industry began? You might guess it was when the first sheet music was printed. Or the first 78 disc was pressed. Or when Jailhouse Rock came out.

Wrong.

The rather dry answer is 1710. That was when the Parliament of Great Britain passed The Statute of Anne, also known as the Copyright Act. It was the first legislation in history to give government and courts the power to rule on copyright, rather than private parties.

Rock and roll!

The act made it possible for someone to own a song. And when you own something you can make money from it. And so can an agent and a manager and lawyer and an accountant and a vast multinational conglomerate with shareholders.

 

    The music industry that’s dying now – the one in which performers get paid for recorded music by the song – has no divine right to exist. It was just a blip. Like Vaudeville and Skiffle.

I found out about the 1710 act thanks to Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay – a fabulous history of the music biz, written by former Wham manager Simon Napier-Bell. The author describes the record industry as ‘a world of greed, corruption, self-interest and fun’, and his account doesn’t disappoint.

The book is crammed with scurrilous behaviour. It’s full of chancers ripping off naive young talent and big business skewing the market to prevent newcomers from crashing it.

By the way, MEF’s old friend Ralph Simon features; he’s one of the good guys, of course.

Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay reveals that from its earliest days the music industry was continually changing. Piano sheet music gave way to radio and then to the 78. Next came the golden era of the popular song and the Brill building. Then singles. Then albums. Then CDs, downloads and finally streaming.

The book is one long and lascivious reminder that the music industry that’s dying now – the one in which performers get paid for recorded music by the song – has no divine right to exist. It was just a blip. Like Vaudeville and Skiffle.

Of course, this is pretty tough for today’s musicians. An averagely popular band from 25 years ago could still sell millions of albums and get rich. Only a handful can now.

Streaming has won. And so has mobile.

Who still listens to music on a hi-fi? Even the word hi-fi is old fashioned. I have three adolescents at home. None of them listens to music ‘out loud’ as I did when I was their age. They are plugged into headphones connected by Bluetooth to their phones. As am I.

100 years ago, the song playing device of choice was the piano. Now it’s the phone.

So mobile is undoubtedly the ’story’ now. What’s interesting is how that story has played out. I learned this week that Samsung is to shut down its Milk streaming music service. The news would have come as little surprise to the tiny cohort of people who’ve heard of it.

Milk was the last remnant of an old idea – that mobile handset companies could run their own music services. Oh the hours I spent writing about this stuff.

There was Sony Ericsson PlayNow and MotoMusic and Nokia Ovi and Nokia Comes With Music. Operators also got in on the act. There was Orange Monkey and TDC Play and others. And then there were services like Omnifone’s MusicStation offering a white-label offering for OEMs and carriers alike. It went into administration in May.

These services came unstuck for a variety of reasons: DRM the listeners hated; 2.5G connections that were to slow to load songs; a lack of portability between devices/carriers; limited catalogues.

The last one may have been the kicker. After all, who wants to sign up to a service without your favourites?

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Licensing is hard. The 1710 act still rules!

So here we are in 2016 and although mobile as a channel defines today’s music, it’s not the mobile companies that run it. No, it’s Spotify and Deezer and Amazon and Google and Apple (OK – kind of a mobile company).

But is that the end of the story? Can we assume everything is settled now?

I think we all know the answer to that.

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