Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

Alexis Petridis - Artists who demand freedom from record labels go on to produce rubbish


The day the music dies

Artists who demand freedom from record labels go on to produce rubbish

Alexis Petridis

Wednesday February 4, 2004

The Guardian

A new union was launched last week. However, before you rise to applaud the plucky souls giving a voice to the exploited workers of Britain, it's probably worth pointing out that it is aimed at furthering the rights of that legendarily downtrodden member of society - the rock star.

Founded by Peter Gabriel, the Magnificent Union Of Digitally Downloading Artists - Mudda - is dedicated to "transforming the music business" in the age of the internet. "If artists are willing to act together, there are extraordinary opportunities both creatively and commercially," says its website.

Leaving aside the question of how Mudda intends to force its demands home (imagine the headlines if it calls a strike - "Country grinds to a halt as Dido downs tools: cabinet in emergency session to discuss crippling shortage of wistful ballads"), there's something deeply troubling about many of its aims. Gabriel is the kind of cerebrally inclined rock star who seems to come up with ridiculous ideas on a regular basis; last year he announced he was setting up an organisation that would enable apes to communicate using the internet.

While a new musicians' union seems infinitely less daft, it is potentially far more damaging. Mudda could hobble rock and pop music for good. The problem lies not with its attempt to secure more money for artists from album sales, but its call for "no constraint, editing or external control over what is released".

The issue of artists taking complete control over their music is a long standing and extremely thorny one. Most acts want to free themselves from the malign interference of money-obsessed record companies and follow their muse where'er it may lead. A nice idea in theory, but a vast body of evidence suggests that it is a disaster in practice.

For every album such as the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper or Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On - works of genius created in an environment of complete freedom - there are dozens more where successful musicians have wrested control and used it to produce self-indulgent nonsense: Finley Quaye's Vanguard, Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh or Lauryn Hill's Unplugged V2.0.

One of the functions of a record company is to curb these excesses, to suggest gently that the 15-minute, semi-improvised meditation on the multifarious spiritual difficulties in the life of a millionaire superstar might best be left in the can. The company might be doing this for financial reasons, but it's sparing the listener into the bargain.

If, as Mudda suggests, artists abandon record companies and sell their music via their own websites, that curb is entirely removed. The internet encourages self-indulgence in the most unassuming people, as proven by the vast number of interminable weblogs and homepages featuring gripping pictures of pets. When rock stars get involved with it, all sense of quality control goes out the window.

Consider Prince, once the most exciting and creative pop artist in the world, who abandoned the music industry for the internet a few years ago and literally has not released a single worthwhile note of music since.

On the internet, musicians need to sell far fewer CDs to make a profit. So few, in fact, that they stop trying and content themselves with pandering to a tiny market of diehard fans, whose obsession with an artist has caused them to abandon any sense of what constitutes good or bad music.

The music industry is not an easy beast to love. If it's not trying to sue 12-year-old girls for downloading nursery rhymes, it's releasing records by Daniel Bedingfield. For once, however, I'm firmly on the industry's side. It might be painful to admit, but if you take its influence away, as Mudda suggests, and "give music back to musicians", you might well end up with nothing worth listening to.

Alexis Petridis is the Guardian's rock and pop critic