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New Year's Day, 2006

The Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not To be hones, I'm just curious to see if this lot are as good as people say they are. And their new business model should have big labels quaking in their boots - and quite bloody rightly so!

A bit about the Arctic Monkeys... When Napster first blew up all over the music scene about six years ago there was an outcry about the evils of digital music - how it would take funding away from the hard-working artists, how it was stealing, etc etc.. Soon they were able to demonstrate the onset of this apocalypse by turning our attention to declining sales of major artists and by adding up the number of downloads taking place and multiplying it by something to show just how much we evil downloaders were stealing from them. In order to make their big scary point the RIAA even started suing 12-year-olds (see also here). In the words of one online chat-room commentator: "That's fine, I hope they start suing quadraplegics & orphans too. And the Easter Bunny."

Basically, apart from the fact that taking 12-year-olds to court has the sort of sinister overtones that George Orwell would have struggled to match, their argument overlooked a few basic flaws. Firstly, downloading was frequently not taking money out of the pockets of artists. I may want to listen to Africa by Toto in a nostalgic and silly moment, and most impostantly when absolutely battered drunk, but I would never in a million years shell out even as much as a fiver to buy the thing on CD. This is something Apple so brilliantly addressed with iTunes, the first successful attempt to come to terms with the fact that the online consumption of music in fundamentally different to the buying of hard copies, and as such requires a whole new business model - something the big labels refused to acknowledge, at least in public.

The second point is that digital downloading of music did not acually hurt record sales - it hurt some record sales. In fact, small record labels enjoyed a lot of benefits. The fact that major labels were experiencing problems had more to do with the extreme poverty and disposability of the product. If your artist is only capable of purchasing two quality singles from decent writers, to be sold via a scantily clad, gyrating music video, and then pads out the rest of the album with mediocre filler, then you are effectively getting £12-£15 for two songs and a few pictures on the inlay card. With the rise of downloading and ringtones, suddenly you can bypass all the dross and just pick out the bits you want, which people did in droves. To sell a whole album, you suddenly had to have a whole album's worth of material, which is something far more likely at a music-driven minor label than at a celebrity-driven major one. And let's face it, the majority of The Pussycat Dolls' artistic canon can be more than adequately expressed in the three seconds of ringtone you hear tinnily excreted from the mobile phone of some ratty little teenager skulking on the back seat of the bus. Well, that and some extraordinarily filthy pornographic material the web will no doubt be able to offer us before too long...

So, on to the Arctic Monkeys. They are not a group I am entirely mesmerised by, but their first couple of singles - Fake Tales Of San Francisco and I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor - were good. What I like about them is their method. They aren't signed to any of the major labels, and their music has become famous through word-of-mouth. I am sure this type of carefully executed campaign takes an awful lot of smarts to achieve, but it does show that a group can become pretty bloody famous without all the paraphernalia and extravagant publicity SWAT teams that big labels cite as the sort of necessary expenditure that 'forces' them to maintain artificially extortionate prices for their material.

There are other signs of this. emerging as well. Much as I dislike Mick Hucknall, he has re-recorded his whole back-catalogue to get around the ownership of his work by a record label he no longer wanted to deal with. ANTI records has signed up the likes of Nick Cave and Tom Waits on the basis of dissociation with big label burocracy, which Waits himself is famous for refusing to tolerate. Artists like Waits and Cave, and to some extent Hucknall, really don't need a lot of publicity however, as they already have a well-established fan base, and the existing music press are bound to give them any publicity they may need. When Waits played live in London last year, the concert sold out within an hour. What The Arctic Monkeys prove, is that even artists who aren't at all established can now successfully subvert the incumbent process (I nearly said paradigm, damn my scury soul)!

So between iTunes, ANTI Records, the Arctic Monkeys, the emergence of internet radio stations like last.fm, and the rise of podcasting, what actually appears to be happening is that digital media have simply rendered the major record labels' business model obsolete. In other words they are becoming increasingly aggressive and desperate because they are scared. They will now have to change, and there is room for a whole new ecosystem of alternative models to emerge as people try and figure out what things are actually changing into. Apparently there is now a CD-less record label called Cordless. Software now exists, for example at pandora.com that lets you explore new stuff based on what you do actually listen to. The big boys and the small ones are going to have to learn to play in this kind of an environment if they want to be successful, and I have no idea what it's going to be like. It'll be interesting to find out though.