Almost nothing at all highlights how much the music industry has changed over the last thirty years than what happened when I was listening to Ivor Cutler the other day. I remember thinking (as I think a lot of people think when they first sit down and properly listen to Ivor Cutler for the first time) ‘fuck me this is weird’ and then ‘fuck me, but it’s good‘ and then ‘but fuck me it really, really is weird’.
As I run a label now, and have on occasion had people express their incredulity at the obvious commercial risks we take from time to time, I do find myself wondering when I listen to such obviously strange stuff as this: who the fuck released this? And why? Maybe they just have a deliberately contrarian streak, such as myself, or maybe (also a little like myself) they have a naive hope that at some point the rest of the world will hear the genius within the madness and suddenly we’ll all float off to some mental magical musical Eden together.
It’s one of the reasons small independent labels are so important, actually. We make no money, so in a sense we are free. We can take chances on things because we don’t have a dozen people’s jobs to protect, and if we lose out then we aren’t depending on the label for our income anyway, so it may not represent successful business, but it is indeed a kind of freedom. So what kind of inspired maverick took a leap of faith on Ivor Cutler – something strange and completely idiosyncratic, and which nevertheless has proven to be enduring and, in a small way, quite legendary.
What the ever-loving fuck? Virgin? A major label released this? How the blazing blue balls did that happen?
There are reasons, of course. Virgin with Richard Branson at the helm were pretty aggressively innovative back then. And to be fair, Cutler didn’t start out making quite such weird music. And to be fair, this wasn’t the era of the focus-grouped, X-Factor deluxe karaoke album. But whatever way you cut it, it just feels like a different fucking universe.
For someone as idiosyncratic as Cutler to end up on a major these days… well, it just wouldn’t happen, would it. They’d have to either be so very commercially successful on a small label that they felt there was serious potential there to be exploited, or some inspired/deranged A&R scout would have to think ‘fuck me – THAT’S the one!” I honestly can’t imagine it, can you?
I mean, was music more important back then, that you could take a risk like this and trust enough people would buy it? Did people use music as a means of expanding their cultural life more than they do now? Nowadays music on even the big indies is released for commercial reasons, and it really doesn’t feel like they are even in the business of thinking about music in this way.
I know the teen and tween-orientated Children’s-BBC-pop the majors are looking for these days, like Hannah Montana or Olly Murs, existed back in the seventies too, but it seems like music as culture – or as anything with even the slightest nod towards intellectual validity or artistic ambition – simply has ceased to exist as far as the ‘music industry’ is concerned.
I put that in scare quotes because I really do mean just the industry part. I see music pushing at these boundaries and attempting to be more than just entertainment fluff all the time, but absolutely none of it seems to be of the remotest interest to the industry. The link between Olly Murs and whatever Ivor Cutler’s modern equivalent might be seems to be to be utterly broken now. They seem to exist on two different planets, whereas back then they may have been at opposite ends, but they were at least on the same spectrum.
Is it just the reduction in people paying for music that ends up hurting anything apart from the seriously big sellers? Is it that the music industry is now simply more mature and knows what will sell and what is, in the long term, not really worth taking a risk on? Is it that people in general simply don’t look to music to challenge them as much as they used to? I don’t know – of course I don’t – but it’s been a bit like boiling a frog, for me, in that the industry today feels a lot like the industry yesterday, but add enough of those incremental changes together and holy shit, you get back to a time when Ivor Cutler was on a major fucking record label. Ivor fucking Cutler!