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22 mai 2008

Peter Gabriel: the future of music

As well as being a rock superstar, Peter Gabriel has been a key player in the rapidly developing musical digital world. I talked to him about his latest project and the future of music in today’s Telegraph. An idealist with a sharp mind and a huge interest in new technology, he has interesting opinions on how digital technology can change not just music, but also the world, for better.

An idealist: Peter Gabriel

A newspaper article could only skim the surface of such a broad ranging discussion, so for anyone interested in a Gabriel’s (slightly more technical) thoughts on the radical changes affecting the music business (and, he argues, politics), I thought I would offer some further highlights of a fascinating interview.

Are you broadly optimistic about the future of the music business?

I am hugely optimistic. You are getting artists big and small that are building direct relationships through a database to their fans, and that’s never been possible before. Once you have that you have means of sustaining musicians. The Incredible String Band came to Real World studios and got 120 fans to pay £60 each. With that money they booked the studio time, made the record, did a web broadcast, and suddenly they were in business based on 120 people. In the old model, A&R would say you have to have 100,000 sales just to justify signing an artist. So what that should mean is that maybe 100 times more music gets made.

Recording studios costs are way down, cause people can do so much more of it at home. Therefore you are seeing people doing various projects, a growing number of artists like Damon Albarn who don’t have to just do one thing. There should be all sorts of different collaborations, one offs, experimental music and a creative renaissance that is economically enabled by the digital revolution. I think that’s beginning but I don’t think we’ve really seen it yet.

The burning issue is who is going to pay for it in a download environment where people increasingly expect music to be free.

I can see albums being released in three or four different formats, simultaneously, from free to hand made customised versions. The precursor of that was the Radiohead model, because sixty per cent paid nothing but I and 400,000 other people wanted the double vinyl collectors edition. At forty quid a throw, Radiohead were fine. That’s a big act doing it, with a name and a guaranteed audience, but I think it does show you can have free running alongside paid for quite happily. And no one has really got comfortable with that idea yet. But you do need to make sure that what you are asking people to put their hands in their pockets for does feel like value for money.

Yet with collapsing album sales and the emphasis on single download tracks, does the long playing album have a future at all?

I think the album won’t die in terms of a collection of songs that an artist wants to put together and assemble in a certain way, but it wont have the dominance that it has had, and it will be maybe in a supporting role rather than a lead role. It was the financial model on which the music industry was based. So that has gone, I think. But there are these other forms emerging, and I think its great when people are willing to try a bit of everything and see what works for them.

If power moves increasingly to the artist, what is the future for record companies?

I would argue that there is a case for record companies, but as a service industry not as an ownership industry, where, if they do things well, whether it is banking, A&R, marketing, promo, distribution, that those things could be offered to artists separately. The complication is when an artist requires a lot of investment from a record company, and that has always been the key moment at which the Faustian contract is signed.

As a small record company, I also see that it is fair. If someone puts out the money and takes a gamble on an artist, they should have a good chance of getting something worthwhile back if it works. Because a lot of them don’t. But I would rather treat artists as adults and provide services to them, rather than this sort of parental role that the music business has traditionally held, where they can actually stop artists from doing a lot of stuff.

Live is becoming more important than ever, because it is the last remaining area of the musical experience you can’t really digitally duplicate. You have to be there, to interact with the human being...

I’ve got a friend, an Italian designer called Gaetano Pesci, and he said something which I relate to: that beauty in the future will rely on imperfection. Because in the world where everything can be copied a million times over perfectly, it is the humanity in the imperfections that suddenly become more interesting and more unique. The great thing about a live performance is that people screw up from time to time, and you know the difference between a good night and a bad night, and you can feel when stuff is working and when it isn’t. So I do think the digital world has made live more special.

Is taxing music at the device or ISP level the answer?

I have absolutely no faith in any blanket agreements, because artists are right at the bottom of the trickle. I remember when MTV started paying record companies for use of videos. Our royalties had been taken back by record companies for the production of videos, but we weren’t the owners of the videos and received nothing. The music business has a history of dubious dispersal of income, with a tendency for payments to be siphoned off before they reach the artist. Some of the payments in the digital world at the moment, the record companies are getting the money and its not trickling back to the artist, or very small amounts are. Most artists who have struck these new fifty fifty agreements, where people have invested in them and worked hard, they don’t feel bad about that. But if it goes to 80/20, or 90/10 or 100/zero, then they are not going to be so happy.

Are mobile devices going to be the new record shops?

Well currently the advantage of mobiles is that people are used to paying. They pay silly amounts for these dumb ringtones when the same people won’t pay any money to download the whole song. It’s a much more controlled system and actually the future of the internet. As part of the Elders project, Muhammad Yunus has developed this Grameen Phone, where they brought the price of ownership of a phone way down in Bangladesh. So out of a population of 110 million, they now have thirty million people with a phone, and that should move to 50 or 60 million within 18 months. So the digital divide is being eradicated.

Phone manufacturers are starting to put external screens and qwertys on to phones, so that will be the universal PC, I think. When 6 or 7 billion people will have access to phones one way or another, that must be the central means of communicating any electronic data in the future, including music.

So the future of music looks good to you?

I do think we are living in an extreme new time in our evolution. Its possible for any one person on any part of the planet to communicate directly with almost any other person, and exchange data about anything. That is a fundamental evolution that is only just beginning to affect not just the way we are entertained but the way we are governed. Like with Avaaz, an organisation that campaigns on line. When the killings happened in Tibet, within ten days they got 1.5 million people signing a petition to the Chinese government. Now, I think that could easily translate to 150 million in ten years. Democracy is about people getting votes, but its really democracy every four years or so, and then you have to trust the team you have elected. So this is a way of letting people express themselves in all sorts of ways, not just creatively but politically, that we have never had before. The top down / bottom up reversal is huge. It think it is bigger than people realise.

by Neil McCormick

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