Streaming music? It’s a positive time for young artists according to Ben Lovett, co-founder of Mumford and Sons and independent firm Communion Music.
“I think we’re out of the ‘oh shit’ stage of streaming, and we’re in a very positive space in how people consume music or find their music,” said Lovett, speaking at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London.
“It’s so drastically different to 10-15 years ago. Now it’s all about what would you go back to time and time again: the quality of the music. Better-quality music will shine now, I think, more than ever before because of the way streaming consumption works.”
Lovett compared the current world of Spotify and Apple Music with the purely-physical era of music sales, when heavily-marketed albums with more filler than killer could rack up big sales.
“20 years ago you could literally sign my auntie, who’s not a great singer, and put enough marketing push and money behind it and get a number one record,” said Lovett, suggesting that even if people then hated the album, the labels would still have their money.
“There was an industry out of that. It didn’t matter about the music, but now it’s almost the opposite. Now you have to find and nurture music that people want to play thousands of times and share with their friends,” he said.
“I’d take a huge amount of hope from the way things are looking. Obviously we could do a lot more in terms of the pay-through, and I hope we do that. But people have got more diverse interests in music now than ever before… That seamless access is surely a fantastic thing for the arts.”
Lovett went on to suggest that the commissioning dynamics in the subscription video-streaming space might show one possible path forward for musicians and the music industry.
“Netflix can now be a huge funding and commissioning agent for brilliant output. Who knows what’s around the corner? Maybe we’re going to see the [music] streaming services funding and supporting the music that’s on their services,” he said.
“But the short answer is that it’s a good thing… I’m a believer in vinyl when you really love something, and then streaming to discover stuff. So in those two things, I don’t see a threat at all. If I was a CD manufacturing company though, I’d be pretty stressed out right now!”
Lovett, who was interviewed on-stage by Music Week’s Ben Homewood, also talked about secondary ticketing, with Mumford and Sons and their manager Adam Tudhope having taken a prominent role in the FanFair Alliance campaign against the secondary market.
“If you can’t make a gig, there’s lots of ways you can get your money back now. We do a lot of stuff with Twickets, and it’s a very simple transaction,” he said.
“That’s the single argument that’s used when people like us try to fight the secondary market: ‘I own it, what if I can’t make it?’ It’s a hard thing to get right, but the reality is in lots of other areas, like the Olympics and football matches every weekend, the secondary market online is criminalised.”
“There’s a crazy pie chart of how much money is being taken off people, and going into the pockets of people who are essentially harvesting tickets and selling them at a profit. It’s a syndicate of people doing it, and people [fans] are feeding it almost blindly. Someone like my dad would go online and search for ‘Eagles tickets’ on Google, and StubHub would come up as an advertised, seemingly-viable seller of those tickets.”
Lovett suggested that the secondary market could also do real harm to the next generation of emerging musicians, even if that harm is not obvious at first, and happens indirectly.
“At the end of the day, everyone in their individual life has a certain amount of money to spend on festivals and going out at night,” he said.
“If they have to spend £1,000 to go and watch Adele, then they’re probably not going to watch Frances [an artist represented by Communion’s promoter division] because they’ve already spent their money. So the next wave of musicians coming through are probably going to feel the brunt of the secondary market.”
Lovett’s recently-opened venue in London, Omeara, has a partnership with Sky Tickets to explore technology to fight back against secondary ticketing, based on the tech acquired by Sky when it bought startup Una Tickets in 2016.
“We’re still working on the technology: the idea is a charge-card, like an Oyster Card for gigs. We’re trying to figure out at the moment if it could double up as ID,” he said.
“Now because of things like Uber, less and less people are learning to drive, so there’s been a massive fallout for 18-21 year-olds in driving licences… So it [the partnership] is quite a cool thing, but it’s just taking us a minute to get it right. They approached it from the point of view of making it impossible to do secondary.”
Towards the end of his Indie-Con session, Lovett returned to the theme of secondary ticketing, and whether artists are truly willing to get involved in the debate.
“The first thing is understanding the implications of secondary and how much of a negative impact it’s going to have, and then finding people: if they understand it, do they take issue with it, and are they willing to speak out?” he said.
“For the most part, the issue is only the big heritage acts where they are kinda on a touring circuit where they don’t mind there being deals being cut between major international promoters and secondaries. But the positive thing is a lot of the contemporary music that’s on the way up seems to be pretty unanimous: that people feel the same way that I’ve expressed today.”
Lovett’s interview at Indie-Con also saw him talk about Mumford and Sons’ avowed independence – “we didn’t ever want someone demanding releases or having any sort of creative input into what we do” – and whether they have missed out by not being signed directly to a major label.
“Other artists feel that they struggle regularly between what a major needs to deliver in terms of sales to survive as a big company… and what is natural. Essentially making too big a business out of something that is quite volatile,” he said.
Lovett suggested that in 2017, it’s perfectly possible for emerging artists to go down a similar route to Mumford and Sons.
“I think people can do it themselves. I encourage people to. I think it’s great. It does mean you have to forego a big pay cheque. It really puts the pressure back onto yourself… But we backed ourselves. If anyone has that same drive, it’s totally doable.”
Lovett said that Communion Music has benefited from its founders’ awareness that their strengths are not necessarily in running a record label.
“Quite soon after we’re floundering, we got in some really top-notch people… I think recognising what you don’t know is probably the most important thing. And what we do know is music,” he said.
“We live and breathe music, so we can hear something. We just need to hand it, essentially, over to people who can help us make it as successful as it can be.”
Lovett was also happy to admit to naivety in some of the original ideas for Omeara, the venue he has opened in south east London.
“The journey of building Omeara took so long that the bad ideas became apparent… If we’d done what we’d originally intended to do, it would have been a disaster,” he said.
“One idea would have been to have a VW Camper Van in the venue as a bar: it would have been entirely dysfunctional to have manned and stocked! We didn’t appreciate things like head height. If you’d have been taller than five foot… That was entirely down to not understanding geometry.”
“Luckily we had the time to gestate on it. Now I genuinely think it’s the best venue of its size, because we had all that time.”