The talking point of In The City is still worth a natter, says Danny Canter.



Music festivals are like other worlds. It’s what makes three days on Worthy Farm so appealing…and lawless. What happens at the festival stays at the festival. You wouldn’t want your work friends finding out about those exploits. Rumours; buzzwords; in-jokes; any highlight not broadcast on the BBC – they’re all caught by the invisible dragnets that police festival borders, and yet last month the talking point of In The City beat my train home, partly because ITC is no isolated, feral event in some distant field, but rather a more civilised, urban soirée in the middle of Manchester, sure, but also because the talking point was almost revolutionary.

“Revolution not erosion,” was in fact Rob Dickens’ mantra at the music conference’s most interesting discussion: a casual chat between the ex chairman of Warners (Dickens joined the company at nineteen and was impressively appointed MD a week before his twenty fourth birthday) and R.E.M. manager, attorney and advisor Bertis Downs. They were discussing the ins and outs of major label life when Dickens posed a question about 360 record deals (a newish kind of agreement where record companies, having noted the massive slump in record sales over the past few years, profit from a band’s ticket sales, merch revenue and almost all other financial gains). He was questioning if they work, clearly believing that they don’t, and then he announced a theory that he’s had for some time and has been told to drop by colleagues in the past. Quite simply, Rob Dickens suggested that all albums should cost one pound. And in many ways it’s a brilliant idea. A lot of what Dickens then said was brilliant.

It’s all about eliminating choice, he said, which sounds more sinister and Wellsian than it actually is. Over the years CD prices have rapidly eroded (from, say, £12.99 to £6.99) but it’s still been a gradual enough change for us to take it for granted – if anything we feel stupid for ever paying over a tenner for an album, not grateful that they’re now half that price on £6.99 is still a choice, so is £3.99, and even £1.99 in Dickens’ opinion. If an album were a pound it wouldn’t even be a gamble – you’d have to be one tight bastard not to willingly pay a pound to support the artist in question; a total crook to still download a dodgy copy of it for free. But beating piracy by slashing album prices to a micro payment over night is just one upshot of this theory. Numbers is what excites Dickens the most, and he misses the days when Madonna (one of his signings) would sell 100,000 copies of ‘True Blue’ every day of the week. “What excited me most was knowing that 100,000 more people had discovered this record,” he explained. “Those figures just don’t happen now and that’s because of price.”

He pointed at Prince giving away his album ‘21’ for free inside The Mail On Sunday as proof that this notion is the key to making a 360 deal work, allowing bands to reach more fans with bigger record sales. Three million people bought that heinous paper that day, and many then bought tickets to see Prince play twenty-one nights at the O2 arena where they probably bought T-shirts and programmes that recouped the label’s loss on full price album sales. And besides, it’s better to sell three million albums at a pound a go than it is a hundred thousand at ten pounds, right?

And then, just as Rob Dickens was about to be lifted high as the sole saviour of the record industry someone said what we’d all been trying to forget – “What about new bands? How do they get started and into a position where three million people know who the hell they are?” Ah. Good point. And, sadly, there’s no quick answer for that. Or at least there wasn’t at In The City, so that became the talking point – how it couldn’t happen because only the already successful would survive.

But the hole in that counter-argument is surely the size of a pound coin. All albums are going to cost a quid, don’t forget, so why wouldn’t music fans be just as likely to take a punt on a brand new band as they would on another Prince record? After all, good music is catching. Arctic Monkey’s proved that with a MySpace page and no record label. Just imagine what they could have achieved with the support of a record company’s marketing team, investment and patience.

By Danny Canter


Originally published in issue 23 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. November 2010

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