There’s a new Pink Floyd record out, as they used to say in the 1970s. Only it’s not a record, a CD, or anything resembling the modest recorded artefacts with which that group made their name, but rather a 27-disc cornucopia, containing more than 26 hours of music, 42 “items of memorabilia”, five reproduction vinyl singles and three feature films. It is titled The Early Years 1965-72, so prepare for a sequel, and its outward appearance suggests an item of colour-coded furniture. Obviously, any devout fan of the group, me included, will love it. And the price? £375.99.
Welcome to the 21st-century music business, or what remains of it. As everyone knows, downloads and streaming have just about killed off all the industry’s orthodox business models. So now, via endless reissues and “luxury” packages, it is squeezing every last drop from its assets while ensuring that the “pop” in pop culture – that is, everything about it that was democratic and accessible – fades away.
Other examples abound, equally luxurious and lovingly done, though that is not exactly the point. For the first 35 years of its life the Who’s first album, My Generation, was a primary-coloured example of everything great about the peak of the teenage epoch, and priced accordingly. Now, having already been packaged in a “deluxe edition”, it has been reinvented as a “spectacular 79-track, five-disc super-deluxe” version (with, inevitably “period memorabilia”), which will retail for just shy of £90. With Christmas approaching, much the same applies to an array of classic works, from Metal Box by that proud punk John Lydon’s band Public Image Limited (£165.99 in its “super deluxe quadruple vinyl” edition), to a six-album selection by Elton John currently being sold through Burberry shops for a thoroughly reasonable £225.
At the same time the modern musical aristocracy has another way to exploit the cycle. The money- counters do not even have to wait to find out if an album turns out to be a “classic”. As evidenced by albums such as Muse’s Drones and Bastille’s Wild World, the standard-issue version of any hit is quickly accompanied by a “deluxe” or “collector’s” version, in the apparent hope that lots of people will pay over the odds for another incarnation of a record they already own. There is great cynicism at work, and it’s pretty unedifying – not least because, to my mind, these hyper-differentiated, pocket-draining creations offend against the very aesthetics of pop itself. That may make me sound like a romantic throwback; if it does, so be it. If I’m still deluded enough to believe that pop music ought to be about more than cash, it’s because of a life spent reading the world into the plastic circles I still habitually buy from my local record store.
Pop was a child of the 20th century, a form carried on gloriously uniform products that embodied their time just as perfectly as Henry Ford’s Model T did. Those were the days when capitalism was as democratic and egalitarian as it has ever got, and the products – or rather phenomena – at its heart were all the better for it. Believe no one who tells you that mass production and standardisation led to dull culture: it was the age of the Beatles, Levi’s jeans, cars to die for and iconic soft drinks whose supremacy endures. And it was great.
I only know of the classic quotation because I read it on a Manic Street Preachers sleeve in 1990, but what Andy Warhol said about universal consumption of Coca-Cola truly applied to the stereotypical pop record: “You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too. A coke is a coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” In exactly the same way, there was one Dark Side of the Moon, Revolver or Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols; and whether you were the Sultan of Brunei or the stereotypical kid on the dole, that was the one you owned.
A mutation of that same democratic spirit lives on in the fact that most music is available online for absolutely nothing, even if the consequence is that many modern musicians cannot eat. For those who still buy the odd song, iTunes charges 99p for each track by everyone from Elvis Presley to Little Mix. But there is something else going on: a whole new world of sky-high pricing and differentiated offers. And it stinks.
An important point to make here is that it is not just records. The clientele of most festivals is now split between standard ticket holders and those who can afford a super-expensive mini-holiday. Once you have a Glastonbury ticket, for instance, you can progress to something exclusively nicer from a set-up called the Pop-up Hotel – five nights for two adults in an Airstream caravan, maybe, for £5,995). Anyone playing a stadium now offers the upper end of their audience plenty of optional extras: you can go to see the Stone Roses at Wembley as a base-level punter for between £35 and £65, or stump up for a hospitality package that will cost £359 (plus VAT).
Bands and solo acts now routinely charge the earth for the kind of meet-and-greet packages that entail, for instance, a $1000 charge for the briefest of encounters and a “professionally taken photo” with the Canadian rapper and singer Drake. (Beyoncé’s new “Beyfirst” package comes in at $1,505, but a “pre-show reception” apparently doesn’t include the artist herself.)
And all the time, a very 21st-century industry grinds on: ticket resale sites, which mean that people with money to burn never have to fret about supposedly sold-out concerts. In late 2015, tickets to see that proud exemplar of working-class talent Adele were changing hands for over £20,000 each.
How awful it is to see what was once the people’s music recast in the image of 21st-century capitalism, the culture of inequality, and the dread word “bespoke”. It is suggestive of one of Pink Floyd’s most renowned songs, Money, which begins with the sound of a cash till and then archly celebrates the easy pleasures of wealth. “Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash,” sings David Gilmour. “New car, caviar, four star daydream / Think I’ll buy me a football team.” Or, perhaps, another £375 album, or a gig ticket for £1,000.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010