News that album sales were up 9.5 per cent in 2017 undoubtedly looks like a good news story for musicians until you look at the figures a little closer.
First of all it needs to be noted that the figure for albums is a notional figure as it includes streaming and that does not mean people listening to an album, but simply tracks being listened to and collated into “album equivalent” sales. Secondly, now that streaming is the most popular way of listening to music, it has to be recognised that this benefits big artists and certain genres far more than others.
The reason this is important is that all this good news is actually bad news for the vast majority of artists, especially those starting out. Streaming very much favours the big artists like Ed Sheeran and genres such as grime and hip hop. This is no different to what happened with downloads when guitar bands lost out to dance music simply by the nature of the format and the sort of fans they had.
Established bands now console themselves with high chart positions based on sales a quarter of what they would have expected ten years ago. Often, if I mention a low sales figure, people will forget that this does include streaming and “equivalent sales”. People are just not buying or listening to albums in any numbers.
Now again for established bands live gigs have never been better or more profitable, but newer artists are being hit from all sides, making less from their music and playing live.
There is no easy answer but acknowledging the problem would be a start for many who maintain every year that things have never been better.
Certainly it is possible to keep making music based on a few hundred sales but it is not possible to make a living. It has also become harder and harder to grow sales from a relatively small base and in Scotland in particular this has become more of an issue in the last few years.
One way to reach new people is through the end-of-year charts that are now so prevalent but sadly Scottish artists very rarely feature. Much as these charts are clearly not only subjective but also just a way of people picking their friends and returning favours, they do still have an influence.
For the chosen few, it is relatively easy to become a big fish in the small pond that is Scotland with the odd jaunt to places like Liverpool and Brighton for music junkets. But ultimately, while there will be the occasional Scottish artist featured in lists of the best from the last year or tips for the future, they are generally overlooked.
I spent two days inbetween Christmas and New Year listening to many of the recommended new Scottish artists I hadn’t already heard of and there was a real focus on pop bands who didn’t sound particularly Scottish.
While every band doesn’t have to sound like the Proclaimers, it does mean they are just competing with the thousands of other pop bands out there. Add in a fair amount of electronica and it becomes clear indie guitar bands and singer-songwriters are few and far between.
As I’ve said before, 2018 is a great opportunity for Scottish music given the National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition on the story of Scottish pop so here’s hoping that come the end of this year Scottish artists feature strongly in the next annual round-ups.