Your name is down amongst the Black Hearts in the Black Book and this is to advise you and the like of you to make your wills……Ye have not done as ye ought. Swing.’ And so were the farmers, parsons and magistrates of 19th century England menaced by ‘Captain Swing’.
‘Swing’ was a fictitious character, but the threat was real. For years, grains of corn had been separated from their stalks, threshed, by hand.
The threshing machine put an end to that.
This piece of 1820s cutting edge tech did the same job more efficiently, more cheaply and more reliably. For a farmer, this was very good news. For the labourers, not so much. For them, mechanisation meant job losses and empty bellies. They banded together, and appointed ‘Captain Swing’ their leader.
The first threshing machine was destroyed on the night of 28 August 1830. And then Swing went viral: within a week, the movement had spread from the Elham Valley in Kent as far west as Wiltshire. By the end of October that year, over 100 machines had been dismantled or destroyed.
The authorities took it all very seriously. They were willing to offer the equivalent of two years’ wages for information, and the protestors were rounded up, many being exported to Australia.
Today, it seems inevitable that the new technology as represented by the threshing machines would triumph. Progress marches on. Intellectually, we all know that.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own, equally futile, latter-day Swing rioters. In certain ‘creative’ quarters, and certainly within the music industry itself, it is received wisdom that Spotify, and the technology that underpins it, is killing the business; killing artists.
Witness Bob Geldof’s rant. The universal music streaming service, complained the multi-millionaire to a champagne-supping audience on La Croisette in Cannes, has ‘ruined my business’. Thom Yorke, formerly of Radiohead, agrees and has pulled all his solo songs from Spotify: ‘new artists get paid fuck all with this model’.
The irony is richer than Croesus. It was upon technology that the wealth of the music industry was founded. There wouldn’t have even been an ‘industry’ without the tech that enabled both the recording of music and then the monopolisation of its distribution.
Moreoever, new technology, most notably in the form of the cassette tape and the CD, continued to provide ever more ways to replenish the coffers, as people went out and bought the same music all over again.
So what about the argument that Spotify is making it harder to be successful as an artist? Plus ca change. Since the invention of the gramophone onwards, all new technological developments have served to raise the qualitative bar. And that’s a good thing. In increasingly democratising access to best-in-class musicians, more folk have come to understand what excellence looks – and sounds – like. And so the touring orchestra whose mediocrity was acceptable when we knew no better, is exposed for what it is.
The piety would be more bearable if the self-interested exceptionalism wasn’t so obvious. Where are intellectually-no-less-worthy tears for the erstwhile estate agents left behind by disintermediating websites like Rightmove or PrimeLocation? It’s no different.
Nor was the demise of the coal-shovelling firemen when we stopped travelling by steam train. Ditto the piano players who found themselves out of work when the talkies came, or the folk who used to make money out of TV before Netflix’s ‘8-quid-a-month-for-all-five-seasons-of-Breaking-Bad’ type offers.
And no one seems to mind when everyone’s favourite baddie, Rupert Murdoch, has to spend millions reinventing his whole empire on account of new technology.
Like the Swing protestors, progress requires our generation to adapt, fast, to new ways of making money. In this respect at least, music isn’t special or different. Some in the music and supporting industries know this, and are responding to this challenge with gusto – the touring, the merchandising, the new revenue streams opened up by innovative offers like Universal’s Globe, who specialise in partnering brands with talent, and so on.
Others, very often those who have in the past benefitted most from new technology, are not – choosing instead to send the 21st century equivalents of the letter that opened this piece.
The difference is that the threshers were hungry, not hypocrites.
That separates the wheat from the chaff, for sure.