From Brussels With Love (Revisited)

40 years ago this month, an obscure record label in Belgium released a cassette-only compilation album, which became a reference point for many post-punk projects. “From Brussels With Love”, originally put out by Les Disques du Crepuscule, has just been re-issued, so during the recent lock-down, I thought I would exhume my original copy and remind myself of why this was such a landmark album, and why its influence continues to this day.

To add some context, Sony had launched the Walkman cassette player in 1979, the first truly portable device for pre-recorded music. This led to a renewed interest in the cassette format among independent artists and labels, as it was also a cheaper means of manufacture and distribution than vinyl records (and long before CDs, mp3 and streaming services). And in the wake of the DIY aesthetic promoted by punk, some new music was being released on cassette only, such as Bow Wow Wow’s “Your Cassette Pet” and BEF’s “Music for Stowaways” (the title referencing an early model of the Sony Walkman). Some of these cassette-only releases (especially by independent, lo-fi, DIY electronic artists such as Inertia) are now highly collectable.

What made “From Brussels With Love” so significant was not just the format. It was not even alone in combining music with interviews and fully illustrated booklets. Fast Forward in Melbourne also launched their first audio-magazine in November 1980, and other similar projects followed such as Edinburgh’s “Irrationale”, Manchester’s “Northern Lights”, and London’s “Touch” label which began life releasing a series of curated audio gazettes, including both spoken-word and musical contributions.

The importance of “From Brussels With Love” was the cross-section of artists it managed to bring together: mercurial musicians such as Bill Nelson, John Foxx and Vini Reilly; side projects from members of established post-punk bands from the UK (Wire, Joy Division/New Order, the Skids and Spizzenergi); a cluster of emerging European bands (Der Plan, The Names and Radio Romance); and several leading names in modern classical and ambient music (Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Phil Niblock, Brian Eno and Wim Mertens). Oh, and an interview with actor Jeanne Moreau.

This eclectic mix of contemporary artists (and this deliberate approach to curation) was no doubt highly influential on subsequent projects such as the NME/Rough Trade “C81” or Rorschach Testing’s “Discreet Campaigns” – these were not compilations reflecting a single musical style or even the usual label sampler, nor were they simply collections of what was new or current. Instead, they reveal an aesthetic attitude (curiosity combined with open-mindedness mixed with a high level of quality control and a hint of audience challenge) that is harder to find today. Now we have “recommender engines” and narrow-casting streaming services that would struggle to compile similarly diverse outcomes. And more’s the pity.

I know there are a number of on-line platforms and print publications that try to bring a similar approach to their curation, but for various reasons, and despite their best intentions, they generally suffer from being cliquey, self-referencing/self-identifying, and all driven by a need to capture eyeballs to attract advertising, so they quickly lose any claim to independence or even originality. Which is a shame because there is so much great music out there that we don’t get to hear, simply because it is not mainstream, or it doesn’t conform to a particular style, or it doesn’t meet “playlist criteria”, or it doesn’t have enough marketing dollars behind it.

Next week: Is the Party over?

Has digital killed the music industry?

Or, more specifically, has disintermediation broken the business model?

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Ever since the invention of compact cassettes in the 1960s and the arrival of the Walkman in the 1970s, pundits have been predicting the end of the music business (remember those “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign logos of the 1980s?) – a theory that look set to come true in the 1990s with the launch of mp3 players and peer-to-peer file sharing. Yet, rather like Mark Twain, the death of the record industry appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Most debate about the demise of the music industry is predicated on the impact of technology that facilitates music piracy, whereas in reality the business model has been broken as a consequence of digital disintermediation.

For most of its history, the recording industry was a model of vertical integration. The major record labels owned the content, the means of production (recording and manufacture), the publishing and licensing activities, the distribution channels – and in some cases, they even manufactured the hardware, owned the retail stores and promoted live concerts.

The 1970s began a rapid process of horizontal integration, as the major record labels merged with one another at such a rate that by the late 1990s there were really only four global companiesSony, Warner, Universal and EMI. At various times, each of these companies has also been affiliated to substantial film, electronics and publishing interests – further proof of the vertical and horizontal integration.

The “Big Four” have now been reduced to just three with the sale of EMI to Universal. European Union Competition rules resulted in parts of the EMI group of labels being divested to Warner, and the music publishing division being sold to Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

EMI was probably the epitome of vertical integration – but over the years, it was forced to sell or close assets like its UK manufacturing plant and the HMV retail chain, and came close to selling off London’s Abbey Road Studios (a decision that was reversed following public outcry and reinforced by a heritage listing). Some observers blame poor business decisions and weak digital strategies for EMI’s demise, but I would argue that the highly integrated model has been found wanting, and EMI was a dinosaur that could no longer survive in its current form. For example, despite some errors of judgement (such as putting “Copy Control” software on their CD’s which affected their ability to play on personal computers), in many ways EMI was something of a pioneer in digital music – being one of the first major labels to remove DRM from its downloads, and licensing its content for streaming services.

Despite the rampant corporate contraction, the growth of digital download platforms and the expansion of music streaming services, it’s clear that record labels still have a role to play in developing and distributing new content. Independent labels, distributors and retailers continue to wax and wane according to the fortunes of the wider industry, and technology makes it even easier for artists to self-release their recordings direct to the customer – but record labels provide the financial and marketing support that are critical to commercial success, and other intermediaries (publishers, distributors, licensees, retailers, promoters, etc.) continue to add value to the supply chain.

In fact, just this week, Billboard has been running a poll on whether Universal and Sony should break away from their parent entertainment conglomerates – the theory being that the music labels represent greater value on their own, especially when unencumbered by ailing electronics and movie businesses. Results so far suggest that ownership does not matter so much as having the best strategies for, and access to, the means of content creation and distribution.

At the same time, the music industry is going through another round of vertical and horizontal integration and disintermediation, driven by new technology, new distribution platforms and new business models linked to the way we access and consume content. So, while Apple’s iTunes platform has been accused of anti-competitive practices in its dealings with content owners, it also faces competition from music streaming services like Spotify, Rdio and Pandora, and new content platforms like Twitter’s #music and Vine. And if sales of new CD’s (and even mp3 downloads) are reportedly declining, there is still healthy demand for live music events especially those linked to the marketing of established back catalogue titles, which is where record labels come into their own as curators of re-released and re-packaged content.

In conclusion, here are some random reasons why I think the music industry is actually in good health: