Recent times have seen seismic movement in the music industry. Mergers, job losses, reductions in artist numbers all point to a fundamental failure in the music industry’s business model. And why?  Technological change, both recording and the Internet, have changed everything, and threaten the industry’s four big players in ways they don’t care to admit. Of course the familiar issue is thatof piracy. Illegal music is shared in vast quantities, with some estimates of around a billion tracks downloaded in the first half of 2005. This obviously has been of great distress to the larger international record labels, and they have deployed PR companies and lawyers to attack first websites and program makers, and then individual file sharers. The real turnaround, however, is coming with legal downloads. While illegal downloads are thought to be at fairly stable levels, legal download revenues have tripled in the first half of the year. They now represent six percent of industry revenues, while CD sales are in secular decline and music revenues are slowly but steadily falling. This success can only continue with more and more people using the Internet and with the ever-diversifying selection of gadgets to play music, including iPods and mobile phones. So, the big labels may ask themselves, is this it? Will we see a turnaround back to the good old days of high sales, albeit in a different form? Maybe sales will recover somewhat. But there is a more fundamental challenge to the status quo on the horizon. This comes not from consumers, but from individual artists. The traditional idea of a record label is a large firm, hiring young talent, providing recording, distribution and promotion, and in return receiving a considerable part of the revenue. The greatest ambition for many young artists was to be signed, because it let them access vast audiences, unimaginable for the sole trader musician. Throw in a load of cheap, home computer technology for production, marketing and distribution, and suddenly it all becomes feasible. Anyone can set up a website and sell their own music, with tiny overheads and complete creative freedom.Mercury nominee Seth Lakeman followed this route. For three hundred pounds he recorded his album of Cornish folk songs in his kitchen (after unplugging the fridge), set up his own label and website, and sold his album to the masses. This type of achievement is by no means confined to the technology- savvy world of Cornish folk music: in the newer industry surrounding rap and R&B the same is true. The winner of the Best Hip Hop Act at the MOBO awards, Sway Dasafo, remains unsigned and chooses to distribute his music himself. While the Internet isn’t as important for distribution, cheap production technology allows him to produce thousands of copies of a mix tape, essentially cutting out the corporate middle man. These two musicians have proved the extent of what you can achieve without the backing of a large and powerful label.At the same time amateurs and new artists are able to put up free downloads and be heard by as many people as can find their site. Already commercial ventures such as run free download pages, aware of the value of such a service. The quality of the free downloads available varies widely from the ludicrous to the sublime and from experimental to retro, but it means that anyone can explore different genres of music like never before. Of course taking this direct route to fans has its limitations. There is no vast marketing machine available to reach every single music lover in the land. But then is there ever? Most of the successful artists (outside pure saccharine pop) tour to make their name. They rely on word of mouth advertising, slowly increasing sales and a good reputation. It’s just how quickly they get up the ladder.It is not just the artists who could benefit from this. Music fans now have arguably their greatest ever choice. Already there is a vast reduction in pop sales, lost to rock, jazz and folk-styled artists. Why should we continue to watch Top of the Pops when we can access whatever we want at the touch of a button? With the live scene on an unprecedented high, there is no shortage of dynamism and creativity in Britain. For the first time these artists have the opportunity to pursue this for themselves. Even if the industry faces challenges, we stand at the beginning of an extraordinary time of opportunity for the young and talented, which can be only be good news for the music-loving public.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005