Magazine

The pop star and the prophet

  • 17 September 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Jacques Attali in 1975 Image copyright AFP

Musicians aren't likely to get rich from selling records today, unlike their 20th Century predecessors - and one man saw it all coming a long time ago. So singer-songwriter Sam York went to ask him if the future will be better for musicians, or worse.

Back in 1976, the music business looked indestructible.

ABBA, the Beach Boys and Rod Stewart were selling mountains of records and things were only going to get better. Sales grew almost unchecked until 1999 - the most profitable year in the industry's history.

But at the turn of the century the arrival of the internet and the MP3 file saw revenues collapse, a seismic shift that no-one had seen coming.

No-one? Well, not quite.

Also in 1976, a French polymath called Jacques Attali wrote a book that predicted this crisis with astonishing accuracy. It was called Noise: The Political Economy of Music and he called the coming turmoil the "crisis of proliferation".

Soon we would all have so much recorded music it would cease to have any value, he said. And that sounds pretty accurate to me - I don't remember the last time I spent £10 ($15) on a new album.

But this puts me in a tricky situation. I'm a singer-songwriter, I've just finished my first record, and I'm trying to figure out how I'll be able to earn a decent living in an industry that's been turned upside down.


Jacques Attali and Sam York

Jacques Attali is a renowned economist, philosopher and political adviser, and author of more than 60 books. He was the architect of President Francois Mitterrand's rise to power, organiser of the 1987 G7 summit, and the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Sam York has performed with artists including Tom Jones, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J, Dave Gilmour, Ronan Keating and Jack Bruce, and held residencies at Ronnie Scott's jazz club as a guitarist, pianist and vocalist. He is now embarking on a solo career as a singer-songwriter.

Listen to The Pop Star and the Prophet on Radio 4, at 11:30 on Thursday 17 September or catch it afterwards on the BBC iPlayer


As Attali turned out to be so right about everything - and saw it all coming years in advance - I decided to go and meet him, to find out whether his ideas could help me.

"It was a strange book, on a strange issue," Attali says at his home in Paris. He's in his 70s now, and still a prolific writer and thinker.

To understand how he came to predict the "crisis of proliferation" you have to understand the bigger theory that he put forward in the book.

Music, money and power were all tightly interlinked, he wrote, and had a fractious relationship stretching back through history.

Powerful people had often used music to try and control people. In the 9th Century, for example, the emperor Charlemagne had imposed by force the practice of Gregorian chant "to forge the cultural and political unity of his kingdom". Much later, the arrival of capitalism and the pop charts gave moguls the chance to use music to extract large amounts of money from people.

But at the same time, music can be used to subvert power, and undermine the status quo. Rock and roll in 1950s America, for example, helped to sweep away a raft of conservative social mores.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Al Doyle: Hugely successful but struggled to buy a one-bedroom flat in London

This tension led Attali to conclude that industry executives could not control the way we bought and sold music forever. As we became flooded with more music than we could ever listen to, he argued, the model would eventually collapse.

And this "crisis of proliferation" has come to pass, as I've already noted.

Great for listeners, some might say, but tough for the musicians who used to rely on selling recorded music to make a living.

"I find it quite strange that I'm struggling to buy a one-bedroom flat in London six albums into my career, 12 years down the line," says Al Doyle of Hot Chip - a hugely successful British band.

It seems the band hit its stride at just the wrong time. Doyle recalls something he was told in a business meeting, by his management: "If you'd been making music just four years earlier, you wouldn't be sitting here talking to us now… you'd be lying on a bed made of gold."

Instead we are now "drowning in music", as George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio 1 puts it, and earning enough to live on in these times when "scarcity is busted" is a problem.

Attali also had another big idea. He said that music - and the music industry - forged a path which the rest of the economy would follow. What's happening in music can actually predict the future.

When musicians in the 18th Century - like the composer Handel - started selling tickets for concerts, rather than seeking royal patronage, they were breaking new economic ground, Attali wrote. They were signalling the end of feudalism and the beginning of a new order of capitalism.

In every period of history, Attali said, musicians have been at the cutting edge of economic developments. Because music is very important to us but also highly adaptable it's one of the first places we can see new trends appearing.

He was right about the "crisis of proliferation"… but if music really does predict the future for the rest of the economy, what does he think it is telling us will happen next?

Attali says manufacturing will be hit by an identical crisis to the music industry, and this time it will be caused by 3D printing.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Model rabbits - easy to reproduce with a 3D printer

"With 3D printing, people will print their own cups, furniture," he says. "Everyone will make their own objects, in the same way they are making their own music."

The blueprints for different 3D-printed objects can be copied and passed around online - just like music files - and then printed cheaply at home. In fact, they already are, and some of them are even on Pirate Bay, the website that became a go-to destination for people who wanted to copy vast quantities of music - most of it illegally - a decade or so ago.

"There are only a few hundred prints on The Pirate Bay right now, offering everything from car parts, to guns and toys," says Pirate Bay co-founder Tobias Andersson.

"But in a few years it will be a quick process to print something, and scan something. By then we'll see prints of pretty much every object you can visualise, out there on the internet.

"Every industry that distributes objects will be put in the same place the music industry has been in the last 10 years. I don't believe that the majority of them understand the extent of what's going to happen. It's coming pretty fast."

But my main concern remains the music industry - and there are those, unlike Attali, who are actually bullish about it. Some point to healthy revenues from live music. Others even argue that money from streaming services such as Spotify or Apple Music will one day rise to match the "golden era" of CD sales.

I asked Attali what hope he held out for me, as a singer-songwriter hoping to survive by playing and recording music.

"The only thing that is rare is time," the prophet uttered.

By which he meant that because time can't be copied, selling lived experiences - like concerts - should hold their value in a way that records can't.

I don't have to look for a job in a bank just yet, in Attali's view. There's still some hope left.

Either that or the affable Frenchman was too polite to tell me otherwise.

Sam York presents The Pop Star and the Prophet on Radio 4, at 11:30 on Thursday 17 September. Listen to it afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.

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