I believe in yesterday
Two historians have won research funding to study the financing of pop music from the era of Elvis to punk
Pop music in 2010 appears to be dominated by the internet and Simon Cowell. EMI's recent announcement of a £1.75bn annual loss shows the once-dominant company has been badly hit by illegal downloading and the move away from album sales to single digital tracks. It is an industry that changes fast; big names soon become passe. All of which makes it appropriate that two academics looking into the financing of pop music between 1950 and 1975 are both historians. That period, from Elvis to punk, does already feel like history.
The Economic and Social Research Council evidently accepted the argument put forward by Dr Terry Gourvish, director of the business history unit at the London School of Economics, and Dr Richard Coopey, senior lecturer in history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, that an industry for which Britain has remained one of the two global epicentres is worthy of study. The "pop docs" have been granted £290,758 for a three-year project.
What happened from the mid-50s to the mid-70s was revolutionary, Gourvish says. "It involved the fragmentation of an earlier business model in which large companies dominated music production and music sales. The process affected the US in particular and was facilitated by a significant increase in demand for manufactured pop music from teenagers with money to spend – a new phenomenon. At the same time, new technologies had improved the quality and reduced the cost and scale of production."
Vinyl had replaced shellac, in other words. "As a result," Gourvish says, "*singles and long-playing albums (LPs) came to the fore, and independent record companies increased their market share." These shifts were accompanied by a rise in the importance of managers, independent record producers and labels, and of entrepreneurial artists asserting their right to a greater share in decision-making and profits.
Gourvish is in his 60s and Coopey in his late 50s, so both are old enough to remember when "Beatle-mania" took first Britain and then America by storm. "The Beatles were pivotal in the move away from major record companies dictating to artists *everything from how much they were going to be paid to how much time they could spend in the studio," Coopey says. "Their popularity gave them the power to dictate terms to EMI."
Their manager, Brian Epstein, he says, "was honest in a world where accounting practices often operated on the limits of legality". After Epstein died in 1967, things changed. "You could argue that the Beatles lacked any business cohesion after he died.
"Epstein has had a bad press. He's been portrayed as a furniture salesman who just stumbled across them. But," Coopey adds,"Epstein took the revolutionary step of setting up the Beatles' own publishing house."
Unfortunately, he made two major *mistakes, says Gourvish. One was to allow music publisher Dick James to keep 51% of Northern Songs, the company set up to publish Lennon-McCartney compositions, which means that Paul McCartney gets no money from the early songs. The other, he says, was to sell for just $1m the *merchandising rights for the group's American tour in 1964. "But nobody could have predicted just how big the Beatles were going to be across the Atlantic. In this country, the Beatles craze was a steadily building process. In America it just took off. Not even Elvis had had that kind of merchandising potential."
American entrepreneurs may have been making money out of Beatles mugs and wigs, but the mid-60s were a low point for America's major record companies as they struggled to compete with a succession of mega-bands from the UK. The US recovery was built on Tamla Motown and the soul sounds popularised in northern clubs such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester and the Wigan Casino. There then followed another British boom built on progressive ("prog") rock with bands such as Genesis and Pink Floyd and glam rock with T Rex, David Bowie, Sweet and Gary Glitter.
The researchers were helped in their investigations by Gourvish's brother, Tony, who had worked in the business and helped to provide introductions in a notoriously closed world. So, as well as *examining company reports, archives and autobiographies, the historians have been able to talk to independent producers, such as Joe Boyd and Jonathan King, and also key figures like Kenny Lynch – the singer who became a writer and a music publisher – "a template the Beatles *followed," says Gourvish.
"The difficulty with interviews," he adds, "is that many of the key entrepreneurs of the period, like Epstein, are dead. Of those who are alive, most are pensioners and few remember the 1960s clearly."
The curtain came down on the 60s with the Beatles' Abbey Road album, named after the studios that have just been put on the market to help stem EMI's debts. An iconic vinyl album looks more than ever like a relic of history.