We live in an age of everyday activism, with every purchase an expression of values as well as needs. Ideas about fairness go far beyond the impact of certified fair trading schemes; they permeate consumer marketing. Social media drives a radical transparency in supply chains, with no exploitation tacitly excused.
Alongside fairness we have discovered a new appreciation of the craft skills and tradition wrapped up in the idea of an artisan. We know that we can be fed and clothed, and that our homes can be furnished and decorated by machines. At some point however we lost the sense that mechanisation is progress, and what came to the surface is the powerful idea that all economic transactions are a medium for human communication. A loaf of bread is now, somehow, a laying on of hands as well as nutrition.
A musician playing an instrument or singing with real skill and feeling is the very definition of an artisan. The century we’re in could have been made for musicians, whose work delivers all the meaning of a transaction with none of the burden of common wants and needs. If this seems too much of a stretch, consider a cup of fair trade coffee. How much does the ethical content really improve the world? Or how much is it just an excuse for a caffeine dose in a disposable cardboard beaker?
We in the music industry should not get carried away with enthusiasm for ideas that are easy to express but much harder to live up to. Some voices are now mooting a ‘fair trade’ approach to music. It is very hard indeed to see the parallels between the life of a musician in a G7 economy, and the fate of a worker on a coffee plantation. Nor would the Walk Free Foundation find many major label recording artists among the 35.8 million slaves it works so hard to free.
Fair trade and authenticity in the music industry have to start from a very different place, and it will need the kind of grinding attention to detail that we have in abundance, but have not so far deigned to put on display. Today it is hard to find out who created a song, and who played the instruments. Such credits as there are don’t really tell the whole story. Was the performance recorded simply and directly, or did a studio wizard remanufacture it into something entirely wonderful but different? If we answer these simple questions we create trust, and trust is the foundation of both fairness and authenticity.
But this comes with a warning. We won’t be correcting a great social injustice by going down this road, and we should be very careful not to wear the clothes of the genuinely oppressed and suffering. Fairness in music comes when everybody’s contribution is acknowledged and everybody’s rights respected; it’s not an argument over percentages of a payout.
We have to admit in music that we are years away from the time when we can stand behind a full set of credits for a recording and swear that they are complete and truthful. Our audience, and consumers, have in many ways gone ahead of us, and it’s they who are singing a new song. We need to sing in harmony with them. It’s simple commercial good sense, as well as the right thing to do.