Sunday, 27 July 2008

Peter York On Ads: In an age when music has lost its meaning,will Knock-off Nigel be seen as a bad guy?


Sunday, 27 July 2008

In the Seventies, music really mattered. In that marvellous disco line, people were "lost in music, caught in a trap". They believed music could change the world or their own lives and that musicians had mighty brains and magical powers.

It made no sense: music clearly didn't change the world and it only changed your own life if it got you a job and an income-stream of royalties. But the underlying belief was intense and, mostly, completely sincere. But in the later Eighties, music started to become meaningless. All that engagement and self-definition that characterised British tribalism started to evaporate, under pressure from the New World. The tide of Thatcherite aspiration made for a careerist young middle-class, more like America's – with other things to get on with and more choices to dilute that intensity. The music business itself became increasingly corporate – globally linked to other "intellectual property" – electronic entertainment businesses in careful conglomerates.

The change from vinyl to CDs symbolised the process. CDs were infinitely better on any logical count. They looked and sounded sleeker and made vinyl look archaic. But they had no design impact and no emotional purchase. No CD could be a rallying call or a collector's item like a daft old pressing.

At the end of the Eighties I found myself saying that music would shortly "come on the rates and arrive through the pipes". That was not because I was prescient about the coming wonderworld of the information superhighway; I hadn't a clue about any of that. It just felt as if music mattered less as it became more accessible: free CDs taped to magazines and once-defining songs used as the music-over in advertising – clever, cynical choices that, in Julie Burchill's phrase, "mugged your memories".

Music was no longer hard-fought – it was as universal as sandwiches, a secondary thing to warm up aerobics sessions for middle-aged green Goddesses. (And the iPod which accessed the whole world's music at a go was even more dispiriting.)

As music started to lose it, the Seventies became the defining image-bank of our own particularly British rock-bottom, economically and aesthetically. And then, as the Nineties drew on, it became the subject of easy irony and cat-calling – "the decade that taste forgot". In fact the Seventies were full of inventiveness and discrimination and huge aspiration; it just wasn't directed at washed salads and luxury brands.

The "Knock-Off Nigel" campaign from The Industry Trust is designed to make theft of intellectual property – the bloodless City lawyers' word for artistic rights in anything – socially unacceptable. Its perpetrators are grubby thieves, ruining our "creative industries".

The creatives here were obviously raised on 'The Office' and 'Little Britain'. In an office corner, Knock-off Nigel is cruelly downloading away when an annoying chorus of his colleagues accost him, urged on by a Pied Piper-type in a shiny fuchsia waistcoat, Seventies moustache and sideburns. They're naming and shaming away. "He's a type of man who does things on the cheap, he steals money from whiprounds, the guy's a real creep. He nicks food from the fridge, whenever he can. He downloads knock-off films, what a grubby little man." According to the trust, it's working. Nigels everywhere are making redemptive plans to be Right Nigels, not wrong 'uns.

But it would be easier to make him a pariah if people didn't feel music was practically theirs by right now.

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