Thursday, September 5, 2013

Beyond Band Aid: technology brings new ways to use music for social good

Emma Fowle/The Gaurdian

Photograph: Steve Hurrell/Steve Hurrell / REDFERNS
Technology has changed the way we do just about everything, no industry has been more affected than the music business. Much has been made of the impact of illegal downloads on the decline of traditional CD sales, but with 4.3bn legal digital downloads made last year and the music industry posting a return to growth for the first time since 1991, perhaps there is at last light at the end of the tunnel.

So what does this mean for social enterprise? Music for social good is not a new concept. Since Bob Geldof and Band Aid raised over £8m with their charity single in 1984, we have long understood the power of music and celebrity. But traditional distribution channels and reliance on big, multinational record labels – whose main motivation was always to generate profit through record sales – meant that only when an artist was rich enough and famous enough could they exercise any control over using their music or their voice for social good.

The arrival of social media has changed all of that, and it has never been easier to record and distribute your own music. The result? A potential new market opening up for brave social entrepreneurs and socially minded artists.

One example is Josh Garrells. Earlier this year he chose to give away his entire music catalogue through Noisetrade, one of the new wave of digital music distributors that allows artists to give away music for free. With 161,245 downloads in two weeks, it raised $71,566 in 'tips' forWorld Relief's efforts in Congo. But as Josh pointed out in a recent interview, such altruism has only recently become possible.

He told the Huffington Post: "Record labels wouldn't allow me to give my music away, as they're in the business of selling albums to make a profit. I have the freedom to give away my albums because I've never worked under a real record label."

And therein lies the change. Ten years ago, becoming an internationally known recording artist would have been impossible without the backing of a major label. Now, social media, alongside distribution channels such as Noisetrade and social enterprises, enable artists and not record labels to control what their music is used for and where the profits go. However, less than 1% of all social enterprises currently registered with the Social Enterprise Mark are working in an area related to music. It is clearly a new arena for the social entrepreneur, and there is much room for growth.

One organisation getting in on the act is Fairshare Music, a social enterprise set up in 2010 by Lee Cannon and Jonny Woolf. Having worked in the record industry for several years, they saw a gap in the market for what they call 'feelgood downloads'. For the same price as you would pay on a traditional music download site, you can make your purchase through Fairshare Music and know that 50% of the profits go to charity. It's a genius idea that capitalises on the increasing popularity of conscious consumerism. With 60% of us now reporting that buying from socially responsible organisations is important in our spending decisions, it seems our desire to ensure that our purchases do more than just meet our own needs is driving a whole new growth market.

For social enterprise band The Claze, the birth of organisations like Fairshare Music have enabled a wholesale shift away from individual priorities of fame and fortune.

Lead singer Gareth Dix said: "We are first and foremost a band that is also a fully integrated part of a successful social enterprise." The Claze are part of Exhale, a Community Interest Company that also runs health and wellbeing projects. They may seem unlikely bedfellows, but the experiment is one that the organisation views as massively successful. Alongside generating an income stream, the band has also raised the profile of the organisation beyond any of their expectations. Their latest project has been to write a song for Macmillan Cornwall to promote their World's Biggest Coffee Morning.

Since the release of Tulips and Coffee four weeks ago, the video has received over 4,000 views on YouTube, hit over 750,000 twitter accounts and been played on national BBC Radio 2. It's something that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago and that presents a hugely exciting opportunity for anyone interested in music and social change. "We were just a covers band from Cornwall," explained Gareth. "We love music, but our priority has never been to line our own pockets. Somehow we have managed to get exposure that would have previously been impossible for a band like us to get. It's enabled us to use our music for good in ways we never imagined."

Social media, new distribution channels and an increasing consciousness from consumers are all playing their part in the UK music industry perhaps at last turning the corner from the dire death knells of the late 1990s. For social enterprises – or anyone interested in music that cares, rather than individual celebrity – perhaps it is time to see if music can still make the world go round.

Emma Fowle is the strategic development officer and company secretary at Exhale, a Cornwall-based social enterprise that delivers community projects to tackle health inequalities and poverty.

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