Musicians On The Wrong Side Of History

from the how-medieval dept

Things are getting really odd in the latest music/internet/Silicon Valley skirmishes. It would appear that the step up in anti-streaming music, anti-silicon valley, anti-Google rhetoric by famous musicians is getting heated.

The lexicon is growing: Thom Yorke called streaming music services the last desperate fart of a dying corpse, where "corpse" refers to the recorded music industry. David Byrne joined the fray with an odd article for the Guardian last month that compelled me to write my own Op-ed rebuttal. Mr Byrne was telling of how he had removed "as much of my catalogue from Spotify I can." I believe that is the wrong answer for all musicians, rich and poor.

I also wrote a post that offered a solution. I proposed that if the richer musicians were so concerned for their less well off brethren, and believed that culture and society was about to collapse, then perhaps they should help them out.

Not that that's going to happen anytime soon.

The latest addition to the anti-technology list of musicians is the well-respected T Bone Burnett, who in a Halloween-inspired fit of pique, said in a Hollywood Reporter article titled: T Bone Burnett vs. Silicon Valley: 'We Should Go Up There With Pitchforks and Torches.'

How medieval.

Mr. Burnett has a soundbite for us all -- "Digital sound has dehumanized us." If I think for a moment about the true dehumanization of societies under attack around the world -- Iraq, Syria, Mali to name but a few -- I can only scoff at that statement. It's pure hyperbole.

I saw a tweet from Thom Yorke the other day where he'd taken a snap of a page from a Jaron Lanier book (I'm guessing Who Owns the Future?) where Yorke wrote "I am proudly Luddite if to be so is to criticise the power and destruction of Google etc.. J Lanier again."

Let's take a look at what exactly describes a Luddite -- "a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, esp. in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16)." And in a finer description -- "The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labor-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817." [Link]

And so, if we were to take Thom at his word, the fall of Google would cause him and his supporters to dance in the streets waving their proverbial "pitchforks and torches," while denying those in society who are not musicians the benefits of labor-saving technology that Google and other technology companies bring.

That's about as far away from a credible position in this discussion than I can imagine. The real irony there is that the "labor-saving technologies" of today make it easier, not harder, for musicians to reach an audience. Thom's band Radiohead posted a film, Scotch Mist, to the Google-owned YouTube where it has garnered almost 7.3 million views. Just sayin'.

Very recently Tim Quirk, a musician and a friend who I have known for some time now, gave a speech at the Future of Music Summit (you can link to it here.) At its heart Tim's talk was an impassioned plea for musicians to understand the true value of music, not as in a price-point, but at its emotional level. He notes that you cannot devalue music's worth at that level. He understands that musicians are fighting technology because of their misguided, nostalgic view of the recording industry. There was never a "Golden age" of music. Record deals were not built to empower musicians, they were to benefit the record labels. Most musicians hardly ever made a living from music, only those who rose to the top did. Nothing has changed.

Tim provided an image that shows the reality of a music ecosystem:

From Tim:

You can sketch this dynamic with a simple pyramid showing lots of people spending little or no money at the bottom and fewer people spending lots of money at the top. If you’re a new band, you begin at the bottom of that pyramid, but no matter how popular a given artist gets or how amazing her latest single is, there will always, always, always be more people in the world who don't care than who do.

So the goal for every artist and every song has always been to climb this pyramid, convincing as many people as you can to part with something in exchange for listening. At first, you just want their attention. The next step is to get them to give you some money for the privilege of hearing your song whenever they happen to get the urge and as you keep climbing the pyramid, you find yourself with fewer and fewer listeners but each one who remains is happy to give you more and more money.

It has never been any different than it is now in other words. The only change is a societal shift. Young people have voted with their ears. They want to access music wherever they are, they are willing to pay for it too. If they like your music they'll keep paying, if they don't like it they won't bother to even listen to it. Radio has always been free for music fans. If they heard something they liked they bought it. Today -- same as it ever was. (Before you jump in and say the access to "free" music is killing careers, please remember that radio was always free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Still is. Purchasing decisions are made around it. Online and mobile access to music creates demand if the listener perceives its value.)

Let's take the musician's arguments at face value and tell it like it is: they are demanding that they be singled out as a special interest group that should always be able to make an income from their work. If they hold to that position in the face of how markets actually work, e.g. a superior product at a reasonable price will sell better than an inferior product where demand creates the price points, then they will simply lose face and their audience will move on.

And prices are flexible. Arcade Fire released its new album this week and reportedly sold 140,000 copies. If another band called Arcade Ice was as popular but offered its album at $1 less it doesn't mean it will sell 140,000 copies or more just because it's a dollar less. That's because fans of Arcade Fire and Arcade Ice are not necessarily fans of both bands. Each band therefore reaches the fans that will purchase their respective albums, and each band's income will differ -- not on a price point but on demand.

Musicians are in the marketplace and there's a thing called a Demand Curve:

There's a comment in the Demand Curve article I link to that creates an analogy -- "The higher the price of a Kindle is, the less people want to buy it. If the price for a Kindle is to go up drastically, people will buy substitute goods like normal paperbacks, and the demand for ebooks will fall accordingly."

So underpaid authors should force Amazon to increase the price of the Kindle, right? Oh, wait...

Yelling get off my lawn is not a serious response to a lack of demand.

Dave Allen is the founding member and bass player for Gang of Four ad Shriekback, and is currently Digital Creative Director at North, a Portland-based brand strategy company, where this blog post was first published (along with many other great blog posts).

Filed Under: dave allen, david byrne, history, luddites, musicians, silicon valley, t bone burnett, thom yorke, tim quirk


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  1. icon
    Robert (profile), 8 Nov 2013 @ 11:11am

    Re: Here's a new tagline that covers the Silly-con Valley:

    Not consuming (ie: not paying) == not buying in terms of bottom lines!

    Products someone else made? Oh you mean like instruments the musicians didn't make, or the transatlantic cable the musicians didn't make, or the computer hardware they didn't make to record their art, or the motor vehicles that drove the printed recordings to the buildings containing the stores that were not created or built by the artists ... Works both ways buddy! And before you say anything about paying for those things, the artists now have free distribution, no cuts, as a result of technology. They have reduced their costs, so have the labels, so overhead is now reduced, one would think profits would increase!

    Of course you could look at the demographics and that is most bought CD's to REPLACE cassettes and vinyl. What percentages of new releases each year in each format (from cassette, vinyl, cd, online) for albums are out there? Where's that data? Right, hidden! Why would someone show that people bought replacements when they are trying to say no one is buying anything new?

    And once the replacements have been purchased, why the fuck would they buy it again in digital format where they can only play it on certain devices? Or even unrestricted, if you have a damn CD, why buy the digital version from iTunes? That is idiotic and only an idiot would think such things.

    Again, where's the demographic data showing details of the album sale drops? Hidden!

    Finally, digital sales are naturally lower because people are buying less albums because the albums released for many years kept dropping in quality for a large portion of popular music. They were not concepts, entities themselves, they were individual tracks, no meaning, just thrown together, some good and some bad. That's it. That's like random notes on the piano and trying to use all the theory you can to give it a chord name.

    Maybe the digital sales that were around the past 10 years where the ACTUAL new release levels, what people wanted, though you can't really prove that because a-la-carte was not available before at the level it is today. It was selected singles or album, not consumer choice of single to purchase.

    So you cannot even compare such things.

    Now with streaming, people just don't want to have to transfer files or carry multiple devices around (iPod vs phone vs CD...) they just want one spot where they can get it all. No device required, just Internet access.

    Again, reducing costs, no need to store the files on servers in multiple stores or produce varied devices, just produce one device and one data centre - so less license issues too as you don't need to cover iTunes, Amazon, etc... Though you do have multiple streaming sites, but they allow anywhere on any device!

    That's cheaper for the consumer, so new devices allow such services on them, whether it is a laptop or cell/smart phone or tablet.

    The labels were simply loan sharks who targeted artists because few banks would help them. They didn't create the art, they packaged and delivered it. Now someone else is doing that and some artists are touting the lines of the former packagers.

    The new packagers are not fucking grifters! They offer cheaper means of packaging and delivery, much like email to letter mail.

    Adapt and move on.

    And thanks to Technology, artists can do MORE and have MORE REVENUE STREAMS available, even when some are paying less than the forced-album (if you want to buy it - shy from recording off the radio which the industry tried to kill as well) purchasing.

    And finally, more competition is good. Yes good! Cream rises to the top. If you have good art, no one is going to hold you back. It is up to you though to do it yourself or partner with a company that isn't a media-conglomerate-profit-focused-exploitation-expert.

    And don't forget, your also competing in the live arena against oldies that are not releasing new items, can't seem to find new fans as a result, are falling into obscurity, and thus have to tour to keep food on their tables. Those are already established artists would could benefit from working with that and networking and trying to become relevant, but that also means creating new art (eg: Matthew Good, Rush).

    Or you could just complain and separate yourself from systems that try to help you (eg: Thom Yorke, David Lowery)

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