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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
    John Fenderson (profile), 8 Nov 2013 @ 2:46pm

    Re: Re:

    Burnett argues that digital release is horrible for sound quality


    But this is where he goes wrong. Nothing about digital requires a drop in sound quality. It's possible to do sampling at such a high sampling rate and dynamic range that the quality exceeds the best of analog systems.

    The drop in quality has to do with trying to make the audio files as small as possible, which is something that is getting less important every year.

    He's also falling into the same problem that old-timey software engineers (like myself) often fall into when talking about software quality:

    In many ways, software quality is getting worse every year, and the reason for it is a change in economics. CPU cycles are so cheap now that it makes more economic sense to waste them if it saves on development time, and our tools are geared with this in mind.

    So nowadays, any given piece of software is several orders of magnitude less efficient than the same software would have been a decade or two ago. it uses more memory, runs slower, etc. You don't notice because the hardware has become so fast that it more than makes up for this degradation. But think what you could do with the cheapest computer now if software actually used the computing resources in the most efficient way possible!

    This loss is real, just as the loss Burnett is talking about is real. Not as an inherent aspect of the technology, but because the economics are different. What Burnett (and my argument) ignores is that there have been gains in addition to the loss. The world is different. Not worse, different.

    For Burnett to complain about it is just as silly and meaningless as it is for me to complain about the state of software to people outside of the industry: in the end, the people are getting what they want, and when you're making something you intend to release into the marketplace, that's all that matters.

    Burnett can ease his mind by deciding what he wants. If he wants his form of artistic purity, nothing and nobody is stopping him. The rest of the world has different values. But to claim that his preference represents some kind objective overall worsening is idiotic.

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