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Getting beyond the music and technology rhetoric

More thoughts about Spotify, Thom Yorke and how musicians face problems in the new marketplace.

It’s a strange time to be a professional musician and, simultaneously, a digital strategist who spends their day pondering digital/mobile users and their interactions with their devices – or “digital finger extensions” as McLuhan might have put it in Understanding Media: “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex..” And McLuhan also had this insight – “…he postulated that content had little effect on society — in other words, it did not matter if television broadcasts children’s shows or violent programming, to illustrate one example — the effect of television on society would be identical.” And so he claimed, it is the media themselves, not the content they carry, that should be studied.

If we fast forward to 2013 we can apply some of his logic to our current mobile/web world and posit, with minor paraphrasing, that the effect of the Internet on society, culture and business is also identical. As I’ve often written: the Internet does not care about your business, your band, your book, your film, and the list is long and ongoing. That is why McLuhan’s prescient observations are as important today as they were in the 1960′s.

Over the two decades since the advent of the public Web, I have been invited to many conferences both here in the USA and abroad to discuss two subjects that often get conjoined: Music and the Internet.

Whether it has been in Austin at SXSWi, New York City at CMJ, San Francisco at the SF MusicTech Summit or in Galway, Eire addressing an audience as keynote speaker at the Hewlett Packard-backedCloudbusting Conference, regardless of the subject of my talk, or the topic of a panel, a subtext soon surfaces: basically “what’s up in music tech?” And to focus on one particular group, if musicians are in the audience the topic quickly turns to “why is the Internet ruining my career and why does no one care?”

I have tried to be very careful when addressing these topics and the resulting questions. The discussions are often fractious – and that’s putting it mildly – they spin wildly out of control online.

A few days ago I addressed the news that Thom Yorke, the leader of Radiohead, was removing music from his side project, Atoms For Peace, from the streaming music service Spotify. I applauded his actions, as I assumed that by going public about it he was hoping to draw attention to what he saw as the imbalance of renumeration that artists further down the income earning scale receive from services likeSpotify.

I made a misstep though and was rightly called out for it in the comments by my good friend Justin Spohn of Fight, who pointed out that I was sliding away from a stance I have repeatedly pushed here in this blog and in other forums – simply put, I have been clear in the past of my opinion, that when artists enter the marketplace they compromise their art. They and their art become embroiled in the market’s volatile ups and downs and they give up a huge amount of control, if not all control. Here’s Justin’s original comment:

Dave – aren’t you undermining the core thesis of your position almost exactly a year ago?

Artist not being treated fairly? By what standard? When artists – among whom I count myself – conflate the status of artist/art-maker with artist/capitalist, they diminish their own position and the strength of any larger argument they might have either in terms of the value of art in society, or else their role in the business of selling that art.

There has never been a time when all, or even most, or even more than a fraction of a percent, of artists made a viable living off their work. And the percentage of those who defy the talent/commercial success differential is so vanishingly small that it’s hardly worth noting in any statistical sense. The internet has done nothing to change this – except, possibly, for removing the barrier to an audience to artists of all stripes. For this, we should all be thankful.

But this position that somehow “fairness” is in play is tantamount to arguing that all basketball players deserve to making a living on their skill. Or that everyone who loves cooking could be a chef. It’s silly on it’s face.

Every artist has a right to their art – beyond that it’s all up in the air.

And so the misstep I took in that post was one of conflating my thinking and insights as outlined in my opinion, with a less dispassionate view of what I saw as “unfairness” in the artists share of income from music streaming services. Justin was right to call me out – for a moment there I was blinded by emotion. The term fairness does not apply in the marketplace and as Justin says, which I will apply to musicians in this case, all they have is “a right to their art – beyond that it’s all up in the air.

Back to McLuhan: We must study the media not the content. The media are Spotify, Pandora,et al. (The media are also our computers and smartphones but I won’t get into that here.) The content are music catalogs, by and large catalogs licensed by the streaming services from the major record labels and some large independent labels, as well as from online music aggregators such as The Orchard.

The music streaming media and the inherent content therein are therefore the system, and this is where Justin steps in:

There is a moment in nearly everyone’s life when you realize that the system isn’t “broken”, you’re just on the wrong side of how it works.

We found this out in the aftermath of the ’07/’08 financial crisis when millions of people lost their jobs and their homes, and hundreds of people made tens of millions – or, at a minimum, paid no price for their part in the downfall.

We seem to find this out on an almost daily basis from Congress where laws are regularly written by lobbying groups and passed by representatives and senators who receive donations from these same lobbyists.

We find it in American foreign policy where the line between friend and despot often depends on access to cheap materials, cheap labor, lax environmental standards, or, most often, all three.

So it shouldn’t really come as any surprise that for something as relatively trivial as “musician’s royalties” – the pressure at the top towards some philosophic/ethical standard of “fairness” is nil.

It’s for this reason that I remain perplexed at the extent to which musicians are locked-in on their battle with either the people consuming their music or else with the companies providing their music to these customers – companies like Spotify or Pandora. Rather, it seems to me that major record companies and publishers – the middle men in this whole process – are the real problem. When musicians talk about “the system being broken” I want to respond “the system is working perfectly, you’re just on the wrong side of it”. The system was designed, from the start, to extract maximum financial benefit from musician’s work while giving back exactly as little as possible. And it’s working pretty well.

And it’s not that the labels never provided any service to musicians, it’s that the services they provided no longer make sense. I think this is why the Internet poses such a problem for so many musicians: it’s not the Internet that’s fucked up, it’s the music industry trying to fit itself into a system that doesn’t need it.

By way of an example: look at the industries that have been created – conceptually and architecturally speaking – around the web: Amazon, Ebay, and Craigslist. All succeed because they capitalize on the peer-to-peer nature of the web. Imagine if you had to go through two or three middle men to sell something on Ebay or Craigslist? That would be insane. Instead – each works by putting individuals, small businesses, and large companies all on equal footing when it comes to offering their goods to customers.

Why couldn’t music work the same way? Of course the devil is in the details, and I’m sure I’m missing some important realities of musicians selling their music, but my larger point, my totally uninformed, and entirely conceptual solution is this: stop trying to work with record labels – because there is exactly zero incentive for them to bring anyone to the table – they know, as they always have, that there are 1,000,000 other musicians waiting on the sidelines to cut that next shitty deal.

Instead, I think the battle artists should be fighting for is one to design a new, modern system. One that takes advantage of the web. One that allows for a direct relationship with companies like Spotify or Pandora. One that rewards the players in the system that bring value and cuts away everything else. It would be a hard fought battle, there is a lot of money at stake in making sure something like it never happens. But you can spend the next 10 years trying to make a system designed to benefit the few through arbitrary blockades, or spend that time breaking down that system and building something new. Something you built yourselves, for yourselves.

That is after all what the web is all about.

To simplify then: Dear musicians, if you have arranged or allowed your content to be distributed in the online music media system, you are participating in the marketplace and have therefore given over control of your income, or lack of it, to those that set the royalty payment price points.

The debate will no doubt rage on as it is more complex and convoluted than it appears on the surface. Musicians will continue to allow their music to be distributed across streaming media platforms, in the hope that the awareness and sales that are promised by the media companies come true. The media companies themselves will continue to hope that they can become profitable. And two things are certain: 1. Music fans want to rent, not own music. 2. The Internet did not “allow” this to happen.

Let’s separate ‘music’ from ‘tech’ in the debate and instead conjoin ‘music,’ ‘marketplace’ and ‘systems.’ That will make it easier to keep the discussion on the right topics.

This may or may not be the last word on this subject from me. I might write about it again, I might deflect questions about it on any panel that I appear on, and in any interviews that I do in future. Yet I can say if the question of musicians, systems and marketplaces crops up, I will happily debate that.

I have to say I am very happy that I am able to do something about these issues rather than just talking about them, by having joined the board of Cash Music last year. I can focus on helping the company to succeed in its ambitions of creating a new open-source, non-middleman platform for musicians, so they can control how they distribute their own content online. To see what we are up to you might consider attending the upcoming Cash Music Summit.


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