Imagine a world in which there is only bottled water. Then, quite rapidly, changes in technology connect every household to a municipal water line so they can have tap water.
Suddenly, you don’t have to pay for water every time you want to drink it. And even though you’re paying a small monthly fee for access to the municipal water line
This is what’s happening in music. We’re hooking up and turning on the taps. We’re reclaiming the water as a public resource.
Recently there was a putrid click-bait post on Digital Music News titled “Why Streaming Music Isn’t Like Bottled Water“. It’s part of a trend — albeit a trend quarantined to snarky music bloggers and obscurity-fearing professional musicians — to paint streaming services as the great evil.
What bothers me the most about knee-jerk demonization of tech companies is that record labels are really the ones to blame. It was the labels that used lawyers and lobbyists to bring copyright under corporate control. Don’t hate the industry that’s trying to make it more fair!
I would agree it’s naive to think tech companies would have anything but their bottom lines in mind when it comes to decision-making, just like the corporate oligarchy controlling music copyrights. Nonetheless, look at all the great music that has come out of the labels despite them being largely evil empires. The same will be true of tech companies, but they still have a long ways to go before they can compete with the unabashed exploitation of musicians at the hands of the labels. Remember McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”
Sure, making music more fair means the 1% of musicians who earn 95% of the profits in the music industry are going to have to take a hit to their paycheck. That’s the shift caused by technology in many corners of society, in music it is embodied by the streaming services. The record labels are the ones who want to see the 1% hold on to their money, because they collect over 50% of their revenue before it makes it to the artist! Who’s screwing who?
Back to bottled water. It’s been a popular thing for technologists to say that “music is like water” because… well… it is. It’s kind of common sense and obvious. Tens of thousands of people have agreed. This is why the click-bait trolling article was written in the first place, like a kid kicking a bees’ nest.
If you visit the link, you’ll notice I started to refute the article point by point before getting overwhelmingly bored. I’ve been fighting against the trolls who demonize the music tech industry for years. It’s getting tiresome. What’s more, the world I talk about — the world in which music flows like water — is already here. We’re never going to regress back into the world that the copyright maximalist musicians are trying to complain us back to. This much is clear in their total lack of advancing any workable solutions for increasing the value around music.
Here’s the problem: Musicians (and many others) are confusing copyright with music.
Music is Free
If you don’t understand why music is free, please take a second to hum a song. Now try to put a price tag on it. You can’t. You need some sort of way of gatekeeping access to that song in order to create value around it. There are two ways: build a fence to keep people out, or build a fence to keep people in.
Copyright is the fence built to keep people out. Patronage is the fence built to keep people in.
Copyright Productizes Music
Copyright has been the way we’ve generated value around music for roughly 200 years, first by protecting sheet music, but most importantly by protecting the song recording. For the first time in the music business, the gates didn’t have to be physical to create value around song. Prior to the invention of the recording, the only way to create value around music was to attract patronage — the main way of doing so was to be paid for a performance. The way to create value in a performance is to charge those who pass through the entrance. The gates were physical and literal.
With copyright, the gates became more like music — ineffable, conceptual. Over time, listeners and musicians were brainwashed by the copyright industry to combine copyright and music into a single concept — “sonic product” — the idea of music as a product to be packaged and sold like any other consumer good. The free music, like that on the radio or TV, was just promotion for the sale of the product — a free sample.
But the product of music isn’t like consumer packaged goods. The “packaging” is copyright, a law that you can’t touch, smell, taste or hear.
That’s where the bottled water analogy comes in.
Streaming music is tap water in a world where bottled water used to be the only choice. Oh sure, you can saddle up to the water fountain of radio, or the office cooler of music television. But to have on-demand access to the water that you want, a bottled-water system makes no sense when tap water technology is here. Sure, plenty of listeners will continue buying bottled water because of its perceived convenience or quality, the rest of us are thirsty and just want a drink.
We’re undergoing the same kind of fundamental shift that happened when music moved from performance to recording, from patronage to copyright.
Of course, the multibillion-dollar bottled water will fight with all its might to protect its profits. This is the true crisis in music — corporations ruining music just for profit. Tech companies are also trying to profit, but they’re doing it by building walls that keep people in, not walls that keep people out. The tech industry is building the music taps, the listeners want it, the musicians want it — only the bottled water industry wants to fight it. Unfortunately, the bottled water industry (and the labels) have lots of money and lawyers to ruin society with!
We need to stop confusing copyright with music. Music exists independently from the access-control mechanisms we use to create value around it. This is not to say the forces of business and technology have no role in shaping music. Quite the opposite is true — we tend to underestimate just how much commerce and technology shape creativity.
But when it comes time to talk about what music really is, the cacophony of music bloggers and complaining professional musicians drowns out the truth.
Music is like water. It’s a free but precious resource necessary for human life that must be maintained and made fairly accessible for humanity to progress. And like water, it is constantly under threat of corporate control for the best interest of the corporation, not society.
The record labels are the water bottlers. You pay a premium, and you feel it in your wallet every time.
The streaming services are the tap. You pay a small monthly fee, and metering makes sure the costs and revenues are evenly distributed.
But guess what? The water analogy doesn’t stop there. Do you see the ocean?
In the music analogy, the ocean is the sea of musicians — the majority of musicians — who don’t make a penny playing music. Forget money, they don’t even get a chance to be heard.
Right now, the sea is undrinkable unless you build an expensive system to filter it. This is exactly where the music industry is right now. We’re trying to figure out a way to filter the millions of musicians playing across the world and deliver something of value to the listener. Or, in water terms, we’re trying to desalinize the ocean.
We’ve come to define the hit song as the pinnacle of music, but that’s not true. The pinnacle of music is in every musician being heard, whether it’s by one person or one million. We’re getting there, and it starts with moving past the bottled water industry.
Even as mainstream culture grows even more monolithic, one by one, people are waking up to this new way of thinking about how we create value around what we create. Control is moving from the corporation back to the individual as profit takes a backseat to community. Music isn’t a product to be sold, it’s a service we provide to each other.
It’s the most exciting time to be a musician… and it’s a pretty exciting time to be a human in general.
So pour yourself a nice, tall glass of tap water and toast to the future of music, where all musical thirsts are quenched!
The Summit is 2-day conference for music industry professionals and musicians, and is organized by the Future of Music Coalition. The FMC is a non-profit that advocates for musicians’ rights, and helps educate musicians on issues that are important to them, even though they may not realize it. Besides giving musicians a voice in Washington, they may be best known for their Artist Revenue Streams research project that gives incredible insight into the details of how musicians make money in the digital age. The Summit will begin with the latest analysis on that treasure trove of data.
I’m also looking forward to the rest of Monday morning, where conference attendees will be serenaded by government leaders in intellectual property, followed by a counterpoint on copyright from musicians and music businesspeople.
I’d like to ask the copyright panels how they would reform copyright to balance the needs of the individual and the culture versus the need to profit from corporations who have all the legal and lobbying resources to shape the law. Shouldn’t we decriminalize song sharing by adopting some of the ideas successfully employed by Creative Commons? Don’t we have enough studies showing that “piracy” actually increases fan engagement and spending?
I would also question whether virtually infinite copyright terms perpetuated by corporate lobbying have anything to do with the original intent of copyright. I would ask the musicians if copyright exploitation is perhaps a less ethical business model than direct fan patronage, and now that technology has enabled the latter, we should focus on what technology now enables rather than stifling innovation to protect anachronistic models.
Finally, I would posit that free access to music is a net benefit for promoting all of the underlying tenets of copyright: the right of the individual to be compensated for their labor, the right to own and control one’s personal expression, the right of society to benefit from creative works, and the right of a culture to use those works to perpetuate itself. Has anyone noticed how our copyright system works against these ideals by hoarding wealth at the top, appropriating our personas, creating a large deadweight loss in music consumption and denying cultural re-use of creative works, in a culture increasingly based on re-use?
All that will probably have to wait for the cocktail party. Maybe I can get the person who curates the copyright panels drunk and you’ll see me and Larry Lessig up there next year wrestling some lawyers from the Copyright Alliance and the Center for Copyright Information. The gauntlet has been thrown.
The lunch breakout session is the “Band as a Business” workshop, which is funny, because that’s almost the same name as my free “Band as Business” video course on Udemy. I reached out to workshop facilitator Paul Rapp when I realized he was 2 hours north of me in Albany. I asked him why crowdfunding wasn’t covered, considering it’s the next big thing in how musicians can make money. I also dropped the whole copyright spiel on him, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised I didn’t hear back. Looking forward to taking the workshop nonetheless, as there’s always something new to learn, especially for those who teach.
The rest of Monday is dedicated to the “Future” part of the Summit, where we’ll be discussing the cutting edge of music markets and marketing. I expect artist discovery and fan engagement to take center stage here. Over the last few years, we’ve really seen the music industry embrace the kinds of marketing best practices that were developed by natively digital companies. In particular, the idea of a “fan lifecyle” (analogous to a “user lifecycle”) is central to any modern musician’s business strategy. Success comes from identifying target fan markets, coming up with strategies to engage those fans, and then creating a system by which those fans drawn into an integrated marketing funnel, generating more revenue the deeper they go. Digital tools and services can go a long way to facilitate marketing and conversion, and I’ll be curious to see which names from that industry are dropped.
The last panel of the day is the one I’m looking most forward to — a discussion of streaming, crowdfunding, and the future business models of music. Most people are confused when it comes to this topic, and I understand why. But I’ve been a digital native all my life, and I’ve dedicated my life to music, technology and the intersection in between. The “future” of music business is, without a doubt, many different streams. The days of one dominant stream from copyright exploitation are leaving us. When we talk about the “old” business model dying, we’re not just talking about selling CDs or MP3s, we’re talking about paid vs. free access to recorded music, and things are moving inexorably toward free. It’s a net benefit for fans and musicians, and more music is being made and listened to than ever before. It’s awkward and sometimes devastating to professional musicians who are having trouble adapting, or who put their heads in the sand and blame their own fans for their career woes.
At the same time, the “new” business models like crowdfunding are revolutionizing the band as small business… and it’s all just the tip of the iceberg. We have seen but a fraction of the potential for new music markets and models. Perhaps if the market wasn’t mostly controlled by a handful of enormous corporations, it would be agile enough to shift. But no matter, individuals will flip the paradigm and enable new categories of paid musician that defy the dominant “professional” title. Indies will continue to innovate. The majors will hulk along collecting back catalog royalties until music is a utility like electricity or water… and we’ll be there sooner than you think.
We’ll need a drink after that one. Lucky for me, Mailchimp‘s buying.
The second and final day of the conference features a potpourri of unexpected topics.
I’m also looking forward to the panel on music and social change. MC5’s Wayne Kramer (who makes an appearance in my Band as Business course) chairs a particularly interesting pursuit involving instrument donation to incarcerated people. I’m a huge fan of music charities, and music’s ability to provide meaning, healing, joy, comfort or entertainment to people who are aimless, suffering, unhappy, uncomfortable or just bored. It’s the reason we have music! Too often we lose sight of music’s true purpose in pursuit of profit. As such, the following panel on “Nonprofit Models for Supporting Independent Music” shares similar potential for being an awesome eye-opener.
Before lunch, the Director of External Affairs from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will run out on stage and scream, “Musicians can afford health care now!” and then disappear in a flurry of pyrotechnics. Or not. But either way, I can’t think of a better place to tout the Affordable Care Act than a conference for musicians, even if I can build a better website myself, for hundreds of millions of dollars less.
The breakout session I’m headed to after lunch is all about how we can provide a better career education to musicians. That’s my mission too! I just launched the Songhack website to do just that — educate musicians on how they can “hack” the music business and make their own careers. My work with John Snyder at Artists House Music (we did the Band as Business course) has given me a unique look into the realm of institutionalized music career education, and the huge challenges it faces. I look forward to gaining more insight from the panelists of this talk… because despite the best efforts of the FMC, most musicians don’t have any idea how musicians make money!
Tuesday wraps up with a more philosophical take on the issues from our distinguished hosts and a group of accomplished musicians. Diving deep on the cultural value of music with the Producer of Blue Oyster Cult sounds like a pretty sweet ending to me.
I’ll be missing the conference-closing NPR All Songs Considered Listening Party. Gotta hightail it back to New York to keep the entrepreneurial machine running. But while I’m there, I’ll be tweeting up a storm and posting daily updates, both here at Mediapocalypse and over at the Songhack blog. Please join me!
Are you headed to the FMC Summit? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am about free access to music and throw a drink in my face? (I know there are some of you out there!) Or have you seen the same bright future for music that I have, and want to join forces to spread the good vibes? Leave me a comment or drop me a line on Twitter and we’ll hang.
But Rabbit Rabbit Radio is just the entrance to this rabbit hole. Matthias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt are partners in music and life, with decades of collective experience playing for some of the most interesting and inventive indie bands on the scene. They are supporting themselves and their growing family through music, which necessitates a wide variety of money-making strategies and an entrepreneurial attitude.
I spoke with them recently about the challenges and opportunities created by the rapidly changing business of music. Independent musicians would be wise to pay attention. Instead of bemoaning the changes brought on by the digital age, Matthias and Carla are pioneering the new music career as real-deal, working-class musicians. Or, as Carla puts it: “At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.”
By adapting their lifestyle and business model to best serve their dedicated fan base, Rabbit Rabbit is an inspiring example of triumphant musician-entrepreneurship.
Can you tell me a little about your musical background, and how Rabbit Rabbit Radio came about?
Matthias: I played in a lot of bands. Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, The Book of Knots, made a lot of records with people like John Vanderslice, St. Vincent, Tiger Lillies, Pretty Lights. I played music with my wife Carla — she’s a great violinist — in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and The Book of Knots. We had a kid, we have a second kid on the way. We decided since we’re not touring as much, why not start this thing that keeps us in touch with our fans. Especially because we’re basically removing ourselves from society and moving to the far reaches of Massachusetts.
Carla: I too have played in a lot of different projects with a lot of different people and had a pretty super-fun and very hydra-headed, multifaceted musical life including Tin Hat, The Book of Knots, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and with our friend and compatriot and hero Fred Frith — various recordings and projects of his. Lots of classical music and contemporary classical music. We’re kind of musical omnivores in that way.
I used to tour ten months out of the year with various projects. That clearly is not the best way to raise a kid, unless you’re a millionaire and can bring your school and your nanny along with you. So that’s in part why we’ve done Rabbit Rabbit Radio. It’s been super-fun and challenging, and we totally made it up as we went along. We kind of pieced together our livelihood via various things. Rabbit Rabbit Radio at this point is a tiny fraction of our actual living. Basically, it makes enough money to pay for itself. Which is great — we wanted to get there in the first year and we did. I also teach at New England Conservatory part-time, and I do a lot of commissions. Matthias writes a lot of music for various things.
M: We do radio documentaries, I do video game music. We definitely make it up. Our goal is that Rabbit Rabbit Radio should be a bigger part of the monthly income stream. It’ll never be passive income given how many man- and woman-hours go into it every month. We have to generate the content freshly every month. We’re just chugging away. There’s a steady but slow climb up. Certainly the Times article, this summer’s tour and the publicity surrounding that really helped get the word out.
You’re clearly doing everything you can to make money from music, and that means doing a lot of different things. Musicians often have this attitude of “if I make great music, I’ll get signed and that will be that”, which is definitely not the case. What advice would you give musicians who want to follow your model?
M: In the Times article, there’s that quote from John Schaefer of WNYC where he said, “If Radiohead did this, it’d be huge. They’re already millionaires, they’d be gajillionaires.” We had the benefit of touring a bunch in a total grassroots style, earning one fan at a time.
C: We had an interview yesterday with someone who had read the Times article, I think she works for YouTube. The reason she wanted to interview us is because they want to do something similar, and kind of steal the idea. (laughs) It’s an idea worth stealing and we’re not protective of it, because it’s an idea a lot of people have been thinking about. We just decided to pool our resources and really make it happen, build it from the ground up. It is complicated and hard.
I think there’s a few things that made it work for us. One is that we signed on two team members, one of whom I’d already been working with: composer and arts administrator George Hurd. He helped us do all the research for the behind-the-scenes stuff that no one ever sees, like the companies that take the payment information. There’s all kinds of things like that which you’re never aware of as a subscriber. His partner is a wonderful graphic designer who we’ve already worked with a lot. She designed the site. So basically, the team is the four of us.
We have a few other things working in our favor. We crafted it to suit our very specific set of interests, and not every musician’s interests would be the same as ours. For example, I’ve always loved the written word, photography and visual art. I totally dove into learning how to do video editing. I really love that part of the site that’s not just the music. Not all musicians want to spend all that time on the stuff that’s not music. I really enjoy that part of it — putting music into a bigger context.
We’ve been touring collectively for some decades already, in very self-made, grassroots operations. [The YouTube interviewer] was asking questions like, “How do you get fans?”
M: There’s no “get fans” button. (laughs)
C: There’s no Facebook button that says, “Get totally devoted fan here.” You get fans by touring 20 years in various high-level, really committed, interesting, engaging projects and devoting your life to that — stepping off stage, talking to people afterwards, interacting with people at the merch booth… years and years and years of a whole life around being committed to creative music. Our fans are not the people who just care about the Billboard charts are saying. They care about deeper content and richer musical experiences.
M: It works for someone who has done this. If you’ve had a band that’s done well, like a reasonably successful indie rock band that has some fans, it can work. If this model came out as a more codified platform, a lot of bands would get lost in the fray. You need to be out there playing and meeting your fans for it to work.
C: The important thing about it has been the whole idea of context. Music has always lived in a context, in a community, with a community of players and a community of fans and listeners. We moved out of a really rich, really varied music community (New York City) to a place fairly far removed. And digital music, for the most part, people find the track they want and download the track. It has no context at all the way that LPs did, for example, where you’d have liner notes, photographs, imagery that went with the songs, lyrics… various things that gave you more of an idea of what the whole project was about. Our intention is to bring context back in a digital format — to bring an analog context to a digital format.
M: Our personalities are suited to a more magazine-style release every month because Carla’s a great photographer, because we like writing, because there are things other than the song. I think you have to have had some exposure out on the road touring. You also need an interest in other things that will buoy up the content of your song every month to make it interesting.
C: I don’t think having all these different facets is a prerequisite for making it work, I just think it suits what our interest is and what we enjoy.
M: But because of that, I think it makes it an interesting thing that could grow to accommodate more people — because there are five subheadings within the monthly issue. It feels like a template for someone else, it could really work as opposed to a single WordPress page with a little embedded play button and a single sentence.
One thing that stands out about your approach is that you’re thinking about your music like entrepreneurs. I think that’s really lacking in musician culture. Many musicians think, “I’ll focus on my songwriting, my performance, my recording” but they can’t make a music career happen because they’re not running their band like a small business.
C: Yeah, the world has really shifted in terms of what skill set you need to be not just a musician, but an actual, viable musician. This is for better and for worse. Nowadays you have to have some sense of what goes into graphic design, you have to understand how fundraising works. You have to understand how PR works and how to gather and keep your fans and your people resources. You have to be a travel agent.
And it means you have less time for music, it really does. I wish I could say it didn’t. I wish I could say that I can actually muster some hours every day to simply work on some music. It’s not true. A huge amount of the time I spend on music is spent on the business of music.
Everyone started complaining twelve years ago, bemoaning that the record industry is dying. The fact is most parts of the record industry didn’t serve the independent musician that well anyway. I have a lot of stories under my belt of little bands like Tin Hat that get picked up by the big label — “Woohoo! Success on the horizon!” And then the guy who brought us onto the label, who’s passionate about our music, who worked for that big label for 25 years gets canned at Christmas because his label got bought by Warner Bros. So when the record comes out, no one’s there to care.
It’s kind of a fallacy that now we’re in the end of times because the record industry’s dying. It’s like now, what are we gonna do about it? At some point, it was just more fun to think like an entrepreneur, instead of just complaining that it was all dying and going to hell.
Do you think you can grow Rabbit Rabbit Radio to the point where you can bring other people in to manage the business aspects, freeing you up to dedicate more time to making music?
C: I hope so. I have to say, I love doing the film every month, even if some months it comes together totally last-minute. We created our own little gerbil wheel, and I’d love to get to the point where we’re a month ahead, which isn’t quite where we’re at now. For sure, we could use another team member.
M: It’s been a rough few months. We’ve made our deadline, but it’s been a scramble. We just had a really busy summer of touring, and writing other music for other things. We’ve done it, but it would be helpful to have another pair of brains.
C: There’s a lot that needs to be done. George Hurd, our co-manager of the site, wears fifteen different hats for what he does in Rabbit Rabbit Radio. We pay him a nominal monthly fee plus a percentage, so he has a vested interest in helping it grow. I have to give credit that we haven’t given yet to our unofficial fifth member, and that is a friend of ours named Jon Evans. He has a studio that we work in a lot here on Cape Cod. He’s got a beautiful studio. He’s a musician, producer and engineer. We do a lot of our recording with him. Every once and a while we also work with our friend Joel Hamilton from The Book of Knots, who runs Studio G in Brooklyn. He’s further afield, so sometimes we send him mixes and he mixes them. But we actually do a lot of very hands-on recording work. That’s why the quality of the recordings is so high. Sometimes we do stuff at home in our living room, but often we get to work with Jon and that’s been a huge help. it’s really helped us keep the baseline quality of the recordings really special, so it doesn’t seem like we’re just throwing something together every month on our little SM-58 in the living room. But I love doing that too.
How do you plan on growing the fan base? How do you plan on marketing Rabbit Rabbit Radio?
C: All sorts of ways. It’s good old-fashioned touring every now and again. It’s reaching out when you have a show in a specific city to the two or twenty people that you know would love to know about it and will tell their friends. It’s keeping occasional photos and posts on Twitter and whatnot. It’s inviting special guests to be a part of the issue on some months and then asking them to spread it to their fans. We are literally trying every possible way.
If we had another team member, we could probably be a whole lot more cohesive on how we approach that. That’s what another team member would be partly responsible for, helping us strategize that. Right now we’re so close to it, and so up close with our own deadlines, it’s hard for us to think further ahead than month-to-month.
Musicians are constantly debating whether the changes in music brought about by digital technology are good or bad. It seems very polarized. On the negative side, people complain that quality is suffering, that freer access to music exploits musicians. On the positive side, folks point out there is more music being made and heard than ever before, and more opportunities for independent musicians to make money without being exploited. What are your thoughts on the digital music debate?
M: I think it’s great that more people are making music. I think it’s great that people are getting a shot. There’s always going to be crappy music. I feel like everyone deserves a shot. We’ve lived on both sides of the issue. I think this is a far more rewarding way to own your output completely.
C: I think in terms of quality there’s always been great music and shitty music. There’s been a lot of high-budget shitty music, and there’s been a lot of really wonderful low-budget living room music. So I don’t really see that the financial continuum always reflects the quality continuum. I think it can. I just finished a recording session in New York for four days with Ben Goldberg from Tin Hat, and he pulled together a budget to record at one of the great studios. It would have been a sacrifice for that project if we had to do it in a living room. It’s a nine-person band. So there are some projects that really do need a support budget behind it.
The project that Rabbit Rabbit Radio is based around is just the two of us, and sometimes our friend Jon — so it’s very malleable. We can do recordings with just the two of us in the living room if we need to. We can also go work with Jon or work with Joel and augment it, make the recording production bigger. Either way, we are in charge of our own production quality control. And either way, we would do everything we can to make it as great a musical experience as possible.
How has the transition to family life affected your music career?
C: That transition forces all kinds of new ways of thinking. (laughs) The funny thing is, I don’t like touring on that incessant level the way I used to. I used to really like it. There’s something hormonal that changes in you where what’s not good for your kid isn’t good for you anymore.
That said, we know people like Nils from Sleepytime and his partner Dawn have a duo together called Faun Fables. They have two kids and a third on the way. They’re touring as much as they ever did. They load into a van with a “manny” and they just hit the road. They’re making it work. And I think the kids are enjoying it and getting a different kind of worldly education. Our daughter had been to Europe five times before she was two. She’s a relatively well-traveled kid, and that has also been a part of her growing up, in a cool way. I think every family has to find where that line is for them, and for us it was a little closer to the less touring side.
M: We’ve started to get selective. There are certain projects that can go out for a third of the time now, and make three times as much money. It used to be Sleepytime had to go out for six weeks. We’d start breaking even at four weeks. The last two weeks were the profit. Because of how many people were in the band, we had to go out for these long periods. That’s exhausting. We’ve gotten a little smarter in that regard. We’ve worked long enough that certain bands can go out for less time and still make the same or more money.
C: I always wrote music at the service of touring — writing it and going to rehearsal because our band’s going on the road. I’d always been in the service of that model. Now, I’m really enjoying a deeper, more involved identity as a composer that needs more home time and needs a little more solitude. It’s also that I’m ready for that now because I’m not just answering to me, I’m answering to the family and our daughter.
I always go on tour with three books and a whole bunch of manuscript paper, and my headphones, and my this and my that, with five projects I’m hoping to get done. I never touch any of it. Especially not now when we’re sensitive to the fact that our daughter really doesn’t like it when we disappear every night to go out on stage for a while. So during the day I try to give her as much as I can, so there’s no day time. When the day is done and you’re off stage, you’re too wiped out. I always go with my total unrealistic optimism and it never pans out, so I’m actually enjoying the kind of productivity we’ve been able to have at home. The whole gerbil wheel has been great because it keeps us in line creatively.
Why do we insist on basing our music culture around exploiting musicians? Why do we focus on music’s role as entertainment while greatly ignoring the development of its far greater powers of social bonding, therapy, motivation, inspiration and personal development?
Why do we as individuals continue to embrace ideals that concentrate wealth among the already wealthy? Why do we put ourselves in entertainment comas instead of contributing to the betterment of ourselves and society?
Is it because there is no alternative? Hardly.
Is it because we are intrinsically bad people who make bad decisions? I don’t think so.
Is it because the man is keeping us down? I mean, he is, but we the people have always had the power to stick it to him.
Is it because of political, economic, social and technological pressures? Sure, but there’s a force even greater, the very thing that gives rise to these pressures.
The neuroscience of free will is a fascinating subject. Scientists and philosophers have been studying it for ages, but in the last few decades we’ve made huge strides in understanding the brain with advanced technology.
The field is highly controversial, mainly because the findings suggest, at least in many cases, that free will may largely be an illusion. Our brains really are just neurochemical bags firing in response to stimuli, and we only become conscious of our actions after our brains unconsciously produce them. In other words, the “I” in us is more of a passenger than a driver.
On the one hand, our brains are fantastic machines capable of incredible feats. Our grey matter is the product of millions of years of evolution and the very organ that puts us at the top of the food chain. As the seat of the soul, brains are the source of all human greatness.
But our brains are also the source of all human fallibility. There is an ugly side.
The neuroscience behind the famous case of the Seekers is a perfect illustration of this ugliness. In the 50s, the Seekers cult formed around the belief that the apocalypse was coming soon but aliens would save the true believers. When the apocalypse date came and went, and no one was tractor-beamed into flying saucers, you might have expected the cult to lose its steam. Instead, followers became even more dedicated to their beliefs. They invented a reason why the apocalypse didn’t happen and doubled down on their beliefs.
The theory behind the story is motivated reasoning. To oversimplify, the idea is that our brains react emotionally and subconsciously before a stimulus enters our consciousness. Input is filtered through previously held beliefs before it is processed. What we think of as reasoning is actually rationalizing. It explains cognitive dissonance and why two opposing sides of an issue can go centuries or even millennia without reconciliation.
Now let’s contrast all of the brain’s intrinsic fallibility with its counterpart: its ability to create beauty. Nowhere is this more present than in the humanities. In art, music, philosophy and the like, the flawed brain suddenly transforms into a vessel of great beauty. Somehow, the humanities pierce the veil of self-deceit which cloaks the brain, and penetrates what feels like the very essence of our being (a pleasant neurochemical reaction).
Our brains aren’t all bad.
Music in particular rises above the rest of the humanities as the most direct conduit to beauty in the brain. Scientists have found that music stimulates more areas of the brain than any other human function. Let that sink in for a second. Nothing else in your life is greater than the power of music to engage multiple areas of your brain, whether you love music or not.
Think about what music has become: a multibillion-dollar industry of vapid pop music that merely serves to tickle our brains. We’ve handed over 75% of the thing that engages the most of our brains to four record labels concerned not with advancing the human condition, but profiting so they can buy another yacht. But I digress.
As the science behind the beauty of music piles up, we must use our somewhat flawed brains to ask ourselves, does the music industry make sense? Does our market for music encourage us to become smarter, happier, healthier, more productive, focused and creative? Or does it subvert these goals, and use the same neurochemical pathways to keep us in an entertained trance that does little for our personal and social development? If the purpose of making music is to tap into the beauty of our brains, why do we allow money to dictate what people hear? Why do we regard music as a product to entertain us and not a service to enrich us?
To evolve or be entertained — is that the question?
Hang out for a few minutes and I’ll tell you why Grooveshark may be more ethical than Spotify.
Brief History Lesson
By suing Napster and its kin out of existence, the music industry elite created a “soft landing” for its multi-billion dollar business of selling access to recorded music. They couldn’t kill so-called music “piracy” (also known as song sharing), so they killed the nascent technology companies that tried to build a business around it.
To what extent have musicians benefitted from this business model? Until access to music became free, it was our primary revenue stream. But too often we got such a small piece of the overall pie. The record business was never particularly ethical, with its exploitative contracts, shady accounting and history of corruption.
Free access to music wiped these ethical dilemmas off the table with one click of a mouse, giving us a new debate over the question of whether music should be free to access and share.
Notice I didn’t say “free music”. Music isn’t free to produce or market, though costs have dropped considerably any way you spin it.
At the time of Napster, music suddenly was free to access with an Internet plan and a computer. It took the industry hundreds of millions of legal and lobbying dollars to finally stop the bleeding. In 2013, the slow death of physical media has been largely offset by the rapid growth of digital after a precipitous $3B drop.
The corporate music industry would be quick to tell you that suing innovative digital music companies and individual file sharers was all about protecting musicians’ revenue, that they saved our bottom lines. This is the same industry that coerced us to sign exploitative contracts, that price gouged and price fixed consumers, that bought off radio to play the same songs on repeat.
But musicians are starting to wise up as they see the bottom line on their streaming revenue reports. To be fair, Spotify (and iTunes) pay roughly 70% of its revenue to artists (more accurately, “rights holders”, which are primarily the labels who exploit the artists’ copyrights). A lot of the negative reaction can be chalked up to failures in long-term vision — as the decibel point moves right in our royalties, the multiplier grows exponentially. But the current streaming royalty system clearly favors the big four major labels over the short and long term, because it is harder for independent, unsigned and emerging musicians to compete with their massive back catalog of perennially popular music and marketing budget to match.
Some musicians are coming around to bridging the art/business divide and becoming entrepreneurs themselves. They’re sick of having to rely on someone else exploiting their rights for increasingly less money. The Internet allows direct fan patronage in the form of crowdfunding, tipping, or selling both virtual and physical products from one’s own website. Home studio production is getting cheaper and better. Licensees are hungrier than ever for the latest music. Marketing is as easy as creativity > strategy > click. These aren’t empty catch phrases like “downloading music for free is stealing” and “piracy is bad”, these are realities clear to any musician working in the field today.
Yes, there will always be artists who dare not sully their art with business concerns, but they are an increasingly lonely breed. The new musician adapts to the meager streaming royalty stream not by petitioning for higher royalty rates from Pandora, but by embracing business models with far more promise than selling access to recorded music. If only the record business elite would step off. But there’s billions at stake and they like their yachts. Who can blame them? They’re the last generation of the American Dream and they don’t want to wake up.
Really? What about “a digital world that rewards the gatekeepers between artists and creators”. That’s really what the IFPI is concerned about. It doesn’t represent the interests of musicians, it safeguards the commercial exploiters of musicians’ recorded music copyrights. Let’s tell it like it is — the money trickles down through the cracks in their multi-billion dollar pavement. The markup on music remains artificially high to justify the expense of major label production and marketing. They also need to even out the variance from gambling on bands like derivatives traders.
What’s concerning is to see musicians jumping on the IFPI’s bandwagon, supporting the suing of technology companies, demonizing their own fans for sharing music. I mean, what do these musicians think is going happen? Are we going to all of the sudden roll the music industry back to 1996 when a CD cost $14.95 and you were forced to buy 9 crappy songs for every hit single?
“Of course not,” these skeptics will tell you. They love new technology, it just has to be applied fairly to musicians. Technology companies, they say, are even worse than the exploitative record labels, because they want to use your music for their own gain and pay you nothing!
It’s not even remotely that simple. Of course, there are plenty of digital music companies exploiting musicians’ copyrights. But it’s precisely because we’re still working within the model of copyright exploitation established by the labels.
Grooveshark is an exploiter. Spotify is an exploiter. And on the face of it, Grooveshark would appear to be screwing artists far worse than Spotify. Google has decided to blacklist them from certain search functions under pressure from the IFPI and its minions to fight so-called “piracy”. But Grooveshark has only been convicted in the industry, not in the court. They’ve literally been blacklisted from the industry for daring to question the status quo of corporate-hijacked music law and technology.
Corporate Hijacking of Music Law and Technology
The majors and some indies have refused to license their music to Grooveshark. As a result, the majors are trying to sue Grooveshark to death just like Napster or all of the other -ster’s they shut down with copyright infringement lawsuits. We know how well that worked — unauthorized song sharing only grew more popular. The industry’s well-documented and cyclical fight on piracy is the same kind of endless war the US is engaged in overseas. The industry has been fighting it for 100+ years and the only true goal has been to co-opt the developments of independent innovators rather than truly eliminate piracy, which is quixotic. (See the book Pop Song Piracy.)
Spotify and its ilk only use officially licensed music. But what happens when the legal system is broken? Copyright is supposed to protect our right to profit from our labor and to express one’s personhood. It’s also supposed to promote social and cultural welfare, and benefit the greater good by making creative works accessible to the widest possible audience. The cost for access is supposed to be high enough to incentivize creators to keep creating, while low enough to prevent a large deadweight loss, depriving the least amount of citizens from access to the work. These are the moral and economic foundations of copyright, and they’ve been hijacked — just like the political process, the food supply and our media — by large corporations.
In 2011, the four major labels controlled 88% of the market share for recorded music. That’s enough to make the Monopoly Man jealous. These labels own the rights to the vast majority of the music we listen to, and use their enormous legal and lobbying resources to keep it that way. It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s standard American capitalism, and the American way of music business is increasingly the way of the world.
Don’t Bring Back the $14.95 CD, Bring Back Napster
People rallied around Napster for two reasons. One was that it made it possible to access all of society’s recorded music for free. The second was that many music consumers knew they themselves were being exploited by major labels almost as much as musicians were. They witnessed a history of major music industry settlements for price fixing, price gouging and payola. They heard the stories of great musicians suffering because a label coerced them into an onerous contract. They paid $14.95 for one good song.
The music industry was incapable of embracing a world where all of society’s recorded music was available for free, even if that’s clearly what consumers wanted. (Most people at this point will say, “of course that’s what people wanted, people want everything to be free” to which I reply, “Yes they do.”)
As a quick aside, I believe music is closer to a necessity than a want — closer to food, affection, sex, shelter, etc. than a new TV or a Snickers bar. As a society we should endeavor to provide free and fair access to music — a Right to Music — on a humanitarian level. (Follow the link for more.)
Free access to music is good for musicians for one simple reason: An opportunity to be heard is an opportunity to be paid. Anyway, the best musicians make music in order to be heard first, paid second. The motivating factor of copyright and the potential of being the 1 in 10,000 musicians that become a rock star have been greatly exaggerated. If copyright law evaporated tomorrow we’d still be making music. That the music industry lost half its value and we have more artists creating more music than ever before is testament to this fact.
Grooveshark vs. Spotify
This all relates to the Grooveshark vs. Spotify ethics question, because Grooveshark is pretty much the only company of its size that believes access to music should be free (or nearly so.)
Spotify, and the dozens of other streaming services (many of them restricted to certain geographical regions because of licensing rights restrictions) believe that the way to save musicians is to increase payments to the labels that exploit them.
Let’s contrast two opinions, the first from IFPI chairman Domingo:
“…policymakers better understand that the internet does not make music “free”.”
Here we have a straight-up threat by the IFPI to stop funding politicians’ re-election campaigns if they don’t pass legislation protecting major labels’ ability to exploit musicians’ rights for maximum profitability. Spotify et. al. would agree with this statement. As we’ve observed, just because the Internet provides free or near-free access to music, that doesn’t make the production and marketing costs of music zero (though costs have inarguably dropped significantly).
Storm the Gates
It seems we are left with two solutions. The one proposed by the IFPI is to protect the gatekeepers by charging a monthly subscription fee for access to music.
I have no problem with this business model, nor do I think should musicians.
I had no problem with it back in 2000 when Napster brought us the technology and proposed the exact same business model. But too many salaries built from exploiting musicians were on the line, and they were sued out of existence. It wasn’t done for the musicians. It was for the executives, the lawyers, the lobbyists and the other business associates at the multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations. Any musician who thinks these companies have their best interests in mind are deluded. It’s not entirely black and white — I’m sure there are plenty of employees who do good and mean well. But even the legends that deserve our respect, like David Geffen, eventually had their ethics compromised by commercial forces. A cursory glance at music industry history clearly demonstrates why gatekeepers between the artist and fan are a really, really bad idea from an ethics standpoint.
Musicians had no choice but to put up with it to get paid. This is no longer true.
Let’s contrast Domingo’s threat with Grooveshark SVP Paul Geller’s vision on where the music industry out to be headed:
“…I think that we have to be creative about how to get more money into this ecosystem, because I don’t think anyone sees those numbers [streaming payments] and is really inspired by them, I think people look at them and say ‘well this is a soft landing for the music industry,’ it’s ‘hopefully we don’t have to lay off too many people.’ And that’s why I think that Grooveshark is out there trying to be creative about how to infuse the industry with more money in ways that I don’t think are commonplace right now.” (from Digital Music News)
Grooveshark’s technology and innovation was neck and neck with all the other streaming music sites a few years ago, prior to having to dedicate an enormous chunk of their time and revenue to fighting legal battles with the majors. They recently rolled out some nice new features to compete with the Spotifies, but it’s clear they are living in a legal and fiscal nightmare. Their CEO Sam Tarantino admitted as much while doing an interview for Grooveshark’s new Broadcast feature. I can only surmise by statements like the one above that the people at Grooveshark truly believe they are fighting the good fight. And why shouldn’t they?
Grooveshark does pay artists, it’s just that they haven’t reached a licensing deal with the majors because as of yet they’re unwilling to bend over far enough. To Grooveshark, the majors are just trying to extort them and screw musicians anyway.
If you’re an independent artist or label, you can register your music with Grooveshark and they will pay you a share of their advertising and subscription revenue. These payments may be even smaller than what Spotify can offer, but Grooveshark is also much smaller, and draining their pockets just fighting to exist. Legally, they are in the right, because the DMCA allows for a safe harbor to exist for copyright-infringing, user-generated content, provided the company removes this content upon request and the platform has other significant uses beyond so-called “piracy” (really just unauthorized sharing of songs… does that sound so bad?)
Nobody knows right now if Grooveshark will give out and sign away their seemingly sinking ship to the majors, or if they’ll keep fighting the good fight until the courts deliver a predictably narrow, safe harbor-eroding decision. Law was never good at keeping pace with technology.
Toward a Two-Way Music Industry
The majors would like to continue collecting 88% of the market share for recorded music (and then pay a fraction of it to musicians because they signed exploitative contracts at low points in their career). How does consolidating wealth in media gatekeepers accomplish the IFPI’s mission of achieving “A digital world that rewards artists and creators”?
This fits into the larger context of corporations and governments trying to kill Internet freedom. Ask yourself, “Why wasn’t radio two-way? Why couldn’t the listeners also be the broadcasters? What about television?” At a glance this seems to be a technology and cost issue, but it’s not that simple. There are powerful commercial forces that ensure these technologies are developed in a way that maximizes profit for corporations, creators and consumers be damned. That’s why we have a long history of gatekeepers in all creative industries, not just in music.
The Internet changed all that with one simple feature — the consumer is now also the broadcaster. Large corporations have spent the last 15 years trying to litigate and legislate their way back to one-way media. Discouragingly, they continue to make gains every day.
This is why I believe Grooveshark may be the more ethical approach on balance. Spotify may talk a good game on paying artists. They may be expanding the pie we take our little piece of. And we can’t rush to conclusions that just because a single stream payment looks small today doesn’t mean it will add up in the long haul. Ultimately, any discussion of musician’s revenue share is taking place within the context of what their revenue share will be after the technology company takes their 30%, and then the label takes its majority share. Spotify and the IFPI are really only innovators in repressive legal maneuvers and artist exploitation. They’re profiting from a 15-year-old idea Napster first realized.
How can I say Spotify and the IFPI are exploiting artists when they’re trying to collect more money for them? Because it perpetuates the old model of exploitation on new technology. It’s repeating the same cycle of co-option that happened with the phonograph, with radio, with cassettes and with CDs. It’s a smokescreen to prevent you from thinking like an entrepreneur, from adapting to free access to music, from finding new opportunities to profit without the gatekeepers and stealing their market share. They desperately want to continue the same systematic exploitation and price-fixing that the record industry has been guilty of for the last 100+ years.
Grooveshark is more ethical because it rejects this corruption. They aren’t saints. They’re certainly pariahs. They haven’t figured out how to improve upon tiny streaming music payments, but they’re trying so hard they’re sacrificing their personal lives, their livelihoods, their reputations and quite possibly their sanity.
The vast majority of musicians will see no significant increase in revenue until the major labels lose their market monopoly, and their revenue share drops considerably. In this sense, Grooveshark is using loopholes in the DMCA to kick the IFPI in the nuts — pretty much its only defense against the obscene legal might of the industry elite.
As a musician, do you really think the IFPI or Spotify (if they can stay in business) are going to solve your revenue problem? Of course not. They’re looking out for #1: the record industry elite.
The solution for musicians is to start looking out for #1 too. That means building a culture of entrepreneurship. That means direct patronage from fans via crowdfunding and tipping. That means cutting out the gatekeeper and giving fans exclusive access to products that are still scarce. Selling access to music is no longer viable, and only by corrupting copyright do corporations make it so. The ethical foundation of copyright is sound, but it has been corrupted.
The greatest lie told by the IFPI is not that their mission is driven by musicians (they have musicians in mind, maybe, but certainly not a priority). The greatest lie told is that they are somehow going to bring musicians back to a world where they were fairly paid for their labor, where they are free to express their personhood without exploitation, where society can access and share music freely, and where more music of higher quality and greater diversity is listened to with greater frequency.
That world never existed. But it can today, with free access to music as the great equalizer.
The only way to fairly solve the musician revenue problem is for musicians to reject the century-old system of exploitation and fight to keep the Internet free so we can build a new culture and economy of direct fan patronage and musician entrepreneurship.
Here’s a brief reprieve from all the editorializing: two recently discovered videos that changed the way I thought about music.
The first is not a single video but a Harvard lecture series by classical music icon Leonard Bernstein entitled “The Unanswered Question” from 1973. It is without a doubt the best 40+ year old video on music I have ever seen. Yes, I did watch all 11+ hours, even the protracted orchestral studies. I left with an understanding of music history and music theory that had finally crystallized in Bernstein’s lucid prose and performances. It’s a truly incredible series I encourage anyone with a love of music to get hooked on the first lecture:
If you don’t have time to explore the ramifications of Chomsky’s semantics on the origin of music and how it traces to the contemporary crisis of tonality — or if you have 30 minutes rather than 11 hours to spare — you need to see Vi Hart’s video:
Her “Twelve Tones” video recent went viral, reaching almost a million views at the time of this writing. Thirty minutes never went by so fast with your brain absorbing so much knowledge. It’s enough to make you wish Hart would team up with Salman Khan to start an online school of music. She even works some awesome tragicomic copyright jokes into her lesson!
“We are the music while the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot
In modern-day song sharing — what we think of as “music” — there are three participants: musicians, listeners and industry.
When music first originated, there was little if any separation between musician and listener. Certainly, there was no business of music upon which to build an industry. In prehistoric times, music was part of a holistic method of communication bundled with body movements and primitive utterances, which would respectively evolve to become body language and language proper.
Over time, however, the role of the music creator — once a role shared by all — became specialized. The musician was separated and exalted above the listening audience. And over the last few centuries, this relationship between artist and audience was rapidly commercialized, giving birth to the music industry.
Song sharing is not just passing an MP3 across the Internet, though free access to digital music is unquestionably the latest major turning point in the history of song sharing.
Song sharing is any act that brings music into being. Composing, performing and recording are the ways musicians share songs. Listeners can distribute copies — such as MP3s shared online — but unless these copies were listened to, no song sharing really took place. The listener shares songs by playing them for other people, or getting others to listen. In a world where musical quality is judged in dollars and not sense, the listener’s role in music’s dissemination is grossly overlooked, though that is changing quickly.
For the last couple of centuries, the music industry has produced, distributed and marketed songs to be sold. They owe their existence to song sharing by musicians and listeners. As such, they have been cast in a gatekeeper role, mediating the relationship between musician and listener.
For the vast majority of music history, song sharing happened freely and naturally between musicians and listeners. The act of making and listening to music is hardwired into our brains, involving more cognition in a greater number of areas than any other activity. Music evolved over millennia without any mediation of industry, becoming the creative center around which cultures formed. Song sharing was, for most of its history, was the glue that bonded individuals together through shared expression, literally forming societies.
Four turning points in the history of song sharing forever transformed its nature. Not coincidentally, each turning point marked a major milestone in the formation of the music industry.
Each of these turning points centered (naturally) around one of the three ways musicians share songs with listeners.
Composition is the DNA of song — instructions for its formation. Performance brings song to life, the performance was the act of song sharing until the recording was invented a little over a century ago — a blip in the epic history of music. Before then, composition and performance were essentially inseparable. Music was an oral tradition, and songs were passed down in this tribal, cave-person folk tradition: sacred copies that nonetheless changed ever so slightly as they were reproduced throughout the ages, mimicking the process of human evolution. The music was not made by musicians but rather by cultures, and as such, there were no composers or performers, only traditions of sharing songs.
The role of musician became more specialized as the technology of music evolved. The voice is an instrument we all possess, and there are many things in nature, including our own bodies, which serve as readymade percussion instruments. The sounds of nature and the movements of our own bodies inspired and possessed us to create the first music. But as instruments became more sophisticated, the role of musician began to be more distinguishable against the listening audience. This was the origin of the composition and the performance as separate from a cultural tradition. The role of song sharing in the civilizations of antiquity was a sacred, spiritual one, and seen as the domain of the gods themselves.
The first major turning point in the history of song sharing has to do with Pythagoras’s discovery of the mathematics of music. Though his teachings were to be lost or ignored for many centuries, the revelations of Pythagoras eventually enabled music theory to develop, ushering in a new wave of musical technology to honor what early civilizations saw as the divine music of the cosmos.
Over the second millennia, we developed new instruments, new methods of composition and performance, new ways of notating and communicating musical ideas. These advances led to the final distinction of musician as separate from listener, and of composition as separate from performance. Thus song sharing came to be defined as a discrete activity, exchange and relationship between musician and audience.
The Romantic period ushers in the second major turning point in the history of song sharing, this one having to do with performance. In the hegemonic Western world, performance morphed from folk tradition to the work of art of an individual genius. This had a profound impact on song sharing, bringing about the classical period of composition. It removed music from the domain of the gods and placed it squarely in the hands of humans. This transition began with financial support of the arts by aristocrats but ended with the audience as patron. This fundamental transformation for the first time created a thriving market for music performance, and this capital infusion drove the evolution of music technology and theory to even greater heights.
With composition and performance clearly defined and ascendant in profitability, the third and perhaps most transformational turning point in the history of song sharing is the invention of recorded music. At the turn of the 20th century, the phonograph quickly ushered in an exponential increase in the market for compositions. At the same time, performance began to take on a completely different role, being more of a means to the end of recording or marketing recordings than valued for the music itself. New broadcast technologies and recording/playback electronics fanned the flames.In what had now become a familiar cycle, music technology and industry advanced hand-in-hand on exponential scales, forever altering the culture of music and the roles of musician and listener. How quickly we forgot that prior to recordings, performance was the only way to hear music.
Toward the end of the 20th century, an imbalance in the relationship between musician, listener and industry started becoming apparent. As the market for music grew, the music laws and technologies governing the market for music were increasingly co-opted by large corporations, causing a net negative effect on culture. Both as a counter-reaction to this corporate hegemony/homogeny — and as a consequence of complacency and nearsightedness of the the record industry elite — song sharing technologies were re-appropriated by listeners en masse as they sought an equilibrium between culture and commerce. The industry responded by doubling down on restrictive laws and technologies of control, casting its customers as thieves, which brings us to something of a modern-day impasse in the evolution of song sharing.
The history of song sharing can put into in perspective some very important questions about the origin, meaning and purpose of music. These vital issues are all too ignored in our modern-day appraisal of music as entertainment product, of musician as celebrity, of profit as purpose. This perception is itself a product of the music industry, and as the market for music came to dominate our culture, we lost sight of the true meaning, power and purpose of music.
The true purpose of music is to bond humans together in shared emotional, physical and spiritual experience. As such, music has the power to make us better people, improve our relationships, and make our society better. It has the power to help us connect with and heal our bodies. It empowers us through creativity and enriches us through a deep understanding of the human condition.
All these powers of music that we lost sight of are returning, thanks to the fourth turning point in the history of song sharing — free access to music. This is not the death of the music industry, but rather a long overdue re-balancing of the relationship between musician, listener and industry. Though the industry fights this change with all its legal and financial might, the ancient power of song sharing between musician and listener, amplified by digital technology, is too great to suppress any longer.
Today, listeners are the new patrons of music — neither mass audiences via industry gatekeepers nor aristocrats have the power alone to sustain modern music culture. The separation between musician and listener is disappearing as technology democratizes composition, performance and recording. Music’s fans become DJs, remixers and mashup artists — musicians in their own right. The gatekeepers are a disappearing vestigial tail that had largely evolved simply to grab hold of money — the deep-seated and long-evolved power of song sharing transcends the market to speak to the soul. We are rediscovering music’s incredible power to heal and to change ourselves and society for the better, rather than pigeonholing the most divine human expression to mere sonic product.
As an epilogue, a fifth and final turning point in song sharing is on the horizon, again driven by the exponential progress of technology. In many ways this turning point marks a return to the original, prehistoric role of music as a central component in a holistic expression which allowed us to survive in a challenging landscape, joining us together in the tribes that would become the first societies. The lines are blurring between musician, listener and industry; between composition, performance and recording; between culture and commerce; between technology and law.
Our modern-day music universe sets the tone for this final and total technological transformation of music that will take song sharing beyond the audible and directly into the brain. The cutting edge of neuroscience and music theory points the way to a culture is based on computation. Perhaps then we will return to the reality of music as the sacred essence of all things, the song that we play by living. Life is a song we are sharing, and song sharing is the way in which we harmonize with ourselves, with others, and with the Universe at large.
I’ve been a huge Douglas Rushkoff fan ever since he predicted the future of viral media in his influential 1995 book Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture.
I was just a teenager then, trying to figure out whether I was Gen X, Gen Y, or whether it even mattered. As I grew up reading his books, Rushkoff was one of the few voices telling me not only did we matter, but we were going to change the world.
I just finished reading his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Rushkoff is no longer talking as much about the future. This is probably because, as his book explains, the future is disappearing. In a society of always-on, interconnected devices, a market of infinite choice, and an economy that commodifies attention, regard for the future is being replaced by an obsession with the present.
Present Shock’s five beefy but breezy chapters are easy to summarize. Rushkoff makes his case by illustrating the collapse of the traditional narrative, the temporal schizophrenia of digital omnipresence, the “short forever” of today’s compressed timescales and the need to differentiate patterns to make sense of information. The book closes with a short chapter on America’s cultural obsession with zombies and the apocalypse (close to my heart as the leader of an apocalyptic rock band).
Rushkoff doesn’t so much change the way you see things as help you make sense of an increasingly interconnected world of complex relationships and “big data.” It’s an illuminating, lively read, if you have the attention to spare, of course. It’s not just a book that will hone your perception of the impact modern media and technology are having on our culture and society — it also serves as reminder of the value in occasionally escaping this Present Shock to enter long moments of focus and concentration. In the “meta” sense, reading this book is a perfect example of such a fruitful escape.
OK, that’s the Amazon review — so what does Present Shock have to say about how music is changing?
I could offer a lengthy narrative of my own, but I know you don’t have the time or attention for that. So allow me to comment on a few quotes from the book — those that resonated with my own experience analyzing music media and technology trends, a practice which continues to be inspired by Rushkoff’s books:
“The word ‘entertainment’ literally means ‘to hold within,’ or to keep someone in a certain frame of mind. And at least until recently, entertainment did just this, and traditional media viewers could be depended on to sit through their programming and then accept their acne cream.”
Corporations are losing control over the market for and culture of music. Their apparatus of control for the past century has been technology and law. But now technology is evolving too fast for law to catch up. Culture is on the leading edge of this evolution. The market is struggling to remain relevant. Professional musicianship is on the decline. Through all of this change, a big picture is emerging: music is not just for entertainment (and through correlation, for profit). This is a huge realization that has yet to dawn on the defenders of the “old” music business. But it’s second nature to digital natives. The commodification of music depends on its being perceived primarily as an entertainment product. But music’s true purpose is to bond us socially in shared experience. Context is the new commodity. Attention/time is the new scarcity. Entertainment products are no longer enough. We want to make our own experience. We don’t want to be ‘held within’ someone else’s meaning. We want to create our own meaning — the semiotic democracy in action.
“The Occupy ethos concerns replacing the zero-sum, closed-ended game of financial competition with a more sustainable, open-ended game of abundance and mutual aid… It is not a game that someone wins, but rather a form of play that — like a massive multiplayer online game — is successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going.”
I’m a huge champion of the “amateurization” of music. All signs point to a world with a greater quantity of music, being played and listened to with greater frequency, with a greater diversity of styles. We may be losing a certain subjective “quality” of music as defined by big studio budgets, virtuoso performances and mass appeal. We may be losing a “depth” of listening as defined by repeat listens, compositional literacy, and attentiveness to the nuances of performance and recording. Change is going to be both bad and good, but when contrasted with the “zero-sum” game of the “old” music industry, I see a clear net benefit to our culture and market where “more people get to play.”
“When everything is rendered instantly accessible via Google and iTunes, the entirety of culture becomes a single layer deep.”
One of the biggest tensions in IP law is between third-world cultures whose ancient traditions have fallen into the public domain, and the first-world exploiters who appropriate this collective creativity from indigenous societies for profit. Both sides too often miss the point: So-called “traditional knowledge” must and will be free to appropriate for future creativity to flourish. Conversely, the profit in appropriating the work of others is rapidly shrinking as we culturally assimilate a truth we too often deny in our Western Romantic concept of authorship: the creative act is based on appropriation. This is second nature to the creators of remixes and mashups — the idea may never resonate with older generations. But believe me, when culture is “a single layer deep,” we enjoy the ultimate creative freedom, swimming in the sum total of humanity’s creativity. All existing meaning at any time can be appropriated, remixed or transformed to create new meaning. We still have to watch out for the dangers of hegemonic, corporate monoculture on the one hand, and lazy, uninspired copycat music on the other. But “Present Shock” means our attention is too fleeting to be “held within” either the traditional cultures we grew up with, or the co-opted, for-profit cultures sold to us. The cultural playing field may not be equal, but it certainly has been “leveled” by technology.
“The great peer-to-peer conversation of the medieval bazaar, which was effectively shut down by the rise of corporate communications, is back.”
The ‘cathedral’ represents a top-down, hierarchical approach while the ‘bazaar’ is a bottom-up, open-source approach. Jacques Attali’s brilliant, essential, but painfully dense Noise: The Political Economy of Music is perhaps the best exploration of the relationship between the cathedral and bazaar in the context of music. It also happens to be a central theme in the book I’m writing: what is the nature of the relationship between the ‘top-down’ architects of our musical culture/market, and the ‘bottom-up’ flow of musicianship and musical creativity/productivity?
By invoking the bazaar, Rushkoff’s sentence here immediately reminded me of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a foundational open source essay by Eric S. Raymond, published in 1999. While his essay was mostly about software engineering, he proved a core thesis that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” — in other words, the collective authorship power that digital technology provided was, at least in software engineering, a vast improvement over sole authorship of the kind encouraged by the IP industry since the inception of copyright. I believe the same to be true of music.
Of course, the cathedral started out not as a metaphor but literally as church control over the culture, market and technology of music. Over time, this gave way to corporate control over music, which retains a firm but tenuous grip on our auditory culture and market to this day. Rushkoff’s acknowledgement that we are returning to the ways of the bazaar should be wind in the sails for anyone who loves music and prefers a productive culture over a profitable one.
All one need to do is listen to a few mash-ups to hear the sound of the bazaar approaching loud and fast.
This is a long comment I made in response to this Trust Me, I Am A Scientist blog post which was Facebook-shared by friend and record producer extraordinaire John Naclerio at Nada Studios. I lump the ‘Scientist’ blog in with the Trichordist folks who basically try to complain the old music industry back into existence. They think music is devolving, I think it’s evolving… I guess that makes us sworn enemies. But I don’t want to fight, I want to find solutions, and all I hear from them is complaints.
This is addressed to John but could really be addressed to any professional career producer/engineer worth their salt.
Sorry, I’m going to be the guy that points out this article is BULLSHIT!
John, we’ve had these discussions before so I know you know I appreciate the work of a professional. You made our record sound 1000% better than it would have sounded fresh outta my basement.
I disagree with the main point that “It always takes longer than the band expects” to finish a record… I mean, I’ll take your word for it if you think this is a good article. I’ll accept that most or a growing number of bands think this, but I believe the true professional musicians understand the process and understand it takes time.
I totally disagree with his implication that somehow technology has had a negative effect on the recording process simply because a few people are impatient. Technology has made it possible to have a studio on every laptop — we should be celebrating that!
Yeah, from a producer/engineer standpoint it sucks because culture is getting lo-fi, there’s less money in the music economy and budgets are smaller. We’re never going back to Led Zeppelin locking out a studio for a year, nor was that ever necessary to make a good record. It was important for doing lots of drugs though.
What about the black market for drugs? With musicians spending less time in the studio, they have more time freed up to do drugs. Maybe you should consider a career as producer/dealer?
Seriously, I think I can understand why producers and engineers would be totally fucking annoyed by bands coming in and expecting to have a great record in a few days. Maybe that happens more often than not these days. It must frustrate the hell out of you to want to do an awesome job but the band only has the budget to do 4 songs in 2 days.
This blogger offers no solutions whatsoever, just complaints. How about thinking about ways musicians can have bigger budgets? How about thinking about “fuck the album” because people listen to singles, and just take the time to do really good singles until you get financial backing for an album? How about record it at home because listeners are cool with lo-fi as long as they’re getting a type of music they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten because the musician couldn’t afford to be in a studio? How about celebrating home recording as a gateway drug to valuing professional production/engineer services?
It’s not that bands don’t value the professional recording process or how long it takes… they just don’t have the money they used to, plus they can do a C+ job at home… that’s just reality. They’re not going out of their way to be assholes about it, but they are fair to expect that recording technology has evolved to the point where yes… it actually does take a shorter time and is much cheaper to make a great record than 5, 10 or 20 years ago. All of the sudden you CAN record an LP in a few days for $1,000. Will it be awesome? 99% of the time, no. But your odds don’t get much better with a professional recording… it’s not about the art, it’s about the business.
John, you are one of the most respected professionals I know in the music business — not just from me but from the hundreds of musicians who have come through your studio. You don’t complain about any of this shit, so I’m not directing this at you. I just want to say that 99% of musicians have never been able to afford a $20,000 recording budget, so nothing much has changed there. It’s the label situation that’s changed. And good riddance. Patronage beats exploitation. It sucks for producers/engineers, there’s less money. But it’s better for musicians and they are the ones ultimately keeping you in business.
We’re just going through a rough, awkward patch in the industry where the old players are dying but throwing every dollar and lawyer at holding on to paid access to music. But access to music is already free or nearly free, and we’ve yet to adapt the music economy to it because these assholes are preventing us from finding new solutions.
Recording technology will continue to get cheaper and more efficient. Digital editing means there’s no reason for a musician to play the track 47 times. Recording time is getting shorter and that’s a good thing for everyone but the people who are paid based on recording time. So for those folks, like you, John, and the countless other producer/engineers struggling against this wave of amateur musicianship and production — let’s start talking about business solutions.
Let me close by saying I think that you, John, are a shining example of a producer talking solutions. You started a label and are now taking backend interest in some of the bands you produce. The producer/engineer becoming more of a part of the band or their management is probably the most promising avenue for talented studio professionals right now. But there will be more, and I’ll work with you to help find the money!
Earlier this year I teamed up with John Snyder of the awesome Artists House non-profit to plan a curriculum that would engage and educate a new generation of musicians. Artists House has a massive video library — John brought to the table hundreds of hours of video footage featuring interviews with the top names in the music business.
I edited that massive mountain of content into 5.5 carefully curated hours, and with John’s wisdom (and 85 pages of written advice) to guide the production, we emerged with a course like no other.
Please head over to Udemy to preview the course — we’ve made one section available for free so you can get a glimpse of the top-shelf, real-world education we are offering here. There are no boring lectures that drone on, just solid tips from folks who have already proved they know how to make money from music.
That collaboration was not just how I discovered Run-D.M.C., it was how I discovered the whole genre of hip hop. 2 Live Crew, Beastie Boys, NWA, Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and LL Cool J would soon follow, along with lots of awful hip-hop/teen pop crossovers I needn’t mention. For someone straight outta the Catskills, my hip hop roots run deep.
Was Run-D.M.C. showcasing its sound through Aerosmith’s composition? Or was Aerosmith showcasing its sound through Run-D.M.C.’s composition?
The answer, of course, is both. In this case, it was as much musical chemistry as calculated salesmanship. Both bands were rocking each other’s compositions as a platform for greater exposure. Run-D.M.C. appealed to fans of hair rock, and Aerosmith suddenly seemed relevant again, saving their music career. The whole thing was a marketing plot orchestrated by bearded studio magician Rick Rubin, who carefully arranged the profitable pairing in advance.
As any hip hop fan knows, creative appropriation of sound recordings — samples — are a fundamental building block of the genre. “Walk This Way” was staged, but most samples at the time were taken without permission. Hip hop had not yet begun to emerge as the commercial powerhouse it would soon become. It wasn’t until Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films that copyright law was brought down like a hammer against unauthorized sampling, and the practice suddenly became very expensive if not impossible.
Hip hop pre-Bridgeport was a revelation because it was a genre of music based on exposing people to other artists and genres of music through the actual composition. It wasn’t a composition as we traditionally thought of — sheet music with lyrics. Instead of notes, there were bits of sound recordings, with compositions contained within. Songs were transformed through sampling into new compositions that showcased artists and genres in a new context.
Hip hop wasn’t just a music genre, it was a music discovery platform.
The mashups, remixes and EDM of today are taking the mantle of genre-as-music-discovery vacated by hip hop after Bridgeport. I would argue that these genres are the natural progression hip hop would have taken had the creative act known as “sampling” not been stagnated by an unjust court ruling.
Today, you can discover several artists or genres in a single mashup. Like an audio scavenger hunt, listeners follow snippets of sound to their source, finding new favorite tracks and entire styles of music they didn’t know existed.
All of this is happening under the commercial radar right now because creating songs with unauthorized samples is technically copyright infringement. Girl Talk is the poster child for trying to make a career out of claiming such use is fair, using hundreds of uncleared samples and making lots of people scratch their heads as to how he gets away with it. There was a whole SXSW panel on it:
No one can argue there is a growing cultural awareness of Girl Talk-esque sampling as transformative, fair use among listeners and musicians. This contrasts with another widely held belief that there is a limit to sampling another’s work without payment. As they say in the video, “Puffy’s got to pay” when it comes to using the heart and soul of a song as the heart and soul of your new composition. In other words, any rational musician or listener can see there is a spectrum between fair use and copyright infringement when it comes to sampling. Unfortunately the law is generally absolutist about these things, and Girl Talk only avoids prosecution through conspicuousness. The fact is, anyone who samples any copyrighted song without permission is breaking the law and risking a lawsuit, and because of that, the professional mash-up musician is not allowed to be born.
Where does that leave music discovery via other people’s compositions? Will mashups/EDM atrophy without commercial support? Probably not. That’s the beauty of the illegal art form — it remains relatively un-compromised by commercial interests, and sustains a creative if chaotic scene. The uglier side — at least from a purely aesthetic perspective — is that the genre remains clogged with amateurs with no clear path toward a professional music career.
Much of the progressive talk in the music world around this issue centers on the concept of introducing a compulsory sampling license. Some serious thought and legal expertise has gone into developing this path toward copyright reform. The intent is to balance the welfare of the greater good and culture at large against what many perceive as too much power given to the individual — in this case, the copyright owner of the sample in question.
In the same way I can cover a song without permission so long as I compensate the original composer via a compulsory license, I could theoretically do the same for the composers (and sound recording rights owners) of my samples.
In practice, this is tricky for a number of reasons. For example, how do we set a compulsory sample licensing fee? Most people seem to think it should be based on what percentage of your composition the original sample represents, or what percentage of the original composition/sound recording you took. But how does one possibly determine that? Length of the sample? Whether it’s used in the chorus or the verse? Amount of sample transformation? The variables are endless. Calculating them in any standard format is flatly impractical — any attempt to do so would be fraught with compromise.
Then comes the personhood concerns — the idea that a person might not want their composition to appear in a particular context. For example, when Kanye West paid handsomely to use an Otis Redding sample on Watch the Throne, Otis Redding’s estate vetted every word in the song to ensure it matched Redding’s legacy. A compulsory sample license would allow me to use the same sample in a new composition called “Otis Redding Sucks” as long as I paid the requisite fee.
For those unfamiliar with music copyright, a song basically has two rights attached to it: the actual sequence and structure of the notes and lyrics as well as the actual recording. It’s another reason why sampling is trickier than cover songs — with a cover, you’re making a new recording, so you don’t have to pay or get permission to use the old one. With a sample, you’re dealing with two different sets of rights, which technically means two different licenses. Compositions are administered by performing arts organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SEASAC) on behalf of publishers and artists, licensing them is a fairly standard process. But many musicians transfer their song’s second right — the sound recording right — to a record label in exchange for financing the recording and marketing of their album. Thus, negotiations for sample use are not always entirely up to the artist, but their label as well. So in many cases, the composer would be cool with using the sample, but the record label that owns the sound recording would say no or hold out for more money.
For these and other reasons, it’s not likely that genres based on unauthorized sampling will reach any sort of widespread commercial viability any time soon. And that’s a real bummer, because we’re denying a generation of listeners one of the most vibrant music discovery platforms yet invented by humans — the composition-within-composition. Not to mention all the dough being left on the table.
Thankfully — as I always say — music finds a way. Bridgeport didn’t stop unauthorized sampling any more than Napsterstopped unauthorized file sharing. In both cases, music discovery was driven underground.
We will continue to see the growth and evolution of compositions that make unauthorized use of other people’s compositions and sound recordings. I would urge all musicians to fight the good fight and protect their compositions and sound recordings with a Creative Commons license instead of relying on traditional copyright. With Creative Commons, you can protect your song against unauthorized commercial use while giving a wide berth to allow transformative uses of your song like sampling and remixing.
Sample culture will continue to thrive beneath the surface of the mainstream, waiting for a law to pass and unleash its bottled-up commercial potential. Until then, it will only get cooler and more creative, and samples will only gain more political power.
The corporations that control 75% of the world’s music would be keen to pay attention and change their strategy. Picture this: Girl Talk takes the stage with Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. at the 2014 Grammy Awards and they infringe 60 years of music in 5 minutes. Watch that mashup single become the new “Gangnam Style” overnight.