Friday, October 25, 2013

The Future of Music and the Double-Edged Sword of Technology

I've come to the conclusion that the Internet is simultaneously the best and worst thing to ever happen to humanity.
The good stuff is really good. Just think about what we can do today, thanks to technology. It's amazing that we can instantly connect with other people anywhere around the world at any time. It's nearly mind-blowing that I have practically the entirety of human knowledge at my fingertips, available for me to pull up whenever I want. These kinds of things were unthinkable just 25 short years ago. I'm only in my 40s, but I can remember a world with no cell phones, no social media, no home computers, no 24-hour news cycle, and only the few TV channels you could pull in from the antenna on the roof of the house. The Atari 2600 was cutting-edge technology when I was a kid. We've advanced so far in such a short amount of time that those old days seem like the stone age, as far removed as the horse and buggy is from space flight.

Even when I graduated from college in 1994, when the Internet was just starting to come into its own, I never would have believed you if you'd told me that one day I'd be working in real time, on a computer, from the comfort of my home, for a client 2,700 miles away, and making a living at it.

All of this is absolutely nuts. It's the stuff of science fiction. But we take it all for granted and can't really imagine a world without it anymore.

But then there's the bad stuff. The Internet can instantly disseminate faulty information far and wide, and fighting the bad info once it's reached critical mass is awfully hard to do sometimes. The Net also affords us the anonymity to be nasty to other people in a way we'd never dream of doing in real life. And it can stifle social interaction and alienate us from each other. I often see people clustered together at a local bus stop, but where they might have once tried talking with each other, now they're all doing what I call the iHunch -- bent over and silently staring into their phones.  

But one of the worst side effects of all this technology, in my view, is how it's changing our entertainment options, particularly music.

I'm not talking just about the inferior sound quality of MP3s, or the death of record stores, or the inevitable demise of a tangible product I can hold in my hands. Those are all things that matter to me, certainly, but it's the changing attitudes toward music that give me pause.

I got to thinking about this after recently reading some comments about the state of the music industry from two of its members: David Byrne of the Talking Heads, and Steve Lukather, veteran session player probably best known for his work as the guitarist in Toto.

In an interview with the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, Byrne laments the rise of streaming services, such as Spotify, that have carved out deals with record labels that leave the artists with mere scraps. The way he sees it, the labels and the streaming services are happy with the money they're making, and listeners are happy to be consuming music for almost nothing -- but the musicians, the ones who actually make the product being bought and sold, are left out in the cold.

Here's some of what Byrne had to say:
For many music listeners, the choice is obvious -- why would you ever buy a CD or pay for a download when you can stream your favourite albums and artists either for free, or for a nominal monthly charge?

... The amounts these services pay per stream is miniscule [sic] -- their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. ... The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what's left down to their artists. ... Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) has published abysmal data on payouts from Pandora and Spotify for his song "Tugboat" and Lowery even wrote a piece entitled "My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make from a Single T-shirt Sale!" For a band of four people that makes a 15% royalty from Spotify streams, it would take 236,549,020 streams for each person to earn a minimum wage of $15,080 (£9,435) a year. For perspective, Daft Punk's song of the summer, "Get Lucky", reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won't pay their bills if it's their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don't have massive international summer hits?

In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they'll be out of work within a year. 
Lukather, in response to a music blogger, made largely the same point, though with a little less articulation and grace:
ALL this pontificating about how Spotify and the like are the 'answer' and how  'the artists get paid' etc.

How much? Really? WHO keeps tabs and accounting?

Maybe I just don't know. I don't see any money and have A LOT of stuff out there over 35 years of making records. 

Have you done the breakdown on what an artist get PER tune on iTunes? Pitiful.
You might think they're both being hypocritical, since both men have surely made a comfortable living in the music industry. But the point they both make is that the world in which they toiled and made a name for themselves -- one in which musicians could actually make a living as musicians -- is vanishing.

And I contend that the world will be much poorer for it if that's so. How many of the musicians who fill our lives with joy would have stuck with their musical endeavors if they had to fit in their music between menial jobs that paid the bills? How many great songs would never have been recorded, or even imagined, if the legends of music had been forced to reduce their passion to a hobby? I realize that's exactly how most musicians start out on their journey, playing at the smoke-filled bar downtown for a few bucks a night, hoping to get that big break. And I'm not saying you can't be a part-time musician and not make great music. In fact, the guys in Echolyn, one of my favorite bands, all have day jobs but have still managed to put out some amazing tunes. Their 2002 album Mei is completely DIY and also one of the most astounding pieces of music I've ever heard.

But that's the exception to the rule. What happens if that brass ring is no longer there to grasp for? What if getting a record deal doesn't mean anything, because you'll get no significant compensation for the streaming of your music, and/or because people are downloading your songs without paying for them? Even Echolyn was motivated in the beginning by getting a major-label deal. They ultimately got one, and it fell apart after one album, but after a hiatus they decided to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward, fitting the band around their everyday lives. But how many artists would do that? If there's no promise of a payoff for all the hard work, a lot of people who could have otherwise brought us some incredible music might just decide to pack it in. If you're young and single with nothing to lose, you might still take a shot at it, but playing for the love of the music only takes you so far if you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed.

The counterargument tends to go that musicians will just have to rely on concerts and merchandise sales for their revenue. For established artists, that's fine. But for anyone trying to get some traction, how do you get to the point where you can sell enough tickets and T-shirts to make a living? Well, that's where things like the streaming services come in, right? Even if you're not making any money for having your music played, it's still good advertising, isn't it? Byrne addressed that issue, too:
Some artists and indie musicians see Spotify fairly positively -- as a way of getting noticed, of getting your music out there where folks can hear it risk free.  ... Artists often find this discovery argument seductive, but only up to a point. Patrick Carney of Black Keys said in 2011: "For unknown bands and smaller bands, it's a really good thing to get yourself out there. But for a band that makes a living selling music," streaming royalties are "not at a point yet to be feasible for us". How do you make the transition from "I'll give away anything to get noticed" to "Sorry, now you have to pay for my music"? Carney's implied point is important -- the core issue is about sustainability; how can artists survive in the long term beyond that initial surge of interest?
That point becomes even more important when you consider the entitlement attitude of a lot of people who think they shouldn't have to pay for music at all. I've even seen people boasting that they have huge collections of music but never paid a penny for any of it, as if casual theft is something to be proud of. I'd like to think we have more respect for musicians than that. I'd like to think people don't try to justify why they have the right to the fruits of someone else's labor for free. Alas, that's the culture we live in, and I don't see how it's at all sustainable for the musicians. Again from Byrne:
[A]s author Chris Ruen points out in his book Freeloading, if you yourself didn't pay for any of the music by your favourite bands, then don't be surprised if they eventually call it quits for lack of funds. 
Or as Rush so well put it, "You don't get something for nothing."

Lukather thinks part of the problem is that technology has made it too easy for anyone to make music, implying that good artists no longer get a fair hearing. When the labels were the only gatekeeper, he argues, artists had to be good. The labels would put up the money for recording time and promotion and actually made long-term investments in the musicians they signed. Furthermore, he says, the whole system has been reduced to marketing people for the splash they can make in the media, regardless of musical talent:
[T]he media chooses to care more about who is super gluing meat to their bodies and other ridiculous HYPE ... to get attention rather than LISTENING hard to the music being made. 
I think Lukather has a romanticized view of record labels, as if they were ever in it for anything but the money, and I also disagree that the democratization of the music-making process is a bad thing. Lots of great musicians who once upon a time would never have made it past the record-label gatekeepers now get a chance to be heard.

As for pushing image over talent, it's sometimes hard to argue. (Hello, Miley Cyrus.) But image has always been a part of popular music -- otherwise the lads from Liverpool wouldn't have had matching collarless suits and moptop haircuts back in the day. I think the big difference between now and then is that image and talent were once both part of the package. Now, as long as you look good, it seems talent is optional. You can just get auto-tuned in the studio and lip-sync onstage. 

Where I do agree with Lukather is how music seems to have been reduced to a disposable commodity.
[The labels] make 'McRecords' for people who don’t even really listen. It's background music for people to either find a mate or shake their heads while texting or skyping or doing other things. Environmental noise for the multi-tasker. 

Gone are the days of loving, dissecting, discussing the inner workings of  'AN ALBUM' … sitting in silence while it plays .,. looking at the liner notes and the few photo's [sic] IN the studio ... imagining what a magic place it music be to make such music …

To some extent, it has always been thus with popular music. People go bonkers over the latest top-10 hits, they dance to them for a while, and then they move on the next batch of top-10 hits. The big difference today, I think, is that technology is taking away the ritual of immersing oneself in the listening experience. I know what he means when he talks about sitting down with a record, putting it on the player, and then reading the lyrics and liner notes and checking out the band photos and album art while you listen. I used to love doing that. But you can't do it with a bunch of electrons. Feeling a sense of ownership with a piece of physical media, I think, did make the music more personal. We've taken away those LPs, cassettes, and CDs and replaced them with an ephemeral cluster of sound waves that -- thanks to the cloud, YouTube, streaming services, and the like -- may not even reside in your own home. The music is, in a very real sense, not even something you can say you own anymore. 

But in the end, what can we do about any of this? Complaining won't change it, and the technology isn't going away. Even if we could ensure a better financial deal for musicians through the streaming services, and even if we could persuade people to pay for music rather than illegally download it, the fact remains that more artists than ever before can be heard, which means more choices for consumers, which means it becomes harder to generate mass cultural appeal of the type that used to turn out blockbusters and superstars. Having more choices has fragmented our interests into little niches, to the point that we're unlikely to ever see another mass cultural phenomenon like, say, the Beatles. We're not all on the same page anymore, because we don't have to be.

Think about it this way: When the Beatles played for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, 73 million people watched it on their TVs, out of a U.S. population at the time of about 191 million. That's 38% of the entire population. Today, even with all the hype about the finale of Breaking Bad (at least it seemed like a big deal, if my Facebook feed was any indication, though I admit I don't watch TV), it was seen by around 10.3 million people -- out of a U.S. population of 313 million. That's about 3% of the population. 

It's a far different world from when Beatlemania gripped the nation. And there's no turning back.

Do we music fans face a future in which artists once again have to rely on wealthy benefactors if they want to devote their lives to their passion? Are most musicians doomed to becoming part-time hobbyists?

Musicians have given me so much happiness through the years that I want to reward them for their work. They've been my joy, my comfort, my ticket to new worlds -- my reliable friends. So I'll continue to do my small part, buying records and going to shows. It's all I can do.

In the meantime, maybe it's best to not worry about what's out of our control and simply do as Steve Lukather suggests: "Time to put on Dark Side of the Moon and chill."

On LP, of course.

No comments:

Post a Comment