Music on the Spot(ify), or Opening Pandora’s Box.


Do you download music from the internet, stream music from services like Spotify and Pandora, watch music videos on YouTube and/or share music files with friends?  If so, congratulations!  You’re participating in the “the single-biggest shift in the (music) industry since the invention of the recording,” according to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, as interviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

No more do you hear music on the radio, played when the stations felt like playing it (or when they were compensated for doing so, sometimes illegally), then go to the store to purchase and own the music in some physical form (e.g., vinyl, cassette, CD).  Now, you decide what you want to hear whenever you want to hear it, as if you were programming your own personal radio station.  You can do this for not much money, or even for none, if you want to put up with advertising.  You never take hold of any physical object, neither do you really “own” the music.  But a previously unimaginable wealth of music is there for you to enjoy at a whim.  For this music lover, it’s a dream-come-true.  I couldn’t begin to list the great music I’ve come to know through these new technologies.

But for the musicians?  For some, at least, my dream is their nightmare, or at least a continuation in digital form of the same nightmare of the old radio and vinyl days.  Sure, they say, lots of money is changing hands.  It’s just that too little of it is reaching them.  And while they make the music, they excercise little control over what’s done with and to it.  A few musicians, their small number compensated for by their notoriety and loud voices, have opted out altogether, pulling their music from the large digital services.  One of the loudest and most notorious, Talking Heads founder David Byrne, recently interviewed in The Guardian, prophesied that “the inevitable result” of the digitization of music “would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.” 

My goodness — we don’t want that!  Neither should we begrudge musicians of their fair share of revenues.  But the question of what is fair and what is unfair compensation is something I would not want to be left to either David Byrne or Spotify’s Daniel Ek.  As a music consumer, I want a say as well, expressed through my on-line subscriptions to Spotify and Pandora (I prefer my tunes ad-free) and time spent listening and viewing.  Anyway, I’m the type of music geek who will almost always buy the CD (or high-quality download) of music I like so I can play it on my fancy audio system with the best possible sound.  But if I never hear an artist’s music, I’m not going to fall in love with it.  And increasingly, I, like millions of others, first hear new music on Spotify and Pandora.  It strikes me that those who follow Byrne’s cue, by attempting to put the technological genie back in the bottle, and therefore placing an additional hurdle between the listener and their music, stand to lose more than they gain from their stance, however principled.

Fortunately, whether despite or perhaps because of the doom-and-gloom of Byrne and ilk (e.g, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke), others in the field are sounding what sounds to me like more reasonable notes.  Why more reasonable?  Because, unlike Byrne’s black-and-white, victimizer-and-victim scenario, in which musicians are, as always, powerless pawns of greedy corporate interests (no doubt partially true, but far from the whole story), these insiders acknowlege the powerful, inexorable influence that technology and the market exert over music consumption, as they do over many areas of human behavior.  

For instance, in a rebuttal to Byrne, musician and digital strategist Dave Allen puts it thusly:  “After much debate and a reappraisal of my own stance, I have concluded that we can only look to what internet and mobile users are doing or want to do, and then note how their actions drive technologists to provide platforms for them. Put very simply, that is how markets work.”  Such a statement may not induce the same sense of indignation and outrage as Byrne’s — and I recommend you read their articles complete to get a more nuanced picture of their views — but doesn’t it strike you as wiser and more sensible, more in accord with reality?  

Then, there’s this interesting conversation in The Guardian among a few young musicians and other insiders with divergent views,  but also with intelligent ideas about where things are, and what musicians can do to help make things better.  Says cellist Zoë Keating: “Half of my income is from sales, but I don’t feel like streaming is the evil enemy. I think it’s a good positive thing to get music out there. All I’m asking is make a direct deal with me, let me choose my terms.”  Says talent manager (nice to have someone from this side of the business take part in the discussion) Scooter Braun: “Here’s the deal: we can say we want things to be better, we want things to change, and we’ll get there. But we have to realise that the consumer and the listener dictates what happens.”

Check out also Keating’s Los Angeles Times article on the “sharps and flats” of life as a DIY musician.  Of David Byrne-ian outrage, there’s not a note.  Of intelligence, insight, and practical wisdom, there’s a lot.  Here’s a musician whose aware of both the perils and immense benefits of the digital age, and who, rather than bail and rail like Byrne, wants to take an active and vocal part in making things better.  She gets the last word:

Without a doubt today’s climate favors artists who are actively touring and releasing music. In other words, there is no retirement anymore, which makes the music industry like most other industries. Is that so bleak? Not really. Yes, I have to keep making more music, keep touring and keep competing for my listeners attention. But that’s what I want to do anyway. The business of music continues to evolve, but the essence of being a musician remains the same: We make music, and we want people to hear it.

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