Well, which is it? Is it the best of times, or the worst of times? I am on a million email lists and I have google alerts for "Spotify" and "streaming," so - every day now - I get a heads up whenever another breathless article comes out praising streaming as finally "saving the industry."
And in nearly every single article, after the chart of rising revenues, down at about the second-to-last paragraph, is The Caveat™. For example:
"Sure, there are problems–artist payouts suck and need to be addressed." Or: "Cue the ongoing debates about whether music publishers are getting their fair share of the streaming boom, as well as individual artists and songwriters." Or: "There’s also the small matter of how much of these major label streaming revenues go back out of the door – especially to independent label partners." Or: "More of the streaming money goes to the label side of the business, and under traditional record deals the label keeps the majority of that income."
From the start, Spotify and the other streaming services have promised that as soon as the proper scale has been reached, the whole model will work for musicians - and that it will finally be profitable for the companies. Are we there? This is now being called the "golden age" of streaming, and yet payments to the people creating the products are still not equitable. So is this an unsustainable model, built on the backs of starry-eyed creatives, destined to implode?
On the artist side, far smarter people than I have weighed in, and you can learn a lot from reading what they've had to say. I've been particularly moved by David Byrne and Zoe Keating, and The Trichordist has a ton of great and snarky information all the time.
I want to look at this from a slightly different angle.
I've had an idea brewing, and I'm going to lay it out here in its embryonic form, and I would love for you to weigh in. As some of you know, I made a movie about the state of the music business, and I've developed a survey about music creation and consumption and have been gathering feedback there. I haven't come to any big conclusions just yet, but I've got some thoughts.
So, ladies and gentlemen...
The Music 5.0 Manifesto (work in progress)
Popular music has existed in four major eras so far. (I'm talking about Western music, because that's what I know about.)
1. Community/Pre-Historic - For most of history, music existed as a communal, tribal and ceremonial experience around the campfire and village. Songs belonged to everyone and carried stories of the people and their joys and challenges.
2. Patronage/Religious - In the West, with the rise of Christianity, a shift occurred. Religious music became formalized in and sponsored by the church, and it was codified and transcribed onto paper. Both religious and secular classical music was funded by wealthy patrons. Popular music was the purview of minstrels - traveling performers who brought stories and romantic ballads and songs about the news of the day - who sang for their supper and were sometimes also the recipients of patronage.
3. Commodification/Curation - with the invention of the printing press, music became a commodity in the form of broadsides - songs/tracts distributed for political purposes - and sheet music, which was sold. In the late 19th century, player piano rolls allowed well-to-do families to enjoy popular music in their own parlors. Then, the invention of the phonograph created two stunning revolutions. For the first time in history, you could listen to music without any musicians in the room with you. And, the music itself became a physical product that could be sold.
As we all know, this was the beginning of the era of music we all grew up with; first 78 rpm records and the Big Band and Jazz hits, then the 45 and early rock and roll - the rise of Top 40 radio and its influence - all at a time of post-war prosperity when, for the first time, teenagers had extra cash. The 33 & 1/3 LP (long playing) record and the rise of the FM radio frequency created the album as not just a collection of singles, but an art form of its own. All this new technology coincided with massive socio-political upheaval and the rest, as we know, is rock and roll history.
Another important part of the picture during the rock and roll era was the middleman. From the A&R (artists and repertoire) reps and label owners who decided who got signed and who didn't, to the disc jockeys who chose what to spin, to the rock critics who weighed in, to the record stores that stocked or didn't stock new releases, there were a lot of people making decisions about what music made it out to the public and what didn't. The downside is that a lot of good music never saw the light of day. But these middlemen also served as a filter for a lot of crap. And when you wanted to know which record to buy with your hard-earned allowance, you benefited from their knowledge and expertise.
There was, among musicians and songwriters, an ethic of competitive excellence. To go back to the music of the late 60s and early 70s is to be struck by the sheer skill and craft of popular songs. There was a fairly clear division between professionals and amateurs. The amateurs stayed in their hometowns and toured regionally. The pros made the pilgrimage to the music centers and carved out their careers there.
There were more record labels, more music magazines, but far fewer nationally famous artists. A devoted music fan could have a pretty good sense of what was out there and what was about to be released. You could have a working knowledge of the landscape of popular music.
For listeners - putting on a record for the first time, studying the cover art, reading the liner notes – absorbing the music was an art in itself. You took care of your records, because they weren’t that cheap, and once they got scratched you were screwed.
Then came portability, first with the 8-track tape, then the cassette, which brought huge concerns about piracy and duplication. But even as we poured our hearts into mixtapes and the less ethical among us taped our friends' whole albums, everybody still knew that the record sounded better. If you had the money to avoid the hissy third-generation black market knockoff, you certainly did.
And then: the digital era. At first, of course, a boom for the record companies, as everyone replaced their LPs with CDs. But the ability to make a perfect digital copy of a recording became the gash along the starboard that - first slowly, then shockingly fast - effectively sank the commodification era.
Let's pause here and listen to David Bowie, in a 2002 interview with the New York Times, explain what's about to happen next:
"'The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.''
''Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,'' he added. ''So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen.''
Once the file sizes were small enough to be transmitted online, we reached the fourth era.
4. Ubiquity - From illegal file-sharing to legal streaming, and then YouTube, Spotify and all of it, the 21st century has brought the age of ubiquity. Everyone can record music, and everyone can release it, and everyone can hear it anywhere all the time. So much music is out there now - some of which is great, some of which you'd never have had the opportunity to hear in the old days - but a lot of it is mediocre.
There’s no division between pros and amateurs. In the age of YouTube and Instagram, everyone has an equal shot at fame. The amount of music available is vast.
You're living in this era, so you know it well, but let me suggest some changes that you might not have thought of. We used to telegraph our identity through music. You knew a lot about someone if they were wearing a Dokken tour t-shirt vs. one from Steely Dan. But now we have social media and the million ways it allows us to "curate" our self-image, and our music choices define us less than they ever did.
Ironically, in a time when music is so available to us, we listen to it less. I mean, it's there, but it's in the background and/or we're skipping to the next song. We're filming concerts or Facebooking during them (I see this at every single show I go to). Music is a soundtrack to our lives, but it’s in the background of the scene.
And it makes sense. When things are ubiquitous, we value them less. I am far more careful with water when I'm camping and have to carry it than I am in my kitchen where I can turn on the tap.
In an era when musicians can no longer sell the music itself, there seem to be two major approaches, sometimes combined. One is the lifestyle approach – where an artist makes themselves into a product via Instagram and YouTube and monetizes it in order to profit. The second is the new patronage model of crowdfunding and Patreon, where artists seek funding in order to concentrate on the actual making of the art.
There are signs that we’re actually moving out of this phase to a new one. There’s a backlash against ubiquity, as evidenced with the (perhaps fleeting) resurgence of vinyl. People are looking for something tangible and rare. Live performances, also, can never really be duplicated even by watching a video. There are several entities seeking to distribute music in a more equitable, “Fair Trade” way.
But if, as I suspect, the current streaming business model is indeed fatally flawed, there may be a whole new method of distribution headed our way. It may be streamed but it might not be ubiquitous as it is now. We’ll see.
Music 5.0 – So…what’s next? What would the next phase look like if we – music lovers and musicians – could create it ourselves? Given the technology we have and the culture we live in, where do we want this to go?
First, let’s acknowledge some truths about music that have never changed over time.
- We have always been moved by music that helps us understand life, and expresses how we feel in words we could never have thought of.
- Being in the same room with musicians, breathing the same air, sitting quietly or moshing violently, is transcendent and can’t be duplicated.
- Our culture has always had a love/hate relationship with musicians (and artists in general). They’re revered and devalued. What they make is essential and frivolous. They are the highest achievers and they’re lazy and entitled. We’re willing to fork over a hundred dollars for a concert but not 99 cents for a song.
- Even in a time when everyone has Garageband on their laptop and can post a ukulele cover video on YouTube, it takes commitment and skill to become good. Maybe fewer people are putting in that time now, but true excellence still requires it.
- Musicians gotta eat.
So, in conclusion...you thought I was going to sum this up, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. I have ideas about what I think should happen, and what I think might happen, but honestly, my guess is as good as yours.
So let’s discuss.
Write comments, below. Or better yet, take the survey on The Shopkeeper website so I can quantify your opinions – there’s lots of space to expand your answers if you’re so inclined. Let’s explore this together and see where it goes.
We’re on the cusp of a new phase here. We might have an opportunity to create it ourselves.