As we approach the dog days of summer, the blogosphere is heating up on matters pertaining to music and the stream in which it now swims. Practically on the heels of Pink Floyd’s public warning to artists against falling for Pandora’s recent attempts to lower licensing fees, Thom Yorke of bands Radiohead and Atoms for Peace pulled his music from Spotify in an act of what he calls solidarity, saying, “Make no mistake new artists you discover on Spotify will not get paid. Meanwhile, shareholders will shortly being rolling in it.” And indeed, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek was just named to the Sunday Times’ Rich List with his estimated fortune of $307 million. Meanwhile, artists’ rights blog The Trichordist, primarily edited by David Lowery, reminds us that the ever-present option of piracy remains a relevant factor in the bargaining positions of both sides trying to conduct legal trade.
Personally, I think there is still hope for an equitable solution to streaming services that pay fair rates to artists. There’s nothing wrong with the technologies or the concept, only the present business models; and it doesn’t really matter if Pandora and Spotify fail. Someone will come up with the right formula, or at least one with which all parties can feel relatively satisfied. What caught my attention this week, though, was a pair of articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with one another, but side-by-side, expose an interesting dichotomy in the value placed on music streaming and social media.
The first article was this most recent post from music industry writer Bob Lefsetz in which he blasts Thom Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich for removing their music from “a platform that hasn’t gotten any traction anyway,” accusing them of “wanting to jet us back to the past” because “streaming won,” and the kids just listen on YouTube and other unlicensed platforms. In all fairness, Lefsetz is dragging out a Straw Man that is pretty stale itself — the overused accusation that musicians are lazily clinging to old models and delivery platforms. This isn’t true in general, and it certainly isn’t true with regard to anything Yorke and Godrich have said about Spotify, as their criticisms are entirely about revenue sharing and not about whether or not streaming should exist. But having grounded his thesis in the matter of new vs old, Lefsetz gets to then recycle many oft-repeated proclamations about progress and the typically unspecific theme that the future is for winners who do great work and adapt to the changing landscape, whatever that quite means. “The truth is,” writes Lefsetz, “if you’re a superstar, there’s still plenty of money in music. And superstars are the future, because no one’s got time for any [sic] less. Just like there’s one iTunes Store, one Amazon and one Google, we don’t need a plethora of me-too acts, we just need excellence.”
And that’s right where I smacked hard into article number two written by Mat Honan for Wired. It turns out July 15th marked the one-year anniversary of the record-setting “Gagnam Style,” the first viral video ever to cross the one-billion click mark, which is cool; but in his ebullient article, Honan asserts that thanks to “Gagnam Style,” “music is forever different.” He cites the nature, causes, and results of the K-Pop star Psy’s explosion into global, namely American, culture thanks mostly to the power of populist, rather than corporate, decision-making. Let me say that I have nothing against Psy or his viral video, and I’m glad to see any entertainer enjoy success if he/she makes people happy; but if Honan thinks this is truly revolutionary, I’m going to guess he’s too young to remember The Hustle, The Electric Slide, The Macarena, The Achy-Breaky…shall I go on?
It’s important to distinguish between a revolutionary cultural phenomenon and the technological means by which a classic phenomenon merely scales in a new way. For nearly as long as there has been recorded music, we’ve seen these out-of-nowhere, fad hits accompanied by some goofy dance that gets even goofier when we get Aunt Betty to give it a go after a few highballs at the family reunion. What’s different, of course, is that YouTube enables an exponentially rapid diffusion of something like “Gangnam Style,” and it is also the same platform that enables parodies, derivatives, and, yes, even videos of someone’s Aunt Betty gyrating away after a few highballs. It’s all good fun, and I’m the last guy to suggest anyone should get out of the pool, but “change music forever?” Please let’s hope not.
If we read Leftsetz’s implication that the digital age inherently demands “excellence” along with Honan’s claim that “Gagnam Style” is transformative, it raises the question as to whether or not only one of these premises can be correct, and which one? In every medium and through every distribution method, the stuff we call art — and I would argue that only art earns the superlative excellence — usually struggles for popular attention in contrast to the more transient and facile media we typically call pop culture. Web platforms like YouTube don’t necessarily change these dynamics or redraw the lines between art and pop culture so much as they accelerate and more widely diffuse behaviors that have been part of human activity since long before the first node of the internet was built. If anything, the high-volume consumption that internet platforms tend to foster does seem to result in more tangential and fleeting relationships with all media. If this is true, this means that the “excellence” to which Leftsetz refers can be as likely diluted by these platforms as they can be theoretically supported. In other words, an occasional “Gagnam Style” is just fine as long as we don’t destroy the market that will produce the next Radiohead or Pink Floyd. Because they ain’t the same thing.
As with just about anything that’s carefully crafted — from a fine wine to a gourmet meal to art that truly confronts its audience — the attention demanded for appreciation is exactly the opposite kind of investment one makes by watching “Gagnam Style” on YouTube. Art’s job, in contrast to pop culture, is to be a little bit difficult, and it requires an investment by both the creator and the audience in order for it to become something truly significant. So, if we want to build a future that does enable artists to invest over a lifetime in striving for excellence, I think it’s a foolish mistake to dismiss the warnings of these music veterans as though they are nothing more than the dusty ravings of has-beens.