Is Adele an anomaly?

According to Peter Kafka writing for re/code, the fact that Adele has broken all-time records with sales of her new album “25” while simultaneously rejecting streaming services is too much of an oddity to provide any guidance for music professionals vis-a-vis their business models.  Kafka writes the following:

“If you are looking for big lessons in Adele’s success selling more albums in the last week than anyone, ever, don’t. She’s the definition of anomaly.”

He raises a valid question—one I certainly can’t ignore, having criticized many Internet industry pundits for citing exceptions in order to prove rules on a variety of topics.  And nobody can deny that megastars like Adele are rare individuals; but this has always been true of megastars, which is not quite the same thing as saying that their business models have always been radically different from smaller stars or middle-class creators. The business model that sold The Beatles and The Kinks was fundamentally the same; the Beatles were simply more popular and, therefore, sold more recorded music.

In truth, though, I think the significance of Adele and Swift boycotting these services scares the hell out of people invested in the streaming future because it just might reveal how naked the emperor really is.  Looking at the top ten tracks on Spotify this week, I see several artists—in first place is Rihanna—who could theoretically do just fine, or better, without that service’s nickels and dimes.  And as for the “music discovery” argument, I see that tracks in 5th and 7th place are both from the soundtrack for a film called Fifty Shades of Grey, which means these songs had a decent shot at discovery via a rather old model.

So, it seems that the real question is whether or not some portion of contemporary artists really can learn anything from Adele or Swift (or Prince) even if most artists cannot realistically expect to achieve that level of popularity. After all, streaming is financially nominal to all artists and songwriters, so the risk in keeping music off these platforms—especially for the purpose of windowing the release of a new album—isn’t necessarily as high as pundits like Kafka might suggest.

David Lowery, frontman of the bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker (both typical, middle-class bands), and founder of the artists rights blog The Trichordist, offered me this insight when I spoke to him about the relative value of streaming:

“Camper Van Beethoven earns more from sales of live albums and oddities not available on streaming services than the albums available on streaming services even when calculated at source.  And Camper Van Beethoven as an obscure, cult band works more like a “new” band than you would think.  We rely on new discovery as well. But when a single sale of one album provides as much revenue as 7,000 free streams on Spotify/YouTube  it makes more sense for us to pursue sales in a grassroots manner and sustain the business by putting the money into new works.  I know. I’ve tried it both ways. My free streaming critics may be unwilling to admit this but  I’m pretty good at business.  I’ve made a profit every year as a musician and my tech credentials are generally better than my critics. Remember in 2005, many pundits were declaring MySpace the future of the music business.  That’s ten years ago.” 

To date, the argument from from the pundits of “conventional wisdom” has been that artists less popular than Adele can’t afford not to be on Spotify, et al because that’s where prospective fans are hanging out. The implication is that even if these platforms are not revenue providers, it’s either swim in the stream or go over the falls into obscurity.  As Paul Resnikoff of Digital Music News writes in a recent post:

Artists like Ari Herstand told fellow musicians that they were compromising their careers if they didn’t go where the fans were; vitriolic pundit Bob Lefsetz called you an idiot for challenging the emerging status quo.  And this of course goes beyond Spotify: YouTube, Soundcloud, Rdio, Pandora, Apple Music, and half-a-dozen other big platforms are woven into this stained fabric.

But it seems that the digital music market has generally fostered two things:  false hopes for many new creators and billions of dollars for the peddlers of false hopes. As such, there is now such an overabundance of works—even great works—that obscurity can only be the status quo for most artists. Meanwhile, the paths to market cannot logically be “discovery” through digital platforms and social media alone; there’s just too much stuff out there.  So, it’s entirely possible that all consumers, even digital natives, relate to music, discover music, and share tastes in music in similar ways to their pre-digital forebears. Yet, in regard to a star like Adele supposedly “living” where the real fans are not, Kafka makes the following odd statement:

“If you still insist on looking for lessons, you might head in this direction: We live in a pop music, track-and-hook world, but Adele lives in her own world, and it turns out lots of other people do, too. And an educated hunch is that many of those people are women, and/or older* than the people who camp out at Spotify and YouTube, and many of those people are happy to pay for a thing they like if it is convenient, which buying songs from iTunes (or even at an actual store!) can be.”

I’m not sure how educated that hunch really is.  For one thing, I believe the age range of Adele fans is actually quite broad.  Her songs are played on my terrestrial radio station and my teenage daughter’s station, which is not true of Taylor Swift, who also successfully snubbed streaming, but whose fan base almost certainly comprises a majority of digital natives. Additionally, while age demographics among Spotify users are hard to find, one source I located states that 55% of its 75 million users are women, and I have to imagine some of these women fit the profile of the Adele fans Kafka presumes to describe as outliers. (As a side note, I’m not sure why Kafka mentions purchase via iTunes, when “25” is available for download.)

Above all, Kafka is guilty of the same fallacy that pundits like Bob Lefsetz, and even like John Seabrook in this recent article for The New Yorker, tend to promote. And this is the fallacy of believing that the axiomatic statement “streaming is the future” is beyond all question.  Although there is plenty to love about streaming technology itself, I think the business as it exists today is well within the boundaries of question. After all, one cannot confidently call a revenue-free model “the future” without some reasonable doubt.

We are from the 80s. We are not afraid of these machines.

Kafka also seems determined to emphasize the fallacy of the digital divide—as though the truly contemporary consumers are cruising Spotify and YouTube, while their decrepit, technologically challenged parents are (snort-laugh) buying CDs.  Of course, I’d point out that the more time a prospective music fan has to “camp out on Spotify and YouTube,” the younger they probably are and, therefore, the less likely they are to be buying anything on their own. Also, most digital natives are the children of us Gen Xers, and we are not our parents who still have (snort-laugh) AOL email accounts; we are in fact the earliest adopters of all this fabulous technology that people are convinced has metamorphosed the millennial music consumer into some unfathomably wired creature.  Yes, streaming is convenient and cool, but it’s not quite so revolutionary as it is sometimes made out to be. And if the business models never provide real revenue for the music makers, it could still fail plenty before it truly succeeds.

Still, Adele actually is an anomaly, though not necessarily the way Kafka describes.  As David Lowery explains on The Trichordist, 1% of the artists today earn 77% of the revenue. And so, he writes:

Perhaps the larger irony here is that those who sought to destroy the major labels through piracy have only empowered them. The major labels now not only capture the larger share of revenue from recorded music but also as a result they also capture the most favorable deal terms (including equity shares) from the digital service providers (DSP). The net result being that indie and DIY artists who once accounted for a robust middle class of musicians have been pushed down into the realm of hobbyists. Of those few, rare indie/DIY outliners that manage to flourish none of them will get equity stakes or the same terms that the major labels do from the DSP’s.*

This is the harangue many of us have been on for years:  that piracy can only lead to wealth consolidation and destruction of the middle-class creator for the same reasons devaluation of human labor will always cause harm to the middle-class workers in any business sector.  Meanwhile, pundit Bob Leftsetz loves to cite the relative success of superstars in his many rose-colored editorials, which come very close to saying that complaints about piracy or predatory business practices by streaming services only come from musical “losers.”  As cited in this older post of mine, Leftsetz writes:

Superstar talent may make less money off recordings than in the past, but the live business far exceeds the money it once made. And then there’s sponsorships/endorsements and privates and sync and so many avenues of remuneration that no one who is a superstar is bitching.

Skipping the bullshit about alternative revenue sources, which professional artists have criticized to death, what will Bob say about his sanguine superstars if many more of them decide to follow Adele’s lead and tell services like Spotify to get stuffed? Or at least to wait their turn like the tertiary delivery platform they deserve to be?  And this brings us back to the central question:  How major does a musical artist have to be to tell Spotify and Pandora to get stuffed and not suffer for it? If no artist is leaving real money on the table, then what does any artist of any size really have to lose?  How badly do the investors in the streaming future want to find out?

*This should not be misconstrued as a generic indictment of labels. For a nuanced perspective on related issues, as well as a debunking of another piece by John Seabrook, see Chris Castle’s piece here.

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