“That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.” – Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters –
I saw this quote posted on Facebook the other day, and I hope it’s properly attributed because it expresses something I had been thinking about shortly after I and many others criticized the pollyanna NY Times Magazine article by Steven Johnson about two weeks ago. Because by writing for such a prominent publication, Johnson elevated the economic myth that live performances for musical artists are a legitimate substitute for the near-wholesale devaluation of recorded music in our times. The suggestion is that the musical artist simply has to tour more in order to make up for the revenue stream that was once generated by sales of recordings; and I have encountered this naive assertion so presumptuously worded as to include sentiments like musical artists “should actually work for a living.” These declarations are made as though the production of sound recordings isn’t work in the first place, or as if the person speaking has any clue about the actual costs, logistics, or wear-and-tear of playing live gigs for any artists smaller than a handful of mega-stars. And then, of course, there are the songwriters and producers and everyone else involved in creating the recorded song, which first attracted the fan long before he or she ever considered attending a live show. The bottom line is that, as fans, we care way more about recorded music than live performances, and we all know it. So, it is in our own self- interest to want a market that supports recorded works in the future.
We tend to talk about these things from the perspective of the artists—that they need to make a living, how they can still make a living, and what kind of living we presume to think they deserve—as if the artists’ experiences are external, and even in opposition, to our own interests as fans. The assumption is that recorded music will always be available and that it will never be compensated any better than it is right now; so the conversation then turns to these often-fanciful proposals for alternative revenue streams, even supported by dubious applications of data by pundits like Steven Johnson. But even if the numbers added up—and they absolutely do not—I can’t help noticing what a tragically cynical story this has become. Because after 15+ years of piracy and rationalized predation by major corporate players vying to be lords of the stream, what we’ve really managed to do as consumers is to undervalue the one musical experience that most of us cherish above all.
Live performances are great. Even in a small venue where the acoustics suck and the beer is warm, watching performers play favorite songs among an audience of other fans is almost always exciting. But, by and large, this is not how we form personal relationships with music. We form relationships with songs because they are recorded, because they are portable and are, therefore, with us in our day-to-day lives. This is how certain songs become the soundtrack to our most visceral experiences, both good and bad. It’s why songs we may not even technically like or consciously choose to associate with certain moments become part of a unique playlist that only means what it means to us individually. It’s why if you ask me and my wife what “our song” is, we have to say “Rock Lobster,” whether we would have it be so or not. It’s why putting my three children to sleep is chronologically “Everybody Plays the Fool” by Aaron Neville; “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison; and “Hey Mambo” by Dean Martin. Even as I write this article, I see that a friend—a much younger person—has posted on Facebook that he is coming to terms with the realization that he may actually like the band Squeeze. How apropos. Since my college years were 1984 – 1988, Squeeze is prominently featured on the soundtrack of that chapter in my life. That’s just how we relate to music.
We are told that scent is the sense most directly linked to memory, but speaking from my own experience, I find aroma often triggers the sensation of a memory I can’t quite identify, while songs are hardwired to my biography with absolute precision. I assume this is most people’s experience with music and feel bad for anyone for whom it is not. And because these associations are so powerful and, in my opinion, so valuable, I often ignore or at least compartmentalize a lot of agnostic music criticism. Of course, there is real genius and virtuosity that must be recognized, but this is something separate from the serendipitous connections between songs and life’s milestones. So, that first serious, adolescent kiss just might happen while the main title song for the Dukes of Hazard is playing. I’m just sayin’…it might.
At the start of this holiday weekend, we were in the mood to play a bunch of hits from the days of A.M. radio—those years when as kids we rode around in the backs of station wagons without seat belts, and all the good music played on tinny, monotreme speakers in the center of the dashboard. And hell yes, it’s cool that a streaming service now enables us to tap into these memories on-demand and play tracks—from the corny to the sublime—that we can blast through the house in 2015. A few songs by Carly Simon naturally made the cut on this playlist; and I think about the enormous contribution of this prolific singer/songwriter, who admits to having painful stage-fright; and I want to throw things at the smug pundits who shruggingly declare, “The market just doesn’t support that anymore.” Because if that’s true, it’s the market that needs fixing.
I don’t think I’ve heard Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” since those low-fi days, when I was too young even to appreciate it, but in surround-sound to my adult ears, it really is a gorgeous version of a classic that should be treasured. And if you look at the names of the professionals who played and/or sang on her platinum album Simple Dreams and think for a moment that a new Ronstadt somewhere out there will ever produce songs of a similar quality without the investment model we call labels, you simply have no idea how recorded music is produced. But I assure you it has almost nothing to do with the affordability of digital tools. Like all works, the real investment is in labor, skill, experience, talent, and time. Just because a great recording can be made by one person with some low-cost digital gear, that does not mean we, as listeners, want the range of available recorded works to be so universally limited. To put it another way, yes, a filmmaker can produce a feature with a few friends and an iPhone, but he cannot produce Game of Thrones that way—or really almost any of the films you want to see.
So, while my youngest danced around to “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, having no idea what he was listening to, I thought about what a streaming subscription costs versus what it should actually be worth to me. The singles I had cued up in a matter of minutes would have cost about $25 in 1973, which is nearly $143 in 2015, if we factor for inflation. But a subscription to a near-global catalog of music that turns my sound system into a home jukebox only costs about ten 2015-dollars a month? There’s no way that adds up; and no amount of magical wordplay from the Internet industry can make it add up, especially for the next generation of recording artists, and quite possibly for their fans.
The personal relationships my kids are forming with the music they’re listening to right now will be the basis of their own nostalgia in 20 years. Yet, despite the fact that this personal interaction with music is as meaningful as it ever has been, the market in which artists are working today insists that their recordings aren’t worth anything. They are told these products are just loss-leaders, which must be produced in order to generate a fan base, which might be convertible into revenue by some means other than direct sales of the product itself. No business model actually works this way; but, of course, a young entrepreneur can operate at a technical loss for a while and have a bit of fun before the numbers start to catch up and reality sets in. When recorded works themselves cease to be a commodity (i.e. they’re made for the purpose of selling something else), they cease to be the basis for investment, and this can limit the range of creators’ options to collaborate and produce a richer universe of sounds.
But, of course, look at all the work being produced right now, say the tech-industry pundits. We have a greater variety of music out there than ever before! This is true, which is why critics like me and my friends are called “luddites” and accused of “clinging to old ways.” But in the bigger picture, we are also witnessing very early stages of these market transformations. The switch from digital downloads to legal streaming is just a few years old; and it is far too early to conclude what the results will be over the next decade or two simply by looking at how creators are trying to respond right now. Certainly, there are a lot of creators making all kinds of music and putting it out there for us to enjoy, or not; but if a lot of that music is being produced by artists under age 30 and they cannot build sustainable careers over the next decade, we don’t know what the results will be. What we do know (even with all the horror stories) is that when people invest in the recordings themselves, making bets that these products will be valued, that this model produces a great variety of works for us listeners.
That eldest child whom we put to sleep with Aaron Neville is naturally into metal and punk as a young adult. And he recently introduced the whole family to an artist who, by all appearances, is what we might realistically call a rising star, though not likely destined to be a mega-star. Her sound is original, her guitar playing has been critically praised by fellow professionals, she’s touring, selling merch, she’s hot, and she fits the profile of an artist who would traditionally have a 10+ year career with an indie label. As a colleague of mine with 30 years experience working with indies told me, “Under the old system, I can say with confidence that this artist would have ten times the recording sales she does today. And that would be enough for us to have invested in her career and provide all the support she needs to develop and produce her best work and to support her with marketing, booking, openings for bigger acts, videos, etc. Today, we can’t make that investment.”
The counter-narrative to this indie-label model is that, thanks to the Internet providing a free platform for promotion, the artist can be her own support system, and therefore, “keep 100% of the recording sales” rather than share any of it with that grubby label. Except the way this translates in reality is that the artist gets to do the work she knows (make music) plus a lot of the work she doesn’t know (marketing, booking, producing, etc.) and “keep 100% of recorded music sales & license fees,” which are now so low that they almost might buy coffee for the people who’ve done her favors in the last month. By comparison, the “outdated model” was based on a business strategy, in which the indie label says to an artist like this, “You may never make us millions, but we see a way to invest in your career and make that work over the coming decade or so.”
But pretend we don’t care about the artist herself in this narrative. Still, the potential loss to us as fans just might be that kick-your-ass, break-your-heart, can’t-live-without-it album she never produces—because, of course, musicians are mortal except for Keith Richards. By 35, this hot, punk artist will be another person than she is today. She may be a little burned out on constant touring, or get married, or want a kid, or want to have some kind of personal life beyond producing music for her fans to not pay for. And wherever life leads her, this narrative will produce new music in her; and there may be some masterwork lurking in the alchemy of 2022. But because there were never record sales or sustainable license deals for streaming to properly support that label investment model, there’s no way of knowing what she won’t produce in the coming years as a result.
On the other hand, if our assumption is that she’ll produce anyway—because that’s just how artists are or because artists “do better” when they struggle financially—then as so-called fans, we really have become cynics and leeches. We have no reason to presume that we deserve recorded music for nothing, or next to nothing, just because digital technology makes it possible or because the recording industry has a checkered history. Those are just excuses for our cynicism. Many of us could not imagine a world without recorded music, so how can anyone so dismissively say that it is of little value? Probably, the most cynical belief of all is that recorded music—let alone complex, distinctive, and experimental recordings—will always be widely available no matter what market conditions prevail. This may prove true, but not necessarily. As long as the product we value most of all is the one for which we are least willing to pay, it seems reasonable to say that the future is anything but certain.