Summer Daze by the Music Stream

Photo by Ardevins

Photo by Ardevins

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.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Sam Flintlock

    This is a minor point, but I think you’re being unfair to Psy and Gagnam Style. You need to separate the song from the meme. In its original context, it’s a satire of Korean culture, not a simple novelty song. Obviously, that doesn’t really translate to you and me, but it’s not supposed to. It wasn’t written originally for a western audience. There’s a risk here of being the kinda of beardy “world music” fan who resents the fact that the kids are all listening to rap instead of ‘authentic’ noseflute goat yodellers.

    Suggesting that the main issue with Spotify’s revenue sharing stream is down to competition from piracy is incorrect, to the point it ends up as a de facto apologia for Spotify. It wasn’t piracy that caused the shady backroom stitch-up between the major labels and Spotify at the expense of the indies and DIY artists. (Godrich, to his credit, pinpoints this as one of the major issues). The problem with Lowery is that he reduces absolutely everything to the issue of piracy. It’s a significant issue, but that kind of reductionism is always going to lead to problems. Let’s remind ourselves what Lowery has actually said previously about Spotify- Yes, he makes some minor criticisms, but he’s overwhelmingly pro Spotify, at least at this point. Lowery can’t escape responsibility for his previous support for Spotify, a company that in Goodrich’s words pays a “pittance” to new artists. Part of the issue here is that Lowery’s tied his colours firmly to the “meet the new boss worse than the old boss” mast. Spotify are the old boss, in a sharp new suit. And because of that, it’s natural that Lowery’s “the old boss weren’t that bad” stance has ended up putting him in a position where he’s complicit in the great major label Spotify swindle. I don’t think I’m being unfair here. If it’s fair to expect companies to take responsibility for where their ads end up (and I think it is), it’s fair to expect people to take responsibility for where their arguments have taken them. And, in the case of Lowery, it’s taken him to objectively support a company that consciously treats artists not on major labels unfairly.

    Leftsetz is just doing the Leftsetz thang. He’s a professional contrarian. He’s also wrong. Superstars are an aging breed and look to be getting rarer. That’s one of the things the whole “less professional musicians” argument is about- the conflict between the interests of music as an occupation and music as a vocation.

    I wouldn’t say we should ignore the views of Radiohead and Pink Floyd, but neither should we give undue priority to them. The important thing is new artists. Radiohead seem to recognise that, to be fair and that’s what they’re looking at. But with Floyd, artists who are now existing entirely on their back catalogue and live albums shouldn’t be ripped off, but neither should they be our first concern. New music is more important than old music. Creativity now is more important then creativity that happened previously.

    Overall, this whole issue has reinforced my view that the DIY & small indie scenes are going to have to look out for ourselves. Because others interests simply aren’t the same as ours. And that includes the self-appointed artist’s champions. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

    • David Newhoff

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Sam. I realize Gagnam Style didn’t set out to be a global phenomenon, but then things that catch on like that are rarely by design. Look at all the foolish money thrown around by marketers trying to “go viral.” My criticism has little to do with Psy and is more focused on Honan’s somewhat over-wrought celebration of the YouTube generation bypassing the corporate gatekeepers to create a hit, and so on. My point is that, regardless of Psy’s original intent, the phenomenon his video became is not quite so revolutionary as Honan suggests, and Psy himself may have already enjoyed his 15 minutes in the American market (unless someone decides to turn him into a commodity complete with a reality show, tabloid scandal, and of course a leaked sex tape.) I jest. It is of course possible that Psy is a comedic genius, and that we’ll be seeing all kinds of new work from him that will have a universal appeal. Either way, my point is that the internet is ideally suited for short-lived stuff like Gagnam Style but may not be terribly conducive to supporting long-term investment in creators trying to achieve excellence.

      I certainly agree that the future matters, and my point is not to give undue priority to these veteran musicians so much as to not dismiss them as “old school.” There is an assumption that in the digital age, “everything is different,” and this is a false assumption in several areas from politics to journalism to creative work. I simply caution against too ardently embracing the “new” just because it sounds new. That can be a good way to run headlong off a cliff.

      • Psy is not some kind of fluke, he’s one of the most successful South Korean artists even before his viral hits. As a plus, Psy’s music tends to be easy to dance to. Nor do you need to be totally stoned to enjoy listening to it.

  • Sam, lot’s to like about your comment, but it does go to prove that we do instinctively like to bring our heroes down. Lowery is a bright guy with passion for the fight and I agree with him most of the time. He along with others have re-ignited the conversation about artists’ rights and to their credit, we will see some positive changes. To discredit Lowery over a few details is counterproductive.

    I do take issue with this:

    “It wasn’t piracy that caused the shady backroom stitch-up between the major labels and Spotify at the expense of the indies and DIY artists.”

    Unless, you are only making the point that indies were “punished” by the dealings of the majors. . . . there is no question that piracy created a situation where music had become so devalued that a decade later Spotify was able to negotiate their existence with the major labels. I’m sure Sean Parker understands the irony in this, as a principal in the company.

    These are perilous times for creatives whose work can be digitized and distributed over the internet.

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  • How about this: we get rid* of piracy, and then after a few years — we can see what the ‘actual’ value for music really is.

    *just for you ‘M’, no there is no completely eradicating piracy, i agree. What can be done, though, is stopping commercial -for profit- /and ad sponsored piracy. This is not asking too much, and not that difficult to do.

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