Dave Allen

Musicians on the wrong side of history

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Things are getting really odd in the latest music/internet/Silicon valley skirmishes. It would appear that the step up in anti-streaming music, anti-silicon valley, anti-Google rhetoric by famous musicians is getting heated.

The lexicon is growing: Thom Yorke called streaming music services the last desperate fart of a dying corpse, where “corpse” refers to the recorded music industry. David Byrne joined the fray with an odd article for the Guardian last month that compelled me to write my own Op-ed rebuttal. Mr Byrne was telling of how he had removed “as much of my catalogue from Spotify I can.” I believe that is the wrong answer for all musicians, rich and poor.

I also wrote a post that offered a solution. I proposed that if the richer musicians were so concerned for their less well off brethren, and believed that culture and society was about to collapse, then perhaps they should help them out.

Not that that’s going to happen anytime soon.

The latest addition to the anti-technology list of musicians is the well-respected T Bone Burnett, who in a Halloween-inspired fit of pique, said in a Hollywood Reporter article titled: T Bone Burnett vs. Silicon Valley: ‘We Should Go Up There With Pitchforks and Torches.’

How medieval.

Mr. Burnett has a soundbite for us all – “Digital sound has dehumanized us.” If I think for a moment about the true dehumanization of societies under attack around the world – Iraq, Syria, Mali to name but a few – I can only scoff at that statement. It’s pure hyperbole.

I saw a tweet from Thom Yorke the other day where he’d taken a snap of a page from a Jaron Lanier book (I’m guessing Who Owns the Future?) where Yorke wrote “I am proudly Luddite if to be so is to criticise the power and destruction of Google etc.. J Lanier again.”

Let’s take a look at what exactly describes a Luddite – “a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, esp. in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16).” And in a finer description – “The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817.” [Link]

And so, if we were to take Thom at his word, the fall of Google would cause him and his supporters to dance in the streets waving their proverbial “pitchforks and torches,” while denying those in society who are not musicians the benefits of labour-saving technology that Google and other technology companies bring.

That’s about as far away from a credible position in this discussion than I can imagine. The real irony there is that the “labour-saving technologies” of today make it easier, not harder, for musicians to reach an audience. Thom’s band Radiohead posted a film, Scotch Mist, to the Google-owned YouTube where it has garnered almost 7.3 million views. Just sayin’.

Very recently Tim Quirk, a musician and a friend who I have known for some time now, gave a speech at the Future of Music Summit (you can link to it here.) At its heart Tim’s talk was an impassioned plea for musicians to understand the true value of music, not as in a price-point, but at its emotional level. He notes that you cannot devalue music’s worth at that level. He understands that musicians are fighting technology because of their misguided, nostalgic view of the recording industry. There was never a “Golden age” of music. Record deals were not built to empower musicians, they were to benefit the record labels. Most musicians hardly ever made a living from music, only those who rose to the top did. Nothing has changed.

Tim provided an image that shows the reality of a music ecosystem:

Tim Quirk, Google Play Music

From Tim:

You can sketch this dynamic with a simple pyramid showing lots of people spending little or no money at the bottom and fewer people spending lots of money at the top. If you’re a new band, you begin at the bottom of that pyramid, but no matter how popular a given artist gets or how amazing her latest single is, there will always, always, always be more people in the world who don’t care than who do.

So the goal for every artist and every song has always been to climb this pyramid, convincing as many people as you can to part with something in exchange for listening. At first, you just want their attention. The next step is to get them to give you some money for the privilege of hearing your song whenever they happen to get the urge and as you keep climbing the pyramid, you find yourself with fewer and fewer listeners but each one who remains is happy to give you more and more money.

It has never been any different than it is now in other words. The only change is a societal shift. Young people have voted with their ears. They want to access music wherever they are, they are willing to pay for it too. If they like your music they’ll keep paying, if they don’t like it they won’t bother to even listen to it. Radio has always been free for music fans. If they heard something they liked they bought it. Today – same as it ever was. (Before you jump in and say the access to “free” music is killing careers, please remember that radio was always free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Still is. Purchasing decisions are made around it. Online and mobile access to music creates demand if the listener perceives its value.)

Let’s take the musician’s arguments at face value and tell it like it is: they are demanding that they be singled out as a special interest group that should always be able to make an income from their work. If they hold to that position in the face of how markets actually work, e.g. a superior product at a reasonable price will sell better than an inferior product where demand creates the price points, then they will simply lose face and their audience will move on.

And prices are flexible. Arcade Fire released its new album this week and reportedly sold 140,000 copies. If another band called Arcade Ice was as popular but offered its album at $1 less it doesn’t mean it will sell 140,000 copies or more just because it’s a dollar less. That’s because fans of Arcade Fire and Arcade Ice are not necessarily fans of both bands. Each band therefore reaches the fans that will purchase their respective albums, and each band’s income will differ – not on a price point but on demand.

Musicians are in the marketplace and there’s a thing called a Demand Curve:

demand curve

There’s a comment in the Demand Curve article I link to that creates an analogy – “The higher the price of a Kindle is, the less people want to buy it. If the price for a Kindle is to go up drastically, people will buy substitute goods like normal paperbacks, and the demand for ebooks will fall accordingly.”

So underpaid authors should force Amazon to increase the price of the Kindle, right? Oh, wait…

Yelling get off my lawn is not a serious response to a lack of demand.


  • Hazel Perry

    This blog is written up in a modern version! To learn new things this site has been
    an excellent reference as always.

    Harley Davidson and The Marlboro Man Jacket

  • hus

    soundcloud play
    enjoy some music..

  • http://www.north.com Dave Allen

    Rob, thanks for this..I am putting together a post right now that is built on two great comments from my friends Anthony and Maurice. Maurice managed to navigate the Salon tools to leave his comment on my article, Anthony was blocked by tech screwups..If it’s ok with you I may well cut and paste your comment over to the new post and you can then comment further on what you read there…

  • Rob.Sims

    Dave –

    As usual, I’m a bit late to this party. Just ran across the Salon piece on you and ran backwards from there. Great fascinating stuff. Your position makes perfect sense to me, especially if you believe in contracts and pretty simple economics.

    I do wish I could create an account to post directly on this site, but it appears that I will have to join a club, be it Facebook (no) or Google (well, do I have a choice?).

    One response to the “internet is killing creativity” argument is direct evidence that creativity is being killed. Looking through the lens of the Portland’s music scene, I cannot detect any immediate signs of death. The clubs are full and a wide variety of music is being created by enthusiastic musicians for enthusiastic fans. The shows usually start too late for many, but that has always been the case.

    Last night I saw Pere Ubu at the Doug Fir for the princely sum of $15.The club was filled, but not quite sold out. Slightly fewer than 300 fans were able to see a niche band formed about 40 years ago for next to nothing. So imported creativity and the local consumption of creativity seem OK despite Spotify. Perhaps that is because the band owns its catalog and racks up big CD sales instead of accepting a pittance in royalties from Spotify? Or perhaps they are artists who enjoy performing their art to others and accept (grumpily, in the case of David Thomas) their place in the food chain?

    Being an artist is a very personal choice that for most, involves considerable sacrifice, while a few get rich. The idea of fair trade music suggests that some sort of public or private clearinghouse or authority can sort out the relative values of musicians and music and will do it in a manner that is better (fairer?) than the current market system. What I think we would really get is a sort of musical version of the Los Angeles Triforium, a sixty ton concrete light & musical show installed in 1975 that is meant to ‘play “everything from Beethoven to the Bee Gees”,[3].’ Unfortunately, I can’t post an image, but I think fair trade music would sound and look a lot like the Triforium on the rare occasions when it is working.

    For those who are interested, here is more information on the Triforium: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triforium_(Los_Angeles).

  • http://north.com/thinking/author/dallen Dave Allen

    Mr Burnett,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not surprised you took umbrage with my post. I’ve been noticing for some time now that there has been a clamoring amongst musicians of all stripes against “technology” and those companies that are basically web-based. Right now one can see multiple articles, tweets, blog posts etc about how awful and dystopian Google and Spotify are. I now note that the same people are attacking YouTube too, even though musicians have been using it to great effect.

    Now, I always admit here when I’m wrong. The title of my post was not the best, so I’m guilty there of hyperbole. When you say that digital music dehumanizes us, I would say that you too are guilty of hyperbole. That is not a ‘gotcha’ just a statement.

    The two links that you share point to what appears to be a dystopian view of technology from two differing sources. I too could share multiple links to opposing views, of technology’s benefits. It doesn’t help to do that.

    I fear that musicians live in a bubble when it comes to their work, and they take offense at these tech companies as if the rest of society who are not musicians isn’t happy using all of the tools available to them.

    I mentioned the Luddites only in response to Thom Yorke calling himself one. I merely clarified who the Luddites actually were for my readers. I’m not listening to those who “control the medium and the message”. I have written my own opinions for roughly 7 years now about how the internet is a great opportunity for musicians to reach untold amounts of music fans. Also how it is the end of the container, those artificial restraints to the medium called CDs. The future does not fit in the containers of the past, as Rishad Tobbaccowala has written.

    Everyday in my work I consider user behaviour. The music fan has moved on from these discussions as they are now part of an increasingly mobile society. By mobile I mean people, not the devices. How musicians reach these music fans now is getting increasingly harder.

    You may think my views are history but that’s hard to accept given that technology continues to unfurl, rocking culture and society.

    I’m simply a commenter on current society and culture, so yes, what I wrote yesterday is now history, but tomorrow is another day.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation.


  • T Bone Burnett

    Dear Mr. Allen:

    I am not anti-technology. I am anti bad technology. I, like most people, use technology (and the highest technology we can get our hands on) every day, all day long. Your views are at least ten years out of date. They are not on the wrong side of history, they are history.

    Please read this:


    And this:


    If you are going to throw around names like Luddite, you are defending an outmoded Twentieth Century technology.

    You have been listening to people who are controlling the medium and the message. They are lying to you. Seriously.

    Kindest regards

    T Bone Burnett

  • Drew de Man

    I’m okay with free access to music. I support it, in fact. I agree that ultimately, the internet has generated alternatives to old media and ultimately replaced radio in a sense–replaced it with something better. There are a lot of things to like about the new media of music distribution. However, I think a lot of technophiles don’t think critically enough regarding the power hierarchy of who owns what in internet media and the dynamic that hierarchy shapes.
    David Byrne’s position is surprising–is it a joke? I mean, I almost thought it was. Maybe it’s a post-Gramscian post-Situationist post-Industrial dadaist statement… Thom Yorke a Luddite–that is even funnier. I think the Luddites would have taken a hammer to all three banks of his effects pedals and his chaos pads and sequencers. But I get his sentiment. Your definition of Luddite itself has a ring of doctrinaire capitalist ideology to it.
    Go ahead and take T. Bone Burnett’s hyperbole literally. That only makes you look like you can’t think in metaphor. As an artist, I believe we are on the front lines of fighting dehumanization. Denial of this seems to me cynical or else too cowardly to bear the artist’s responsibility to humanity. That being said, I think it’s fair to say that most musicians in the world are pretty happy with the way things are going vis-a-vis technology and access to the music marketplace.
    Right or wrong, it’s a system that works, and I guess people tend to fall on one side or the other when it comes to systems–those who are happy with the way they work and those who would rather criticize, if not subvert or rebel against them. I just wish more tech-oriented people were more astutely critical. It’s easy to bash the old timers who mistrust the new technology. To me, a fuller picture is this: highly mediated social reality has serious detractions and the internet and all its iterations have a sinister side too. Remain ever vigilant and critical. However much money you and your band make, there are motherfuckers raking it in by capitalizing and commodifying the art we make. Commodifiers and capitalists cannot be taken at their word.

  • Jordan Delapoer

    I’m perplexed at how so many socially, politically and economically liberal musicians can be so culturally and technologically conservative.

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  • David Kahl

    Thanks, Dave. I’ve been making the same point, over and over, for way too many years. It’s not that I don’t agree with many points that many of my illustrious peers make, but this is not a basketball game. There’s a fundamental principle at play for centuries – whether it’s a Pope or a record company, the artist has been at the mercy of his patron.

    Technological and organizational shifts have democratized the base of patronage. The politics of power are always such that resistance to positive changes, while led by a certain elite, are also defined in such terms as to narrow the perspectives of many successful artists, to give them a fear of an imaginary threat to their success and security, to find rationale for holding to their positions (based on furthering the fear of a “power base” that is, essentially, modeled on the existing one), to move on to finding other “faults” on their own, to argue these points, and then to let everyone argue among themselves. All while they raid the nests and steal the eggs.

    A gig, in essence, has two components: a means of expression and of connection. If you pull out of one, you reduce the other. Most musicians, if they are honest, recognize the value of the recorded product for what it is, promotion – a business card – presented to further opportunities for work, to express, to connect, and, hopefully, make a living. As a player, once committed, there’s no exit strategy. That is, unless you’ve been lucky enough to rack up enough dough to invest in real estate.