Musicians on the wrong side of history
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.’
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:
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:
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.