The Future Shape of Musical Remnants

Here are some thoughts about streaming and recorded music from recent reading. In some sense, this is a dump of links for future reference, but I hope I connect some dots, too.

Ben Sisario told the story, in yesterday’s New York Times, of a songwriter name Perrin Lamb, whose independently released song ended up in a popular playlist on Spotify and earned him $40,000.

Which reminded me of Rosanne Cash’s comment that 600,000 Spotify streams earned her $104. She called streaming “dressed up piracy,” but I think she misses what’s happening here. The streaming services are often owned, at least in part, by the big three labels, and the labels collect money and distribute it to their artists (while taking their own cut, just as they did off records). As the artist in Sisario’s story shows, if you don’t have a label more money passes through to you.

One problem with the idea that streaming services are ripping off artists is that the streaming services are all losing money. Pandora announced huge losses this past quarter, plus ended settling with music publishers for three times the cost it want to pay for the rights to stream music written before 1972. Pandora has tens of millions of customers. If it’s still losing huge numbers and it’s costs are going up, how is it going to survive? Spotify is in a similar position, losing lots of dough despite being the leader in subscribers.

Making money on recorded music, this guy Philip Kaplan argues, was a historical accident. Records were meant to be a spur to get people to buy record players, but the software companies that eventually emerged figured out ways to make more money selling copies of music than the machines to play it on. Streaming services, Kaplan argues, are simply restoring market efficiency to a process that was exploited by the labels.

A guy who has a blog called Startups and Shit, pointed me to a NY Times article from 2007 about how cultural hits, like hit songs, happen. According to the experiment Duncan Watts writes about, predicting hits is so hard because there is no single line of taste that hits have to cross. Not quality, not simpleness, not nothing. In fact, hits erupt out of apparent quality blips, in which a small network likes something which somewhat randomly spreads to other related networks simultaneously. When enough networks light up, there it is, a hit!

These network explosions amplify the perceived quality of the hits, though objective analysis among any of the individuals in the network would show a small advantage in quality. Watts calls this a “rich get richer effect.” Watts writes:

This, obviously, presents challenges for producers and publishers — but it also has a more general significance for our understanding of how cultural markets work. Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, it’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow “better,” at least in the democratic sense of a competitive market, than their unsuccessful counterparts, that Norah Jones and Madonna deserve to be as successful as they are if only because “that’s what the market wanted.” What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “reveals” what people wanted all along. In such a world, in fact, the question “Why did X succeed?” may not have any better answer than the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”

The Startups and Shit piece links the hitmaking effect of networks with the network the major labels control most tightly, namely radio.

His suggestion for the streaming services is to sign their own artists and try to break them on their own radio services, much the way Perrin Lamb, who surprisingly earned $40,000 for a song from an album that wasn’t even on Spotify when it broke on Spotify.

In this way, Spotify and other services, could break the discovery grip of the labels on radio, and arrange to get more money to artists at a lower cost. Win win.

Well, not for the labels.

This leads us back to Philip Kaplan, whose piece ends with a link to a band called Extinction Level Event’s lead guitarless metal viral hit, Entropy, and to his own band’s self produced and promoted metal band, Butchers of the Frontier. Rockers, he says, from recording, promoting, selling tickets and merchandise, are doing it for themselves, as they should be.

8 thoughts on “The Future Shape of Musical Remnants

  1. Interesting but I don’t buy the historical accident argument. Historical inevitability is more like it. Also inevitable was an almost global pop culture with everything driven by tech, from the trains that first allowed touring to the mass printing that distributed sheet music to the radio and records etc. I think the internet has almost, not quite, completely screwed the concept of intellectual property. It’s on the way out anyway. It’s great that musicians have more control but I doubt that life is any easier for them. Seems like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow ain’t there anymore. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the pop stars of our day made ridiculous amounts of money, which did their music little if any good, on the other hand a musician of talent ought to be able to make a living. I don’t see a solution.

  2. About the time that the record player was being invented, roughly, the idea of intellectual property was being pinned down. Sheet music was in there too, as you point out. The UK TV show Pennies from Heaven was all about this. Reproducibility paid for awhile, that’s the accident, since in all the time before and the short time since, it is the original that paid. Not copies.

    The part that’s good in this transformation is that the artists are maybe finding a way to bypass the labels, but as someone I read said today, this gives the advantage not to the best musicians but to the best musicians who are also tech/social/commercial savvy. As it ever was.

    The evidence, to me, says that musicians of talent and savvy will be able to make a living going forward. None may get as rich as Pink Floyd, but that’s okay. If they can live like jazz guys live now, that’s okay. Middle class is okay. That will continue to happen. And stars will get rich. That’s okay, too, at least until they overdose on their need for fame.

    And if myriad a&r and label guys don’t get rich off the artists, that’s even better. But I’m sure some of those guys can add value and will find a role in the new order. It should be smaller, and fairer to artists, but as I type that I’m sure that industry weasels will find a way in.


  3. The attraction of the biz was always the quick buck, so those types will fade away you would think. But as you point out, many of them “add value” – an amusing but hate-to-say-it accurate phrase. Middle class is more than OK but I wonder if “struggling to survive” isn’t more like it. Constant touring is a hard, hard life. Another possible outcome is the return of the one-hit wonders, which would be great. Not that they ever really went away, but it seems to me that most pop artists (pop in the broad sense) only have one or two good ones in them anyway. To me the greatest sin of the industry has been foisting formulae on us and running successful ideas into the ground.

  4. It looks to me like everyone who isn’t in a growth position, whateverthefuckthatis, is struggling to survive. If you can play music and make it, good on you, and if you can’t, please keep playing in the house. Balancing your production with anyone else’s desire to receive it is a big deal.

    YouTube is the land of one hit wonders, by the way, unless they land on Instagram or some other service. Getting people to pay or to look is what gets you money. And people are doing that, though I have to admit that I don’t really understand the why of it.

    Thankfully, the ones who do also seem to understand that the labels offer them nothing. Good for them.

  5. My window of a possible music career closed long ago. And I still buy CDs – for me, enough bricks and mortar of vinyl, without all the pain in the ass of vinyl. I hate downloading.

    So screw me.

    I’ll be dead soon anyway.

  6. And, by the way, that music video was “interesting” to say the least.

    Is metal the only musical genre that gets to do necrophilia? Is there necrophilia folk? Necrophilia jazz?

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