It’s rarely disputed that word-of-mouth is the best form of marketing, such as getting fans to organically spread your song. This scattering used to be territorial, with songs suddenly gaining hold in an urban center — often due to organic support from a local radio DJ — and spreading outward.
It was a challenge to determine how and why some songs spread. But tracking should be simple now that ‘virality’ is mainly an internet phenomenon. Metrics and data-gathering offer transparency on the distribution of these sonic ‘memes.’ So it’s fascinating when something unexpected falls through the cracks. Here’s a recent example from Pitchfork:
Dinosaur Jr.’s 1994 song “Over Your Shoulder” hit the Billboard Japan charts this week, topping the Hot Overseas chart and entering the Hot 100 at #18 (above other Western artists such as Ariana Grande and Queen). […] “Over Your Shoulder” was never released as a single, and has not been reissued in any capacity in Japan recently. It does not appear in a new popular film, nor does it appear to soundtrack a meme or viral video. Pitchfork has been unable to source the video or videos that garnered these plays; Billboard was also unable to find the source of the 8 million views.
An update to the Pitchfork article surmises that the song was somehow featured in a popular Japanese game show. This might have led to posts of the footage on YouTube (since pulled) as well as content uploaded by show fans with the song. All these YouTube plays added up to 8 million hits for “Over Your Shoulder” which counted toward its Billboard Japan chart position. Suddenly Dinosaur Jr. is (temporarily) big in Japan.
There’s something wonderful about not knowing for sure how this happened. Let’s celebrate these untraceable viral surprises while we still can.
Update → via Gizmodo:
In the end, no one factor made “Over Your Shoulder” a Billboard hit in Japan. Nearly 25 years ago, it was released. More than 15 years ago, it was used on a Japanese reality show about boxing bad boys. Six years ago, Billboard started counting YouTube plays. And just days ago, YouTube apparently began recommending pirated episodes of that reality show to Japanese users, who seemingly binged it in the thousands, playing “Over Your Shoulder” over and over again in the process.
A terrific article on Medium by Stuart Dredge occupied my thoughts this morning. The title is provocative, but does accurately convey the piece’s thesis — Music Created by Artificial Intelligence Is Better Than You Think:
Human-created music already spans everything from the sublime to the unlistenable. While an A.I. may not be able to out-Adele Adele (or Aretha Franklin, or Joni Mitchell) with a timeless song and performance, it can compose a compelling melody for a YouTube video, mobile game, or elevator journey faster, cheaper, and almost as well as a human equivalent. In these scenarios, it’s often the “faster” and “cheaper” parts that matter most to whoever’s paying.
These ideas mirror what I was saying the other day. A.I. generated music will create significant problems for the library music circuit. But these ‘fast and cheap’ productions will fuel more soulful, distinctive music from those of us who are up to the challenge. I believe the environment will also create increased demand for highly personal music and songs with relatable stories behind them.
And I admit I’m excited about the idea of generative music in public and private spaces. There are many possibilities for this aspect, and my mind boggles. Yep, it’s Brian Eno’s world, and we’re just living in it.
However, there is one part of the article that I have questions about:
Amadeus Code claims to “enhance your songwriting with artificial intelligence” and is squarely aimed at people who are already writing and recording music. Its pitch: “Get unstuck with your songwriting with the power of artificial intelligence and say goodbye to writer’s block for good.”
I don’t have a problem with A.I. as a collaborator. That’s not far off from other creative games we already use, from Oblique Strategies to sample packs to unauthorized remixing. But I am wary of touting A.I. as a cure for ‘writer’s block’ rather than a tool a creator uses with intention.
I fall into the ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block’ camp. I see it as a crutch, as the lizard brain screaming, as The Resistance. The cure, if we need one, is showing up and doing creative work with consistency and purpose. Selling A.I. as a remedy to ‘writer’s block’ gives more power to the concept. What are we replacing The Resistance with if we turn to A.I. whenever we’re not ‘feeling creative?’ Will there be a danger of letting A.I. tell us too much — giving us the chords, the melodies, the lyrics — whenever we don’t feel like showing up?
I’ll point to Izotope’s Ozone as an example. This software is a mastering suite that analyzes audio and, using an A.I. engine, creates settings for a mastered output. Ozone is an incredible tool. I bought it. I use it. And the company repeatedly emphasizes that what Ozone comes up with is meant to only be a suggestion, a starting place for your tailored tweaks. But I fear the majority of the software’s users probably default to the suggested settings. For some it provides a tempting fallback, an excuse to take it easy and not push oneself.
And that’s my issue. That feeling of ‘writer’s block’ is there for us to push through — to provide a challenge — and many times the result is our best work. I don’t doubt that collaborating with A.I. tools can result in great work. But, if we turn to the technology every time we feel blocked or in a creative rut, then I think we deny a very human aspect of the process. C’mon — we don’t need an easy cure for writer’s block.
Per the fiscal 2017 filing, SoundCloud has taken “significant steps to improve its financial health,” including renegotiating certain rightsholder contracts, retiring outstanding debt and cutting major operating expenses, and it achieved positive operating cash flow in 2018.
While its 2018 results will not be available until later this year, SoundCloud says it has surpassed its 2018 growth plan and remains focused on two major ideas: expanding its creator business with a suite of useful artist tools and offering a unique listening experience for its “young, trendsetting, global music fans.” The latter will be increasingly tough as Spotify, Apple Music and other big streaming services solidify their place as market leaders, but the former — a focus on music creation — is something in which SoundCloud remains unsurpassed.
SoundCloud is a popular subject on this blog and, yes, there was a time when we contemplated the service’s possible demise. It’s astonishing that SoundCloud once made a go at Spotify and Apple Music, and the ensuing failure was arguably the direct result of an overreach to attract a mass audience.
I’d say ‘SoundCloud rap’ saved the platform’s bacon. This phenomenon was bubbling hard during the depths of SoundCloud’s financial woes and surely pointed the way out: by doubling down on a core user-base of
I’m not convinced that podcasts are the lucrative road to ‘in the black’ that Spotify may be anticipating. But, writing for Hackernoon, David Abramovic makes a strong case that there are untapped rewards in the podcasting space. The platform merely needs to innovate:
Unlike other music streaming services, Spotify actually has podcasts and is focusing more and more on them, but they’re still heavily deprioritized. Perhaps not too strange, it is still a music streaming service. However, if Spotify wants to capture this massive, still-growing user base, it needs to figure out how to become an audio streaming service instead.
And because of the the current audio platforms being so flawed, the opportunity to become one is bigger than it will probably ever be. But to achieve this, Spotify needs to fix both the current flaws, and further create the new innovations that’s going to make up the audio platform of the future.
Abramovic suggests improvements to Spotify’s podcast infrastructure that are obvious but unimplemented. For example, playlists for podcasts — it’s such a no-brainer that it’s hard to believe not a single platform has jumped on the idea. Pandora is spending capital on a music genome-like engine for podcasts to aid discovery, but user-generated podcast playlists would be much more effective. Looking for podcasts with Seth Godin as a guest? How about the best podcasts with music marketing advice? Or a selection of inspiring podcasts to listen to first thing in the morning? Playlists!
I’m not sure how seriously Spotify will consider Abramovic’s proposals but, regardless, a service with similar features is inevitable (and can’t arrive soon enough). These ideas go beyond playlists and into treating the podcaster as a creator, with access to data, interactions with fans, and self-marketing opportunities. Perhaps as an ‘audio app,’ Spotify — or any other platform — embracing these improvements would extend more interactive and personalized features to its original creator class: the artists and musicians who built the service.
Advances in artificial intelligence, and its applications in our working worlds, understandably create tension and fear. There is the feeling that no job is safe and, for songwriters and musicians, the development of A.I. composed songs is a substantial threat. Though these concerns aren’t entirely unfounded, I think we can find a way to evade the robots.
Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer and co-creator of Behance, writes in Fast Company:
Creativity is antithetical to the way artificial intelligence works. We develop machine learning by feeding in data about the way people react in certain situations. The point of algorithms is to predict what most people will do and execute that expected action. But what makes something creative is the unexpected. […]
For workers who are threatened by displacement, developing the ability to express ideas in a creative way can help them evolve from a threatened job title to one with more security.
All of my artist clients are eager to break into film and television music. Their first impulse is to create music according to spec — that is, determine a set of rules for music that fits a particular context and write to that. For example, music for a happy product advertisement should contain ukulele and glockenspiel, have a bouncy beat, feature lyrics with phrases like “let’s get together and smile.”
If your goal is fulfilling a spec requirement — whether it’s your own imagined rules or someone else’s — then you’ll be outdone. You’ll have to be faster and cheaper than the others who are also delivering to spec. And, in the future, this includes A.I. The answer is to go beyond spec, to provide something more than the rules require. Something personal and unexpected.
“Then how do I create music for movies and TV shows?” It’s as simple as making the best music you’re capable of and creating it in a way that represents you. This music needs to be distinctive to stand out. It should be from the heart. And it could only have been made by you.
Yes, many projects demand specifications. Ukuleles and glockenspiels are all over online product ads. But soon low-priced music libraries will be filled with A.I. created versions of these songs. No one does spec better than a computer, and that signals a race to the bottom. You don’t want to be a part of that race.
Project managers looking for generic music at the lowest price-point are familiar in our industry. But there are also music supervisors looking for music that’s cool and distinctive, as that will make their projects cool and distinctive. They pay handsomely for that piece of ‘cool.’
The dominance of A.I. in the traditional ‘library music’ field will make the difference starker. The rewards will come to those with a story to tell, with music that’s identifiable and capable of connection. Don’t overthink it. Focus your craft on finding a unique voice and a sound that will continue to inspire you. That will lead to your best work — work that others will seek and appreciate. But following the market’s presumed expectations pits you against the robots. I’ve seen that movie — it’s a futile battle.
Nick Cave may have put it best on The Red Hand Files, his brilliant new Q&A blog:
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.
Vinyl sales grew by just shy of 12 percent from 8.6 to 9.7 million sales, while cassette sales grew by almost 19 percent from 99,400 to 118,200 copies sold in the US. It wasn’t quite the 41.8 percent growth seen in music streaming, but it’s still very impressive for two formats that are decades old.
Billboard has some even more encouraging numbers from Nielsen Music:
16.8 million vinyl albums were sold in 2018, according to Nielsen Music (up 14.6 percent) — marking the 13th consecutive year of growth for the format. 16.8 million is also a new yearly high for vinyl album sales since Nielsen Music began tracking sales in 1991.
Before you start charting the course of your digital label toward vinyl production for big profit, understand that most of this growth is outside of the independent sector. It’s mainly driven by legacy catalog and albums that you could have purchased in the used bin for a few dollars each fifteen years ago. The Verge again:
The popularity of both physical formats seems to be being driven by sales of older albums. BuzzAngle reports that over 66 percent of vinyl sales are of albums that are over three years old, with releases from Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd all featuring in the list of the bestselling vinyls from last year.
Despite the prominence of superstar legacy releases, this growth is good news for independents. The pressing plants remain healthy and active, and vinyl distributors and stores are more optimistic than they would be with vinyl’s lifespan tied to a fleeting trend. It’s still tough for an emerging artist to move a couple of hundred record albums — making the per-unit cost enormous, which is partly why you’re seeing $25 LPs — but at least the option is alive and supported. Vinyl production can move the status of a label, differentiating from the low-barrier bulk of digital labels. But one must consider the vinyl aspect as part of a label’s marketing effort rather than a sales driver. Breaking even is often the highest measure of success when it comes to record sales.
Billboard and Nielsen credit “Hoodie SZN” with the equivalent of 58,000 sales in the United States last week, a number that incorporates streams and downloads of individual tracks, as well as sales of the full album. But the vast majority of that composite number is from streaming — so much so that the sales number represents a new low on the chart.
The 823 copies of “Hoodie SZN” that were sold last week — all as downloads, since that title has not been released on any physical formats — is the least number of copies that any album has sold in the week it went to No. 1.
Despite the hype and statistics, vinyl isn’t mainstream enough to warrant a release of a number 1 hip hop album on the format. Even more significant, download sales on the release are incredibly slim (823!) showing the widespread acceptance of music outside of the traditional ownership model. It’s an earth-shaking shift, connected to vinyl’s rise in defiance of the intangible. How vinyl continues to segment itself over the next few years will be a fascinating story.
The heyday of music blogging predicted a future of endless niche outlets for music coverage. Instead, the number of music sites is condensing and release coverage appears increasingly homogeneous. Could there be even fewer places for publicists to pitch to then there were in the pre-internet era? Billboard examines the ‘Shrinking Media Landscape:’
Part of the problem, [publicist Nathan] Walker believes, is the decimation of regionally focused media outlets: alt-weeklies, zines, city-specific blogs and websites. The loss of publications like Baltimore’s City Paper, the Boston Phoenix and The Village Voice took a valuable rung out of the ladder many bands in those markets used on their way to landing national coverage. “There’s something to be said for organic growth that is fostered by local music writers,” he says.
This goes hand-in-hand with my theory why we aren’t seeing obvious new music movements or genres pop up: the waning influence of local and regional identities, made opaque by the absence of dedicated support systems (local music papers, college radio focused on regional scenes, and so on). There are opportunities here for local music communities to fill these holes … the strategy is to think local, aim global. When starting out, it’s a mistake to think global out of the gate.
Another quote from the Billboard piece:
There’s no magic formula for “going viral” and most publicists interviewed agreed that, no matter how much the media landscape changes or contracts, their number-one job is still to help their artists tell their story in a way that will compel journalists and fans alike. … [Publicist Talia] Miller: “I’ve found the most helpful way to promote new tracks from less well-established artists is to develop the story behind those songs.”
As a recording artist, the best place to create a compelling story is within your local scene. And, if you’re starting a music blog or media outlet, the easiest way to fill a niche is to cover that scene.
When I owned a record store in the early ‘90s, a guy would pull up in his van once a month and hawk a selection of bootleg CDs. These discs contained recordings of live concerts, out-of-print rarities, and unreleased demos of your favorite band. I admit that I bought and sold more than a few, as the super-fans prized these limited (and often high-priced) CDs. It was a small scene — though morally precarious the distribution of these discs was regulated by extreme scarcity.
Napster and other file-sharing sites eliminated the scarcity, to a degree, but access was still for those ‘in-the-know.’ But as the internet crossed the chasm, technical inexperience was less-and-less a barrier to finding the unreleased stuff.
Distribution barriers have also crumbled — overwhelmingly a positive development — and pay-to-distribute services like Distrokid and CD Baby now supply releases to streaming platforms with minimal vetting. More-and-more of these instant-distribution services
It’s not surprising that these technological advancements have bolstered seedier elements. That’s the story of the internet, and bootleg culture’s exploitation of the available tools is inevitable. Both scarcity and exclusivity of access have been eliminated, and so we can probably get used to episodes like this (via Music Business Worldwide):
The two [bootleg Beyoncé] albums, released under the name “Queen Carter,” were on Spotify and Apple Music for around a day, long enough to generate furious traction from Beyoncé fans on social media, before being taken down. And the albums came out shortly after R&B star SZA also “released” music under a fake name (“Sister Solana”) that turned out to be stolen demos as well.
Soundrop, an independent DIY distribution service through which both Beyoncé and SZA’s tracks were apparently uploaded via different accounts, says it is working with authorities in an investigation into the “potential intellectual property theft” and that it took down the music as soon as it was aware that it breached the company’s terms of service.
… and then there’s this, via Film School Rejects:
[The movie] One Cut of the Dead should never have been on Amazon Prime
tobegin with. In an email to Film School Rejects, Third Window Films owner Adam Torel confirmed that the film had not been uploaded by either his company or Nikkatsu, the organization in charge of sales for the Asian marketplace. “I saw some posts on Twitter saying it was available on Amazon Prime in both the US and UK,” Torel explained. “Considering the UK theatrical [release] is January 4th, and as it was very hard to get an Asian independent film into cinemas, you can imagine how much I started to panic and fear for my chances of getting Asian indies into cinemas from now on.” […]
For many, this was an ugly introduction to Amazon Prime’s dual nature as both a streaming platform for Amazon’s high-profile acquisitions and a self-distribution platform with little oversight. “Amazon has this whole section that effectively operates like YouTube,” explains Todd Brown, head of international acquisitions for XYZ Films, “and is governed by the same laws as YouTube, which really absolves Amazon of a lot of responsibility for what people do on the platform — but, from the outside looking in, appears almost exactly the same as the fully Amazon-controlled, curated service.”
There is a delicate balance between ease-of-access (and democratization of distribution) and the illicit exploitation of these tools. On the one hand, it’s incredible that anyone can have a self-released film on Amazon Prime next to Hollywood blockbusters. I’m 100% in favor of that. On the other, IP owners may be looking at an endless game of whack-a-mole on platforms with the perceived legitimacy of, say, Apple Music. That’s troubling.
The services, both on the distribution and DSP sides, should look at a robust method for spotting these oversights. Ideally, there would be an independent watchdog organization that worked with all DSPs to remove infringing or bootleg content. Of course, that will never happen because there’s no one to pay for it, and there’s no money to be made. The more conspiratorial of you may argue that actively eliminating this content is seen as money lost, explaining the lackadaisical takedown environment. But reputation and authority are at stake. In the short-term, the profits matter, especially to shareholders, but the absence of prestige and position will create destructive long-term problems. Just ask Facebook.
Which brings us to Beatport and the logical next step in the evolution of the digital bootleg. 5 Mag has been reporting on a ‘prolific’ dance music producer who isn’t simply plagiarizing — he’s releasing other artists’ material as his own. And he’s been doing it unimpeded for at least a decade:
Incredibly, it appears [Flavio] Lodetti’s alleged plagiarism was first discovered when Lodetti sent demos of stolen tracks to the person who made them. On January 7, Gábor Szeles, proprietor of Witty Tunes, posted a warning on Facebook addressed to label managers and producers that “an artist called FLOD” was claiming other people’s work as his own. […]
Multiple producers have posted screencaps of their inboxes with a “flood” (sorry) of emails from Lodetti submitting a half-dozen or more demos at a time. Apparently quite a few bit: new tracks from Lodetti are still being identified and traced to earlier releases from other producers as we speak. “Unfortunately as a result of this post I double checked the upcoming single I signed from Flod and as you would expect it’s a stolen track from 2015,” one label manager wrote in the comments of Szeles’ post. “There’s not even any changes made to it.”
I’ve heard of this happening before but not at the scale that Lodetti has achieved. A follow-up by 5 Mag confirms that a release as far back as 2010 was a master recording stolen outright from another producer. How widespread is this practice? I fear it’s more common than we imagine, and extends to all the independent platforms — Bandcamp, Traxsource, etc.
It’s curious that Beatport doesn’t have a Content ID-like tool in place to identify the resemblance of newly submitted tracks to releases already on the platform. Beatport may see the problem as infrequent, thus not warranting the investment. But, again, there are numerous examples of pirated tracks showing up on Beatport in the past — tongues are wagging on dance music producer forums — and it’s going to get worse.
Buzzangle Music’s 2018 U.S. Music Industry Report has tongues wagging this week as there’s a lot of information to analyze and digest. Everyone agrees it shows a music industry in transition (though, when was it not in transition?) and growing
The most popular 10 percent of songs accounted for 99 percent of all audio streams. … Flip that statistic around: 90 percent of streamable music is responsible for just one percent of actual streams.
That concentration was only a smidgeon less severe at the top of the distribution in 2018, according to BuzzAngle’s latest report. The top 500,000 most popular songs in 2017 accounted for 93.6 percent of all streams. The comparable number in 2018 fell the tiniest bit, to 92.4 percent of all streams.
Music Business Report takes a rosier view of these statistics:
The interesting bit: in 2017, the USA’s Top 500,000 tracks racked up 14.6-times as many audio streams as every other piece of music. In 2018, however, this multiple had fallen significantly, down to 12.2. Despite on-demand audio streaming’s overall volume growing by 41.8% in the US in 2018, the actual number of plays dedicated to the Top 50 tracks fell harshly – down by a pretty shocking 74.6%. […]
In other words (give or take a couple of billion streams): pretty much all of the growth in the US audio streaming market last year came outside the Top 500 tracks (aka outside the weekly Top 10 chart).
I suppose that could be interpreted as great news for independent labels
And if the disparity has indeed gotten worse, then that may also be representative of other factors than the platform. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I was pleased to see Rolling Stone hit the nail on the head with this easily overlooked sentence:
… the fact remains that the rampant inequality that has become pervasive in other aspects of American life is similarly acute in the streaming-verse.
Micro-licensing sites — where you add your music to an online library portal and licensing rights are granted for a small fee — have an allure. For one thing, they’re convenient as you merely upload your songs and fill in some info. The only other step is to cross your fingers and hope your music takes off on the site. Micro-licensing sites promote royalty in scale — that if your music is successful, it won’t matter that the license fee is $15 (or whatever). Thousands of those will add up.
But it’s common knowledge that it’s a 1% of 1% that have such success on these sites. And I’d wager these successful composers work super-hard at it, doing quite a bit more than crossing fingers.
You also have to accept that, in most cases, you’re losing complete control of your work when you supply music to one of these content providers. You don’t know who’s licensing, and you certainly can’t deny a license, and you won’t be able to gauge or benefit from a commercial entity making loads of money off your work.
Stock photo sites operate the same. Which brings us to this story reported in Petapixel:
It turns out a Newfoundland-based company called Islandwide Distributors (IWD) had licensed [Michael] Stemm’s photo royalty-free from Shutterstock for just $1.88. The company then turned around and made at least 500,000 units of products with it [and sold the products in Walmart stores across Canada] — Stemm learned this number after reaching out to the company. So while Stemm’s experience may seem unfair, it was likely entirely lawful and within Islandwide’s rights.
The salt on the wound:
Unfortunately for Stemm, he isn’t even able to withdraw the $1.88 he earned, as his account needs to reach a balance of $50 before he can see the funds.
Techdirt has no sympathy for Stemm:
Stemm said Shutterstock could license the photo. Shutterstock did exactly that. The fact that Walmart has more than 500,000 items featuring Stemm’s photo is probably unexpected, but if you really want to retain full rights to your creation, you don’t hand part of those rights over to a middleman. When Walmart licensed the picture from Shutterstock, it didn’t seek Stemm’s permission because it didn’t need Stemm’s permission. […]
It certainly seems unfair when a company can make hundreds of dollars from a $1.88 license. But there’s nothing unfair about a process that involves a voluntary relinquishment of control. Shutterstock can certainly find a greater market for someone’s photos, but no one should go into this relationship believing it will result in newfound personal wealth.
I agree with Techdirt’s sentiment here — when you enter into an arrangement with a stock photo library, or a music library, or the record label that will own the rights to your songs, you need to accept what you’re getting into. Moving forward, any mistake is but a learning moment as you got yourself into the mess. According to Petapixel, even Stemm admits he didn’t read Shutterstock’s licensing terms before clicking ‘submit.’
That said, I do believe these sites could do a better job explaining what’s in store for content creators and to favor realistic expectations. The idea that an artist will make ‘easy money’ through a micro-licensing site supports a rare exception. The artist might have better luck buying lottery tickets. Just like the lottery, the allure is strong — I’ve certainly been tempted, by both these licensing libraries and the lottery. And it’s okay if you play — just understand the agreement that you’re entering, the potential outcomes, and how frustrating it is to be in Michael Stemm’s position.