This Medium post from Motive Unknown’s Darren Hemmings is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so:
We are constantly being told by the likes of Spotify that they can enhance our music discovery. Algorithms and their own curated playlists should give us no end of music to enjoy. But the sheer volume, coupled with zero friction, results in the much-cited “paradox of choice”. Selecting anything is horribly hard, but equally, with zero friction in accessing it, no emotional investment is made and our own consumption becomes entirely shallow. […]
At every step of the way, streaming services are essentially gaslighting us that this ecosystem is an amazing new development. Just like Silicon Valley in general, there is this mindset that having everything available all the time is a good thing. It isn’t — and it is arguably damaging art and culture as a result. […]
In 2019, artists need meaningful patronage, not a speech about how they could get more streams. That patronage might come from merch or other means, but it should come from music too. As someone who makes his living from the music industry, it also occurred to me that frankly, I owe these people. Without them, I wouldn’t have this job that I love.
The author continues with an opinion that streaming is more of a replacement for radio — rather than for albums or fan-cherished media — than we realize. Like radio, most listeners approach streamed music passively and ephemerally — a song or artist listened to now is forgotten fifteen minutes later. Hemmings feels this is partly due to a lack of listener investment (the purchase of the music) as well as the psychological effect of a seemingly endless amount of content.
I still think that music fans can utilize streaming with intention, but it’s not effortless. Rather than clicking on playlists and random recommendations, listeners can seek out albums and new releases from trusted sources (reviews, online radio shows, friends). And once a great album is discovered, learning more about it and its artist is just a few clicks away. That said, requiring intention won’t easily convert casual listeners to die-hard fans, but the seductive nature of playlists and algorithmic recommendations is turning fans into more passive listeners. Intention used to be inherent in the medium. Gone are the days of merely perusing the CD or LP liner notes (or holding a curiosity-inspiring album cover) and digging further.
The comparison with radio may predict another inevitability: that streaming platforms will become more exclusive rather than aiming to contain every available musical recording. Just as you know to turn to a top 40 radio station to hear that format, or a jazz FM station for be-bop, or the local college station for freeform, esoteric selections, we may see a similar separation in streaming outlets. I believe this could be a good thing, and we’re seeing seeds in the Bandcamp model — that platform isn’t actively courting the new Taylor Swift single.
The ultimate model is for artists to create portals for music through their sites like Neil Young has done with his Archives project. If a fan wanted to hear the music first and in the best quality or format then the artist’s site could be the destination rather than that of a corporate third party. This also gives the artist freedom over presentation, to have ‘liner notes,’ videos, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and such featured alongside the music. The emphasis would be on fan-building as opposed to platform-building. One step further is for artists to be connected and networked, perhaps via an organization like Merlin, so music from similar bands are discovered through the artist’s portal.
There are still many possible directions for the future of the streaming industry. I know it feels like we’re at the end-point, that Spotify and Apple’s dominance and agenda-setting are the way things are and will be. But, as we’re learning with society’s now mainstream skepticism of social media, we’re still at the ‘figuring-it-all-out’ stage with digital media. Expect more than a few forks and unexpected crossroads along the way. And if an independent artist’s future is outside of Spotify — just as independents were rarely included on MTV or commercial radio — then it’s likely that artist will end up stronger for it.
Above: another pic from the sticks, hope I don’t get ticks. I’m hiding out in this remote location for a couple more days.
I’m a fan of email newsletters — I subscribe to way too many — and one of my favorites is Cherie Hu’s Water & Music. Even outside of the newsletter Hu is one of my favorite music industry writers/pundits, and she seems to reserve her most thought-provoking opinions for the newsletter. And 2018’s final edition of Water & Music, titled ‘The Music Industry’s Inconvenient Truths,’ is a corker.
The premise revolves around answers to the question, “What is one truth about the music industry that very few people agree with you on?” I can’t say I strongly disagree with any of the responses Hu received, and this one bolsters the direction of my consulting work. But it’s Hu’s two answers to the question that elicit the most thought — this newsletter’s been reeling in my head since I read it a few days ago.
Hu’s first answer has familiarity as she’s dropping some Seth Godin knowledge and I just finished his latest book, This Is Marketing. The concept of the ‘smallest viable audience’ is emphasized, which states that an artist should only seek to please his die-hard fans. Musicianship and ‘honing the craft’ remain important, but not at the expense of serving the needs of those who support you. Says Hu:
Let’s put it this way: as long as music can be materialized as an item or activity whose purchase generates revenue for somebody, music is a product. People who buy or engage with a musical product are referred to by the industry as “fans,” so “fan” is just another word for “customer.” Customers buy the products that best satisfy their own needs and desires. So, like in any other industry, the best music products most effectively address customers’ needs and satisfy clearly-defined gaps in the market that other products haven’t filled.
In This Is Marketing, Godin argues that we are all marketers as individuals seeking to make a change in others. For the recording artist, that change is as simple (or complex) as convincing a listener to check out her album rather than someone else’s. Godin then challenges us to think of ourselves as something more than marketers — also as teachers, delivering value and reward to our customers/fans. With a teacher mindset, we’re encouraged to produce meaningful content for those who are paying the most attention.
I could go on and on about this but I’ll save it for a future post. I’m cutting myself short as I can’t wait to get to Hu’s next proclamation: “The word ‘creator’ does more harm than good:”
I understand that the word “creator” might be the simplest, most easily accessible term for addressing all possible users releasing content on a given platform. And don’t get me wrong: democratizing creativity is undeniably a force for good, and the last thing the world should do is give fewer people access to tools for making art and expressing themselves. But who owns and profits from that creativity is an entirely separate debate, in danger of being obfuscated by the widespread adoption and promotion of “creator” as a job title.
It may seem like semantics, but the way we adopt and use language rewires our thinking (hello, George). Hu’s point— which I never considered — is that the more we refer to ourselves as ‘creators,’ the easier it is to submit to the notion that our creations are in fealty to others. Notice how the services almost all use ‘creator’ — a sampling of examples Hu points out include YouTube Creators, Facebook for Creators, Spotify’s “Creator Marketing.’ So when a platform sneakily claims ownership of our work — as Spotify did with its #PraiseV campaign (see Hu’s newsletter) — we’re desensitized against protest. Hu again:
Throughout history, the democratization of creativity has coincided with a dilution of clarity around ownership […] [and] the mechanisms by which other companies can claim IP ownership in a world of democratized creation are becoming much swifter than reading through tens of pages of a record contract.
I feel like the tech platforms — Spotify, Apple, Amazon, et al. — would like us to start thinking of music as software. That is, we’ve ‘created’ something that’s inseparable from their technologies. Just as Omnifocus, my to-do app of choice, won’t run and can’t exist without my iMac, a song can’t exist without Spotify. Then we start thinking of our music as dependent on the platform when, of course, it’s the other way around.
That’s one thing I love about music publishing. Its framework forces us to think of compositions as separate from the recordings and undetachable from the songwriter. A song isn’t a creation, per se, but an idea tied to an individual (or individuals, if there are co-writers). The tech platforms have had their problems with music publishing, showing that the intimacy of composition may help protect against music becoming software. But, as Cherie Hu points out, the real battle may be fought through language and how a shift in simple phrasing affects the ownership mindset of future songwriters. Let’s hold on to our ideas and understand that songs are breathing things that exist on their own, platform be damned. Don’t let your music become software.
P.S. — I realize this last bit may seem in contradiction to the first, where it appears I’m referring to songs as product. But it’s not in opposition at all if you understand the type of marketing we’re doing as artists. Godin’s This Is Marketing will help you understand and I recommend it.
P.P.S.— There’s no disrespect intended to software and software makers. But I feel programmers have a better understanding of their IP rights in the milieu of platform-dependence than songwriters and artists do.
Another dispatch from out in the sticks. Howdy. Proverbial country road pictured above.
There’s a fantastic photo in NPR’s In Memoriam 2018: The Musicians We Lost. An emotive Glenn Branca is pictured in the center, and this is one of the best concert photos I’ve seen in a while. There’s so much energy there, like a jolt of Jolt. I assume Glenn is pictured in the midst of conducting his guitar-based ‘orchestra.’
The In Memoriam piece is striking, as these tend to be. There are a lot of special music folks we’ll be missing in 2019. For me, in addition to Branca, losing Mark E. Smith and Pete Shelley in one year is a punk rock gut-punch.
I don’t need another ‘favorite albums of 2018’ list — going through the ones I have bookmarked already could last well into next summer. I should be listening to 2019 music! But Austin Kleon, via his amazing blog (another inspiration for what I’m trying to do here), turned me onto a tantalizingly diverse ‘best of 2018’ list from music writer Ted Gioia.
Kleon titles his post ‘The Agony of List-Making’ and expresses a frustration with making public recommendations under the scrutiny of the internet mob. Gioia eases his own misgivings by presenting his list alphabetically, not allowing any title to receive a crown above any other. Kleon highlights this quote from Gioia’s list post:
Like any music lover, I enjoy sharing my favorite music with others. But in the last few years, a different motivation has spurred me. I believe that the system of music discovery is broken in the current day. There is more music recorded than ever before, but it is almost impossible for listeners to find the best new recordings …
I believe we are entering another era of music discovery, as listeners experience playlist fatigue and blogs continue to lose sway. These personalized lists, from close friends and selected ones from respected total strangers — chefs, movie directors, music writers, etc. — will hold the real power. Recommendations like these have always been the truest source of discovery. But we — as music fans rather than casual listeners — lost our way for a bit as streaming took hold, fascinated by algorithmic playlists and unlimited access.
Optimistically, these personal interactions of recommendation foster more intimate relationships with our music. On the other hand, this could all be my imagination as friends have been recommending music online since those early-90s message boards. But I do feel like there’s a dissatisfaction with playlist culture and how it’s pushed on us by certain platforms. This is a reason I switched from Spotify to Apple Music, something I’ll write about in the future. And this dissatisfaction will grow as playlists and platform features bow further to corporate influence. I used to wonder why Bandcamp didn’t have a playlisting feature — now I get it.
In other news, Big Shot Magazine kindly asked for a 2018 recap and I delivered a few reflections. I mainly talk about the launch of 8D Industries but I also touch on curbing the news diet, a recurring topic around these parts. The Ryan Holiday quote in the piece should be mentally taped above every screen at home, whether it’s a TV or a laptop:
Perhaps it’s time we realize that consuming more news about the world around us is not the way to improve it (or ourselves), personally or politically.
I’d also like to point out that I meant to refer to the long album version of “Bunny’s Dream” as a favorite song of the year. The video edit embedded in the article doesn’t quite have the majesty or the sprawl and, like many unsuccessful edits, feels rushed in comparison to the original.
A question I posed to my social media friends: will people be playing Paul Hardcastle like they were playing Prince on NYE 1998? Of course, this is meant as a joke but I know I gave some DJs an idea for a midnight song on Monday. Please report back if you took the bait.
The streaming model has led to many changes in how we create and consume music. One impact debated as much as any other is the supposed decline of the album as a format. From the outside, streaming seems tailor-made for singles, and many artists are taking advantage of this, consistently releasing one-off songs on streaming platforms, effectively building hype and, in some cases, hits. Some are suggesting the music industry is experiencing a throwback to the ‘50s when singles ruled, and the idea of a self-contained long-form artist statement (i.e. an album) was distant at best.
Billboard is looking back to 2018 as a harbinger of what’s to come:
In case you hadn’t heard, streaming is now king, and 2018 was a case study in how abandoning old-school recording cycles in favor of experimental, fan-favoring workflows can yield tremendous success, even when physical music sales continue to plunge. […]
Executives from both the recording and streaming industries agree that it is no longer the restraints of a physical medium (vinyl, CD, etc.) or shelf space that dictate the impact or capacity of an artist’s work; the real battle is now fought against fan distractions.
I would agree with this, and I also agree with the article’s leaning to the opinion that the rulebook for albums is torn up, thrown out. It’s not that albums are old-fashioned; it’s that we’re at a place where an artist is free to create a statement that best suits her music and fans.
Looking to the past, we can remember purchasing a ten song album — CD, cassette, or vinyl — and finding out there were only one or two good songs. It felt like the record companies were conning us. Arguably, a factor in the quick rise of Napster was dissatisfaction with high-priced CDs featuring only a couple of ‘good’ songs.
I submit that it wasn’t necessarily a record label con. The ‘one good song’ artists shouldn’t have been releasing albums in the first place. There are artists adept at crafting brilliant singles, and there are artists able to make a stunning album statement. Sometimes an artist can do both (mid-80s Michael Jackson or Prince are obvious examples), but I think that’s rare. And a lot of artists had no choice but to wrap a mediocre album around their great, hit single. That’s how things were done before streaming.
In 2018 (going into 2019), artists have the freedom to create in a way that best suits their output and their fan expectations. Childish Gambino can impactfully drop “This Is America,” and Drake can succeed with a 25 track album. Nine Inch Nails can release a 30 minute EP and call it an album, and it’s cool (keep in mind, Van Halen didn’t release an album that clocked in over 35 minutes until David Lee Roth quit.).
Just as a singles artist doesn’t have to release albums, an artist best suited for albums is free to still work in that format. Take our 8D Industries artist Monta At Odds — the album Argentum Dreams is intended as a cohesive piece for listening from front to back. There are a couple of songs that might work as one-off singles, but the Monta At Odds fanbase expects an album and expects the band to take them on this 40-minute journey. If Monta At Odds started releasing a single every month, their fans would be confused and probably listen elsewhere. And an artist finding success with consistent singles would lose fans if she took eight months off to record a concept album.
Once again I’m emphasizing freedom as the defining element of our new music landscape. The album isn’t dead — it’s there if you, or your fans, need it. Be intentional, and understand what you’re trying to say and how your fans want to listen. If that warrants a series of four-song EPs, or a weekly single, or a sprawling 20 track album, then you’re golden. You can do any of that. You could even do all of it if it works. Or, most importantly, you can come up with your own format and schedule — a new expression that might be a single, or it might be an album, but it’s definitely all you.
I came across this wonderful article in The New Yorker about a YouTube-posted version of Toto’s “Africa” made to sound like it’s playing in a shopping mall:
In my 3 a.m. mood, the YouTube edit, uploaded by a user named Cecil Robert, was almost too affecting to bear; it sounded like longing and consolation together, extended into emptiness, a shot of warmth coming out of a void.
Oddly, listening to Toto’s “Africa” in a mall seems to trigger some fundamental human emotion … hearing a song you love when it’s playing from elsewhere is a reassuring, isolating experience: you feel solitary and cared for at the same time.
Recall that Brian Eno conceived of what he termed ‘ambient music’ after being forced to listen to a harp recording at low volume, accompanied by the natural sound of rain outside his window. Eno probably never heard a harp mixed with outdoor rainfall before, so there wasn’t a past emotional reference that affected him. It was the context of where the music existed in his mind, inspired by factors like environment, volume, reverb (natural or otherwise), and sonic quality (the frequencies that were accented or muffled). Just the same, I’m not sure if the author of the New Yorker article experienced “Africa” at a shopping mall in her childhood. But the combination of imagined context (a shopping mall, where she spent time in her youth) and a beloved song from the era triggered an emotion from a memory that probably never happened.
The YouTube clip shows a photo of a shopping mall interior, located in Everytown, USA, and the parenthetical subtitle “playing in an empty shopping centre.” This description in itself is odd, as the poster’s US origin makes me expect “center.” Perhaps he’s fittingly an anglophilic victim of the ‘80s British Invasion? But I digress – my point is that the recording would not have the same effect without the photo of the mall or the subtitle planting the seed in our heads. Instead, the picture could be of an aircraft hanger, subtitled “playing in an empty aircraft hanger.” Would retired airplane mechanics suddenly get all swoony?
Probably not. The shopping mall is powerful for contextualizing as we’ve all heard music blaring through similar retail compounds. It’s doubtful an airplane mechanic regularly heard music blasting through a hanger. The potency is in connecting two parts of the brain that agree on a possible spatial and temporal environment for a song. This song sounds different — that’s because we’ve been told it’s playing in a shopping mall. Our experience allows an understanding of this context, and now we’re feeling twice as nostalgic.
This experiment is insightful. I’ve always felt that, as a music producer, creating make-believe settings for songs can accentuate the song’s ability to connect with listeners. By constructing a world that the song takes place in – whether a particular room, or a landscape, and/or a different time – and allowing this to influence production decisions like reverb, stereo placement, equalization, and extraneous sounds, the song has the potential to open the listener’s imagination. However, there’s no reason to state that you’ve set the song in a shopping mall or any other imagined territory. By following through on intention and delivering context, the song becomes more of a living thing and cinematic, with the listener encouraged to create his or her story.
This idea isn’t original. There are a number of songs and albums inspired by fictional places. But, if you haven’t considered this creative game, then I recommend it. And I’m asking you to fabricate the whole story, look, and feel of the place. Is it rocky or is it soft? Is it high up or underground? Are you there alone or are people, plants, or animals with you? Does this place have a name?
Early in my recording career, I met producer Howie B., and he gave me this advice: “Invent a mental movie scene and record the soundtrack.” Howie meant this in terms of an imaginary film dictating the builds and turns of a song, but the movie’s setting would naturally influence the sonic characteristics. Even without action, a scene set in outer space gets scored differently than one occurring on the Amalfi Coast. And, to emphasize this point, no one has to know the location or plot of your mind-movie. Keep it your secret – that will encourage you to stretch, go to places that you might be embarrassed to reveal, places from your memory, or even appropriated scenes from movies that exist in the real world.
I’m simply proposing a creative exercise to give your muse some extra juice. Unless you’re making music that Eno would define as ‘ambient’ — that is, background music meant to be listened to alongside its environment – you shouldn’t use a fantastic imaginary setting to compensate for a half-written song. And subtlety is key. Overdoing your ‘sailing through the Grand Canyon’ tune with heaps of reverb and bird noises will probably be more distracting than affecting. But contextualizing music, as an occasional practice, might guide the producer toward fascinating discovery and, like Toto in a shopping mall, give the listener an unexpected jolt of emotion and haunting familiarity.