We’re going to wade into these waters. There are a lot of people crying about Spotify. There are a lot of people still crying about downloading and streaming in general, and the internet-ification and cheapening of music and how there’s just no money in it anymore. All of this is coming from very valid frustration, frustration that I share as I watch the river of nickels dry up, that used to come from running advertisements against blog posts about shit other people created. But I’ve always approached these problems with punk ethos: Don’t complain. Don’t waste time looking for someone to blame. Accept reality, and find another way. Or shut up and quit.
For a time in our early days, we devoted a fair amount of virtual ink to sorting out the state of the music industry, echoing opinions and ideas. It got old really quick, but before it did, one of, if not the key piece we referenced as a starting point was Steve Albini’s now-historic 1993 essay, “The Problem With Music.” There was also Courtney Love’s equally thorough take (no, really) and eventually we presented some touchstones of our own, such as our first interview with Josh Homme discussing Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails’ new ideas, and this really good interview with Ian Rogers of Topspin / Yahoo! Music. And that’s about where we left it, aside from some bitching about silly copyright laws that continued to piss us off after we accepted the landscape of digital distribution.
On Saturday, Steve Albini gave the keynote address at the Face The Music conference in Melbourne, Australia, in which he followed up his 1993 essay with an equally thoughtful sequel. The thesis: The internet has solved music’s problem. You can read the speech in full over at The Guardian. Albini’s speech has perfectly captured and dissected the landscape as we see it, with optimism on the other side of acceptance. Some key quotes:
…I would like to address a platitude about the online exposure of music. From all quarters we hear that, this is the platitude: “We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone.” I use finger quotes to indicate intellectual distance between myself and the quotation. I have a friend, Tim Midgett, who uses three fingers for finger quotes to indicate extra irony. This is a two jobber.
I disagree with this rather inoffensive platitude. It’s innocuous and vapid and fills the air after someone asks the question, “How is the music scene these days?” And it maintains hope that the current state of affairs as mentioned, presumed to be tragic, can be changed for the better. For “everyone.” That word everyone is important to the people using the sentence. In their mind the physical distribution model worked for everyone. But the new one does not. Not yet, not yet. Not until we “figure it out.” I’m sure we’re all going to get tired of me doing that [air quotes].
I disagree that the old way is better. And I do not believe this sentence to be true: “We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone.” I disagree with it because within its mundane language are tacit assumptions: the framework of an exploitative system that I have been at odds with my whole creative life. Inside that trite sentence, “We need to figure out how to make this work for everyone,” hides the skeleton of a monster.
Let’s start at the beginning. “We need to figure out:” the subject of that sentence, the first-person plural, sounds inclusive but the context defeats that presumption. Who would have the power to implement a new distribution paradigm? Who would be in the room when we discuss our plans for it? Who would do the out figuring we need to do? Industry and consumers? Consumers is a likely response, but did the consumers get a vote about how their music would be compressed or tagged or copy protected or made volatile? Did anybody? Did the consumers get a choice about whether or not Apple stuck a U2 album on their iTunes library? Of course not. These things were just done and we had to deal with them as a state of being. Consumers rebelling or complaining about things – “market pushback” – isn’t the same thing as being involved in the decision to do something. Clearly the “we” of this sentence doesn’t include the listener. I believe any attempt to organise the music scene that ignores the listener is doomed.
How about the bands? Do the bands get a seat at the “we” table, while our figuring-out needs are met? Of course not. If you ask bands what they want – and I know this because I’m in a band and I deal with bands every day – what they want is a chance to expose their music and to have a shot at getting paid by their audience. I believe the current operating status satisfies the first of these conditions exquisitely and the latter at least as well as the old record label paradigm.
So who is this “we?” The administrative parts of the old record business, that’s who. The vertical labels who hold copyright on a lot of music. They want to do the figuring. They want to set the agenda. And they want to do all the structural tinkering. The bands, the audience, the people who make music and who pay for it – they are conspicuously not in the discussion.
How about the word “need,” we “need” to figure out? The need is actually a “want,” a preference. These remnants of the music industry are unsatisfied with how the internet, the bands and the audience can get along fine without them. So they prefer to change things to re-establish relevance. You see this in the spate of 360° deals that are being offered now, where everything a band does, from their music to their T-shirts to their Twitter accounts belong to the record label. In exchange the record label offers startup money. I believe this approach is doomed by things like Kickstarter, which have proven more effective and efficient at raising money directly from the audience that wants to support the music.
How about the infinitive “to figure out?” We need “to figure out.” That presumes that we can know how to attack a global distribution enterprise long after the internet has crowdsourced an efficient and painless way to do precisely that. There’s a reason the water faucet hasn’t changed radically over the years. Time and trial have demonstrated that the best and simplest way to control hot water is by turning a tap. Problem solved, no further solving of the hot water faucet problem is required. I cannot be the only one who is annoyed by the constantly misaligned proximity faucets in public washrooms. Imagine if listening to music was as frustrating as that.
The next part of the sentence: “make” distribution work. This implies that we have control over the distribution, that we can make it do some things but not others. The internet proves this to be a fallacy. Once we release music it’s out of our control. I use the verb “release” because it’s common vernacular. But I think it’s a perfect description. Even more apt if you consider what happens when you release other things, say a bird or a fart. When you release them they’re in the world and the world will react and use them as it sees fit. The fart may wrinkle noses until it dissipates. The bird may fly outside and crap on windshields; it may get shot down by a farmer. It’s been released, so you have no control over it. You can’t recall the fart, however much you would like to. You can’t protect the bird.
Distribution is a problematic word. Its prior meaning implies scarcity and allocation of physical products. You can inventory them, you could tax them, duty them, you could search somebody’s book bag for them. None of that is true with digital files. If it were possible to return digital files to the strict control of the record labels (it is impossible, don’t worry), what would be their incentive to be honest in their accounting? In the physical distribution model you could inventory the titles in the warehouse during an audit and compare them with the delivery manifests from the press manufacturing plant, and know with reasonable accuracy how many copies had been sold. How on earth would you inventory a digital file? Count how many were left on the shelf?
That word is problematic, but the most problematic word in the sentence is the word “work:” we need to figure out how to make it “work.” Work is an impossible word in this context. Depending on who uses it, it will have contradictory meanings. For a label the system would work if it generated a profit per play, controlled access to music while providing access to the audience for advertisers as an additional income, and allowed the availability of push marketing for promotion. For the listener it would mean open access, ability to find specific and niche music, continuous playback, lack of nuisance, ease of use, freedom from spying, low or no cost, utility on different devices, lack of push marketing and lack of advertising. For a band it would mean finding an audience and having no barrier to participation, and no limits on amount of material made available. You can see how this is problematic. It is literally impossible for a system to satisfy all of these needs simultaneously when they are contradictory.
And the hybrid approaches being tried are clumsy and insulting. I recently tried streaming a podcast from an official licensed site. When [my] cats started fighting I missed a little bit, having to separate the cats and then feed the cats and then calmed them down. I came back to my computer and tried to replay the last few minutes that I had missed but was greeted with a notice that due to copyright agreements this player was not allowed to rewind the podcast. I find it unimaginable that the people who posted the podcast wanted that provision enabled. And the site just ensured that I would never bother with their product again.
The conclusion of that sentence, the “for everyone” is also problematic. I don’t think it is necessary or even preferable to have everyone involved in defining the experience with music or more generally the relationship with the band and its audience. We seem to accept that record stores, who were once the welcoming face of the industry and the recipient of much promotional patronage described earlier, are not coming along in the digital era. Record stores now get their appeal from carrying secondhand records, something the industry used to have a regular shit fit about. And by carrying speciality and niche material that is too marginal for corporate attention, they are clearly not part of the “everyone” in the sentence.
So there’s no reason to insist that other obsolete bureaux and offices of the lapsed era be brought along into the new one. The music industry has shrunk. In shrinking it has rung out the middle, leaving the bands and the audiences to work out their relationship from the ends. I see this as both healthy and exciting. If we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years it’s that left to its own devices bands and their audiences can get along fine: The bands can figure out how to get their music out in front of an audience and the audience will figure out how to reward them.
There’s a lot more, and the full read is highly recommended, but that’s the crux of it. The only point I care to make that Albini didn’t quite get to (among many other less significant rabbit holes) is that, the way I see it anyway, it’s not that there’s no money anymore. It’s just been redistributed. The same amount of money is spread across a far fewer number of people in a far larger number of companies & supporting industries, and a lot more bands that we’ve been able to discover through a lot more channels. It’s gotten more competitive. There are bands that might have been good enough to make something happen in 1995, compared to what else its target audience had in its limited view, who’d have no chance today. The net effect is that we’re listening to better music (or as Ian put it, music that’s more relevant to us), and I personally think that’s worth leaving a few hundred thousand mediocre bands behind, let alone a factory’s worth of obsolete leecher jobs. But I like good music a lot, so maybe I’m biased.