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Debating the future of music

post brought to you by: calmstock

“It’s hard to get someone to understand something if their paycheck depends on them not understanding it.”

I’ve been thinking about that quote all week. I forget exactly where I heard it, but it’s been stuck in my head ever since last weekend’s Music Hack Day in Boston. The event brought hackers together from every corner of the globe to develop new music applications to advance the future of music. And amidst all the hacking, music’s future and past briefly clashed, making for some compelling moments during the Sunday afternoon panel discussions.

On the panels were purveyors of the now, including representatives from Last.fm, The Echo Nest, Music Power Network, Harmonix, and Songkick––all sharing ideas on new models for music business, discovery, taste-making, and more. And In the audience, among all the hacking hackers, was a gentleman with an impressive music business background that included radio promotion on behalf of labels to get songs on the air and CDs into shopping carts (the kind with wheels).

At one point, the gentleman in the audience commented that the proliferation of music taste-making and discovery was making it nearly impossible to break an artist BIG––like Bruce Springsteen big. It’s too fragmented in his opinion and he’d prefer a more singular pipeline of music discovery and taste-making. An hour later in the Future of Music panel he once again took the mic and asked the panel, “So, what bands have you broke?” He reiterated his earlier point that the proliferation of discovery and taste-making was undermining the infrastructure needed to break big-time artists. He told the panel, “You can’t make a Radiohead!”

You know what? He might be right.
And you know what? Fine.

And that’s the part this gentleman didn’t seem to get.

I found it a little funny that he used the words “break” and “broke” when it came to labels and artists. Yes, I know what he meant, but it’s important to note that for every platinum Bruce Springsteen record there’s a multitude of records that are under-promoted and ignored because the labels are focused on their shrinking portfolio of million sellers. This leads to artists more or less dead on the vine, trapped in contracts owing money as well as music the label has little interest in promoting. So yeah, nothing breaks a band quite like the traditional “Big 6” (5, 4, 3, 2..) record label pipeline. Steve Albini’s classic The Problem with Music rant addresses this much better than I can. If you haven’t read it, do so. Some of the details are a bit dated but the math is still enough to make one’s head spin.

Regarding the “you can’t make a Radiohead” comment: Last.fm, The Echo Nest, Harmonix––these companies aren’t really in the business of promoting platinum sales of music encoded onto shiny plastic disks. They’re about building connections among fans and artists. And if an artist blows up huge? Great!! Sure they want to support artists, but I don’t think it’s their mission to make artists (and thereby labels) rich beyond their wildest dreams. And here’s the thing: I think most artists are just fine with this. In my opinion I think the majority of artists would rather have significant control over a medium-sized pie than have zero control of a (potentially) huge pie. Sure, some will gamble and shoot for the stars, more power to them. But if there’s ever going to be a music “middle class,” its backbone will be made up of artists managing sustainable, medium-scale careers. In sum, it’s wrong to criticize these new music businesses for not doing what labels can do when more and more artists simply don’t want what labels can do.

I’d like to stress that I’m not aiming to bash this gentleman. He’s obviously incredibly passionate about music and cared enough to attend an event where he must have known many would see him as the “enemy.” And to his credit he even called out the record companies for being “really stupid” in the way they’ve handled their business.

My point is this: the future of music is now largely in the hands of the fans. And those fans who develop “cred” are the new taste-makers. I think this is a good thing. Fans and taste-makers have the power to help make an artist popular and can put money in their pocket, but they do not have the power to trap and bankrupt a career. An artist’s career, and the level of success they achieve, is ultimately up to how well they the artist build a sustainable business around music that creates fans.

Major labels and a single pipeline of discovery have little to no significance in this formula. But if your paycheck depends on the older model, maybe it’s just really hard for that to sink in.

9 Responses to “Debating the future of music”

  1. bryon says:

    “but they do not have the power to trap and bankrupt a career.” … only pitchfork can do tbhat nowadays. Great read.

  2. This post is excellent, and I very rarely leave a comment for people to say so. Your opinion is valued. I wish I could get involved in these conversations, but I live in the UK.

    I’ve always wanted to be part of a discussion forum with progressive minds, and not in a traditional forum sense – live video perhaps – maybe now is the time to unite?

    • dirkler says:

      Thanks Tom! I love the suggestion.

      Great things are happening right now. While these traditional forums and panels are great for an ‘open’ discussion, they do limit involvement because you have to actually be there. But we now have many new tools on the web that make it capable of world wide involvement. Living in the UK should not exclude you from getting involved.

      Everyone’s wondering what exactly to do with google wave. There are already small groups of music-likes on there that are sharing in relative real time discussions. Who knows?

      And all credit goes to Brandon for this great post. I just provided the medium 😉

      • Wave seemed very appealing, until I tried using it. I’m audio.tom and I suppose now more people are on it, it could prove to be useful. Add me and I’ll get it open this week.

        Could be worth making a hashtag for twitter like #fom (future of music)

  3. […] Brian Whitman (The Echo Nest) sums up his thoughts and best bits. Brandon C Walsh (Dyson Sound) takes inspiration from one of the panels that took place on the weekend. Jen Nathan (NHPR’s Word Of Mouth) […]

  4. MusicBizGuy says:

    At MusicHack Boston, I believe that people really misunderstood my comment about the inability of the exceedingly fragmented music space to create a scenario where new major artists can be discovered. Many today seem so intent upon taking shots at those coming from the traditional music business and are resolute in their belief that persons like myself have not been able to grasp the reality of today’s new music world and business. Consequently, my words are immediately perceived to be saying one thing when in reality they are saying something completely the opposite. Here is my point.

    Music can be an individual experience, a collective experience of some combination of both. Some people who listen to music are content to like what they like and could care less about what anyone else thinks. These people are not and probably have never been a part of the music listener mainstream. Others enjoy sharing their interest in particular music within a group context. The artist could be maximum mainstream like Elvis or the Beatles or equally compelling and more eclectic but less mainstream like Dan Deacon or Girl Talk. In either instance, people have been able to find this particular music and join the collective consciousness of those who share a similar love for that artist. The ultimate end in this shared experience is that when these people come together at a live performance of an artist they love, they share an immediate connection with everyone else who is present. Together this collective consciousness takes those present to a much higher emotional level and allows them to truly bond in the moment.

    Before the Internet, the experience of finding music was controlled almost entirely by the whims of what a few companies decided the listening public should hear. These companies totally controlled the means of distribution. Then the Internet came and changed all of that. Anybody could distribute any music they wanted to anyone who wanted to listen to it. The old system had many faults. One it didn’t have was that it offered the listening public choice and control over their decisions about music. Today with the choice of music being mostly user generated and the music discovery process so fragmented, it has become a daunting task for the average listener to have any serious control over their decisions about what music they can collectively enjoy with others. This shared experience is what I believe those in the mainstream of life really want and feel comfortable with in regard to the music they want to listen to.

    For those willing to look, the Internet has provided volumes of great music. The new middle class of artists that has developed over the past ten years is a beautiful thing, great for those whom have worked hard enough to become part of it and live off of their success and not so great for those that can’t get past the musician poverty level.

    Many people desperate for help in finding great music have given their power of choice to the latest major music influencer, Pitchfork.com, a site that has emerged with the ability to influence the musical tastes of many people at one time. Like it or not an entity like Pitchfork makes decisions for that portion of the listening public who wants someone or something to decide for them what should be good. As more of these kinds of entities evolve in the new music business and influence our taste, eventually, the new music business may not look much more different than the old one. I, for one, probably won’t mind because this new form of mass media will eventually find ways to enable many people at one time to discover and share music and collectively find that powerful emotional bond with certain artists who deserve it that, I along with others, really crave.

    • The important thing to consider is how good music is filtered to the end user.

      You explain very well the filters of the past, from the select few who decide the music the nation listens to (still true for perhaps 90% of the population). Then you point out how a high traffic website like Pitchfork is a more recent example of this kind of filter.

      I am reminded of a quote from an interview with John Niven, ex-A&R and now writer of one of the best novels I have ever read, Kill Your Friends.

      He said, “A&R men – like editors – are filters. They’re necessary.”

      Now let’s consider the importance of blogs, and then twitter, in allowing individuals from the ‘public’ becoming filters for a mass of people. This isn’t exclusive to music, the people I follow on twitter filter through all the content I consider to be good, with the final filtering stage being me deciding which links I click on.

      Information is distributed quite elegantly today, and I could make another long post about how in the future all the filtering will be automated, much like last.fm telling you if you’re a musical match with someone, but for ALL content/information in the world, as you move around it (the dream of augmented/improved reality engineers).

      Back to my point – the everyman is becoming a filter to contend with.

      Bye bye A&R?

  5. calmstock says:

    Thanks for sharing your blog post here MBG.

    I fully agree with you on the collective experience bit; surrounding Dan Deacon while hunched over his gear in a small club can be just as compelling / emotional an experience as seeing a “Radiohead” in an arena with 30,000 others. One’s a little easier on wallet is all, and a lot more frequent.


    “Before the Internet, the experience of finding music was controlled almost entirely by the whims of what a few companies decided the listening public should hear … The old system had many faults. One it didn’t have was that it offered the listening public choice and control over their decisions about music.”

    This part however, I don’t agree with–and simply don’t understand. How is that old model better? How does a singular pipeline of music offer more choice than the wide-spread, user-generated systems of today?

    Are you saying that too much choice = no choice? We’ve all had the experience of walking into a record store and having no idea what to buy. How is this different? You talk to your friends, read a blog, sample on Last.Fm, etc. There are still the much-needed filters in place to help people make music decisions–they’re just a little further *downstream* nowadays. A singular channel telling people what’s available isn’t the way to get around too much choice.

    Are you saying that the new user-generated systems can’t support the uber artists you so crave? That may be so, but I really don’t think that matters as much as you say. People don’t spend their lives in 30,000-seat arenas. The spend them with headphones on, and out at pubs and clubs with friends. Music is both personal and social, but the social aspect doesn’t require a hockey arena.

    So maybe there are fewer “Radioheads” to choose from today, but there’s a lot more “Dan Deacon’s” out there packing clubs. Would the latter be possible in a world with a singular pipeline of music choice?

    As for Pitchfork, I think the proliferation of music discovery sites, recommending engines, blogs, etc are providing some much needed competition.

    Finally, things always coalesce a bit after a “big bang,” but I dare say a singular music pipeline–controlled by a few players at the *top*–is gone for good.

  6. […] Dysonsound – debating the future of music […]

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