An article penned by the great David Byrne has been doing the rounds recently. It’s a good read, explaining in layman’s terms how many digital music models work, the rise and fall of big record labels, and the negative repercussions to the growing presence of Spotify. I really hope that it makes at least a few people reconsider how they consume music though I was disappointed by the alarmist tone of the article, summed up by the title (“The internet will suck all creative content out of the world”) and this quote towards the end –
Without new artists coming up, our future as a musical culture looks grim. A culture of blockbusters is sad, and ultimately it’s bad for business. That’s not the world that inspired me when I was younger.
Well, for starters the reason that this does not seem like the world that inspired you when you were younger is that this is not the world that inspired you when you were younger. Nostalgia has no place in this discussion. Let’s move on however, I don’t intend this post to be a riposte. For an articulate and well considered response to both Byrne and Thom Yorke’s recent assertations I recommend having a read of this article by Mr Dave Allen. It provides excellent perspective on the Spotify phenomena by placing it in the context of what is actually currently occurring in digital media. Allen emphasis dealing with the reality of the situation; I find his comparison of Spotify to FM radio to be particularly useful. As someone who does not use Spotify, it seems to me that it is the radio stations who should be most concerned by being made redundant by subscription services. The people I know who do use Spotify use it much like radio – they listen to it in the background while they’re working, listen to it when they’re not sure what they feel like listening to. These people still buy music. They’re still interested in new music. To suggest these services are creating a global creative black hole is terribly naive, and yes, I’m afraid it does make you sound a lot like Metallica during the Napster era. Being fearful of change is a common thing but to quote Buckminster Fuller – “Don’t oppose forces, use them.”
But this wasn’t going to be riposte. I think the best way for me reply to news of the latest edition of Music Is Dead is for me to relate some of my own experiences in digital music. But first let’s look at some heartening statistics from recent times (though as we shall see these measurements are becoming increasingly murky):
- Vinyl sales reached a 15 year high in 2012 and in the first half of 2013 increased 33.5% from the previous year
- Revenue from downloads rose from 22 per cent in 2008 to 35 per cent in 2013
- Independent labels accounted for 32.6% of all music sales in the US for 2012
- A 2013 article on Techdirt claims a 510% increase in independent musicians making their full time living from music over the past decade(!)
- And it’s hard to get stats on cassette sales but the unchecked resurgence of this format over the last few years is compelling evidence that shows people want music, they want to pay for it, and they still appreciate nice physical packaging.
Another article from Techdirt that I urge you (especially if you are David Byrne) to read is this 2012 piece by Mike Masnick entitled The Sky Is Rising: The Entertainment Industry Is Large & Growing… Not Shrinking. There’s a load of heartening numbers in Masnick’s report that provide indisputable evidence that we are going through an incredible period of artistic creativity, spurned on by the opportunities provided by that apparent killer of art, the internet. It’s pretty hard not to be excited by a lot of the points that he makes in his report, a thorough examination of several sectors of entertainment industry that presents contrary information to many articles in the most news outlets and blogs. The fact is that good news such as this doesn’t garner as many clicks and shares as panicky articles on lovely old bookshops closing and news of music ceasing to exist unless we do something. Spotify and music subscription services are a major issue, there is no doubt about that, but let us look at this situation with clear eyes.
Masnick also describes the difficulties in measuring the “industry”, in that the “industry” does not really exist anymore. The music industry, and entertainment industry by large, has been splintered into many different pieces. These pieces are an ever increasing number of independent artists, represented by independent groups that represent and distribute their work. This is difficult for quantify but to say there is less art being made today and less opportunity for artists due to things like Spotify is plain false. The best way to see what is happening in the digital world is to experience it for yourself and not rely on shaky figures, which brings us to my story.
I talk about Bandcamp a lot and that’s because I spend a whole lot of time on there, having run Bandcamp Hunter for just on three years now. There’s no need for me to champion Bandcamp any further than I have before, though I would advise Mr Byrne and anyone else feeling as if we may soon live in a musically barren world to become acquainted with the vast amount of music available there within and to observe the spending habits of folks who frequent the site. This is now a very easy thing to do with Bandcamp’s introduction of fan pages and a music feed. This social functionality enables me to view the music that people have paid for with real money via the occasional email that summarises all the recent spending activity of people I follow, or alternatively I can check this out anytime on my music feed. Not only is it a terrific way to discover music, but I’m always delighted to see people regularly paying for music (and often accompanying it with gushy reviews. I love seeing people get excited about music).
The functionality of Bandcamp comes with the struggle between streaming music and listeners actually downloading it,. This challenge of harnessing the huge amount of exposure the internet offers and the converting this into actual money for the artist is something that labels and artists continue to wrestle with. There are ways to negotiate this (only posting a few songs and offering the full album for purchase is a popular and effective technique) though this is a prime example of the music world being uncertain as to how to best utilise the wondrous accessibility that technology offers. I’m certain that Pandora and Spotify are not the answers, and I’m confident they will not be a permanent presence in our lives. Saying that they are creative black holes that will doom all music on earth for good only conjures such images :
We should all know by now not to lose our collective shit over phenomenas like Spotify, especially in such rapidly changing times. In my daily web usage I’m constantly seeing vinyl, tape and digital releases disappearing from the virtual shelves of Bandcamp sites, constantly observing people paying significant amounts of money for pay-what-you-want albums. Streaming has become dominant but it’s not all encompassing.
The use of streaming is just another step in people changing their listening and consuming habits, and this is a great thing. For a good part of the last fifty years our listening habits were ingrained into us by commercially motivated enterprises and platforms – primarily big labels and commercial radio. Now we can listen to what we want, when we want, and this is extremely positive. People’s musical taste will diversify and as a result their everyday lives will be enriched. That may sound romantic but I believe it to be true, I believe the discovery of inspiring music can be hugely empowering and educating.
So if Spotify is replacing radio then that’s ok by me, for now. While that happens I’ll spend more time finding exciting music and less time reading articles like Byrne’s, wringing his hands over the “culture of blockbusters”. Such a concept is incredibly myopic, a notion that places far too much weight on the influence of big labels and the music industry as it was. What a remarkable time we live in, to be able to experience the richness of global music like never before. It should be celebrated. Music is not fading away. To the contrary, I believe it is thriving on the decomposing matter of the music industry as we knew it. Like the teeming and complex ecological systems to be found on a forest floor, the internet is full of independent labels and artists getting busy making wonderful art and pushing it out to hungry consumers, who are more than willing to pay for it. It’s an unpredictable time in so many ways, though peoples desire to make and consume music should never be doubted. It’s a great force. Don’t oppose it.