At the recent C2SV conference, we attended a panel on “Digital Music: Discovery, Curation, Recommendation.” It was moderated by Jon R. Luini, President/Owner, Chime Interactive and included Jello Biafra, Peter DiMaria, Senior Director of Product & Content Strategy, Gracenote, Count Eldridge, music producer/filmmaker, VERTEBRAE PRODUCTIONS, and Jon Pruett, Writer/Editor/Curator.
They started off by reminiscing about the golden age of used record shopping and the wonder of the gatefold cover. After a lot of discussion about the changing face of music it seemed to come down to two general topics – how to optimize the listener’s experience and to fairly compensate the musicians.
Pandora was criticized for its ineffective method of making “channels.” For example, if you make a channel for something like The Cure, it either loads you up on more Cure songs or throws in bands from left field like Air Supply. A few panelists felt like there was an overwhelming quantity of music available with no real way to sift through it all. Jello Biafra felt like that was what made this the best era for music fans, like if you were a teenage kid obsessed with baroque music from a specific century, you now have access to it. Having spent years combing record bins for Calypso, I would have to agree.
Most of the panel bemoaned the loss of DJs to lead the way. Jello pointed out that Sirius has a wide selection of celebrity DJs and mentioned that he couldn’t work for Sirius himself because he wants to play vinyl and refuses to follow a playlist. Later another panelist pooh poohed the idea of “celebrity DJs.” Maybe he didn’t realize those DJs include Wavy Gravy, Mojo Nixon, and Grandmaster Flash.
There was an underlying cry of, “Someone needs to tell people what to listen to!” That call to action caused me to look over and point back and forth between myself and Music Editor Bob Lee, who was sitting across the aisle. Like, “You and me, Bob. We’re gonna tell them what to listen to!” Someone then mentioned that music bloggers are the DJs of the future, causing me to make more knowing faces and weird gestures at Bob.
Nobody mentioned indie podcasts and internet radio stations like The Watt from Pedro Show or Luxuria Music, which features DJs Derrick Bostrom, late of the Meat Puppets, Kristian Hoffman, who wrote songs for The Mumps and Klaus Nomi, and popular broadcasts like Lee Joseph’s Over Under Sideways Down and Howie Pyro’s Intoxica.
Spotify had a zealot in the audience who believed that the panel just didn’t understand the proper way to use the service, and the ensuing conversation felt suspiciously like market research. Although the audience member felt very good about herself for paying for her music, the fact that the artists receive mere pennies for their work caused the subject of money to rear its ugly head.
Record companies ripping off artists? This age-old practice has been going on since the first entrepreneur carted a recorder down South and paid a bluesman five dollars and a bottle of whiskey. The point was also brought up that the radio was always free and you could make mix tapes for free. And second-hand records didn’t give a cut to the artist. I would have liked to have pointed out to Jello Biafra that you didn’t buy Dead Kennedys albums used for the same reason you didn’t buy Alice Cooper albums used — you wanted that poster.
LA Beat Music Editor Bob Lee has this to say about the Spotify discussion, “One thing the panel tried to point out, while Spotify remains a great deal for listeners, it’s a massive shift in revenue expectations for artists. While independent labels used to be able to make back their meager expenses after selling just a few thousand copies of an album, the new model proposes to pay them significantly less than even the cost of recording (Biafra described his own checks from Spotify, covering the entirety of the record label he’s spent thirty years building, as “pennies”) even as they reach a much larger audience.
And though the story of artists fighting with their financial backers over their proper share is nothing new, the big change is that the company that makes the biggest share of money from selling music is no longer involved in PRODUCING music – Spotify doesn’t pay for artist development, tour support or studio time.
The two young Spotify users that spoke up said they didn’t feel a responsibility to pay much for music, since they were doing their part by sharing the work and spreading it around to people; Biafra asked one of them if he’d be willing to work a job where the only compensation was to have his name passed around and praised by his bosses.”
It does seem like the current way of doing things is not working. People don’t seem keen to spend a dollar a song. The artists need to keep up with the times and find a new method of commodification. Perhaps a Paypal button on every band page. If you like them, drop a few bucks in. And what about Kickstarter? Instead of figuring out only the cost of producing an album, add enough money in there to give the musicians a living wage.
There have always been starving musicians and there will always be starving musicians. There is only room at the top, or top-adjacent for a select few. Maybe now by side-stepping the middleman everyone at least has a chance to get their music out there in a way that was never available to them before.