My friend Mike Ferrier is a technology nut with very little interest in music. I, of course, am a music geek with very little interest in technology. What follows is a conversation between us on the merits of digital distribution and the state of the music industry. We have exchanges like this all the time, and I thought, given the subject matter, you might like to read this one.
It started with a link I sent Mike about a computer used by the music industry to predict hit songs. You can find the original article here. I think I titled the email “This is What I Mean When I Say the Music Industry is Dying.”
I have a tendency to get pumped up and sometimes talk out my ass when discussing things with Mike, so beware – pontification ahead. That said, my comments are in italics, and Mike’s are in plain type. And away we go…
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Wow that’s pretty neat… it confirms your hypothesis that outside of some subjective “do I like it” factors, musical appeal can be broken down into objective measures… and who better to measure them than a statistics crunching computer?
And even if record companies and radio stations use this to choose their songs, I don’t think there’s much to worry about… those kinds of monopolistic distribution channels seem to be fading out anyhow, as mp3s, blogs, XM radio, etc take over…
It also confirms that the record companies are looking for music that mimics music that has succeeded in the past, not new sounds and styles. This computer’s criteria is a compendium of everything that has done well, and it rates songs against the average of 30 years of hits, thus statistically rubbing out the fluke hits that don’t use the same chords and production techniques.
Yes.. it confirms that the record companies are big businesses, concerned primarily with making money.
That’s not my point, entirely. I think, for example, that no one would accuse Microsoft of being anything but a big business that is concerned primarily with making money. But Microsoft innovates – they come up with new ways to do things, and sometimes come up with new things to do, things that people didn’t even know they needed. And then they market these things so that they can make a lot of money.
The music industry is not this way – this article supports my long-standing gripe that the industry at large is really only concerned with repeating past successes, not forging new ones. Music is like technology – it keeps progressing along hundreds of straight lines, each innovator coming up with better and better ways of springboarding off the last. And they bring these innovations to the companies most able to distribute them widely, and those companies say, “Oh, sorry, that doesn’t fall within our extremely narrow success parameters.” And since those narrow parameters are all that people get to hear, thanks to the labels’ ownership of the radio stations, most people equate them with goodness, and instantly recoil from other music because it’s not what they’re used to. And then the sales charts reflect exactly what the labels have dictated they would, and they keep on using the same criteria for “sellable.” Seriously, the breakfast cereal industry innovates more than the music industry does…
About the music/innovation and Microsoft comparison… I think they’re quite different.
Microsoft’s realm, software, fills a large variety of human desires, from recreation to word processing to storing photos. Innovation leads to ways of filling the old needs better, and filling untapped desires that no one else has filled yet. So Microsoft stands to massively increase their revenue by innovating.
Music I would think is more like film or literature or any other art when it comes to innovation… I agree that it develops along paths, each cutting edge artist building on the innovations that came before. But in the end most people will remain happily oblivious to these developments, passing over the latest in great literature for another formulaic Danielle Steel retread, passing up the artistic evolution of film in favor of the latest Armageddon-love-thriller, etc.
Music addresses several basic human desires… the aesthetic appreciation of its patterns and sounds, the emotions it evokes, the cultural cohesion it promotes, the delightful combination it makes with dance, and probably more. But these were filled by ancient music as well as modern music, and the “evolution” of music is an interesting path for a minority (especially people involved in creating it) to watch and participate in… but it doesn’t result in better and more effective music, just in new and different music. Software is constantly addressing new needs… there are no new needs for music on the horizon, music will not suddenly begin to taste good or help us jump higher. And the evolution of the cutting edge in music, as in any art (including software design), is irrelevant to most people.
So my point is that while innovation is in the best interest of Microsoft’s bottom line, the tried and true is in the best interest of a record company’s bottom line.
Interesting takedown of my analogy. Let’s see if I can build it back up a bit. I think your argument about the minority not being interested in the evolution of music has only been true for a short while. In the 1950s, rock and roll evolved from the blues thanks to artists like Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, and the public was with them every step of the way. In the 1960s, the Beatles showed up and rewrote the rule book for pop music, and the public responded by making them the most popular band in the world. And the 1970s found rock and pop evolving even further, spearheaded by some of the most widely regarded and commercially successful bands – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Each of these artists used their position in popular culture to fund and publicize further innovations in composition, production and performance, and each were rewarded with deserving accolades and public support.
Now, the argument can certainly be made that the stylistic leaps of the Beatles did not quantifiably make music “better” or “more effective.” But their popularity has yet to be equaled, and in the later years, when they were controlling their own image and refusing to play live, that popularity was based primarily, if not solely, on the music itself. You’ve heard Sgt. Pepper – what world-famous, staggeringly popular band would dare release something like that now? It would be considered commercial suicide.
So what happened? Did worldwide audiences just suddenly decide that they were sick of artistically rewarding music? Probably not. Did the record companies decide that artificially-created and media-controlled artists performing music carefully crafted along market research parameters was much easier and more profitable to produce? More likely, and my hypothesis is that the industry at large has used its stranglehold on radio, MTV and traditional distribution channels to convince people that their factory-made artists are the only ones available, and over time, that the music made by these factories is actually likeable. After decades of immersion, people got used to it, and now the industry can service the customer base it created ad infinitum.
Which, to me, does not mean that the audience for truly innovative music is not much more widespread than we are led to believe. That music has just been quarantined in the subculture ghetto for so long now that the mainstream has missed out on several steps of its evolution. But you said it best – innovation fills untapped desires that no one else has filled yet. The rise of non-traditional distribution methods and satellite radio should be a decent test. If I’m right, the most successful artists of this new paradigm will be the ones who fill in the gaps for people, bringing them up to speed with new sounds and handing them off to established innovators. And I think that if the industry at large had just kept pace with music as it evolved, instead of cynically deciding that people would only like what they’ve already liked, it would have been even more profitable.
Good point about the Beatles. I actually think they were a true innovation, in the sense that they filled a previously untapped desire – not so much because of what they did musically, as that they were the first to do what they did with the new capabilities provided by the latest distribution technology. The 30’s through the 60’s, roughly, was a period when new technological developments (radio, record players, television) opened up new possibilities for music. Glen Miller, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Elvis… all accomplished feats of popularity that would have been impossible previously, by finding ways to connect with new audiences via the new distribution technologies. For instance, would the throngs of screaming teenage girls have gone nearly as mad, had they not first seen those charming young faces framed in rebelliously long hair, on TV?
So it could be that the Beatles held on to their popularity even when they tried new musical experiments (whereas Pearl Jam’s popularity slipped away when they tried something different) because they were the first (and for a while the only) band to meet that desire and connect with that audience. Now when a new band grabs attention, there are instantly dozens of copycats looking to share the pie… so Beatles level popularity may be a thing of the past.
The changes in music distribution over the last 35 years have been relatively minor… until now, with digital distribution. I think we can expect some new great successes in the next few years, as new musicians are the first to meet desires that simply couldn’t be addressed before the technology was in place. But the nature of this new technology might (hopefully) spread the success among a much wider group of musicians, since digital distribution can be much better tailored to the individual listener than can radio, television, and CD distribution.
So I would think that over the last few decades, the novel styles that captured the popular attention were relatively few, making it in the best financial interest of the record companies to stick with what they know works, rather than pouring their money into untried experiments, most of which fail. And yes, it makes sense that the record companies (like McDonalds) would work to maintain the homogeneity. Fortunately, digital distribution is gradually wresting this power away from the record companies altogether.
The last time I can remember the major labels being well and truly blindsided was in 1991, when Nirvana came out of nowhere and redrew the map. Nirvana and Pearl Jam all but created a new genre of music marketing and radio called (ready?) “alternative,” which used to mean innovative stuff on little labels, but got co-opted to mean stuff that sounds like Nirvana. And what did the industry do with the Nirvana sound? They copied it. Exactly. Note for note. And they keep on cloning it to this day. You mentioned Pearl Jam – you don’t hear much about them anymore, because they refused to play ball and carbon-copy their surprisingly successful debut record. Hence, their marketing budget disappeared, and they dropped from their major label, and the industry knocked itself out to come up with bands (and prefab studio constructs) that *would* play ball. And it worked. They’ve even co-opted the rebellious attitude of punk and post-punk and turned it into a marketing niche – “Buy this mass-produced product and assert your individuality! Nyar! Two fingers to the man! Drink Coke!”
I agree, the co-opting of punk and alternative was very amusing, and sad.
Occasionally someone will come up with a new style that will catch on with the masses…. but most new styles don’t, and people don’t need a new style to keep buying music, so I suppose record companies find it in their interest to stay with what sells until a new style catches on through someone else’s effort, then go with that.
I actually think it’s more insidious than that. I think the industry goes out of its way and does everything it can to prevent a new style from catching on, so they don’t have to shift their business practices. And I think they learned that lesson with Nirvana and the Seattle craze in the ’90s. Nearly overnight, all of the hair-metal bands and pre-teen pop acts that had ruled the airwaves in the late ’80s fell out of favor, and the industry scrambled to keep up with the public taste. Since then, how many totally new forms of music have caught the public wave? None that I can think of, and I believe that’s down to the industry’s choke hold on media and distribution outlets. They learned their lesson, they won’t get fooled again. These days, if they can use the same production team to create nine different artists’ records, they will. And if one falls from grace, another will rise to take his/her place, crafted by the same team of marketers. They even put the auditions for company-molded superstar on television…
But, I would say that both the ’90s grunge phenomenon and the explosion of digital downloading and satellite radio lends credence to the theory that people *do* need new styles to keep buying music. The industry is doing its sleight-of-hand bit pretty well – you hear certain songs on the radio all the time, see certain videos on MTV all the time, and watch those artists get Grammy awards, so they must be popular. But if you look at compact disc sales over the last five years, they are down to catastrophic levels. (They’re actually up 1.6 percent this year, but after a huge drop since the ’90s.) Digital music sales accounted for more than 12 percent of overall sales in 2004, but it’s not the prefab acts that are selling online – top sellers include Hoobastank and the Black Eyed Peas. Sure, more people bought Usher’s record than any other CD this year, but that also might have something to do with its ubiquity, and the unavailability of a lot of other music in traditional CD stores.
In short, I think people are going online to find new music, because it really is a need that has not been filled by the record industry.
That makes sense… it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Even as the FCC’s rule changes allow the big media conglomerates to all merge together, creating basically a single monolithic media behemoth with one voice and one message, digital distribution is undercutting this, letting every small voice be heard. If Big Media can’t somehow get the government to impose legal restriction on digital distribution, they’re in danger of getting marginalized into oblivion.
As a non-musical aside, I’ve noticed a downside to the many-voices approach, in the world of news. Monolithic voices that are trying to appeal to the broadest possible audience will often be much more educational than narrow voices. Newsweek, Time, the BBC, and their American “counterpart” NPR actually talk about the various sides of each issue. Yes, monolithic voices are subject to bias, propaganda, and dumbing down (eg., People Magazine) but is that worse than the alternative… Fox News telling conservatives what they already think they know, Air America doing the same for liberals (I was really disappointed when I listened to that recently… it seemed just like Rush Limbaugh, but for liberals. Maybe I didn’t listen enough to get a full picture though.)… each blog talking to its true believers, and no one learning anything that challenges their beliefs or helps them understand people who think differently. It seems to me that digital distribution will just continue to amplify that trend.
Anyway, I expect it will be left to the smaller venues that actually like music (your column, for instance) to expose the potentially successful statistical anomalies to the masses.
Agreed. What we need, though, is a larger venue that likes music, and that isn’t concerned with crafting images and then convincing people that anyone not playing to these images is weird and not worth hearing. Most people I know assume, sound unheard, that my CD collection is full of strange stuff that could never sit comfortably on the airwaves, and they’re often pleasantly surprised to find these “weird” bands not only listenable, but enjoyable. My 60-year-old aunt just heard and liked the Lost Dogs, for example. We need radio stations that actually do play everything, and not specialized marketing niches that pit rap fans against hip-hop fans against crunk fans, as if there’s a sizeable difference between the three.
Once there are enough radio stations, and even personalized radio stations, that’s possible. Yahoo’s online streaming radio is very neat. When you hear a song that you really like or don’t like, you tell it. It then brings in songs that other people with similar tastes felt similarly about. This doesn’t always work of course, but it often does. This type of personalized delivery is becoming more and more common (as technology fills a previously untapped desire, by the way), and hopefully will give small new artists a means to break out and find an audience.
Ultimately though, I think a majority of music listeners will never be much interested in the artistic depths of their music, and will be quite content to hear the same few things, and copies thereof, over and over. This might seem like a crime to you, like these people must be freed from their horrible prison. But think about how you feel regarding food… quite content to have a few variations of the same few sandwiches over and over. Many, many people take food very seriously as an art form, and put as much interest in its evolution and subtle qualities as you do into music’s. Ketchup is a threadbare chord progression. But you couldn’t care less. (Neither, of course, could I.)
Actually, I hate ketchup.
And melted cheese, too… are you even American? 🙂
But that’s really not the point you were going for, is it? That analogy sounds about right to me, except for one thing – while it’s true that most people don’t care about the mechanics and the subtle qualities of either food or music, they know when they like something, even when they don’t know why. That’s part of the theory behind McDonald’s brand marketing – associate good and pleasant experiences with McDonald’s food and people will think they like it, even if they don’t know why. But taste something prepared with vigor and love and real skill, and the comparison is just silly. People like good food. They just can’t get it, because fast food places have taken over, and people don’t have time to wait for skillful preparation.
Similarly with music, I am aware that most everyone I have met couldn’t care less about the specific innovations I go nuts for, but they know when they like something. Problem is, they just don’t get to hear new music that they may like – the industry has decided to make those decisions for them. Radio listeners know whether or not they like Usher, but have they had a chance to make that same decision about Marillion, or Rufus Wainwright, or the Arcade Fire? No. Additionally, the industry has done everything possible to convince radio listeners and MTV watchers that they’re not missing out on anything by sticking to the tried and true. Instead of trying to expand their audience, they have disregarded a big chunk of it, and that chunk has moved to other methods of getting what they need.
I agree that digital distribution will make it a lot easier for unusual music to reach the people who want to hear it, and will greatly increase the diversity of popular music.
But I do think you’re selling short the lowest common denominator a bit. Sure, McDonalds seeks to drill it into all of our minds that we love their brand and their food. But McDonalds’ success grew out the fact that people actually did prefer their food – its taste combined with its convenience – over the other options. Sure I like real good food, but it doesn’t matter a whole lot to me; if it’s a matter of getting food that I like maybe 100% more, but I have to put 300% of the time, effort and money into it, I’ll usually go with the microwavable Lean Cuisine.
I think most people feel about the same regarding music – just not interested in putting the time and effort into finding what they might like a bit better. Digital distribution will decrease the time and effort involved in doing that, so a lot more people will probably try new music.
But unusual music will still have a few hurdles to jump though. First, if a song requires the listener to understand its construction or even just the background upon which it evolved in order to appreciate it, that’s a very narrow audience for it to appeal to. Second, there’s an inherent appeal to the familiar, and I think a lot of people will continue looking for familiarity in their music rather than greatness. And third, music in particular has become associated with personal image and social cohesion for many people, so people will continue wanting to listen to the same music that everyone else in their big social group listens to. (Maybe the record companies helped promote this identification between music and self image, but I think it’s always been there – as far as I know historical groups and classes each seem to develop and celebrate musical styles of their own.)
I wonder, if we each had Star Trek replicators, how many of us would try a new chef and a new meal a few times a week, trying to find new favorites… and how many would hear about a few from their friends and just try those, or even just stick with the old fashioned hamburgers.
You’re probably right about that – given the years of immersion in prefabricated pop, most of it predicated on previously successful pop, there are numerous “old favorites” (chord progressions, production tricks) that the statistical computer will point out as worth duplicating. “Try these, they work every time.” It seems like these criteria would be obvious to anyone who has some musical (as opposed to music business) background, though – the chords to “With or Without You,” as an example, are all but guaranteed to hit the mass pleasure center.
Maybe, but you’re making assumptions about the criteria involved. For instance I’d like to know what criteria the software uses that groups U2 and Beethoven together, or that jazz “crooner” with Linkin Park. Without intimate knowledge of the software it’s impossible to tell how dumb or sophisticated it is, but it’s at least possible that it’s picking up on subtle patterns that fall outside of the normal methods of analyzing musical structure.
The interesting question (at least to me) is one we’ve previously touched upon – are these chords and production techniques representative of what people like, or are they just what people are used to? In other words, are the songs which contain these criteria hits because people like them, or are they hits because they are all that people get to hear? I think of radio as somewhat Pavlovian – we have stuffed the airwaves with just this music for long enough that the very construction of these songs is comforting to people, and if we know how to construct them, then we can make clones of them and get people to buy them because we say so. Hear that A-minor shift? Salivate! Now purchase!
That is an interesting question… one approach to answering it might be to try the music that rates well in our culture, on subjects belonging to a different culture that is used to different music. But the question is probably moot to the big businesses, who don’t care so much why we buy it, as whether we buy it.
Oh, not true, otherwise they wouldn’t go to such great lengths to figure out why we buy it. And then copy those reasons again and again to ensure success. But I get your point. The music industry has, from the beginning, known that it is working in a field full of subjectivity, and they have been trying to determine the lowest common denominator and market that for as long as they’ve been around. It’s just gotten to the point where I’m not sure if they’re analyzing the trends or creating them based on years of exposure to their product. Either way, they control what most people hear, through radio and MTV and prohibitive CD prices, and that’s why MP3s and digital distribution scares the crap out of them.
Well said, and I think all of that can be compared to what places like McDonalds has done with food… are they cooking what people want, or making people want what they cook? Ultimately though, in food and music, the lowest common denominator is what sells. Digital distribution holds great promise for helping “gourmet” music find its audience. Until we all have Star Trek replicators however, no such salvation is in sight for our palates.
I agree the food industry is screwed. 🙂 My hypothesis, though, is a complete refutation of your above point – the lowest common denominator is not what sells, it is what the industry has decided will sell, based on what they have previously decided will sell. McDonald’s sells well because they’re everywhere and they’re fast, not because they’re especially good, IMHO. Same with Usher – he sold millions of his album because his singles and videos were everywhere, and he has nice abs. They are fulfilling their own prophecy by not letting in competition – small labels just don’t have the marketing budgets to compete with the majors. The big guys control the floodgates. I would be a lot more resigned about the public’s apparent choices if I thought they were being allowed to make them. And soon, with digital distribution leveling the playing field, they might be.
I agree that the big companies (in food and music) are promoting homogeneity, but see above for why I think the lowest common denominator would fare pretty well even without their help. Hopefully digital distribution will help diversity flourish much more than it can now in music. But in the end, I think there’ll still be a huge market for copycat superstars with great abs.
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And on that depressing note… thanks, Mike, for letting me run this here. This is undoubtedly an ongoing conversation, and I may (with Mike’s permission, of course) update it as it goes along. In the meantime, check out Mike’s online game here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.