Tag Archives: The Music Business

Why We Need Better Music Criticism

Great post in The Daily Beast claiming that music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting, and our culture is all the poorer for it. The whole thing is well worth reading.

Yet there’s an even larger issue at stake here. The biggest problem with lifestyle-driven music criticism is that it poisons our aural culture. Discerning consumers who care about music and have good ears should be the bedrock of the music business, but many of them have given up on new artists because they can’t find reliable critics to guide them. Record labels, for their part, need frank, knowledgeable feedback from critics—both to keep them honest and hold them accountable—but such input is in short supply and veering towards extinction. Above all, artists deserve a milieu in which musical talent is celebrated and given some acknowledgement in the media.

In other words, criticism is a tiny part of the ecology of the music business, but an essential part. Without smart, independent critics who know their stuff, everything collapses into hype, public relations, and the almighty dollar. We have already seen where that leads us—take a look at the trendline of recording sales, if you have any doubts. It’s not too late to fix the mess, but that won’t happen until critics stop acting like gossip columnists, and start taking the music seriously again.

That does seem an accurate picture of how things have gone downhill. If critics has focused on the music rather than offstage tabloid behaviour, would Oasis ever have been so huge? Would Pete Doherty even have had a career?

It’s become painfully obvious that mainstream success has far more to do with the money spent in promotion than it does with actual quality. Not only that, the lowest common demoninator has become far lower as those who care about music check out of the mainstream and devote their time and energy into niche scenes. Does anyone think, for example, that a band like The Foo Fighters, despite their obvious strengths, are in the same league as any of the top-level hard rock acts of a generation before?

Serdar Yedalulp has also blogged about this same subject, saying it’s not just about music but other media as well, and calls for more honest criticism rather than mutual backscratching.

I don’t believe this is fair or honest to anyone on either side of the equation. If I write a review of something, and someone wants to chomp out a phrase from that and use it somewhere, fine. They misquote me at their own risk. But this business of supplying what amounts to a premanufactured bit of ad copy, out of some misguided sense that mutual backscratching is okay even when it comes at the cost of debasing and vulgarizing the very standards of the craft — sorry, no.

Indeed. That is a place where I’m not going to go. It may be one reason why an act I won’t name told an editor I work for that they didn’t want me to review their album.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged | Comments Off

What Killed Last.fm?

lastfmWith the news that last.fm is shutting down their streaming online radio, I’m wondering exactly what changes in the music environment have forced them to rip the heart out of their service.

Are the majors demanding too much in licencing fees for the thing to be viable? Remember that it’s not stream-on-demand in the style of Spotify, so it should not cost as much. Or, more cynically, did last.fm’s major label owner deliberately decide to kill what had once been a useful music discovery tool because they don’t like people discovering independent music?

Or maybe last.fm has just had its day? Back in the days before their radio went behind a subscription paywall I used to listen quite a bit, and it played a lot by independent bands. That fed into a lot of CD purchases, and I spent a lot of time curating the wiki entries for bands. But nowadays a combination of social media and sites like Reverbnation and Bandcamp seems to be filling that role. The social side of Last.fm has more or less faded away as Twitter and Facebook have grown, and they never did resolve the artist disambiguation issue in their database.

All last.fm really does now is scrobbling and statistics collecting, and I’m not convinced that has much value unless it’s feeding into some sort of music recommendation that last.fm itself no longer provides. Yes, I know they’re still got a web-based music player, but all that does is play YouTube videos, and is not fit for purpose in it’s present form; too many of the videos are abysmal-quality fan-uploaded mobile phone footage from gigs, or worse, bedroom karaoke performances that don’t feature the actual artist at all.

Does last.fm’s scrobbling data still have any value for independent artists now, or is it time to stick a fork in the site?

Posted in Music News | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

How to create misleading infographics

How to lie with statistics

A big problem in making sense of the new music economy is that too many people with agendas and axes to grind use cherry-picked data and in some cases tell outright lies to try and make their points. It’s getting increasing difficult to know who to believe, with the result that more and more people just tune out everything other than whatever they want to hear.

This graph is labelled as “How Spotify killed off paid downloads” and described as “chilling”. But look more closely at the axes and what they really represent, and you will soon realise it says nothing of the sort.

I have no idea what mix of streaming, paid downloading and physical product will prevail in the current years, and what things those of us who want a healthy music scene should support. But deliberately misleadling infographics like this one serve only to muddy the waters, and tell us nothing of value.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | 1 Comment

All Loved Up

Sometimes I wonder if the above video played a part in getting Fish’s song “All Loved Up” into the Polish singles chart. It represents exactly the sort of vacuous celebrity culture the song skewers. It epitomises the way mass-produced corporate pop is completely divorced from the world of real musicians making real music.

It’s mechanically-recovered extruded music product, featuring talent-free “artists” who are famous for being famous, whose success is based solely on the amount of money spent promoting them. There is absolutely no chance that this song will touch anyone’s soul and change their lives.

The “guitarist” is a embarrassed-looking model who looks as though she’s never seen anyone play a guitar in her life. But in words of manager Angelina Konkol. “It is better to look at beautiful models pretending to play the guitar than ugly musicians who actually play the guitar”.

What a load of cobblers.

Don’t want that. Watch this instead.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

What Happened to the Leisure Society?

David Graeber, writing for Strike! Magazine asks what happened to the leisure society predicted a couple of generations ago.

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

He’s talking of things like telemarketing, insurance sales, and large sections of corporate bureaucracies. And while the political right loves to talk about wasteful public-sector “non-jobs”, the private sector actually far worse.

And all this waste of human potential comes at the expense of the far better things that people would like to be able to do instead, as demonstrated by this anecdote about the career of an old school friend who had a brief but unsuccessful music career.

He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.)

That anecdote hit home to me, when I think of the number of musicians I know who make their music during evenings and weekends, fitted around the demands of a day job. But it’s their out-of-hours music career that touches the lives of far more people.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Angry Small Band

Who’s following Self Righteous Band (@angrysmallband) on Twitter? If you’re on Twitter, and either follow your favorite small bands, or are in a small band yourself, they’re a must-follow.

 

What makes this parody account so funny is how closely their twitter feed resembles that of one or two real bands. No, I’m not going to mention any names. But if you’re in a band, and you think your own Twitter feed is dangerously close to theirs, then perhaps you need to rethink your social media strategy?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , , | Comments Off

The perils of relying too much on Facebook

A post on Hypebot about the perils of fake Facebook likes highlights some of the problems with Facebook as a means of bands promoting their music.

This situation reinforces the fact that musicians need to build their own home on the web and need to build their own mailing lists.

It’s also a reminder to me that, despite the fact that such points are raised in somewhat of a repetitive manner on sites like Hypebot, a lot of musicians just aren’t tuning in and just don’t get it. On a positive note, that means musicians that are in the know have an extra leg up in the game.

Ultimately a shift away from Facebook needs to occur. I see more and more people both in and outside of music discussing alternatives.

As Zuckerville has grown in popularity, more and more bands began using it as their main means of interacting with fans. With a larger potential audience there was some logic in the way a few bands I know of closed down their increasingly inactive forums in favour of interacting on Facebook. But I’ve seen too many bands neglecting their web presence altogether, to the extent that some bands didn’t bother with a web site at all, having Facebook as their sole net presence. I think this is dangerously short sighted.

The moment Facebook introduced pay-to-promote for posts ought to have been a wake-up call. Not only was it a classic bait-and-switch move, but it was the sort of thing a monopolist does once predatory pricing has put the competition out of business. Investing too heavily in one platform you don’t have any control over is a big risk.

It’s true that bands still can’t afford to ignore Facebook as long as it continues to remain as popular as it is. But there’s no excuse for any band not to have it’s own website and an old-fashioned mailing list. Yes, it might seem a bit old-school, but that way neither Mark Zuckerberg nor anyone else can then hold them to ransom by holding their only connection with fans hostage.

Posted in Social Media | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Fish on the economics of touring

Fish has written a very interesting blog post on the economics of touring with a band playing the rock club circuit at his level. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the cost of live music, how much gigs cost to put on, and exactly where the money goes. (Not much of it to the poor support act, it seems, and people I know who have supported Fish in the past confirm this!). Are there really still people who multiply the ticket price by the number of warm bodies through the door and assume the whole lot goes to the artist?

It’s the sort of thing that causes endless discussions over what the “fair” price of a ticket ought to be. I’ve lost count of the number of gigs I’ve been to that can’t possibly have covered the overheads, especially when charging prices far lower than I’d spent travelling to the gig. One memorable one was was Breathing Space and Mermaid Kiss in a working mens’ club in Mansfield five years ago. A total of twelve musicians, only three quid on the door, and there were just 60-odd people in the audience. It was, I remember, an absolutely stunning and very moving gig, but it was clear nobody there was doing it for the money – because there wasn’t any.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why the old-style record business is circling the drain

Last weekend I bought a CD in HMV’s sale, Yes’ “90125″, a record I owned on vinyl but a gap in my CD collection. When I tried to play it using the CD drive on my laptop, it was unlistenable, with horrible distorted buzzing sound all the way through.

I assumed the disk was faulty, took it back and HMV exchanged it without question. The replacement disk played without problems on the big stereo in the living room, with all that big 1980s Trevor Horn production reproduced perfectly. But when I tried to play it this morning on the computer in my home office, that distorted buzzing was back. Just like the first disk, and along with another album purchased at the same time, the record was effectively unplayable.

Turns out, after a little research in Google, that the reason that distorted buzzing was that they’re both crippled with DRM. Significantly neither disk carries the Compact Disk logo, so technically speaking neither are actually CDs, since their encoding is not compliant with the Compact Disk specification.

In the year 2013, when I purchase music, I don’t expect to have to pay twice just for the privilege of being able to listen to it in more than one room of the house. Since DRM has fallen out of favour even with the most clueless of labels I can only assume it’s old stock which should have been withdrawn from sale and ground up for use as road foundations in China. Most technically-savvy customers would consider format-shifting of legally-purchased music to be an basic consumer right in 2013, regardless of what Warner Bros’ lawyers would like the situation to be.

So what should I do? Return the two not-CDs and demand my money back, which is a bit of lose-lose situation since I won’t have the music and HMV won’t have my money. Or just go and do what everyone else would do and bittorrent the bloody things?

Yes, musicians. This is why people bittorrent rather than buy music legally. But I assume that most of you already know that.

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged | 11 Comments

We will only have a functional digital music economy when artists, labels and web services can all agree on what services are viable as revenue streams and which ones are primarily promotional channels. Too many of the arguments over royalties seem to stem from a blurring of the two.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 2 Comments