The witch is dead but the spell remains

Photo by Neil Delete

Jimmy Iovine’s time at Apple Music is coming to an end by August 2018. Hits Daily Double rumoured it first with Billboard confirming it today. Let’s recap Iovine’s self-introduction at the 2015 WWDC:

“This is a revolutionary music service curated by the leading music experts who we helped hand pick,” said Jimmy Iovine, Co-Founder of Beats Electronics and Beats Music. “These people are going to help you with the most difficult question in music: when you’re listening to a playlist, what song comes next.” As stated by Trent Reznor, one of Apple Music’s spokesmen, the overall intent of Apple Music is to grow, nurture and sustain careers, while more specifically shaping one shared conversation around music.

The Forbes article is highly recommended as it reflects exactly his differentiation approach for a flat rate music streaming service that Iovine sold to Apple with the aquisition of Beats Music in the first place:

The service combined algorithm-based personalization with expert music suggestions from a variety of sources.

His only asset was his connection to the major music elite and to install them as gatekeepers. One of the championed gatekeepers was Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), read what he had to say in Vulture about Apple Music in July 2017:

I’ve seen a lot, and it’s interesting to be behind the scenes and meet really cool, smart people that I highly respect. Now, and I’m not talking about Apple here: I’m not yearning to be a tech guy. Being in that world has made me realize the true value of being an artist. The economics of music aren’t what they should be, and the culture isn’t giving the arts its fair due, but humans are always going to respond to emotion and storytelling. I believe that as much as I ever did. More, even. (…)  I had all this shit in my head about how people listen to music and consume music. For a couple of years, it’s been full time at Apple immersing myself in this extremely interesting stuff, and doing that has helped me realize how much I appreciate being an artist and how valuable time is. (…)

Do you feel like you’ve been successful with Beats and Apple Music as far as working on subscription streaming?
Without going into detail, I’ll say it’s been an education. I’ve been on the other side of artists bitching about payments and free music, and I agree with those arguments, but you can sit and bitch about the way things are, or you can try to affect some change. Working under the Apple umbrella, I have a unique opportunity to work on a streaming service from the inside. I thought I could help set a precedent where artists could actually be paid and the fans could feel like they were dealing with a service run by people who actually care about music.

Is it working?
It’s been interesting. Where it seems to have wound up is that free music is here to stay. It doesn’t seem like, with all the different services, artist payments are coming together in the way that one would hope, but the data is valuable.

It’s not that he claimed any accolades as a gatekeeper, does he? More like he as an artist sobered up in the environment of Tim Cook, the technocrat that runs the most successful company on earth.

Bent Thompson wrote in October 2017 a remarkable article headlined Goodbye Gatekeepers, he concluded:

Most importantly, though, the end of gatekeepers is inevitable: the Internet provides abundance, not scarcity, and power flows from discovery, not distribution. We can regret the change or relish it, but we cannot halt it: best to get on with making it work for far more people than gatekeepers ever helped.

Now add the news from December 2017 when Apple bought Shazam and it felt very much, that indeed the time of the gatekeepers where over: Shazam is Apple’s Echo Nest.

Apple’s weekly active user (WAU) penetration is far behind Spotify’s, indicating that Apple needs to do a better job of engaging its users. Better playlists, recommendations and algorithm driven curation all help Spotify stay ahead of the curve. Now, Apple will be hoping that Shazam will provide it with the tools to start playing catch up.

Frictionless, automatic discovery based on user behaviour and massive data is what makes the Spotify world go around and the culture-disconnected individual defenseless.

In a way Jimmy Iovine had it right, when he insisted on the importance of “the most difficult question in music: when you’re listening to a playlist, what song comes next.” He believed in the gatekeepers but the algorithms have won.

The state of the independent record label

(c) DVS1

Martin Clark, the maker of Keysound Recordings wrote a dilemma-ridden post which is worth reading: The case for and against vinyl in 2018. He basically makes the point that from the audience perspective frictionless usability is all that matters, even if you essentially give up the right to own music of a certain artist. That is the wet dream become real of the major music industry: you can’t own it, re-sell it or copy it. The audience is dependent on the way the music is offered, or rather rented to.

“A publisher I met recently explained physical book sales are still strong because bookshelves are a reflection of your identity, so people buy more books than they read, just to have them on their shelves. Every music producer wants their first work pressed to vinyl because the history of vinyl is written it, and with that comes an illusion of credibility and status, but they are confusing their needs with their audiences’. They’re supplying something that there is dwindling demand for.”

I don’t think there is a dwindling demand for cultural identity in music though. In a way, independent record labels are still the provider for that demand because they are able to offer a rich set of possibilities to bond with artists, music and culture that is beyond superficiality.

The Wire told you so

Almost ten years ago, in the final season of the tv milestone that is The Wire, there is a scene when the Baltimore Sun announced layoffs that were sold as “inevitable”:

The show was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun author and police reporter. He wrote after the series finale:

We will all soon enough live in cities and towns where politicians and bureaucrats gambol freely without worry, where it is never a risk to shine shit and call it gold. A good newspaper covers its city and acquires not just the quantitative account of a day’s events, but the qualitative truth and meaning behind those events. A great newspaper does this routinely on a multitude of issues, across its entire region. Such a newspaper was not chronicled on The Wire.

In fact he documented the downturn consequences of the absence of any sustainable strategy in the publishing industry. It was a local newspaper problem then. Until 2017, when the New York Times, one of the biggest newspapers of the United States pushed massive layoffs in the copy-editor department. The publishing bubble did burst the same way it did all the years before. The Outline recently lamented The Revolution Will Not Be Proofread in regards to the epidemic bubble bursting in the publishing industry but couldn’t help to ask:

What are readers supposed to make of a media operation that is often, by necessity, just as consumed with itself as it is with the world beyond?

If sustainability is equally meant for the good of the readers as well as for the authors and editors, then sustainability has not been the first priority on the strategy side so far. It means also, whoever is in charge for local or nationwide publishing is doing the research part of the digital realm not very well. May it be missing The Wire (it’s on Netflix) or the free advice by Ben Thompson:

Popping The Publishing Bubble (09/2015)

Publishers going forward need to have the exact opposite attitude from publishers in the past: instead of focusing on journalism and getting the business model for free, publishers need to start with a sustainable business model and focus on journalism that works hand-in-hand with the business model they have chosen.

The Local News Business Modell (05/2017)

This is the crux of why many ad-based newspapers will find it all but impossible to switch to a real subscription business model. When asking people to pay, quality matters far more than quantity, and the ratio matters: a publication with 1 valuable article a day about a well-defined topic will more easily earn subscriptions than one with 3 valuable articles and 20 worthless ones covering a variety of subjects.

If your digital strategy does not include quality as a matter of sustainability, then the bubble around you will inevitably pop.


Is youth culture really getting killed by the experience economy?

Ask yourself what came first: one became rootless (if you hear the song in your head now, I’m really sorry) because of disconnected boredom or did suddenly the experience economy emerge and did create a market out of thin air for the people to become rootless?

The experience economy encourages us to give up and try somewhere else as soon as we get bored. We flit from club to club, following the most exciting booking, and change pubs every Friday based on which one Time Out says is best for us this week. (…) What do you do in your spare time? “Things. I experience things.” (…) In constantly lionising the different and the new, we start to neglect the importance of investment and consistency. Subcultures, scenes, identities and communities aren’t built over the space of an evening.

The Vice article is perfect clickbait for people who are thankful for years of being part of a subculture or a club scene. The answer on how to invest and build against rootless or disconnected boredom is not to be found there. You’ll know in a few years when you try though.

The Problem with Muzak

The shrinking visibility of fanzines, music blogs and media platforms through forced paid distribution models on Facebook, Instagram etc. is building a cultural demise which nobody really was or is looking for. Yet the clever discovery algorithms of Spotify, Apple Music etc. wins over the overworked, context-disconnected indiviual in a heartbeat because we like to be surprised by the machine. The flatrate streaming services bid to remodel an industry lies in the instantaneous magic of converting your preference, an unprecedented amount of data and “human-machine technology” to quantify your tastes – forever.

We should call this what it is: the automation of selling out.

Liz Pelly, The Baffler