Cosmic Bridge label boss Om Unit hits Twitter with a question about the future of electronic music indies, being them artists or labels. Vinyl record manufacturing is too expensive for small editions to break even, digital music download sales are probably more and more limited to the small group of DJs and the hesitation to release music non-physical and streaming only is very palpable.
YouTube has asked musicians to agree not to disparage the streaming-video service in exchange for promotional support. In recent months, YouTube has given a handful of musicians a couple hundred thousand dollars to produce videos and promoted their work on billboards, part of a larger campaign to improve the site’s relationship with the music industry.
These agreements are common in business-to-business deals, but when dealing with artists they seem one-sided. This makes YouTube seem like they lack confidence in their own service. If criticism from musicians is apt, it’s wrong to suppress it. And if it’s not apt, why worry about it?
Question: A lot of people say that the music industry is moving toward music becoming free. Is that a viable model going forward?
Lyor Cohen: If it’s free, then how would record labels support paying their staff and signing new artists? I think it would be bad for culture and the art if artists and people who develop the apparatus to support those artists don’t get paid.
Cohen is responding to the skepticism by promising financial support for videos, promotion for new releases and a crackdown on free music. He’s developed a sales pitch for meetings with artists, managers and label bosses: “We’re going to make you rich and famous.”
“So it takes time. It takes the observation of how your children are consuming media. I don’t think there’s a person in this room that doesn’t recognize that the advertising business is rapidly transitioning and the money is moving from traditional media to digital. It just takes time.”
So no real actual strategy from a former label manager on how to change YouTube’s Freemium Business Model other than bypassing labels and going directly to artists.
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.
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 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. win 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.