Monthly Music Mess

     |    Wednesday July 17th, 2013

Boy, it’s hot out there! Hot enough that, if the following doesn’t hold together as a unified essay, like I like it to most of the time, I’m going to blame the weather. Well, the weather and the fact that in the summertime there are huge periods when almost nothing happens. I realized this at my first (and last) newspaper gig, when it would be August and nobody was touring, nobody was in town, and yet I still had to come up with two columns a week. Those were the days!


Of course, the music business is always around to do stupid stuff, and this week’s been no exception.


A problem the music business rarely has in the summertime anymore.


The big news this week is that a band called Atoms For Peace, which includes Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, the band’s producer, Nigel Godrich, and Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea, has pulled its catalogue from Spotify. So, depending on which article you read, has Radiohead. Or not. Atoms For Peace called what they did a “small meaningless rebellion,” which must be ironic, because more people will read about it than have ever listened to Atoms For Peace, most likely. Me, for one. And apparently Pink Floyd, a band not lacking in name recognition, did the same thing, but were wooed back to the service somehow. Although I haven’t been able to listen to them after they kicked Syd out of the band, I do pay attention to the way they treat their music. They were, for instance, opposed to selling their music on iTunes because they didn’t want it broken up into iTunes’ idea of “songs,” and wanted the albums sold as entire works, which, indeed, they are, even if you think they’re entirely pretentious works. And their name came up again in Godrich’s statement to the press when he said “If people had been listening to Spotify instead of buying records in 1973… I doubt very much if [Dark Side of the Moon] would have been made.”


His point, I hasten to add instead of noting that from an esthetic standpoint the nonexistence of Dark Side might not have been so terrible, is that Pink Floyd wasn’t exactly burning up the charts with their releases until that record, which established them and made it possible for them to make many more records which also sold very well. In other words, they were, although they had several hits behind them and were very well-known on the London scene, still starting out as a commercial entity, and had enough money and support from their new record company to make another record without starving to death while they did it. And the measly royalties Spotify pays to people in that position today wouldn’t have made that possible.


Naturally, Spotify, approached by the website (and apologists for all things tech) Tech Crunch, tried to play things down with a statement that said they were in the early stages of growth, that they were hoping to be perceived as “artist friendly,” and that they’d already paid out $500 million to “rightsholders” and were on track to double that by year’s end. The key word there, of course, is “rightsholders,” which can mean all kinds of things, including publishing companies, record companies, and other entities that may or may not be artists. Way down in the Tech Crunch story, the site admits that “Spotify has never confirmed officially how the full economics of its platform works.”


Gee, I hope you were sitting down when you read that.


But one thing I’m willing to bet is that the algorhythm by which payments are determined isn’t a one-for-one that says X amount of money for each play. We have computers powerful enough to keep metadata on every telephone call placed on this planet since, oh, 2008 or so, but Spotify, I’m willing to bet, doesn’t have one programmed to pay off a low-earning artist with only a couple of hundred plays a year. It’s like the joke about performing rights societies and how they work: “Your song gets 1000 plays during the year and Paul McCartney gets a dollar.” That’s proportional payment for you. Theoretically, this shouldn’t happen. Practically, though, it does. And why?


Same problem I’ve complained about since, oh, forever: overproduction. There’s more music out there than anyone has time to listen to. Less of it is worth devoting that time to, too, as far as I can tell. So Spotify may not be 100% of the problem. They seem to be making a lot of dough, though, so my guess is it’s enough of the problem that we should be glad Mssrs. Yorke, Godrich, & co. brought up the issue.


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A few more items to round out the week.

Universal Records, the company that owns the rights to most everything recorded before last Tuesday, has announced that it’s starting up a vinyl-only reissue label, which, this CMU article notwithstanding, is called UVinyl, not Repressed Records. Unfortunately. Where it really gets wacky, though, is they’re crowdfunding it through this website. Yup. I said crowdfunding. Universal. For your financial support, you not only get the record, but rare art prints and other stuff.

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And yet, the Guardian reports, this year is expected to break all sales records for singles. When reading this article, I’d like you to keep in mind that they’re only talking about Great Britain, however. And it also verifies the triumph of the iTunes model that (they’re back!) Pink Floyd so successfully resisted for so long. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. There was a time when almost nobody bought albums, and the record companies only released popular music on albums as a prestige item or with artists (Sinatra, say) who appealed to an older demographic. There are many who look back on those days as being something of a golden age which the coming of the more expensive pop music LP squelched. It was also the era when teenagers ruled pop music taste, and it’s tempting to think that those days, too, are returning. Anyway, as figure-choked as the article is, it’s worth musing about.

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And (although it has nothing to do with music) I’ll leave you with a sobering article that’s nonetheless kind of optimistic. According to the UN, the damage to Timbuktu was a bit worse than reported, with approximately 4000 ancient manuscripts either destroyed or missing (I’m betting the black market in books is humming right about now), which amounts to approximately 10% of what was on hand before the extremists hit last year. The report also noted that damage to and destruction of ancient monuments was worse than had been thought. What’s possibly good news is that some of the manuscripts that aren’t there now may have been digitized, but we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.