I recently returned from a three week trip to the UK and Eire, where I took private meetings and gave a series of public talks about the rise of streaming music services and the future of the recorded music industry. One of those talks was at Birmingham City University and it was in two parts; my talk first, followed by an interview with Andrew Dubber. Andrew is the director of Music Tech Fest, an advisor to Bandcamp, Stromatolite and Sonaris and is the founder of New Music Strategies, a pan-European digital music strategy think tank and consultancy group.
I have finally got around to addressing some of Andrew's questions that weren't covered in the onstage Q&A.
NB: I've edited some of the questions for space and to make them more direct.
Andrew Dubber: [...] streaming services reinforce an aspect of the status quo of the age of recordings you’d think they could somehow contribute to subverting - that the role of some people is to make music, and that the role of others is to sit down, shut up and consume. And yet one of the larger cultural projects of the digital age has been the shift from passive consumption to active participation (e.g.: amateur videos on YouTube). With that in mind, what problem does Beats Music (or Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, WiMP, etc.) actually solve?
Dave Allen: I've written often that in a digital era it is paramount that we find real problems to solve. The passive response to media goes well beyond music: film, art, books, television and more. One doesn't have to become a creator to be passionate about a particular corner of media. Interactivity and participation are words that get overused in our digital society. We surely know that not “everyone” languishes on a sofa soaking up music, nor does “everyone” create YouTube videos. Your question feels like a search for a solution to a problem that isn't currently apparent. For a large part of society music is a passion steeped in emotion, and back in the day I knew of about three friends who loved making cassette mixtapes as did I. Our friends who received the tapes were really happy - they could enjoy listening without having to do the "work." Just because there exists an online interactive medium today does not mean that we all should embrace it. My idea of interaction with music is turning the vinyl album over to side 2 or going to a concert. That may not carry a great deal of weight with a younger generation, or maybe it will. We’d have to do the research.
AD: Is it the internet’s job to make things better for musicians? If not, what’s it actually for and how can we use that?
DA: To the first question the answer is no. To the second, the Internet is a platform that allows anyone who is interested or motivated to use its massive distribution capability to reach millions of people. It is perhaps the greatest low-barrier-to-entry technology ever invented. And of course, the Internet wasn’t invented for musicians nor does it solely affect them. And to play devil’s advocate here, I don’t believe it’s anyone’s “job” to make things better for musicians, it’s actually their own job, just as it ever was.
AD: Music is still ultimately commoditized, and the end game is simply to maximize returns to shareholders. Aren’t musicians and audiences exploited in this relationship by definition? How does moving the pieces around on that particular chessboard solve anything?
DA: That word exploitation is, in some form or other, in most recording contracts. By signing a contract with a label musicians choose exploitation, where exploitation isn't a bad word. It's a tacit acceptance that by signing a contract a musician allows the label to exploit their work throughout all channels. The commoditization of a musicians work is the net result of signing a contract; they are in a marketplace. You ask, "How does moving the pieces around on that particular chessboard solve anything?" I'd say that simply moving the pieces around doesn't solve anything. What's required is a complete overhaul of the industry and that's not going to happen overnight. This isn't just about streaming music services it is about the entire structure of the existing recorded music system. What is often taken as progress is actually a myth. Everything that we believe to be "new" is often built upon the foundations of the past. In other words a "new" system may be perceived as groundbreaking but often emulates and mimics the old or existing systems. That's a real problem that could use a real solution.
AD: You assert that we need to embrace the formation of new markets.
DA: I believe I said that musicians need to create new markets. By that I mean seize the opportunity that the Internet provides. Again, new markets are available to all creatives or businesses these days. Two examples of what I might call “new market companies” that recognized an online-distributed opportunity are AirBnB and Uber. This leads me to a thought and a question for you: why are musicians, who are considered to be ‘creatives,’ sitting around waiting for others to solve the future of music while criticizing those who are attempting to get real results?
AD: Does streaming music and a focus on curated discovery have the potential side effect of diminishing active fandom or even making fandom obsolete? And would it be a good thing if it did?
DA: Andrew, with all respect this question sounds deeply fatalistic, perhaps an arm of Nietzschean philosophy that hadn't occurred to me! I jest, yet if we accept that no one has control over who will be a fan of any particular artist (although I will accept that in hindsight it was possible to determine how the Beatles attained fans via a complex pattern of hysteria, mass-adulation, talent, charisma and timing,) I don't see how anyone could "diminish active fandom." If streaming services were able to do that, then all things being equal they would also be able to increase fandom too.
AD: Forget for the moment how we make things better for musicians. How do we make things better for music?
DA: One of our weaknesses as humans is that we believe in what John N. Gray calls “the myth of progress.” We are the only animal on the planet that gets lost in the idea that one can make things better. Now, of course, we are capable of making some things better but we must always be sure that better doesn’t mean ‘more baggage attached to a working model that only appears to make things better...’ So, another question for you - how could we make music better? I certainly know that I couldn’t answer that myself.
AD: My own problem with streaming services – and perhaps this is only important to me because of my age – but the songs I listen to on Beats are just ‘some music’. It’s not ‘MY music’. There’s long been an important connection between recorded music, ownership (and especially collection) and identity. Is this relationship no longer important?
DA: This is one of those questions that are often asked about other material, tactile, collectible objects such as books, that can be made available in digital form. The fact that books, CDs and vinyl records still exist regardless of their availability online, means that you are perfectly capable of continuing to collect them, own them and store them. The idea that the Internet stopped that happening is a non-starter. The relationship people have with those tactile objects is of course very important, as long as we accept that it is a personal choice. I’d argue that younger generations don’t sense the disconnect in the way you do. In a pre-Internet world there were simply less choices; of availability, of pricing, of distribution, etc. Now, as we are discussing music, music fans have far more choice and flexibility. I would certainly like to think that Beats Music users understand how much choice and flexibility is available in our service.
AD: On that note – as an aside – I had an iPod on which I could store a lot of music. I loaded it with my 1000 favourite albums of all time (including three Shriekback records). And that list didn’t coincide with ANYONE else’s ‘greatest albums’ list. They were important to me for lots of reasons other than their ‘recommendability’, broader cultural importance or aesthetic merit. But that felt like the last meaningful act of music collection. Is collecting and organizing music simply a performance of nostalgia now?
DA: Was the collecting and organizing of music ever anything but nostalgia? I don't see the difference between creating iTunes playlists versus creating playlists within Beats Music. Isn't it the same act? Won't your playlist on Beats Music be just as different to anyone else's 'greatest album' list, as you put it? I believe it will be. The huge difference is that now you can share that playlist with millions of followers. I think that's a good thing. Once again, rather like any online interaction, the music fans lead the way.
You can see all of Andrew's questions here.