Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.

September 13th, 2013 by David Gerard

  (Also in Polish.)

Record companies complain the Internet will destroy music. Musicians complain that they can’t make a living any more. The unsympathetic public, feeling the squeeze themselves, tell them to get a proper job.

The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition.

There is too much music and too many musicians, and the amateurs are often good enough for the public. This is healthy for culture, not so much for aesthetics, and shit for musicians. Musicians in the early ’90s were already feeling the pressure of competition from CD reissues of old stuff; here in the future, you can get almost anything that has ever been digitised for free and listener time is the precious commodity.

This article is not about the majors or rock stars, but about the indie musicians and labels watching the waterhole dry up and wondering what the hell happened.

There is no shortage of genius works.

As Gwern Branwen notes, culture is not about aesthetics. There are too many brilliant records. There are too many brilliant books. He does the numbers to demonstrate the impossibility of keeping up, and the impossibility of ever having been able to keep up, even back in the twentieth century, when everything was really slow and records cost money.

The purpose of culture is actually social bonding — like you thought all those bad genres you’re not into were — and aesthetics to our level of obsession is just a nice extra along for the ride, and fodder for social signaling (which is why governments spend money on art funding). Culture is everything humans do to interact, and having it go through record companies is actually a completely weird state of affairs.

The problem then is not genius works, but finding, and making, them in your chosen aesthetic vocabulary (the one fixed in a couple of years of your adolescence).

If you’re thinking about money, you’re a small business. You poor bastard.

Economically, the 20th century was just a weird time: where it was possible to mass-produce recordings, but it was difficult and expensive; so we had a record company oligopoly, which is great for squeezing out cash. Now it’s not. Marginal cost approaches zero, and it’s marginal cost, not setup cost, that determines prices. So the price will tend to zero. Microeconomics is a bastard.

In most small businesses, pricing is a percentage whacked onto the marginal cost, and the setup cost is paid for in the percentage. Your setup costs are S (recording, designing the packaging, etc.). You can’t charge the customer upfront for those so you need to whack a percentage margin onto your marginal costs. This is the cost of each additional unit after the setup costs (pressing one more record, shipping one record, etc.), which are M per unit. So your total cost is S plus (M times units), and your return is (M plus percentage) times units.

This works when your marginal costs are large enough to whack a sufficient percentage onto (e.g., a CD) to cover S. It doesn’t when your marginal cost is almost zero (an MP3). Anyone can undercut you by taking a lower percentage on the marginal cost, and if their setup costs are also smaller they’re laughing. Thus, prices tend to drop as close to marginal value as is possible. If that’s zero, that’s what people expect to pay.

(I was actually surprised iTunes works at all, ever, for anyone — people paying $1 for something of zero marginal cost. Every sale is made because the people wanted to pay for the unit in question. Convenience is worth more than I’d thought.)

The market is not perfectly efficient. But the new degree of efficiency is quite horrifying and unexpected to musicians who started out in the gatekeeper oligopoly, and it’s not going to get less efficient.

Literally everyone is a musician if they want to be. Good for culture, bad for employment.

The serious problem for the working musician, though, isn’t records being cheap — it’s competition from other musicians. Because any talentless hack is now a musician. There are bands who would have trouble playing a police siren in tune, who download a cracked copy of Cubase — you know how much musicians pirate their software, VSTs and sample packs, right? — and tap in every note. There are people like me who do this. A two-hundred-quid laptop with LMMS and I suddenly have better studio equipment than I could have hired for $100/hour thirty years ago. You can do better with a proper engineer in a proper studio, but you don’t have to. And whenever quality competes with convenience, convenience wins every time.

You can protest that your music is a finely-prepared steak cooked by sheer genius, and be quite correct in this, and you have trouble paying for your kitchen, your restaurant, your cow. But everyone else is giving away zero-marginal-cost digital steaks, even if they’re actually reconstituted tofu or maybe poop.

This means art becomes entirely a folk enterprise: the sound of the culture talking amongst itself. This is lovely in its way, but all a bit fucked if you aspire to higher quality in your subcultural group.

We’re not going to run out of music, but it’s going to be a bit mediocre by and by.

(Music journalism might become a profession again. I thought it had been safely killed.)

No, I don’t have a quick answer.

Musicians are in competition with every other musician in the world, including literally everyone who wants to be a musician and doesn’t have to do it for money. All of whom have access now to the same outlets and channels the other musicians do. We have the technology; it’s cheap. The amateurs are frequently good enough for the public. The professionals sell fuck-all these days.

For live musicians, you’re in economic competition with every other thing in the world that isn’t going out to see a band — like, ooh, the entire Internet — and you know the pubs know it.

A few established bands have managed to record albums through Kickstarter-style pledge arrangements: charging directly on the setup cost, not the marginal cost. You do need to have a fanbase to leverage first.

The obvious answer is the destruction of neoliberalism, of bullshit jobs and indeed of the capitalist system in general, and a world where we don’t have to fight in a rat race for scraps from the owners’ tables rather than make music, but that might be a bit complicated to fully outline a viable plan for in a music blog.

Suggestions are welcomed. (I’ll note that “everyone just needs to change their attitude” is unlikely to work in practice.) In the meantime, go buy something from your old favourites, they almost certainly need the cash.

(By the way, this is a problem I personally have: the loved one just quit her job to do art full-time. Here in the future, selling art for money that we seriously need is proving interesting. GO BUY A T-SHIRT. We’re all supposed to live off T-shirts now, right?)

73 Responses to “Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.”

  1. Lamond Says:

    Funny, I saw all this coming five years ago at least. Everybody said I was being “too negative.”

  2. David Gerard Says:

    I am slow on the uptake; I didn’t realise just how comprehensively fucked the majors were until I saw friends of my then-girlfriend swapping burnt CD-Rs of albums around Christmas 1998.

    But after the Golden Age of the fact of MP3s, there must come a Silver Age of the problems of plenty.

  3. dm_gsxr Says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on the subject. I’ve been thinking something similar for the past couple of years. Folks who use Pandora (for example) to find other music similar to what they like or the Genius playlists on the iDevices.

    I’m not a professional musician. I’ve played instruments back when I was in Jr. High and High School (I’m in the US) and over the past couple of years have been learning how to play the guitar.

    One of the things I’ve noticed too is that even the cheaper guitars are pretty good especially compared with gear from the 70’s. I’m not paying over $1,000 for a single guitar but I do have an Epiphone Les Paul and a Fender Strat, four amps (Fender Bullet up to a Marshall) and quite a bit of additional gear in part because I am older and can afford it (kids are grown and gone, ex-wives, so most of my earnings I can use to buy gear to satisfy my interests).

    With loads of instructors who have to make a living, I’m able to attend lessons to help me get better. I’ve even been on stage a couple of times to my surprise :)

    I’d like to find some like minded folks in my area so I can jam but I’m still a bit self conscious about my skills.

    On the plus side, I’ve been playing with Rocksmith going on 2 years and am anticipating the new version in a month.

    With the Internet (JustinGuitar among others), cool learning tools like Rocksmith (over a million players), and good, cheap gear, it’s just going to get easier for folks like me to further explore with others and likely bring down costs even more for folks who _are_ professional and need to eat (sorry).

    Out of curiosity, what do you think of learning tools like Rocksmith? I like it as a motivational tool but still like having an instructor to bounce questions off of.

  4. Ted Lemon Says:

    In point of fact, I don’t think you can get around the fact that we need to renegotiate how our economy works. It’s just going to become more and more obvious over time.

    But this doesn’t solve the problem the incumbents in the music business suffer, because what they want is not merely to make a living, but to be on top. An economy that doesn’t reward those who gain exclusive control of the means of production can’t really scratch that itch.

  5. Chris Owen Says:

    Why are you so surprised iTunes/Spotify works? You’re paying for access to an highly organised/consistent database of almost all music. The alternatives have never been highly organised/consistent and you’d waste about the cost of minimum wage of your time trying to find what you want and waiting and copying it around.

    Top musicians will always make a killing. The end of the average musician making money…I hope so. Music is very very healthy right now, the music business is worried though.

  6. David Gerard Says:

    @Ted – this post was prompted by talking to musicians I know who’d eked out a living in the low-to-midrange and hit 2013 and went “what the fuck happened?” None of it’s news to Internet natives, but they’re only part of our vast [citation needed] reader base. Artist brain and business brain are separate skills and very rare to find in the same head.

    @Chris – I had underestimated the value of convenience.

  7. Neal MacDonald Says:

    Let me see if I got this. When given a choice, people choose what they like. ‘Quality’ in what people find entertaining or pleasurable is entirely subjective. The music ‘industry’ selling recorded music has been based on restricting choice and pushing products on largely captive markets. The world has changed.

  8. William Lindley Says:

    This was a wonderful article until you get near the end and use profanity, at which point your whole legitimacy falls apart — FAIL. Clean up your act, and do not spoil your next article, please.

  9. sirlanse Says:

    The 20th century was odd find it because of the recording industry, Before that musicians were poor. In history musicians were all poor, the recording industry let them get rich for a short time. Being a musician is going back to being poor and doing live shows.

  10. herojig Says:

    As a small studio owner tucked into a small corner of the world, I can attest to validity of David’s claim. Studio recording is dead. But we just repurposed for make decent music videos for musicians, instead of mixing and mastering their music. And because of competition there, I am sure in a few years time that business may be dead as well… but there is hope. As more and more content on the internet turns into video, professional slicers and dicers may still be busy. But slicing and dicing content for musicians (posted to youtube) also appears to be a losing proposition in the long term… as so many folks are happy enough to just remake and watch their own videos using their favorite songs from any open playlist. It’s a crazy world out there now.

  11. Chris V. Says:

    The new model is: people who make music that enough people think is good will be rewarded with a reasonable living via donation and patronage. What is dying is the model of mega rich musicians. They never were worth more than, say a doctor, in the first place. Its ridiculous to expect more and always was. I’m glad the old music machine is dying because I’ve always preferred art over prostitution.

    Society needs to re-evaluate athletes, politicians and corporate executives as well.

  12. Graham Storrs Says:

    I’m not a musician, I’m a writer. Oddly enough, everything you say here rings true of my own industry. In an age when twice as many self-published books are appearing every year than commercially published ones, writers too are struggling (even more than usual) to make a living.

    Many commentators will tell you it’s the massive oversupply of low-quality work that has made it extremely difficult to find the good stuff these days. My own view is more like yours, people don’t care anywhere near as much about “quality” as the publishers think they do. Mediocre work is “good enough”. In fact, many people find “good” books too much like hard work to enjoy. I suspect it’s the same with “good” music.

  13. Organgrinder Says:

    Well, more people have more access to more music by more artists… But that’s a bad thing because big names can’t make money? Well, this how small bands are able to make a name for themselves. We live in an American Idol world, where if you’re now pretty enough, no matter how much talent you have, you’re out. Nirvana, one of my all-time favorite bands, was nothing more than a garage band. Surely that’s not who is meant by “good enough” band for the public, right?

  14. shea c Says:

    Excellent analysis. Curation in the short term. Go social hard in the longer term. Take food, another social bonding nearly free cultural artifact. Celebrity chefs, chef competions, chef swag, etc.

    Bundle in with other industries. Think vegas writ large. Every “upscale” restaurant has an in house band with a light show and the like. There are efficiencies to be had there too. One thing you can’t digitize is the experience of being around others (well, not well and cheaply. Yet).

  15. alanborky Says:

    You need to factor into all this as well the fact we’re also in the process of every current guild in the civilization [musical legal medical education engineering banking etc etc etc not to mention supposedly low grade service workers warehouse staff sewage waste disposal etc etc etc] being superseded by much more efficient algorithms/robots and other technologies yet to be conceived.

    This even applies to computer designers now we have chips designed by chips designed by chips to the degree we no longer really understand how they work.

    All of which means if the human race isn’t to become extinct from a loss of purpose formerly provided by having jobs combined with a loss of will to live as a result of being spoonfed piped music art literature selected composed and played for us by artificial intelligence modules we must sooner or later reassert our right to exist a race of artists poets composers no matter how crappy no matter how amateur.

    Fortunately the history of the world shows whenever the arts seem doomed to disappear down the path of perfect pitched professional plastic generic pop along comes some cracked voiced bastard like Bob Dylan who can’t sing to save his life and some dizzy spacehead like Jimi Hendrix who doesn’t know you’re supposed to tune your guitar not play it with your teeth and the rule book gets gloriously tossed out the window.

    In other words authenticity no matter how crude or clumsy’s our best hope of avoiding being dazzled into permanent redundancy by show off slick and clever.

  16. msouth Says:

    The short version of this: It’s hard when you find out the way you used to make a living was based on an artificial barrier (or a collection of them) which has just been removed.

  17. Ashley Bell Says:

    This is painfully obvious to anyone in the industry. DON’T BE A MUSICIAN. Make music, don’t do it full time – the rat race will kill you if the low-hanging fruit doesn’t give you food poising first. If you are like me you’ll end up in advertising before shitcanning your dreams and doing something worth while instead of trying to fatten your ego on gruel.

    Everyone can make music anyway, its just our fucked education system that prevents all but the freaks to feel adequately confident to play or write – that doesn’t mean you’re special, it means you are a freak. Music is a great skill, however, because it enhances other skills. You know, like football. About the same odds of hitting the majors, too, but without the scholarships and head trauma.

    Besides, the whole shebang is going to converge anyway into multimedia events. Video editors will feel the pinch next. Programmers, on the other hand, have the potential of being the rockstars of the future, kinda like Linus or Will Wright x1000. Except programmers didn’t get into it dreaming out getting their dicks sucked in the back of a tour bus after a sold out show.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY: Punk rock isn’t enforced by SHIT because no one has a spine anymore. What is the new school rebelling against: talent? Nothing. They’re doing what any kid does when confronted with shiny technology – surfing the low end of the learning curve.

    On the other hand, punk rockers may have been amateurs but they were trying to give the finger to things like the MOR radio format of the 70s and Reagan. Now everybody wants to sound like everyone else and that’s 90% the problem. Amateurs != punk rock.

    To connotate this era of home studios recording with punk rock is a misguided. Punk needs a fucking revival and I’m talking Decline of Western Civilization era stuff, not the pop punk and ska that give 90s kids warm feelies. It’s an attitude change that is needed: a rebellion against the status quo instead of direct emulation and consent to its conditions.

    Quitting the music industry is the best thing you can do – then you can write REAL music and not give a shit about labels, managers, listenership, time tables and being rough around the edges. THAT’s punk rock.

    How do you think this generation is going to act when their dreams die? I don’t see them sounding like boomers who lost their pension at the Nissan plant. Music has always been a racket, anyway, even back to the days of court jesters. If you think you are such hot shit, make some music that is trying to piss people off instead of get pissed on by the level of “middle managers” right above you because their blue rare steaks were served medium instead. You’d be surprised what some real pathos can do for your soul.

  18. David Gerard Says:

    @Ashley – you’re quite right. FOLK is now enforced by law.

  19. Geoff Says:

    Or look for another angle….For me it was to slip quietly into the world of industrial audio. I make slightly better than average living writing jingles and game music. Two areas where there is a constant stream of people needing noises that help push their product.

    I realised 15 years ago that I would end up in a “dad band” playing covers and that my life in original music was fast becoming a thing that would never happen in a way that would allow me to make a decent living.

    I was on day one of a three state tour… we stopped for lunch at a returned serviceman’s club in a country town… there was a guy around my age sitting in a corner of the bistro playing covers with a small pa and backing tapes. He was pretty much invisible, drowned out by the clattering of a busy kitchen and ignored by all.

    I saw myself and my future.

    I spent the next few weeks of the tour planning on going back to school to acquire the skills necessary to get a job as a 3d animator (art has always been a hobby for me )… long story short… spent 2 years out of the industry, applied at a game company for a job as an animator… they looked at my cv … asked me if instead, I’d be interested in designing and running an audio department as composer in residence…. dumb luck! Correct chops for the gig helped… but right place and right time is the reality… this was almost 10 years ago.
    I write what I want, they trust my judgement and my studio is left to just pump music out.

    I needed to step back from trying to “force” a result out of the industry… couldn’t see any other avenues.

  20. David Gerard Says:

    By the way, all this has already happened with writing – where anyone has the tools of production, but the distribution and getting money was really difficult. Here in the future, fan fiction actually competes with what was the midlist of books. Fan fiction is laughed at for the hideous shit, but lots of it is passable quality if you like the characters, and it turns out the precious commodity is reader time and attention. So it plays out just like with music, except you need even less equipment. It’s also totally a folk culture – the writers are the readers.

  21. koyima Says:

    I think what you really mean is: technology leveled the field.

    Amateurs? If an amateur can get someone to pay him, I have news for you: he is no longer an amateur.

    Labels are a construct of a different time, much like publishing houses, newspapers and all publishing models. The problem was distribution they solved that and had the system in place, which was also expensive to replicate. Once the internet came a long that all becomes a lot less valuable.

    So you have a combination of :
    a) production technology becoming affordable to the aspiring musician,
    b) distribution becoming available to the same crowd, again through technology.

    So the only thing left to the labels (publishers etc) is marketing, well they didn’t really do marketing in the ‘old days’, they simply limited the music available (by choosing – which wasn’t always based on talent as you assume time and time again) and since the populous is always hungry for music their limited offering was always in demand. That’s why their attempts now seem childish: sex, scandal, affairs, they took one cue from Madonna and this is the extent of it.
    If they want to survive they should switch their idea of being the greedy middleman and actually try to add value to the product like everyone else in the industry does.

    Also don’t try passing crap that only pros got into the labels, a lot of shit got picked up too, you just don’t remember, because if it was shit enough to not work in that system it didn’t last.

  22. Mark Thompson Says:

    I always saw monetized information, music, video, movies, books, as suffering as some of the first casualties as our civilization and technologies allow us to become a Type 1 / post-scarcity society.

    This idea in short a futurist rapture, where everyone will have a replicator and a pocket super-computer and make whatever they want from whatever is around them. It sounds awesome, and it might even work, but there are some problems.

    1. Real costs, ipods, laptops, electric cars, and everything else really do have costs, those costs relate to the scarcity of the metals, and pollution created in their manufacture, not to mention the slavish conditions under which these things are sometimes produced.

    2. What do you do with the people who don’t have access to the basic skills and literacy – while information may be free, learning to use it, in a real sense and at a certain level of sophistication will definitely NOT be.

    3. What do you do with the people currently “at the top”, the presidents, and warriors and oligarchs who want everything to remain as it is.

    4. It utterly destroys the idea of the “winner take all” mentality that exists under oligarchy, where your style and who you know matter, because when everyone can do it, that simply doesn’t matter.

  23. Michael B Says:

    My friends and I in our music scene dont even bother thinking about the music business in the old terms.
    1. Record companies are usless, for normal people, and are only for the creation of (pop, brand, fashion, icons) ie…Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Kate Perry etc…
    2. We dont believe you should kill yourself trying to make a living as a musician, here, even the best of the best of us can only supplement our livleyhood playing out.
    3. While getting music online is a good way to get your name out there. You’ll never make any money selling music online.
    4. We believe in doing it as true amatures, in other words (because we love playing music, for all the right reasons).
    A. Its fun.
    B. Its good for your mind, creating new synaps connections and your dexterity.
    C. It’s creates happieness, being able to master an instrument and challenge your abilities.
    D. It enhances local culture

  24. Heath Parker Says:

    “The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition.” Yea, okay guy.

  25. Matt Moran Says:

    I think what may emerge is more of the same sort of thing we’re seeing with Kickstarter (see Amanda Palmer’s recent album), and subscription based patronage services whereby you get value added items in addition to the music, by agreeing to pay an artist whose work you love X amount per month, which they then do, releasing the music itself on a Creative Commons sharealike attribution license, so that people can remix it, cover it, whatever, as long as they give the kudos for inventing it to the original artist & send them a copy – which the artist then re-shares on their website (see Kristin Hersh’s CASH Music initiative). We’re also probably going to see a lot more local live music in pubs & clubs, if the government don’t make it impossible by bureaucracy.

  26. Matthew Sychantha Says:

    The music business is far from dead, it just has been broken down so it’s easier to digest. Personally, I have a really contentious bone to pick with your article, but I’ll save it for some other time.

    The music industry is far from an oligarchy. The fact is that what’s happening has been the gradual ripping away of power from major labels, kicking and screaming. Yeah, it’s not easy anymore to go get discovered playing the crappy originals your singer wrote in the shower where either the guitar player or the synth player wanks off for 4 minutes at some bar. Yes, every loser and their dad can get gigs playing bad covers that an audience will sing along to and eat up. The thing is that the music business has never been about what’s good(to which I probably just made you cringe), but more about getting people to listen. Ever since the CD era ended, the major label ability to do that has gone downhill; and instead of complaining about the desperate choices major labels make, you should do something with it.

    The fact is that kickstarter and other crowdfunding types of deals ARE viable, and outright how things should be done now. You should be going out there and working your ass off making music that creates a fanbase as opposed to having someone hand you money to go make music. You should be social and talk to fans and get them excited and interested in your music, your artistic endeavors, instead of just waiting around for someone in a suit to like it. You shouldn’t need record labels to get thousands of fans. How many people live in your town? The surrounding towns? The capital? How come you haven’t been going out and making a buzz in each and every person’s face out there about how good your music is? Do you not believe in it? You should. You should be making them believe in it.

    Instead of complaining that there’s too many musicians, you really need to look at yourself. Yes, you’re going to have to be memorable. Yes, you’re going to have to be a complete package. Is that too hard? Good, then stay in the bars. If you can’t make 20 drunks rant about you in some way after your set, then what right do you have to complain that it’s not viable for you to be a musician?

    I suppose the biggest bone I have to pick with this is that for some reason you believe everyone who’s an “artist” is going to take a bite of your dinner. First of all, no. Time and time again, the people who last are the people who go the extra mile to get to know their fans, the ones who draw will be the ones that can make you care. Second of all, who told you that just because you made something meant that someone had to buy it? Who told you that you were guaranteed money because you created something?

    There is a quick solution, and it’s right infront of you: go out there and promote your next show as the best thing in the world. Go book yourself with bands in your genre and play better, faster, more passionately. Start believing in what you’ve done and drag every dumb fuck by the nose so that they understand that what you’ve done is something to get excited about, to tell their friends about; because everyone is going around making music and it’s you’re job to get them to care. To put on the best show imaginable and them make sure they think that you’re in the best act in the world by the time they walk out by taking some time to talk to them.

    Fun story: This summer one of my bands couldn’t get booked at bars anymore, but we started doing bigger events like festivals. It was because local promoters would book us, put us on first not knowing who we were, the bar would fill the hell up like crazy during our set, and then they’d walk away during the next band and we’d get yelled at for it. Yet, the amount of fans we’d be making would create enough of a stir to get us booked into small local festivals.

    And I’m not advocating that you push people away from your competitors, but instead that music should be a social connection, something that you share with people. After all, Noel Gallagher has no idea what Champagne Supernova means, but his audience will cry while singing along.

    As for your wife, I wish her the best. I advocate the same thing, talking or writing down what each piece is, why she made it, what it means to her, and going out of her way to talk about it with anyone who will listen. Bloggers, newspapers, people walking by in the park, etc. Personalizing the experience. Art isn’t meant to hang on someone’s wall or get banged out in bars by rookies with guitars, it’s meant to be shared and experienced. It’s meant to bring us together, to make us feel. If you’re good at that part, not just the “writing some good songs” part, then people will pay money.

  27. Jarret Says:

    Well if we take the stand that “all art is neurotic” ….then the solution is easy, ‘counseling’ for everyone…them with a healthy society we will have no need for art. (For those unsure…that’s called sarcasm)

  28. -g Says:

    @Matthew While the “just try harder” mantra is appealing, you can only keep your head above water so long, eventually those cement blocks tied to your ankles take hold. Your pitch is a Field of Dreams variant that initially sounds kinda good, but in practice, pretty much always falls flat.

    This is all old hat for the photography world, we’ve had a good 5-7 year head start on you. Spoiler alert- it doesn’t get any better. There really aren’t many/any safe havens and if you find one, some knucklehead will blab it all out on the web just for a few token Likes.

    No one cares if you can charge enough to run a viable business, much less support a family. In the end, you need to focus on the business, not the product and in most of these scenarios, supplement with a supporting spouse or day job.

  29. John Pombrio Says:

    Another major concern in the future will be that amateur musicians will not even have to PLAY AN INSTRUMENT. No guitar, no drums, no horns. If you know your computer tools well enough, all this can be inputted by a keyboard or even just programmed in. Mind you, they cannot do a live show (which is the only way to make money for most bands) but the songs can and will be on the internet. Further out, there is computer composed music :)

  30. Scott Says:

    Accept change,Adapt and everything will continue to evolve. Fear of it only leads to disappointment. Shut up,Listen and choose what you enjoy. Welcome to tomorrow.

  31. j-- Says:

    I caught this on Reddit and I don’t think the title conveyed the meaning of your post well, so, not surprisingly, much of the discussion appears to be based on the title of the link on Reddit, not what you wrote. (How Amateurs Destroyed the Professional Music Business: “The problem isn’t piracy — it’s competition. There is too much music and too many musicians, and the amateurs are often good enough for the public.”)

    However, I was happy to find you were making the same point I have. The overabundance of easily distributed and obtainable music makes it extremely difficult for younger generations to have bands to collectively rally behind and fondly remember 10+ years later. There is too much must-listen-to music. I can listen to music all day in my job, and I still am behind on keeping up on what is being released and recommended (by the new gatekeepers, Pitchfork and music festivals), let alone enjoying music I have already listened to in the past and liked.

    Will young people today feel the same way even about the most popular of indie artists in the past few years that people did and still do about artists like The Smiths, 80’s-era The Cure, The Clash, 90’s-era Smashing Pumpkins, etc.? I don’t think so. For one, they’ll be perpetually stuck trying to keep up with what is in the spotlight at the moment.

    I’m not sure what to think about this. On the one hand, it’s nice bands who struggled to get passed the local scene due to a lack of money or location in the 90s and prior, can reach a global audience now. Listeners also have much more to listen to.

    On the other hand, the bands who do innovate and set new trends can get lost in the sea of followers very quickly, when in the past those followers would have been popular in a local scene and then possibly reach a wider audience if they were popular enough or got lucky and noticed by a label.

    An abundance of choice for the listener also leads to the problem described above, we only have a limited amount of free time to spare on listening to music or doing anything else with our free time, so in a way it can become negative in that the listener feels more obligated to listen to even more music with their limited fee time to keep current and hope they don’t miss something that they’ll really love or that others are into.

  32. Mac Ruffus Says:

    Good points in here. Not sure if anyone pointed this out but when a market becomes over-saturated eventually those sustaining losses begin leaving the market. So I could see this as being a positive thing–leaving music as a profession to only those most passionate about and talented(?) at their craft?

    Also, if recorded music’s value approaches zero then maybe we would see a shift (increase) in the value of live performance? After all, it’s one thing to say you downloaded music of band x for free and its another thing to say you saw band x at the Hollywood Bowl–maybe this would remove those bands who are actually really awful, but commercially successful? This is not to say that a band’s success wouldn’t still be subject to vagaries of public taste, but maybe we would have something closer to an artistic meritocracy?

    One benefit to the loss of major profit, or decentralization of profit, is that major investors–people who just want to make money and care nothing about art–will search for investments with a higher return. And so maybe we will have an industry whose winners are decided by the public at large rather than a few record execs. It may be the death of the rock star, but surely not the death of rock n’ roll?

    One thing I have failed to address here is entertainment dance shows the likes of ‘”Miley Cyrus.” Not sure how this fits in, but maybe someone can comment…

  33. Mac Ruffus Says:

    Meant to post this link:

    “Live music saw particularly dramatic growth. From 1999 to 2009, concert ticket sales in the US tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion, vastly exceeding the growth of inflation and population growth.”

  34. tc Says:

    Lazy nonsense! Truly talented and hard-working musicians will always find a market. True fans will always find music.
    There were plenty of musicians that went broke or were unable to make a living in the “Industry days”. Lest we forget that many were put in the poor house by that industry itself and not their fanbase. It was a time in which lawyers made or broke artists. Not good. At least now the meager earnings go directly to the artist.
    This article does not mention the old industry “Gatekeepers” that forced only their artist roster down everyone’s throat and holding musicians hostage with the idea of Radio airplay. If one company found success with an artist they would search for or create a clone of that artist to soak up the rest of the market. Debbie Gibson begets Tiffany. (I specifically used those “popular” artists) Majors could have shifted to the new market but they were short-sighted and greedy then lost their market to non-physical media. Essentially, they gave it away to iTunes and the like. They were business foolish in ignoring a new media. They would often bank on a single from a CD full of fluff forcing consumers to buy an entire album to hear the one song they really wanted. That CD length based on a previous vinyl format that at the time was outdated, but the old school executives did not understand the coming changes.
    The article makes it sound as if everyone has to sift through every artist out there to find one they like. Human nature and preference prove that wrong. Fans of punk are not going to search for power-pop music etc.
    For most musicians, the way things are now is preferable. They no longer have to try and appeal to industry. They just have to appeal to fans. For fans it is the difference between having discovering what they like as opposed to being told what they can listen too. In the past musicians could be denied audience by industry decision makers, most of which were not qualified to make these decisions. No one misses A & R, or Billboard, period.
    Die-hard fans, the ones that count for a musician will always make the effort to find music. Back in the day, they craved the underground scene where music was produced by the artist be for they “broke” or were “discovered”. Not just the marketed products. Now the underground is above ground and flourishing.
    I could go on, but will leave it at this.
    This very article would not have seen the light of day in the pre-internet era. There would be no editor in the past that would have risked his precious advertising related space for it. Maybe a college newspaper, if luck held out.

  35. David Gerard Says:

    “This very article would not have seen the light of day in the pre-internet era. There would be no editor in the past that would have risked his precious advertising related space for it. Maybe a college newspaper, if luck held out.”

    Sure it would! But with more dedicated readers.

  36. Henry Ford Says:

    Let me take a contrary view. This sounds like protectionist whining to me. If professional musicians want to make a living writing and performing music, then it must have something to offer that the amateur stuff doesn’t. If the masses are happy enough with amateur music, then it’s time to do something else for a living. The thought of readjusting the capitalist system because a particular group can’t find enough customer pull for their product is ridiculous. This is the nature of all things in progress and technology. But let’s also look at the plus side for the music industry. If you’re a musician and want to record and get your stuff out there, you are no longer at the mercy of big corporate contracts to make stuff happen. I think this is a good thing for music. So, summarizing, I think the problem here is that people need to learn to adjust to the new way instead of digging their heals in and complaining that it’s not working for them.

  37. Silver Says:

    It’s good to see it (music business) go. Non-professional punk rock, a result of post modern protest against over priced pro’s was and is superior. This started in the ’70’s really with punk rock.

    Aside from that, remember. People outgrow music. Adults do not have the income to waste on it. They need their money for grown-up things. Teenagers and very young adults who don’t pay rent or buy food have the extra cash to waste on music. These days even they have other things to spend it on such as expensive computer games. So there is competition for musicians from the gaming industry.

  38. David Gerard Says:

    “People outgrow music. Adults do not have the income to waste on it. They need their money for grown-up things. “

    I think you’re observably wrong there. It’s adults buying the box sets of stuff they loved as a kid when they didn’t have money. It’s adults fueling the Manchester nostalgia wave that FUC51 are complaining about – it’s not Peter Hook’s fault for making the same music he’s always made, it’s the fault of people like me. Middle-aged record nerds. We’re a plague.

  39. David Gerard Says:

    By the way, we appear to have sold three shirts off the back of this post today. We’re supposed to sell T-shirts to make money now, aren’t we. So GO BUY A T-SHIRT. UK/Europe shop, US/international shop. Look through all the designs – and the artist takes requests. The printing is impressively good quality and copes with washing just fine. SELL SELL SELL.

  40. P.Hertel Says:

    This all reminds me of a short film called “Before The Music Dies”

  41. BreadGod Says:

    I liked this article until the end when you started advocating communism. I hated that part, but the rest of the article was good.

  42. David Gerard Says:

    I do have an actual Certificate of Hitlertude from Mike Godwin himself. *

    * may not be 100% true

  43. Dave Brooks Says:

    This same argument applies to journalism: There’s a gazillion good-enough-as-long-as-it’s-free attention-grabbing alternatives out there, and fewer people each day want to pay the expense of what we think of as “serous journalism” – reasonably objective examinations of the world.

    There are a few exceptions (insider business stories that I can use to make money; puff pieces that advocate my position or my company) but most journalism has been commidified to zero monetary value.

    As a double whammy, the same thing has happened to traditional advertising (subjective messages that piggy-back on objective messages to snag an audience), thus destroying the century-old business model which created journalism in the first place.

    It’s all very interesting … unless it’s your job being destroyed, of course. (I’m a newspaper reporter in an increasingly-empty newsroom.)

  44. gmanyo Says:

    I think we shouldn’t be too quick to overlook the advantages of this. I personally feel like music is more experimental, more cutting edge than it has been since Pierre Schaeffer. And while there’s plenty of shit there’s plenty of great stuff too. Perhaps the ratio leans more toward “shit” now, but the cream of the crop will rise. Plus, it’s subjective; maybe you really like most of the “shit”. Who cares? The diversity of genres now is crazy, and the fact that any random joe can produce music means that the diversity and creativity is even higher. Sometimes stuff is technically shit but aesthetically off the charts. Maybe not great for the pocketbook, but hey, when was it ever?

  45. Mind-NOX · The problem isn’t piracy – it’s competition. Says:

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  46. P.Hertel Says:

    “the fact that any random joe can produce music means that the diversity and creativity is even higher” … I disagree because the “random joes” mostly ape each other.. ergo the ratio leaning more towards “shit”. … and cream may rise to the top but you will find new diverse music does not. You will find that it’s very unfamiliarity will make it a hard sell unless there’s money behind it. Trouble is money is behind the “shit”. MacDonalds sell billions ..not because they’re great burgers creamily rising to the top.

  47. J Tripp Says:

    I have a differing opinion here having self promoted a band that has had some regional successes but still lacks the oomph to make it go to another level. Bands that are able to tour successfully still usually have label support before they are able to ditch them. There are cases, like the author mentions, where musicians or bands are able to subsist without help from a label and tour regionally to make ends meet. But this is exception not the rule. Most acts, even good ones, in my opinion, starting out need the help of a label or NACA, or a performing arts guild, to help them gain the fans they need outside of their hometown, to be able to tour and make money. What happens if you book a tour and nobody knows your coming. Well you have to have some advertisement and even having a good web developer in your band can still not be enough to get people in cities you’re not from to come out and see you. Look at YouTube and the acts that have millions of views…they’re being advertised by YouTube. It’s not a mistake that some bands have millions and others with good product have only hundreds. Money is still the name of the game and if you aint got the backing you’re screwed. The internet does provide a nice platform for the independent (i.e. kickstarter, bandcamp, facebook, itunes) but without a fanbase and with so many other artists out there it is likely you will be just another bee in the hive no matter how bright your color. You gotta have green if you know what I mean

  48. Toby Says:

    for anyone that has any doubt about this supply / demand issue.


    Total number of songs in Spotify = 20 million
    Total number of Spotify Subscribers = 6 million

  49. Petah Says:

    The day you published your article Ott released a new single on Bandcamp for 2 pounds. I gave 10 Euros cause I’m short these days but otherwise would have paid 50 Euros, and I’m really ripping him off cause it’s worth over 200 Euros to me. Sure, I’m a statistical anomaly but this is art, not Procter & Gamble, so scrambling for biz models makes little sense to begin with.

  50. DeadK Says:

    Interesting mention of the capitalist system. So what happens under a capitalist system when supply outstrips demand?

    We are told by numerous press campaigns that Product X will allow us to Activity Y more and give us Z Time back. It’s all bullshit and it keeps you under. All you will do if the Z value is even true is do more of Y.

    A consumer can only be bred to consume so much and our time is our most valuable asset to the system. It is also the most valuable asset we will ever own so we should endeavour to make it ours rather than consume more in a smaller space of time. It’s not difficult to notice that the cost of stuff you *need* to survive increases faster than the stuff that is just navel fluff.

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  52. Vijay Prozak Says:

    I have a contrary viewpoint: our standards are too low.

    Most rock is trivial to make. We’ve upgraded technical knowledge since the 1980s, but that’s to be expected with the sheer flood of materials and lowering of cost to learn and perfect an instrumental skill. All of the surface attributes of music have improved.

    Thus we have the same mediocre stuff, but with better musicianship and production, and since it’s cheap to make, a flood of it. In part what makes it cheap is that anyone can do it; there’s no profundity or clarity requirement for the underlying content.

    In this flood, anything really good gets lost, which leaves listeners committed to an average that seems good on the surface but is contentless. This is why listeners aren’t buying much: the market is informational entropy in which any example is about as good as the others, so you don’t need many since they’re all so similar.

  53. zby Says:

    How about this:

    An ‘internet fee’ plus statistical, volunteer sampling for dividing the money.

  54. David Gerard Says:

    By the way, film may actually be susceptible to the same effect.

  55. tpainton Says:

    We have teenagers making good livings producing new music without the help of record companies..People such as Madeon.. You sound a lot like Mozart complaining about the Clash.

  56. ajax Says:

    Interesting read, and seems to be a fairly accurate way of looking at the music industry as it is.

    I think you’ve missed something, though. Its not just convenience that makes iTunes work. Its that we see a song, or indeed any media, as having value.

    That value can fluctuate wildly, of course, depending on the media and the preferences of the customer. But theres a threshold and as long as the price is under that, people will think ‘yes, this is worth it’.

    Furthermore, competition doesn’t just drive prices down, it drives quality up. Sure, the world is full of the mediocre, of one hit wonders, of bands and producers and rappers and artists that can produce a decent product but never rise above the rest. So? Thats always been the case. The cream the of crop will rise above, and because they produce a better product they are able to charge more (or at all) for it.

    I mean, I don’t care if people are handing out tofu steaks for free. If I want a really nice proper steak and they only way to get it is to pay for it, then at some point Ill pony up the cash. Might not be every meal, but when I decide its worth it, then no worries.

    And theres ALWAYS been a ton of mediocre music. Itll never go away because it has mass appeal. Honestly, if you’re upset that you’re finding so much of it, pull back the search a bit, let the good stuff filter up to you.

  57. Dwight Neller Says:

    After suffering through all the ego and junk in the 1980’s and 1990’s that was the industry side of music, I am happy to watch the big labels die a slow horrible death along with their “producers” and other parasitic vermin. I only wish it had been filmed in a documentary properly along the whole way. Long live “bad” music! There is no such thing. There is such a thing as “bad” listeners. I am one of them sometimes. It usually has to do with a damaged ego, a grandiose sense of self entitlement and a righteously poor attitude about life. I am guilty of having all three every so often. I’m working on getting better all the time.

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  60. Jeff Blanks Says:

    It seems we can’t agree on what makes good or bad music; the punks here who believe professionalism makes for *bad* music ought to be overjoyed at the state of things. (I’m not saying that professional music must be good, but I *am* saying that the idea that amateurism is *better* is, um, kind of…uh…*counterrational*?) A change in style is not going to fix the business problem, or it would’ve done so in 1977–begging the question, of course, on whether there was a problem in 1977. We certainly wouldn’t say about any other human endeavor the things we say about music, or at least rock music.)

  61. David Gerard Says:

    Jeff – I think you’re conflating “aesthetically superior” with “has better survival characteristics as cultural currency”. In the computer field this is called “worse is better“.

  62. Stephen Malagodi Says:

    Pretty good boss.

    Go read my post “Music Is Worthless.”

    Not as good as yours, but I’m an amateur.

    p.s. What do you think about Flattr?

  63. Larry Capra Says:

    Fortunately and unfortunately, paradigm shifts are natures way. The unprepared are less likely to survive. Note dinosaurs. Unqualified competition exists every where. Musicians, photographers, artists, carpenters, plumbers, accountants… you name it. Only quality is supreme and enduring.

    Walt Whitman was a self published author who rose above the competition in a prolific “vanity press” market place. The quality of his innovative style still endures. Personally, I find the reasons for success and failure to be self-evident.

  64. Thots As They Occur To Me Says:

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  65. Jeff Blanks Says:

    But we’re not talking about nature here; we’re talking about civilization.

    As for Walt Whitman, I’m not sure that he would’ve gotten anywhere if 1855 had treated the arts the way 2013 does. Quality may endure, but not at a high enough rate to feed anybody–especially if no one knows about it. (Whitman apparently sent a copy of the original edition of *Leaves Of Grass* to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who endorsed it.) The only self-evident thing about success and failure that I can see is that success comes from accessibility and the right persona much more than quality. Individuality, imagination, inventiveness–gedadahere. Or do you really think Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are making today’s best music?

  66. Larry Capra Says:

    @Jeff Blanks
    If you figure how to extract the behavior of civilization from nature… you be sure and let me know.

    I’d wager that Emerson WOULD NOT have endorsed Whitman if the poet lacked the literary ingredients. Walt’s rhetorical content would surely have fashioned itself in a modern context. He was still an exceptional, and insightful literary phenomena. Along with his self promotional instincts; his success was likely.

    It’s important to make the distinction between musical talent and the entertainment industry; which is much more than music. But, the topic of discussion is about succeeding in a world of too many musicians.

    I’ve spent over fifty years surmising talent, and consumer tastes. I’ve run successful music venues, hosting all musical styles. My success depended on understanding all of the variables that you pointed out.

    Again, the different levels of success in entertainment is “self evident” when you examine talent, consumer tastes, and trends.

    I agree with you. There are way to many talented musicians that are obscured in the shadow of a gigantic entertainment industry.

    If you have relevant experiences to disputes my experience. I’d like to hear it.

  67. Jeff Blanks Says:

    David, I was responding to a poster above who called punk “superior” to the “professional” music before it. This is plainly false–he might like it more, which I suppose is fine, and it may be more true to the spirit of rock’n’roll, which may or may not be of primary importance. But those aren’t the same things. *Wind and Wuthering* is a greater artistic achievement than *Never Mind The Bollocks–Here’s The Sex Pistols*, and you can still like the latter better if it reaches you and *Wind and Wuthering* doesn’t.

    And I don’t even know what to say to the idea that music as such can’t be an “adult” thing. The whole thing seems preposterous, but then such ideas are what hip-consensus rock has run on since punk came along. The impression I get has always been that punk, unlike the ’60s movement, couldn’t tell the difference between blue-sky thinking and black-is-white thinking (though I’ll admit there was a bit of that in the ’60s, too).

    As for Walt Whitman: Well, it seems like we live in a different world now. Could Walt Whitman (or whatever his artistic equivalent might be today) make it commercially in our world? It doesn’t seem like it, but maybe this is, for some reason, a phenomenon limited to music. No other endeavor gets the pass that popular music (including rock’n’roll) gets; amateurs, it seems, *aren’t* good enough for the public anywhere else–why would they be good enough here?

    “This generation” never had any dreams; the Boomers (well, the ’60s people, anyway) were the last generation to have them. Subsequent generations decided having dreams was a *mistake* and stopped having them, the better to display their savvy and sophistication if nothing else. So they go on with their OK lives with their OK music and fashion and feel OK and don’t think any better is possible. Reviving punk won’t do anything, because (1) it *always was* pop music and (2) all it really did in the first place was make hippie-bashing cool, a major gift to the reactionary forces then gearing up. The ’60s really did change a lot of people’s heads; the thing to do is look at why they went off course, then *get them back on course* instead of joining The Big Hippie-Bash.

  68. David Gerard Says:

    “artistic achievement”? That’s a very broad claim to make. Do you mean a musicianly achievement? ‘Cos it obviously wasn’t in cultural impact. Which isn’t quite the same thing, as I detail tediously in the post itself, but a large part of their medium was the culture, after all. Nevertheless, “Anarchy In The UK” remains a slice of perfection.

    I suggest you’re comparing apples to oranges, and railing against the heathens who dare suggest oranges might ever beat apples. As well as attempting to refight battles that both sides lost.

  69. Jeff Blanks Says:

    Well, OK. “Achievement in art as opposed to culture”, then.

    As for “apples and oranges”, again, no one would ever say such a thing about anything but rock’n’roll. You may *prefer* oranges and dislike apples, but that might simply make you incapable of telling a good apple from a bad one, or even make you decide that all apples are bad. “Anarchy in the U.K.” is a good ol’ rock’n’roll song–not a particularly bad one, mind you–at the end of the day, and good ol’ rock’n’roll plainly seems to have “won”, to the extent that we no longer even talk about things we used to talk about (and for the life of me I can’t see how that’s a good thing). If you like good ol’ rock’n’roll, well, there you go, but there’s simply no way I’m going to agree that there’s something wrong if it’s Not Good Enough For Me, Me Sad Old Hippie, because that’s how it comes across. Suggesting that punk “lost”, especially when it’s still the acme of hipness *three dozen years on*, just seems totally odd to me. What would it mean for it to have won if the world we live in means it lost?

    It’s interesting that you mention “perfection”. Alt-culture is full of references to “perfection” and “perfect pop” and whatever, which leads me to think it’s actually a very Classical movement, all about taste and proportion and rightness and Good Songs as opposed to wild imagination and inventiveness; it just happens to be applied here to rock’n’roll. But I thought rock’n’roll wasn’t supposed to be about perfection.

  70. Larry Capra Says:

    @Jeff Blanks,
    Not sure where you got the idea “R&R wasn’t suppose to be about perfection.” Don’t get me wrong… I’m not sayin’ it should or shouldn’t. All I know is I remember when there wasn’t rock n’ roll. The air-waves were swamped with “Little Doggie in the Window” music. When rock came along… it was sublime.

    Being a first generation rock player aka “Rock a Billy”… I’ve experienced rocks total evolution, both in it’s perfection and not. That determination of perfection was, of course, influenced by my personal bias and taste. Such is the nature of the game.

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