Wednesday, March 30, 2022

retrotalk2022 - streaming (dis)services

An article about streaming and the dominance of catalog sales  that appeared earlier this month in The New Inquiry. It's written by Jaime Brooksmarch, a musician who talks about catching the tail end of a golden moment of music blogging and online music-fan communities: 

".... Over the course of the decade that followed, so much changed that it’s difficult to know where to even begin talking about it. The file-sharing ecosystem was smashed to bits by cops and lawyers so many times that even the most dedicated archivists lost the will to keep rebuilding it. Smartphones brought most of the world online, transforming the internet from a fringe space that only occasionally surfaced into mainstream popular culture into what basically feels like the exact opposite of that. Most people settled on platforms like YouTube where copyright holders had exponentially more power to issue takedowns and generate ad revenue than they ever had in the file-sharing era. The major labels easily assumed control of the vinyl market, sidelining the independent labels that had been driving the resurgence of interest in the format throughout the 2000s decade. No one can get records pressed up quickly enough to sell them on tour anymore because every pressing plant in the world is booked to press up expanded reissues of albums by Toto and Journey."

The piece then addresses its major topic, which is the changes wrought by the Streamers, referencing a 2014 email by an executive called David Goldberg about music biz strategies addressed to the CEO of a massive music industry conglomerate. 

'“Music is becoming a purely digital product,” Goldberg’s email begins. He goes on to talk a lot about “catalog,” which is the word that the record business uses to describe music that was released more than eighteen months ago. “Catalog provides 50% of the revenue and 200% of the profits of recorded music. This has generally been the case for other recorded music companies when the analysis is correctly done. The correct analysis requires including reissues, live albums, [and] greatest hits releases in catalog.”'

Brooksmarch notes that in 2004, "catalog accounted for 35% of digital and physical sales in America. The vast majority of music being bought and sold back then was new music." 

That was two years before Spotify existed and back when lots of people bought MP3s and were still attached to the idea of owning music and collecting it, rather than renting and having a passing relationship with it. 

"Streaming turned out to be a great boon for the catalog business. In the pre-streaming music business, catalog had to compete for shelf space with new releases in record stores. When a new format like cassette tapes or CDs arrived, labels could squeeze dedicated listeners for revenue by encouraging them to re-buy their collections, but streaming was a complete paradigm shift. Streaming platforms have infinite shelf space. Every single recording the majors own the rights to is a potential source of revenue, regardless of whether or not it has recently been remastered, reissued, or featured in a film. On streaming, there’s nothing stopping an artist who has been dead for decades from outperforming working musicians living today. This is the future that Dave Goldberg was predicting in his strategy email. Infinite opportunities to monetize catalog, very little incentive to bother pushing anything else.

Streaming revenues tend to be more heavily weighted to catalog,” he wrote. “Pandora and Spotify are probably 65% catalog under this definition.....  The catalog is also primarily generating this revenue off the ‘deep’ catalog that is at least 5 years old or older.

Brooksmarch observes, grimly, that "today, catalog accounts for 75% of sales and streams. [i.e. more than twice what it was in 2004]  Only 25% of the music being bought or streamed today is “new,” potentially even less than that depending on how exactly “catalog” is defined now."

Goldberg in his strategy memo advises that because most of the moolah is coming from catalog, “new releases need to be cut back dramatically to the point where the new business either breaks even or loses a small amount of money… " The gist of the idea that follows from this is that the new groups on a label gets consigned to what is effectively a kind of "internal indie label" within the major company - getting not much in the way of the typical old skool major label promo push, in other words." 

A particularly sharp and alarming observation from Brooksmarch is that early death seems to transform new artists into legacy artists: 

" A fairly startling number of young rap artists who signed to majors off the back of viral success already in progress were killed or incarcerated shortly afterwards. Pop Smoke, Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, Juce WRLD, Bobby Shmurda. Posthumous releases by some of these artists were marketed more heavily by the label than anything the artist released while they were alive, which makes sense. In an industry that revolves around catalog, dying young is like graduating early to the part of the business that actually matters to the people running it."

Various solutions and utopian alternate paths forwards are outlined in the piece, which is well worth a proper read. 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

sonic polyps


"To varying extents, each of these pieces also suggested a problem that electronic music now faces. Its sounds are either deliberately artificial or alterations of the familiar. In either case, electronic swells and sonic polyps, far from becoming abstract musical tools, tend to seem self-conscious, all too vulnerable to cliched imaginings. The basic electronic vocabulary has become inextricably associated with scores that suggest groundlessness or strange other worlds (as in science fiction, horror and nature films)...."

- Edward Rothstein, New York Times, 1992, reviewing League of Composers/ISCM concert tribute to the late Bulent Arel

Polyps! Ambiguous analogy - they can be beautiful coral thingies on the seabed OR potentially lethal tissue growths in the colon

"Groundlessness" is a good, evocative, hard-to-pin description of electronic abstraction

To the larger point, though ---

cf Mark Fisher on future-capture, the trammeling of the once-unknown by cliches, an encrustation of associations - 

"The problem is that the word ‘futuristic’ no longer has a connection with any future that anyone expects to happen.  In the 70s, ‘futuristic’ meant synthesizers. In the 80s, it meant sequencers and cut and paste montage. In the 90s, it meant the abstract digital sounds opened up by the sampler and its function such as timestretching. In each of these cases, there was a sense that, through sound, we were getting a small but powerful taste of a world that would be completely different from anything we had hitherto experienced. That’s why a film like Terminator, with its idea of the future  invading the present, was so crucial for 90s dance music. Now, insofar as ‘futuristic’ has any meaning, it is as a vague but fixed style, a bit like a typographical font. ‘Futuristic’ in music is something like ‘gothic’ in fonts. It points to an already existing set of associations. ‘Futuristic’ means something electronic, just as it did in the 60s and 70s." [my underline]

cf Phil Knight, commenting (earlier on this very blog, I think) 

"The Future always has that aura of thrilling trepidation... feeds the Spenglerian hunger for infinity.... The Future marks a further distancing from the natural world, from the tangible, and therefore takes us closer to our destiny, which we expect to be angelic, but know to be alienation. But, the ride to the future in music is not exponential - it just feels that way. The move from acoustic to electric to electronic suggests a teleological progression, but I can't see how you can get any more artificial than synthesized music. Once you are there, you have reached the peak of abstraction.”  


It is interesting that for the NY Times classical / avant-garde reviewer at the Bulent Arel elegy, electronic music was already in the rear-view mirror in 1992 - even as things like Rufige Cru's "Terminator" and a score of other techno-rave tunes / directions were reigniting a fresh future for electronic dance music.

A little less than a decade earlier, John Rockwell was already voicing a similar sentiment circa 1984- that electronic music, once clearly - and for many alarmingly - the future destiny of serious composition, had now slipped into the passé zone - and was now a backwater of serious music. 

"Only a few years ago, electronic music seemed ready to sweep all other music aside. Traditionalists worried nervously about music composed by machines, and predicted a dehumanizing Armageddon. Today, outside a few specialist enclaves, one hears very little about the subject. The odd loudspeaker still pops up at a contemporary-music concert, adding a bit of amplification, synthesized sound or filtering to live instrumentalists. But otherwise, along with their abandonment of serialism, composers seem to have forsaken electronically generated or reproduced sound, as well."

(from All American Music - the chapter on David Behrman, taken to represent a new direction of humanized electronic music - homemade, funky, miniaturized)

Friday, March 4, 2022


Well I suppose I am, aren't I? And in that capacity I chatted with Ann-Kathrin Mittelstrass of German Public Radio for a program about retro trends of the present, the Nostalgie-Epidemie, etc, including the Beatles Get Back mega-doc (which I loved-loved and meant to write about here but then the moment passed).