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Musical Notes

Notes on the loss of music in the era of streaming and illegal downloads

The threat to professional music is becoming acute.

In New York City, a classical saxophone player I know was asked to play some live music for an event at a large, successful store that sells computers, phones, and other electronic equipment. The event was a product launch, and they wanted something innovative. The sax player was interested. The man from the store then added: “There’s no budget for this.” The musician was being asked to play, for free, surrounded by the machines that are destroying his profession.

Discussion has been going on for years now about the future of music under the impact of technology, especially computer downloads and streaming, and the subtraction of billions of dollars from every part of the music industry. I am offering some thoughts because it seems to me that a particular place is now being reached. The threat to professional music is becoming acute.

Why should you believe me? I am a philosopher, not a professional musician. But I am a close observer of professional music, through my spouse (who is a classical musician) and her colleagues. (Disclosure: because of this connection I do have a vested interest in the issue). Musical professions have been under stress for decades, but I think the present time is special. Quite a lot of musicians are just now leaving the field, or shifting away from full professionalism. The “day job” is more and more common, ideally a job around music, but not always so – hopefully a job that allows time to play.

The threat to professional music is becoming acute. Dun.can/flickr, CC BY
The threat to professional music is becoming acute. Dun.can/flickr, CC BY

Those leaving the field had been sustained by hope over recent years (“maybe iTunes will save the business… Maybe a streaming service will start to pay real money…”) That is looking less and less likely. Instead, people are asked more and more to play for what is euphemistically called “exposure,” as in the case of the saxophone player of my opening.

Music itself is not being destroyed, but it is being changed, and some valuable things are being lost. I want to do what I can to increase awareness of this situation. The changes are due in part to technology, and there’s no turning that back.

But the changes are also due to habits and decisions, which are things we can reflect on and modify, and the viewpoint of a philosopher who lives close to the troubled ecology of music might have a role to play. If we are going to have professional musicianship go down the tubes, we should at least be aware that it’s happening. And it might not take so much to turn things around.

Amateur creators, unpaid professionals  

Each creative field operates through an interaction between two sets of behaviours, roles that are modified in each case by quirks of the practice and its market. That basic duality is between making and consuming, writing and reading, playing and listening. Between these basic roles, we have intermediaries who broadcast, publish, and curate. The “making” side in the case of performing arts – music, drama, dance – also has more steps than “making” usually does in the case of words and pictures.

Practices on both sides, making and consuming, are being continually shifted by technology. In recent years, technology has led to changes for good and for bad, and has done this in just about all creative fields. On the positive side, a shift in many areas has been a deluge of amateur creativity. Photography, as exemplified by Instagram, is the extreme case. Vast numbers of people have become creators of content, not just consumers.

Compare this to the decades people spent sitting in front of the TV not long ago. This is something to celebrate; it is surely making more agile and creative minds. What is bad is the ebbing of the willingness of the culture to support professionals who are doing a different thing from amateurs.

In the case of words, the deluge of amateur work has challenged the earlier producer/consumer balance, and at one stage professional writing might have seemed in more danger than music, as technology galloped along. But it’s not looking that way now. The ancient format, the book, is showing its resilience. Writing is also a field where high-quality, crafted work is not too much more expensive to produce than low-quality work. You might think I am wrong to be so sanguine about words, but however badly words are doing, music is doing worse.

New behaviours  

In the case of music, the threat comes less from amateur creativity than from new behaviors on the consumer side, and from new businesses mediating between performers and listeners.

When I taught at Stanford at the end of the last century, I used to chat just before my classes about music, and ask what people were buying. I remember that before one particular class, I asked the question and learned that no one in the class had bought anything for a while.

Some of the students looked at me slightly uneasily, while some beamed. This was around 2000, the era of Napster, the first file-sharing platform that took off in American colleges. This piece of technology initiated a shift in habits. Once people did not have to pay for vast libraries of music, they became reluctant to pay, even after Napster in its original form had been shut down. Technology developed further to accommodate those shifts in behaviour.

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Along with the sheer devaluing of musical production came the steady relegation of music to background. The increase in music’s background presence is made possible by technology, and people then become accustomed to it in that role; music becomes less and less a natural focus of attention. That creates markets for very cheaply produced sound – much popular music now is made on a laptop with a singer or two, no band. As sounds of these kinds become the norm, it makes even less sense to sit down and listen. There is a spiralling downward feedback between modes of production, reproduction, and listening.

Outside of music, people often assume that an adjustment is underway and money is returning. Promising signs do sometimes appear, but they fade or are squashed by a new problem. In a major development over the last few years, YouTube has become a monster. When it streams music, it pays even less to artists than services like Spotify, and YouTube now dominates online listening.

In 2015, David McCandless put together a graphic summary of how much money musicians make from various online platforms. One calculation he did was how many plays of a song would be needed, on a given platform, in order for an artist to make the US monthly minimum wage of $1,260.

On Spotify, a signed artist (hence sharing revenue with a record label) would need a million plays per month (1,80,000 if they were unsigned and independent). On YouTube, 4 million plays in a month would be needed (4 million if signed, 7,00,000 if unsigned). That’s not 4 million plays to make a decent living that repays years of practice, but 4 million to make the minimum wage.

One result of all this is the revival of live shows, and the rediscovery by some audiences of how different live music is from the cheaply-produced sounds that surround them. But as more and more musicians take this road, it puts new downward pressure on the money.

Suzanne Vega is close to 60 years and still tours to make a living.  zsófi B/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Suzanne Vega is close to 60 years and still tours to make a living. zsófi B/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The 1980s/90s singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega wrote in 2014: “Right now I’m in competition with my heroes, my peers and everyone else coming up.” Vega, who is getting close to 60 years of age, probably did not expect to be touring continually now, simply to make a living. Live music is wonderful, but it’s a tough road, only works financially for some kinds of music, and shouldn’t be the sole way for a recording artist to pay the bills.

What to do?  

How then can we retain the profession of being a cellist, or a composer, or a guitarist – someone who works all day to practise this activity and does it at a higher level than any amateur can manage?

Do we want these people to exist? Surely yes. We want people who will put in the time to be able to play the hardest material, and create works that extend what’s possible. Then they have to be paid. One option is for them to be paid through government grants and programs, but it’s not healthy for an art to depend too much on a bureaucracy, with its political vulnerability, waste, and openings for manipulation.

Instead we have to look for individual, decentralised behaviors that nudge things in the right direction, look for ways to be part of music in a non-parasitic way. (Wasn’t listening to the radio “parasitic,” back in the old days? No, radio was part of a mix that worked. You listened for free, and were exposed to a mix of familiar and novel music, with advertisements along the way. You listened to new things and you bought some of them. Now we can listen to everything at will while buying nothing.)In 2015, when Adele’s album “25” was released, she kept it off the streaming services for many months. A story in the New York Times at the time noted that Adele appeared to have “activated millions of customers for whom making a purchase is viewed as a sign of devotion and support” for an artist.

“There’s a level of respect by buying the song, rather than just streaming it,” said one fan quoted in the story, Carlos Villa. “I acknowledge the work that you put into this song, and I appreciate you for that.”

Mr Villa, in the music world you are more appreciated than you realise. A lot of good feelings went out to you. Around the same time, a New Yorker writer noted that Adele had put subscribers to streaming services in a “quandary” by holding it off the streams. It was a quandary because the music would end up being streamed eventually, so this felt like “an attempt to make us purchase the music twice.”

Consider the cost involved in the “quandary.” An album today costs today about US$11 through a download, a bit more as a CD. Back in the heyday of popular music – say 1980 – the cost of a record was perhaps the same nominal amount, about $11. But given inflation, that $11 in 1980 is over $30 now. A record purchase back then was something to give careful thought to. Now it’s in the category of a drink or two in a bar.

My students sometimes used to say, as they filled their computers with unauthorised downloads: “Information wants to be free.” I don’t hear that sentence much any more, perhaps because people have begun to realise that it could best be translated like this: “All sorts of activities that were essential in forming western culture (playing and composing music, poetry) will soon no longer be professions.” There is now some acknowledgment of the problem; there’s acknowledgment of the madness in this superfically appealing slogan. But how can we redirect the forces that have been set loose?

The future will come from the interaction between technology and behavior, and “redirecting forces” is largely a matter of changing the habits we bring to the technology we use. In the past, there were only a few ways to listen to music, and they fitted together into an economy that made the profession viable. Now everyone has more choices in their behavior. What I want to do here is encourage people to think about those choices.

If you like a piece of music, ask yourself: will you get some benefit from owning a copy? Is it just inertia that prevents it? Does having it on your machine have advantages over relying on the internet all the time?

Perhaps you think those things won’t really make much difference to you. Then I say: buy some of the music anyway. That sounds like charity – as if I am begging on behalf of the musicians – but I have in mind something different.

Composer Iannis Xenakis in his Paris studio in early 1960.  cea +/Flickr, CC BY
Composer Iannis Xenakis in his Paris studio in early 1960. cea +/Flickr, CC BY

Don’t think of it as charity; think of it as more like voting. Voting is a behavior most of us engage in, at some cost, because we want to have an effect – even a tiny one – on what happens in politics. And even if we have insignificant effects, we want to express our preferences. We want to be on one side or the other, and if our candidate wins we can identify with what happens next. Buying music right now is voting for a certain future, voting for a system that will include professional music in later generations.

Whenever you listen to a streamed song, like it but don’t buy it, and instead stream it again – especially on YouTube – you are casting a vote for the future nonexistence of professional musicians.

It’s not a vote for the nonexistence of music itself, but a vote for the loss of the profession. You are voting for the end of the difference it makes to have people practising for six hours a day and spending months in a studio, making it one’s life project to do those things well.

I don’t know what you like – Adele, Kendrick, Xenakis – it doesn’t matter. Whatever it is you like, vote for it to continue.

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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