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How the internet is changing music, featuring Amanda Palmer on vocals

Sometimes I think I can hear the internet as it relentlessly changes everything. This week’s tabloidisation of Fairfax is merely a symptom of the way the net has already changed the news media. So, too, is the pending extinction of science journalism. And the withering of book publishing.

But the sound of the internet changing everything grows most audible in and around the music industry. Mostly howls of impotent rage from large record companies and some of the more histrionic artists.

Music profits have never been as big as they were in the late 20th Century. I recently binge-read Howling at the Moon, the memoirs of Walter Yetnikoff, the notorious former CBS boss who presided over CBS from the mid-seventies until 1990. His accounts of the cocaine-sodden, sex-soaked excesses among record industry executives overshadow those permeating the ghost-written biographies of most rock stars. And I don’t think that is entirely due to a difference in candour.

Thirty years ago, people who wanted to listen to Michael Jackson’s Beat It had to buy the Thriller album. And that put a lot of money into CBS’s account and Yetnikoff’s entertainment fund. Last year’s equally vacant cross-national nerve toucher, Gangnam Style has enjoyed over 1.3 billion YouTube views. I embed the video below, not as endorsement, but because I am allowed to do so for free.

Psy’s rather esoteric Gangnam Style an internet-driven phenomenon

And now, to offset that sin, and because I would rather promote something in which you have probably not yet marinated, I embed an equally cross-lingual video from the “fresher than Zef” Jack Parow.

Jack Parow featuring Francois van Coke - Hard Partytjie Hou

We resume normal programming

Sure, radio play and purchased downloads, plus a suicidal schedule of talk-show appearances and one-song gigs made Psy and his record company a lot of money. But not in the same order of financial magnitude as the profits that propelled Jackson’s shopaholic mania and Yetnikoff’s cocaine binges.

Free access to music videos on YouTube is, of course, a symptom of the fact that the net enables the copying and dissemination of music on a scale never before seen. Or as the record companies call it: “music piracy”. While some money still flows to artists from legal music purchases and the sale of rights to use music, artists don’t make the same living from royalty cheques.

And so many embrace the unprecedented reach of the internet, using it to build their fan base by making their videos available on YouTube for free.

The question that most taxes the music industry is now: “how do we make listeners pay?”. One way is for bands to tour more, and fans to pay to experience music live. And that completely inverts the way technology changed music in the 20th Century.

Music changes lives

As technology changes, irreversibly altering the ways in which people experience and enjoy music, it also alters the economics of how music is made, distributed and sold. And that changes the incentives for artists, the livings musicians can lead, and even their prospects for living a long an healthy life.

Readers of Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll will have encountered my thinking on how recording, radio and television changed music in the first six decades of last century and how that led to the musical eruption of rock ‘n’ roll.

It also made music a dangerous place to be, especially for musicians. That, I argue, is because technology made it possible for the emergence of megastars. Until the end of the 19th Century, people played music themselves or listened to music played by musicians. Some profits could be made by composers and retailers of sheet music, but large numbers of professional musicians could make a respectable living playing six nights a week.

The gramophone, radio, television, Hi-Fi, boom-box and CD player each helped the same few artists to be heard in every corner of the globe. Artists in the right place at the right time - such as Elvis, The Beatles and the ‘Stones - grew phenomenally wealthy, whereas the journeyman musician found it much harder to eke out a living.

Steep incentives, in which a few profit mightily and the majority struggle, create fierce competition. Musicians that don’t work themselves to death imperil themselves with the reckless embrace of drugs and dangerous living. And, as I have written before, that means rock stars suffered from appalling mortality.

So, has the internet dampened or exacerbated the steep incentives in music? The way new artists seem to embrace the idea of giving their music away and even encourage file sharing in order to attract a following, you might think the net has eroded inequality in music.

But a reader recently sent me a paper with the blunt title Music piracy: A case of “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Poorer”. Turns out it’s a mathematical model, but to my eye the argument looks plausible.

Stars do lose more sales through piracy than do smaller artists. But the more a song or album sells, the easier it is to copy and disseminate. So copying boosts the recognition of the big-selling artists.

When musicians have a second income stream, such as touring or merchandise, the increased recognition from music piracy and sharing can build and maintain such a strong following that the second income stream more than offsets the losses in royalties. But struggling and starting artists who cannot command large concert crowds suffer more from the loss of royalties than they gain from the building of audience support.

If this model holds, then the incentives acting on musicians should be getting steeper. And that means most people will find it even harder to make a living playing music. And I predict those who try will strive more frantically and both those who succeed and those who fail will suffer greater risks and worse health.

But I am bouyed this week by a touchingly humane TED talk by the musician Amanda Palmer. Her talk orbits the shared dignity of giving and of asking. It’s a wonderful video that makes some simple but often obscured points about human contact, intimacy and dignity.

Amanda Palmer talks about the dignity of asking and of giving

Palmer exposes the ways in which she uses the internet to connect and build intimacy with her audience. And about the vulnerability that involves.

My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the internet the way I could on the box, so blogging and tweeting not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes, and we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.

And she explains her position on her recent crowd-funding pitch which raised far more than her target, but also drew heavy criticism:

I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, “How do we make people pay for music?” What if we started asking, “How do we let people pay for music?”

This talk bouyed me because it evoked a return to the intimacy in which more artists made music for modest, local audiences. This is the way in which our ancestors made music. And with help from the internet Palmer has given it a 21st Century twist.

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back.

While I would never argue in favour of what my colleage Marlene Zuk pithily calls a palaeofantasy, let alone one set to music, I think the changes Amanda Palmer evokes could rejuvenate music and benefit musicians.

Her talk also bouyed me because for a brief moment this non-business model that Palmer has pioneered seems utopically free of the parasitism for which record label executives and marketing arms are so often derided.

I’m not starry-eyed enough to think Palmer’s approach won’t be monetised and corporatised by the MBA-wielding crowd. But for now it is refreshing enough to see the failing current model subverted.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    It is a remarkable display of academic transparency that your colleagues allowed you to post coverage of one of your staff meetings ... albeit in Dutch, which was a little strange.

    As for the musical content I shall let history judge I think ... other than to note (if you'll pardon the expression) that rhythm alone does not a tune make. I've tried whistling along but gee it's a slog isn't it?

    There's a deep industrialism to it, a grinding mechanical insistency - urban if not urbane. Kraftwerk…

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    1. Juan Vesa


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      " other than to note (if you'll pardon the expression) that rhythm alone does not a tune make"

      i've heard african polyrhithmic drumming which would comprehensively disagree with this.

      "despite not have a single word of Korean. Would Bach or Mozart even realise this was music?"

      interesting. you know i think about this often. bach and mozart, while now considered masters, were essentially pop musicians. restricted only by technology and reproductions methods. would mozart and bach recognize this was music? well, it depends if they were born in 1690 or 1990 i suppose.

    2. Juan Vesa


      In reply to Juan Vesa

      "" other than to note (if you'll pardon the expression) that rhythm alone does not a tune make"

      i've heard african polyrhithmic drumming which would comprehensively disagree with this."

      and turkish drumming, and hindustani tabla, and etc.

    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Juan Vesa

      Oh no Juan don't get me wrong ... I love percussive music ... BIG fan of tabla in particular - and even better the curious "drum notation" used to describe rhythm ... ta-taka-ta-ta taka ta taa taka ta ta ... even better than the tabla itself on a good day or in the hands of a master like Ustad Zakhir Hussain .

      Wrap your ears around this:

      He's only got ten fingers - I've counted them often just to check. But he has rhythm in every cell of his body…

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Juan Vesa

      Hi Juan

      Bach & Mozart were both geniuses.............both wrote a huge amount of music.

      All the more amazing that Mozart died at 32. I cannot work out how he did it. T o write out in longhand the vast amount of music he composed is almost unfathomable. And for all 54 (or so) Symphonies, 20 + piano concertos, chamber music, operas etc he had to write for all the instruments of the orchestra. Which in those days would be for up to 20+ musicians.

      And interesting to note that Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt were huge stars of Europe in the 19th century.

      They had crowds of peoplel in the streets to cheer and adore them. The Elvis or Beiber of their day.

      and if you want rhythm from drums - listen to Gene Krupa or buddy Rich.

    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Hi Peter

      now peter its late for you - get back into bed and have your glass of horlicks.

      they tell me hell is particularly lovely at this time of year

  2. Dale Bloom


    So Amanda Palmer (also known as Amanda F….ing Palmer) is actually American.

    Who now cares?

    Is there any Australian music?

    1. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Sure is, last year was unofficially dubbed the 'Year of Australian metal' by many blogs:

      Ne Obliviscaris - Portal of I (voted 2nd best progressive metal album at metalstorm:

      Be'lakor - Of Breath and Bone (voted best Melodeath album at metalstorm:

      Elysian - Wires of Creation

      The Schoenberg Automaton - Vela

      Aquilis (aka Howard “Waldorf” Rosenqvist) - Griseus, a one-man band from Melbourne

      Okera - a beautiful dystopia

      .. the list goes on. All released within the last year or so.

    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      "s there any Australian music? " - How old are you? listen to Tripple J unearthed, its a whole radio station with just Australian music.

      Ballpark Music are my fav Australian band at the moment, them and Australian Kingswood Factory, Will Wagner is pretty amazing, The Feel Goods, King Cannons, a whole bunch of local artists are around that are simply amazing.

    3. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Michael Shand

      So there is Australian music?

      And better than Amanda F….ing Palmer.

      That's not surprising.

      But best to make a full list of Australian bands, and send it to the author, who is paid by the Australian taxpayer but won't write about anything made in Australia.


  3. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Hi Rob

    interesting article.

    Its been suggested that The Beatles & Elvis probably sold about a billion records each.

    If we suppose Paul Mc Cartney would be the richest ever pop star, he might only be worth at best $1 billion.
    (i reckon it has to be more, but who knows)

    Given that Bill Gates has around $65-70 billion, its small bikkies for an icon of the music industry.

    I don;t know what Keith Richards is worth, but my guess is he's spent about $250 million on drugs.


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  4. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    The Music Industry was never ever about the artist nor was it about the music - its always been exploitation of artists by middle men

    For every 1 Artist that you know about - there are at least 50 others you have never heard of and will never hear of

    The internet has levelled the playing field for artists more than you imagine, lost revenues from Album Sales only affect the very very few

    1. Kim Darcy


      In reply to Michael Shand

      Hollywood and pop-rock stars evolved to fill the void which royalty and mythical heroes once provided. There is little wonder concepts such as "stars", "gods", and "royalty" are so commonly associated with Hollywood and musicians. But even that has been been diluted over the past generation, first with the "Supermodels", and more recently - and lamentably - with the tawdriness of the Kardashians, football 'heroes/stars', Hilton sisters, etc.

  5. Chris Booker

    Research scientist

    Interesting article. I'm a huge music fan so I've probably got a little too much to say on this issue, but here goes:

    I think it's been known for a long time that touring and the associated merchandise is being used to try and make up for the losses of selling the actual music, so nothing new there. Also, it's precisely the kind of excesses of record companies that you describe which engenders such vitriol from those who engage in music piracy. "Who are these people?" the fans say. A flow on from…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Hi Chris

      music is one of the least discussed subjects in forums like this, (if ever before on TC).

      Yet music is one of the greatest influences on peoples lives. Doesn't matter what sort of music you like, or what culture you are from, music is often the background soundtrack (as it were) to peoples existence. From drums to symphony orchestras music has offered a whole range of cultural, social, religious, political influences.

      I play the piano professionally, altho not so much recently…

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    2. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen, a very thoughtful post. And yes, I agree with every point you make.

  6. Juan Vesa


    "And she explains her position on her recent crowd-funding pitch which raised far more than her target, but also drew heavy criticism"

    thats interesting. you know, i've contributed to a few crowd funding projects, for music (and one movie). all of them received much more than the required sum, and to be honest i'm quite pleased about that. i suppose i could google "amanda palmer crowd funding criticism" to find out why, but tbh i'm just going to ask you.

    1. Claire Coleman


      In reply to Juan Vesa

      Hi Juan,

      You may already have discovered the answer to your question, but I thought I'd post just in case others are also wondering.

      Amanda Palmer's kickstarter aimed to raise $100 000 to cover the costs of pressing, printing and distributing her most recent album. In less than a month, it raised nearly $1.2 million, which I believe is a record for musical crowdfunding. She touted this new fan-as-investor model as "the future of music". You can see her kickstarter page here:

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    whilst my comment is not strictly about this article, it is about music de jour.

    tonight i watched (as usual) american idol. tonight was the episode episode in the current season where the public got to vote.

    last year i was also a fan of both the US & Oz versions of "the voice".

    in many respects it is fashionable to denounce these shows as fadist or lacking in artistic veracity.
    but to me the shows have been of a great artisitic and musical standard.

    the shows have judges who deliver…

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