Natural history of the present

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.