Let’s talk about music

But let’s start here. This piece is not about the disruption of the music industry, though it is in part, just not by name. Bear with me. And by the way, reading that an industry is being profoundly disrupted irritates me not a little. Disruption is not a gentle massage which can be amplified, there’s no turbo button for disruption. It is by definition a killer out-of-the-box. When one human being kills another you don’t hear about the profound killing of the victim, it’s just called killing, murder.

Anyway, let’s talk about the thing all of us like, more than all other things, music.

The cash value we place on music and many other types of content (movies, newspapers, magazines, software) has profoundly changed. We’re still willing to pay relatively high prices for books but for how long?

It’s been a weird shift. Music and all of these other content types have ernormous emotional value for us, we consume more TV, read more, listen to more music than we ever have done. What’s shifted is the cash value they have for us.

It used to be that emotional value and cash value went hand in hand. We bought albums, DVDs of movie releases, newspapers, magazines because they were worth the cover price. That is no longer the case, more and more we have an expectation that content should be free, or close to free. Pirated MP3s, subscription models, freemium and app store economics caused this shift in our perceptions.

Our 2017 perception of the cash value of content rarely stretches more than a few $€ for products which in the case of music are the representation of hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears by the artists behind the songs we stream on Spotify. This discrepency is not a good thing.

Technology has had an impact on music far beyond content distribution, changing both how the music we listen to is made and, every now and then, inspiring new genres. Think of how the distorted valve amplifier produced rock, samplers & hip hop, synthesisers and electronica. And this is a good thing. Most of the music we listen to today could not have been produced a hundred, even fifty years ago. More genres, more musical diversity, good things.

Democratisation of creativity

It’s often said that the Apollo 11 craft was less powerful than this or that and in turn it’s probably not a stretch to compare the power of an iPad running Garageband to either the London or Los Angeles studios used to record the eighth Rolling Stones album Let it Bleed, released a few months after Armstrong and his co-workers had their one-small-step moment.

Creating music for commercial release no longer requires access to either expensive recording studios or their highly skilled staff. The MacBook Pro I’m using to type this article has a 44Gb string library installed which, in the right hands, tricks most listeners into thinking they are listening to a real orchestra. Logic Pro and Native Instruments plugins can turn its hand to almost any musical genre from hiphop to mbalakh with a few taps of the trackpad.

Changing experiences

Long ago, before radio, the experience of listening to music was a group experience. Crowds would gather, as they still do today, in music venues to get their musical fix. Radio & pocket radios (a classic case of disruptive innovation— look it up) changed listening into a individual experience.

The experience of creating music has followed the same trajectory, it has shifted from a largely group to an individual experience. Easier access to more of the creative process equals more musicians making music, whenever and wherever they like. This means more music for us to listen to and this too is a good thing.

When I’m done with my artistic MacBook Pro/Logic X noodling I can release my track onto Soundcloud immediately. No agent, no A&R, no manager and that music is out there in the public domain.

Disintermediation, in this case, is a good thing.

I wanna be a rockstar

It’s always been the case that only the precociously talented (and not many of them) or lucky make it in the music business, it’s never been a meritocracy, or fair. Most musicians ply their trade for a love of the art form. When Robert Johnson walked into the Gunter hotel in San Antonio I reckon he didn’t expect the bright lights of fame and fortune to shine down on him. Well, maybe he did a little but through the rose-tinted glasses of a daydream.

So what am I saying? Musicians have always been poor, pity those who leave themselves bare for exploitation? No. This would not be a good thing. Fixing the problem requires a mindset change and a little piece of tech:

  1. The will on our part, the consumers of music, to pay a little extra on top of our subscription, on an I-love-this-thank-you ad-hoc basis, for the content we value, above others, at an emotional level.
  2. A secure way to channel this extra revenue direct to the musicians themselves. If only we knew of a way to disintermediate the financial system, oh…

Spotify meet blockchain, blockchain meet Spotify.

Persuading a generation to think carefuly about the value of content is a stretch at this point but we should do something or at least try. Paraphrasing one of my favourite writers, Riverbend, if the world were empty of musicians, it would end.

And that would be a bad thing.