The Vast Sea Of Digital Distraction

Earlier this year, I met with an independent music executive, a man with a reputation for being successful and repugnant in equal measure. His company was in the midst of rebooting their digital department and he was looking for sombody to run it. After brief pleasantries, he said he’d ideally hire only “20 somethings just out of school”, because they “get technology, how fast everything is changing.” He went on to say that once people hit 30 years old, they can’t learn and get lazy.

Now I’m 50 years old, and this guy is a few years older than me, so his ageism was funny, albeit unintentionally so. It’s true that young people are inherently malleable, and often less flummoxed by disruptive technologies than some of us with greying temples. But no matter how exhuberant and well-educated a young person is, there’s one thing they often lack.

Perspective.

We are cursed captains, adrift in the vast sea of digital distraction. Our sails are full with windy possibilities, blowing us about while we struggle at the rudder. Peering through our spyglass, we seek a place of final landing, an equitable music economy. But these hopes remain at a constant distance, ever out of reach.

The tech industry, and the people who fund it, get most excited when they launch a service that displaces or deconstructs an established industry. The perception that innovation outpaces our ability to deal with it benefits them alone. But perception and reality are two different things.

I’ve met a lot of smart people in my career, but the guy I respect above all others is Rick Dobbis. We were chatting recently about the pace of change in the music industry, and he said:

“The world has certainly changed a lot, but the job hasn’t. The job is to the make the path between the music and the people who love it as short as possible. Technology is just another tool to serve that job.”

Exactly. The music, and the emotional connection people have to it, is what’s important, and it’s our job to facilitate that connection. Technology is just a tool to help do that. It always has been: on 78, 33 or 45 rpm; on an 8-track, a cassette, a CD, a video, a download or a stream. Whether the connection happened at a concert, a record store, on the radio, MTV, a website, a social network, or via text.

The music business was among the first industries to be disrupted by the internet, via file sharing and the democratization offered by digital music distribution. Music has been devalued to the point where too often, the music serves the technology. And that’s where the need for perspective comes in.

In the short history of the digital music business we’ve seen many services and technology partners have their zenith, wither and fade. Countless wrecks lay on the bottom: CD Now, N2K, Liquid Audio, Launch, Rioport, MP3.com, Limewire, Myspace, Napster, PressPlay, Yahoo Music, Live 365, Sonicnet, Real Networks, Zune, MOG, Artist Direct, Twitter Music, Sony Music Unlimited, iTunes Ping, Google +, and countless others. Tidal is taking on water. Rdio is gone. Soundcloud is in a very precarious position, Spotify and Pandora are struggling to become profitable. Even the iTunes download store is sinking.

At some point, each of these services had momentum. Some had huge valuations, with the press dribbling on about how they’d forever change the music business landscape. Billions of dollars were invested in these services. Where did all the money go? Not to the artists, that’s for sure.

For over twenty years, tech pundits have assailed the value of music. “Downloads are too expensive, streaming is too expensive…music should be curated by machines, not people….cut new releases, lay off employees who sign and market them, eliminate local repertoire.” Why? Perhaps because when you convince people music is worth nothing, and tech is where the real value is, you can pay artist crumbs while venture capitalists and a few people at the top of the pyramid get disgustingly rich.

But the music will outlive all these services, all this technology. It will outlive the record labels, the artists who made it, and all those who are listening to it today. Music resonates through generations, constantly being rediscovered. People will be listening to Hendrix, Adele, and Autechre long after everyone has forgotten what YouTube, Snapchat, Spotify or an iPhone is.

We must remember this in our own eagerness to be innovative. Licensing, marketing and selling opportunities come at a furious pace in this business. There’s so much pressure to be first, to be in the release headline, a launch partner, be in the IPO. It’s easy to forget that most of these partners will burn out and fade away, especially if you don’t have the benefit of perspective.

If one looks only over the bow at the vast sea of digital distraction ahead, it is easy to become overwhelmed, and make mistakes. But if we look backwards at the troubled waters we as an industry have already crossed, we are becalmed, and can execute our duties faithfully, no matter what our age.

Pay the artists fairly and appropriately. Respect the music. Make the path between it and the people who love it as short as possible. That’s the job.