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Copyright extensions.

The debate about copyright extension on sound recordings is already becoming obfuscated by related, but separate concepts. There is a great deal being written about the situation, some of it informed, some of it less so. What does seem to be universal is the transparency of agenda. Perhaps it just seems that way because my sources are all online – web-journalism seems to me to be dreadfully guilty of using editorial as a thin veneer of respectability disguising manifestos of intent or beliefs. I’m not against anyone holding an opinion, even if it is contrary to my own. Obviously, there’s a seductive appeal to the idea of everyone agreeing with the way I see things, all the time. Seductive, but impractical – it only takes a half-hour’s worth of chatting on Twitter to convince me that the views I held on copyright extension were flawed. I still don’t quite know why a musician’s family should continue to be paid for a piece of work that the musician did over a hundred years ago. The copyright extension applies to the sound recordings made by musicians, not the act of composition (so, for example, Louis Armstrong’s version of ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ is treated separately to The Ramones’ version). As I say, why the spouse and offspring of a musical performer should stand to benefit from work done decades ago (the copyright now extends to seventy years after the death of the musician), is difficult to establish. In fact, it’s the aspect that seems to provoke the most vehement reactions in the critics of the new law. Why, say the plumbers and taxi drivers ask, can I not continue to be paid for work I did fifty years ago?

The answer to that one is simple, but easily missed. Certain musical recordings continue to generate revenue. Where that revenue goes, is the issue. Without copyright laws determining that the revenue from, say, Beatles recordings (some of which were due to come out of copyright in 2013) going to the musicians or their families, that revenue was free to go elsewhere – most likely to the entity selling the record. Emotions and prejudices enter the debate early on, as everyone knows that the technology pundits on the internet consider all manifestations of the music business to be inherently crooked and evil, but the previous copyright situation would have allowed the dominant music retailer worldwide to sell Beatles recordings to the public without paying anyone for their performance on the records. Right now, that dominant retailer is iTunes. Certainly, The Beatles all have plenty of money, and you may feel repulsed at the idea of giving them more. Me, I feel repulsed at the idea of giving Apple more money, for work they did not do. Music copyright exists to protect musicians, always did. Back in the 50s, songwriters and musicians were employed, on a wage, to write and perform songs for record companies. Some of those songs generated huge amounts of income, none of which was paid to the musicians. Copyright laws, over the decades, were introduced, amended, extended, tweaked, appealed, opposed, supported and eventually made law. Much of the time the opposition came from the record companies, who stood to lose millions by the ownership of songs and recordings being diverted from them to the musician. One thing which needs to be cleared up in the opposition to copyright extension, is that being opposed to the idea because you dislike record labels and see them as being parasites sucking the life out of musicians, is a flawed position. Copyright exists to protect musicians from parasitical record labels. The Beatles are an extreme example. They have pots of cash and pots of popular demand. Many musicians have neither. However, it still strikes me as inherently unfair that a random opportunist could release, market and profit from a compilation of otherwise-forgotten songs from the 50s without paying anything to the musicians who performed on the songs. In the late 80s Levis made a series of jeans commercials featuring music from the era, triggering a series of reissued hit records. Would Levis have been more entitled to the musicians’ revenue from those hits than the musicians themselves? Or their surviving dependents?

Anyway, that’s an emotional argument. It depends upon a sense of fair play, and the problem with fair play is that it’s subjective. No football fan ever feels that the penalty against his team was deserved. Similar problems apply here – iTunes probably feel they have a perfect right to profit from the theoretical Beatles records, they provide the server space etc. So, moving away from the emotional argument, there are a couple of other objections coming up repeatedly. Some of them are convincing, some less so:

1. Copyright is responsible for keeping a wealth of culture out of the public’s hands.

There are a great deal of sound recordings rotting away on tapes and acetates in record company warehouses. In some cases, the musicians who recorded the music have no access to those recordings, and would have to buy the rights to the recordings from the record companies if they wanted to re-release them. Evil record industry screwing the musicians again, right? Not exactly. Musicians, on signing a contract with a record label, often choose to swap their performance rights (and income) with the label, in return for a cash advance. The system of advance/recoup has its flaws, and has been debated endlessly, for the moment the system’s merits or otherwise are irrelevant. What matters is that musicians, for a cash payment, often transfer their performance rights to their record label. That can be all of their rights, or a portion, for a couple of years, or for the life of the copyright. It’s not clever to sign over full rights for the full term, but some do. That’s their choice. Whatever the combination of manipulation, avarice, fear, ego and coercion used by either party in the contract, the choice not to sign was always an option. Labels are obliged by law to archive their recordings, although before mp3, to do so was expensive and they didn’t really like doing so. Now there are scads of deteriorating recordings in warehouses to which record labels hold the performance rights. Recordings which labels cannot see a way of making any revenue from, and which, if a musician wishes to reissue them, would mean that musician would have to buy a license to do so. As would anyone else. The musician swapped those rights for a cash advance at contract time, remember, and in this case, hasn’t paid it back. All that said though, this situation is ridiculous. Ridiculous, but more to do with artist/performer relations than with copyright per se. Nevertheless, there should surely be some amendment made whereby recordings which are clearly not likely to be of any further monetary worth to record labels should be made available to the public. As for deteriorating records, a separate issue altogether. Music archiving is a hot subject, with the US Library of Congress declaring last year that digital (mp3, wav etc) files do not constitute a valid form of archiving for posterity. Finding a storage medium that doesn’t deteriorate, and deciding who should be obliged to bear the cost of archiving sound recordings, is an issue. What it has to do with the extension of copyright is unclear though. Should the obligation of archiving rest with the copyright holder? If these recordings were ‘freed’ of their copyright, and made public domain, who would bear the costs then? Obviously there’d be a scrabble to get copies of Beatles records to sell, use on soundtracks etc, and so those recordings would be preserved. What about the more obscure ones though?

Copyright protection would have made all works inspired by previous works illegal.
A weird one this, coming from Shane Richmond’s article for The Telegraph. Led Zeppelin, he states, would never have been allowed to sell their blues-inspired songs if copyright laws had existed on those originals. James Joyce, he states, could not have published Ulysses. Well, firstly, this copyright extension applies to sound recordings, and unless Led Zep had actually sampled those early blues recordings directly into their songs, they would not have been affected. As for Joyce, unless he quoted The Odyssey word for word, would not have been affected either. Being inspired by previously produced art, then interpreting it, has never been outlawed by copyright. Plagiarism is a different set of laws entirely. Authors can quote other works, musicians can use samples. All within the framework of current copyright, extended or not. An erroneous argument and unworthy of discussion.

Copyright hampers innovation.
The idea in this one is that labels will not invest in new talent if they can simply continue to sell back catalogue. Interesting that it’s focused on labels again. Copyright holders are not always record labels. This argument is pretty neutral. It’s impossible to be sure of whether or not a copyright holder will remain content to sit back and enjoy the benefits of their back catalogue and never feel inspired to record new material. Likewise labels. Some might be happy with that, others not. In the case of labels, they are businesses, obliged by their shareholders to strive to increase their revenues. Whether their clearest way to do so is to record and release new material or simply to rest on their laurels – who knows? It doesn’t seem to be a policy mirrored in the actions of the majority of record labels though. With over two-thousand albums released on iTunes every week, it seems more likely that the opposite it the case.

The other most popular form of rebut to the extension runs along the lines of ‘I don’t get paid for the work I did ten years ago, why should they?’
All I can say to that one is that if your work from ten years ago is currently being copied and sold, and you are not receiving any income from that transaction, you need to look into that. It may be the case that there are no copyright laws in existence which serve to compensate you, which would be unfortunate. Rather than attack musicians for having developed the collective strength over the decades to have their rights protected in this way, perhaps you might search for a way of having your own work similarly protected. Analogies such as ‘the architect who built my house doesn’t get paid for seventy years after his death’ are spurious. If his design is published, and copies of that publication sold for profit – he has a right to a portion of the income. No point saying ‘well, the design is the song, the recording is nothing but the paper it’s printed on’. We tend to care a lot more about the sound of Joni Mitchell’s voice or Eddie Van Halen’s guitar than we do about the type of paper a design is printed on.

I should come clean and reiterate the point I made at the start. I’m still unsure on this one. There are a lot of voices making themselves heard, with good arguments both for and against the extension. The problem, as always, is that the internet affords prominence to the viewpoints which reflect best its own dynamic. If the Pirate Party makes a statement condemning copyright law, the truth is that its statement gathers a lot more momentum and reaches a lot more viewers than a contrary view from a record label. The record industry is unpopular with the hive-mind, for many good reasons. That though, is not a good reason to dismiss it automatically in favour of its most vocal opponents. I’ve tackled the criticisms of the extension that I feel are misguided, and flannelled about on the ones that I’m unsure of. I’m by no means convinced either way. Nevertheless, at least I’m willing to have a think about it, and I hope you will too.



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Hang on, internet access is a Human Right?!

Such deafening silence. Not actually physical silence – as I write this I have Amon Tobin’s Isam playing in the background, and very nice it is too. No, the silence refers to the (hopefully temporary) internet death that I am currently experiencing. A number of electrical storms have passed over BlancoMusic HQ in the last few days. We were careful enough to unhook the wireless router for most of them, but the latest storm came overnight, with no-one around to disconnect. It seems that the router is fried. Or perhaps not – the guy on the helpdesk at our service provider asked lots of questions, and reckons it’s actually the telephone line that’s the problem. Who knows?
He insists that they’re working on a solution, and if they can’t get anything done from their end within six hours, they’ll send someone around.

Can we manage without internet access any more? As businesses, as people? One of the news stories in Monday’s Music Week described a United Nations ruling which declared the UK’s ‘three strikes’ rule to be in contravention of human rights. How very apt to find myself in the situation where I have the opportunity to experience what this contravention might feel like. The ‘three strikes’ rule, for those who need reminding, was the controversial law chivvied through the parliamentary lawmaking process in the final weeks of the previous administration’s tenure. It was controversial from the point of view of British internet users in that its penalties for repeated lawbreaking seemed far too draconian. It was controversial from the point of view of a great many musicians, authors, film-makers and other content creators simply because it was not draconian enough. In summary, the law set out a framework via which internet users found practicing illegal filesharing could be sent warning letters informing them that their actions had been noted. On the third occasion that this action was deemed necessary, the user’s internet service provider could be instructed to disconnect the user.

On Monday the UN deemed the law a contravention of human rights, presumably choosing to ignore the practical fact that there exist multiple internet service providers in the UK, and that a user who violated copyright law to the extent that they were subject to a three-strikes penalty need only pick up the telephone and change ISP in order to have access to the internet re-established. Most of us choose an ISP based upon convenience or pricing considerations, to be denied our first-choice of ISP due to our own repeated illegal actions is an inconvenience which affects convenience or price – which seems a somewhat minor threat to our human rights as normally defined by the UN. Let’s just cast our mind back to a different area of the news for a moment – the water-boarding of suspected terrorists at US and UK military facilities. This technique, deemed to be in accordance with Geneva Convention rules regarding the conduct of war, were not considered to be a form of torture, and were legally used by UN member states – the UK and USA. The Geneva convention refers to the conduct of war, not to human rights – the inference is my own. I am somewhat confused by a statement from the UN which deems the inconvenience caused by having to change internet service providers a contravention of human rights. UN-defined human rights, and I can’t just go and look them up on Wikipedia (I’m offline, remember) occur to me as being about a great deal more than protecting the citizens of our planet from minor inconvenience (changing ISPs can be as simple a matter as making a phone-call and relating some bank account details). Wasn’t it supposed to be about guaranteeing the right to education, sanitation, food, water, shelter, worship, reproduction, partnership, mobility etc? You can, as far as I can infer, cause a traumatic simulated-drowning via water-boarding without denying your prisoner’s human rights. You can deny civil partnerships to same-sex couples; you can administer death by lethal injection; you can withhold welfare aid from the family members of convicted felons: you can arrest and detain any group of more than three people gathered without a license; you can run an oil tanker aground and leak millions of litres of oil into the sea, killing everything it touches. All these things and more, you can do, without contravening a single human right. Or so it seems, because it all happens on a regular basis without human rights lawyers being troubled. But you can’t cut off an internet connection.

Filesharing apologists will consider this a small victory. The statement will be amplified and posted to blogs and tweetfeeds faster than I can write this. Maybe it is a victory, maybe it’s true what they argue – that zeros and ones, or soundwaves and light-patterns are beyond the ownership of individual humans and that all content should be free. It’s a nice idea, but I feel it only works if it’s applied at the same sub-atomic level, to all possessions. Your car, house, cash. They are, after all, only arranged atoms. Relinquishing the concept of ownership might be worth a try, but it must be applied to everything, not just directed against those of us unfortunate enough to deal in the transaction of content which can be distributed without our permission. Downgrading the concept of human rights to include internet access does no-one any favours though. I choose not to have internet access in my home – I just don’t feel the need. Today I don’t have internet access in my workplace. That puts me at twenty-three hours without internet access right now. It’s annoying, inconvenient, and it makes me a little bit riled that my service provider is not providing the service that it is paid for. But do I feel my human rights have been compromised? No.

There exists another option for content creators and providers to react to copyright abuse. It doesn’t get used very often because content creators generally fear the backlash that it creates. ‘Sue the fans’ is the trendy media description for the legal process via which identified filesharers are sued individually for damages. Ellen Muir, a Scottish woman, was found liable via the process just last week and received a suspended sentence. Maybe her first name was something different – again, I can’t check right now – but her surname was certainly Muir. The media bias is pretty obvious. Everything referring to Muir referred to her as a grandmother – implying somehow that bad things just can’t be done by any woman whose offspring has had offspring. The other terminology is stacked with value-judgment too. ‘Sue the fans’. No, sorry, but if they’re taking content without compensating the people who created and facilitated that content, that makes them enemies, not fans. ‘Filesharing’? ‘Unauthorized global distribution’ is closer to the truth. ‘Piracy’? The glamour of the term is misleading – implying a free-spirited insouciance in the face of the law, extreme danger and capital punishment. Hardly the stakes that the freetards are playing for.

Terminology notwithstanding, the situation now arises where the three-strikes law may be deemed illegal. What then for the content creators? Roll over, admit defeat, ‘innovate’? That term ‘innovate’ is constantly thrown at the entertainment industry (which was always amongst the most innovative of industries from the very start) as being the panacea to its ills. The entertainment industries will innovate, but yelling at them to do so, or pointing out that they are top-heavy and outmoded (even if it’s true) is no use unless you can also acknowledge that any industry forced to go from a position where its product is available on a compulsory payment model to a position where that product is suddenly optional-payment, will be damaged. There are many reasons why the creative industries are in crisis. Filesharing is only one of them, but let’s not try to deny that it is a problem. Sweden and South Korea’s music sales grew by 10 and 11 percent the year after they introduced three-strikes rules. The UK music industry seemed content to sit this one out and wait for similar growth in their own territory. So far, it seems to have worked – sales are up on this time last year. Conclusions have been drawn, even though the law has hardly been used yet its outcome seems a reasonable assumption – curb filesharing and sales grow. Apply the UN ruling to the three-strikes law, take it off the statutes book and…. Who knows? My guess is that the major labels, and indie labels big enough to afford the process, will go back to ‘sue the fans’. A glimpse of a music market in growth has been seen, it will be very hard to let it be taken away without a fight.

I’m just riffing here. Robin is in England, recording a new vocalist with whom we are now working on an album. We continue to hope, and innovate. We continue to make music and hope that those of you who like the music we make will take the old-fashioned but satisfying step of just buying it, making it yours, making it something that you engage with, enjoy, define yourself through and appreciate as something more than cultural flotsam. That’s all we can do.

I’ll post this when the router is fixed.

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Still here, still bumbling along. BlancoMusic is a two-man operation (that doesn’t count the musicians, without whom we’d be, well, not here at all), and sometimes getting blogposts written is a priority, other times it’s not. Lately, it hasn’t been. I’ve been writing music reviews for over the past couple of weeks – mine are the ones under the name Sean Keenan. Fun, a new skill, and a nice way of keeping my ear to the ground for what’s happening in the music world, as opposed to the music industry world.

We’ve been scouting around for a new digital distributor lately. Frankly, we were looking for something in return for our fifteen percent, other than just being listed on iTunes and the like. some promotion, some leverage. It’s been two years or so since we last looked at the process and, now that we have upwards of forty new songs completed, with more being recorded on a pretty regular basis, it feels like we have a bit of a bargaining chip. The digital distribution business has changed a bit in two years. Back then, the process was that you sent them your music, they got it onto the online retailer lists, and they collected their percentage when the sales rolled in. Now, that tactic seems to have died out. I presume that the sheer volume of songs being processed, encoded and delivered, yet never to be actually bought, has destroyed that business plan. Of a fairly extensive survey, the only service I found offering a 15% service was, and theirs came with the proviso that they would only start paying out once the sales had surpassed $50.

What I’m getting at here is my usual. Just being a little skeptical voice amongst all the louder and better-amplified voices shouting about how wonderful it is to be a musician now, in a time where the traditional gatekeepers (the big, bad major labels) have fallen and anyone can make and profit from music. This is a big, and nuanced topic, as we all know. I’ve gone on about it many times already, so no point getting into it too deeply. However, I’m inferring from the change in digital distribution contracts that sales of self-released music have been so low in the past two years that the business plan of being able to thrive on a 15% cut of sales was too optimistic. Factson the ground time, rather than the spurious Music2.0 nonsense we’ve all had rammed down out throats by the brave new world of internet music punditry. It’s tough out there.

Another biased and uncorroborated observation. I’ve reviewed five releases in the last month. Not all wonderful, but some standouts. Even so, the quality of production and musical originality of all but one of them was of a decent level. Even the ropey one was just a little flaccid for my tastes, but not bad, per se. This week though, I’ve received a review copy of an EP though that is thoroughly, unremittingly awful. Dance music, flagrantly derivative of 90s acts, utterly without technique, without craft, without the willingness to step away from the preset samples and effects that are available to anyone with a computer now, utterly without original vision, or musical vision, or any sort of confidence or pride or love. Music made by someone who quite clearly believes that it is not necessary to change a beat during a song, or use an actual bass player to make the b-line, or record a live vocal instead of using something of a CD of samples. A musician who listens to his own work and thinks it is worthy of the songs he’s plagarised, without realising that those originals were groundbreaking, at the limit of the available technology, stymied by being avant-garde and unaccepted by the mainstream as legitimate music. Not realising that to be compelling to a listener a beat needs to have the human touch of randomness (no drummer can ever hit the high-hat with identical force 32 times per minute), or that a synth build has to harmonise off a bassline otherwise it just sounds plasticky. I could go on. Why am I telling you this? Because the record was being released as a free download.

I’m going to have to say it. Most of the free music I come across on the internet is worth just that. Nothing. It’s not just cause/effect association or snobbery on my part, I swear it. It’s just that too many people are making music now who shouldn’t be. Too many people with laptops and GarageBand who reckon that if they assemble a b-line, repeat a four-bar block of beats, whack a vocal sample over the top and chuck in some synthwash at random: boom, they’ve got a hit. They send it to a digital distributor, it goes on iTunes, and they post it to all their mates on Facebook. Slightly different when applied to other genres, (although the girl-with-ukulele thing is getting old too), but a similar mindset. The problem is that I really think it’s damaging. The public perception of the value of music is at the lowest ebb I can ever remember, partly because it’s now perceived as something that literally anyone can do. And rubbish like what I have to review this week is easy. But real, culturally valuable music is as difficult to create as it ever was, just the same as having access to OpenOffice and WordPress is no more likely to produce great literature than GarageBand will help create great music. Garageband, Pro Logic, Ableton etc. They’re recording tools, not a substitute for compositional talent. My hope is that the sea of crap that Music 2.0 has flooded the world with will serve as a benchmark against which music of genuine quality will stand out against in stark contrast. My worry is that it will just lower the value of music in the collective mind, pushing people to the belief that music is just something you can throw together in an afternoon, and that the image or brand of a given artist is what you declare your allegiance to instead.

In other news, Spotify has in the last few weeks restricted the number of plays of tunes on its free subscription model, and also introduced the function by which users can purchase the songs on Spotify playlists. I’m looking into it, searching for the flaws, but I’ll admit that it may be time that BlancoMusic put aside our long-held animosity to Spotify. I can see how this might just turn their service into a massive music showroom. It’s not ideal, certainly not ideal, but it doesn’t, on first sight, look that bad now either. We just might consider putting some music up there now. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled.

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Over a bottle of Pinot Grigio and some home-made tapas, your thirty-something friends confess that, since having kids, they just don’t listen to music much any more. Your hackles rise, but because it’s a pleasant afternoon and because it doesn’t seem fair to open fire with a salvo of Kerouac-styled ‘screw the Man’ rage, you let it go. In your mind, they’re a bunch of beige-clad non-entities, thickening at the midriff as quickly as their politics veer to the right. Their entire experience of music was the mainstream fodder of the eighties and nineties – marketed to them in convenient lifestyle packages, designed to fit the allegiance group they associated themselves with. Indiekids, who swallowed the ideal of the slack-haired skinny guitarboys with poetic sensibilities and sharp cheekbones as an alternative to the powerballads and megamix pop that was what the proles bought. Or perhaps they were once metalheads, convinced that their chosen proponent of major-chord, loads of distortion, twiddly-solo mini-epics were the only way to go. Maybe you once knew them as whistle-blowing, glowstick-waving, mong-eyed ravers, whose connection to a scene that was truly underground and subcultural proved them as the avant-garde of all that was gritty, urban, and real. Whatever they once were though, they’re not now. And you’re forming a theory in your head about it. The theory is this: they were the gullible dolts for whom the music marketers developed minutely detailed subcultures in the post-war, economically fat era of jukebox milkbars, B-movies and politicians called Kennedy. Things were simpler then, of course, because it was all virgin territory – too many kids buying Beach Boys records? Create a new archetype, change the clothes a little, call in the stylists. The process developed for decades, but eventually, the music just became a small part of the overall package the kids bought. For your hosts, lugging a Sisters of Mercy twelve-inch around in a place where it could be seen was as much a part of their image-creation and allegiance efforts as eye-liner and frilly shirts. The crucial part of the theory is that, as far as the actual music on the record was concerned, it hardly mattered. They only bought, listened to, sang along to and loved the music because it was a part of a larger set of artefacts and signifiers that defined how they wished to appear to their peers. And now those aspects are no longer important to them, because they have aged, mated, nested.

You are a smug fucker, aren’t you?

As a music consumer of any sort, you are part of a group. Just as in Taoist philosophy (ask the people with the Pinot Grigio, they’ll know), the absence of energy can be considered as defining a characteristic as its presence. If you are determined to choose your listening material solely for its musical value, independent of the marketing strategies which surround it, fear not – the music business has a strategy for you nonetheless. The broadest thematic groups used by music marketers divide the music-buying public into ‘eclectic’, ‘experiential’ and ‘defender’ groups. If your CD collection ranges from Bill Laswell to Bach, guess which group you fall into. Whilst your insistence that your consumption of music is driven purely by your ears, if you’ve bought a piece of music, even if you’ve downloaded it for nothing, you have most likely been influenced by a marketing campaign of some sort or other. That’s not what this post is about though – determining to what extent BigMusic has manipulated us into owning a piece of music that we may actually enjoy. It was just an exercise in exposing some of the emotional baggage we all carry around with us when it comes to thinking about our consumption of music. In some ways the 30-somethings who claim to no longer be interested in music display the more admirable of attitudes – they are so far removed from the channels of music marketing that they are unaffected by the need to keep up, to conform. Putting out a vox-pop on Twitter this morning came up with a couple of interesting observations. One was that middle-age is a period where we are expected to be less interested in everything (perhaps a biological imperative focusing our attention on our offspring?). The other was a bit more chilling: maybe people only consume music because they feel they should.

See, my original premise on thinking about this post, was to point out that people in their thirties constantly state that they are no longer interested in music (neither recorded nor live) since they had kids/got a mortgage/turned 35/discovered PornHub/etc. I was then going to point out that this seemed to me to be a discrepancy in what is normally seen as a gradual sophistication of sensory discernment as we age. It is usually assumed (at least amongst the middle classes who make up the bulk of the western world) that with age, our appreciation of the more challenging pleasures develops. We sip single-malt whiskeys; coo over pleasing architectural features; start caring about the threadcount of our Egyptian cotton sheets; we learn to identify the scent of lavender in a glass of Chateauneuf du Papes. Why then, I was going to ask (if I were a Daily Telegraph columnist the headline would have been accompanied by a picture of my face displaying an expression of wistful outrage) do we collectively refuse to apply this developmental process to our musical pleasures? Why, reader, oh why? From there, I would have pointed out that, just as brandy cannot be appreciated by those under the age of thirty, nor can John Coltrane. Perhaps I could have gone on to assert that, what with the major preoccupations of adolescence (peer acceptance, love, getting a job, finding porn, etc) behind them, the opportunity to choose and appreciate music, unfettered by the artificial restrictions of teen-centered marketing, now presented themselves. Surely, with the western world’s demographics showing a slew to the mid-thirties (median age of the USA: 36.9, Europe: 37.7), the music industry could present itself to this dominant age-group in a more attractive way. Posit music as an ethically-sourced high-value commodity, to be savoured by an ever more-sophisticated audience in the same way as they obsess over the smoky nuances of Blue Mountain coffee or the brittle temper of Valrhona chocolate? Form music-appreciation groups where attendees gather around vinyl copies of classic albums and nod appreciatively as the music plays (been done)? Covermount Adele CDs on organic veggie boxes? Blah blah.

But what if we’re all a bit more Homer Simpson than we are Noam Chomsky? Is it actually the case that, with a bit more age, experience and confidence, we actually manage to start ignoring a whole range of stimuli that were previously imposed upon us by some sort of perceived superego? Maybe people only really listened to music because they felt that they should. That musical knowledge was just one item in the experiential lexicon that was mistakenly assumed as necessary to present ourselves as valid members of society – and worthy of being taken seriously. I really, really don’t want to believe this, but it could be that music was never that important to the barbecued courgette set, and that it only ever filled a role of social obligation that has now been replaced by the need to have an opinion on Paulo Coelho’s latest narrative structure or a decent supply of purple-sprouting broccoli. There was always a sense of exclusive/inclusive snobbery involved in music consumption. Your music, and your willingness to display a degree of commitment to a chosen artist by buying the record was a crucial unit of currency in the economy of credibility, cool and social cohesion that made up the world of an 80s or 90s teenager. What it actually sounded like was hugely important, but the social repercussions were huge too. Music’s migration via the Walkman and iPod to an individually-consumed artefact hasn’t had much effect on this social currency. When comments boards on newspaper websites state things like ‘well, now that Katy B’s getting featured in The Guardian, we can definitely say that dubstep is over’ show clearly that the baggage that surrounds music as a product survives even the IPod and filesharing. Allegiance, in the age of filesharing, is now displayed through knowledge of emerging subcultures, and by attendance at live performances. Neither of which is the forte of the thirty-something.

So what is my point? I run a record label, I am concerned with finding audiences, consumers, buyers and fans. I want to know if there’s any future at all for the business of selling recorded music if the predominant age-group of the territories where our music is popular, is the age-group where the majority shrug off, with relief, the perceived obligation to remain in touch with what is current in music. If you are reading this post (written for a music-lovers’ blog), you are most likely not someone who listens to music for any of the reasons I outlined above. You listen to it because it transforms you, nourishes you, moves you, plies the emotions you know about and plays with the ones you don’t have names for. I know this, I feel that way about it too. I wouldn’t dream of working in the music business if I didn’t feel that way about music, and despite what the popular image amongst those who post comments on TorrentFreak or suchlike would like to believe, most of the rest of the music industry are equally enslaved to the irrational physical and emotional feedback that music produces in us. Why would we be in the music business if it were any different? For the money? There are plenty of other industries out there, most of them a far safer bet for making money than the stumbling music biz. Thing is, maybe we’re the freaks. Maybe music is just disappearing not because the kids are buying apps instead; or because it’s all getting pirated; or because everyone just listens on GrooveShark; or because the quality’s gone down; or because the market’s glutted; or whatever other (usually pro-filesharing) explanation for the demise of the music industry you’ve heard. Perhaps it’s just that most folk never really liked it much anyway.

Friday, April 1 2011. With thanks to @DanielNothing for a quirky idea.


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BudNubac – ‘See the Sunrise’. Album preview.

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The new sharks

I get fed up reading about how Music 2.0 has levelled the playing field for artists, how it has released them from the deathgrip of exploitative record labels (major and indie) and allowed them complete and total control over their means of production; creative decisions; fan interaction; and financial strategy. I’ve almost given up trying to stay abreast of the slew of blogposts that I get links to every day, all of them taking the premise that there has never been a better time to be a musician; that nothing stands between musicians and their audience, etc. Two observations: the articles are, generally speaking, much more widely distributed than their contents usually merit. Mainly, I believe, because they contain the message that distributing recorded music for free is beneficial to musicians. That tends to be quite a popular message amongst those who spend their time distributing blogpost links, much more so than the unfashionable idea that recorded music – if it has any possibility of maintaining (let alone increasing) its quality and relevance – needs to be paid for. So, if one were to rely on Digg, Reddit or any other online indicator of blogpost popularity to get an idea of the zeitgeist, the overwhelming sense would be of a huge swing toward the free-music giveaway model as the risk-free, all-reward, no-pitfalls strategy that will benefit everybody – musicians, consumers, promotors. Everybody except the BigMusic fatcats in their cocaine-lined offices sobbing over an industry that they ‘failed to adapt to’. My second observation on the more popular blogposts that preach the benefits of Music 2.0 is that they are often written by individuals who derive a portion of their income from monetizing their proselytism. By which I don’t mean that they use the Music 2.0 model themselves as their sole source of sustenance (that would actually be quite encouraging). What I mean is that, quite often, articles written in favour of Music 2.0 are written by people who have as part of their career portfolios a vested interest in seeing the model embraced. Lecturers on new-media; members of professional think-tanks; speakers at conferences; authors of guides to the new economy, etc. I don’t dismiss their findings, or the methods they propose to musicians and music-workers. Some of the ideas that have come through the Music 2.0 revolution have been really useful. However, I do think it’s important to know whether the advice they give is entirely innocent of ulterior motive.

Doubtless, Music 2.0 is working for some acts. By Music 2.0 I mean: distributing recorded music for free via internet social networks, thus developing awareness of an act, thus creating a sense of brand loyalty, thus monetizing that brand loyalty through the sales of music or merchandise; utilizing web-based interaction as a method of fan-product-brand engagement; using recorded music and live performance as a tool in the building of brand loyalty, etc. I have no doubt that there are acts who have used it to derive a living. Crucially though, I think there are huge numbers of acts who are finding that it does NOT work for them. That’s the bit that doesn’t get mentioned. You see, I’m coming to the conclusion that the Music 2.0 route is as Darwinian and cruel as the BigMusic structure ever was. Only that failure in Music 2.0 costs acts a whole lot more than the old labels model ever did. At some point, every act needs an investment of cash to reach a level of recognition that is greater than they can achieve without it. Whether that money is spent on publicity, equipment, touring, costumes, lights doesn’t matter, it’s an expense. There always comes a point where a band needs to spend some money. In the traditional music industry, that money was provided by a label, as an up-front advance on sales income. The money was often subject to all sorts of horrible payback regulations and extorsions, yes, the old industry was shark-like in that respect. Yet, the money was provided – if the act was deemed likely to recoup the investment (by a factor upwards of 50 or more). In Music 2.0, an act is expected to come up with that development money via fans. Fan-funding is a big business now, not least to the companies who provide fan-funding platforms and charge a percentage for the service. But to fan-fund, you need fans, and there’s only so many of those you can make by sending free Mp3s to people’s Facebook pages. Fans come from the expensive stuff – touring, advertising, broadcasting, professional PR. Bands get impatient, they feel they need to accelerate the process. The ‘new sharks’ I refer to in the title of this post are the ones I really feel sick about. The new sharks are the pond-slime that are multiplying fastest in the music industry right now, and they are some of the sickest, most exploitative leeches that ever crawled the planet.

What they do is latch onto the dreams and hopes of the inexperienced, optimistic, positive, naive and downright desperate, and squeeze them for every penny they have. You may say that the old industry did the same – but at the very least, the old industry provided acts with either a) a bit of cash upfront or b) a short, sharp rejection. They also had a reason to make the product as good as possible – it’s success was where they made their money. What I’m disgusted by is the new exploiters, who capitalize on the musican’s belief that – now that distribution and retail is open to anyone – the only thing standing between them and a lucrative career as a musician is X (X being the service/product/contact that the leech claims to provide). X can be any number of things, but today I’m annoyed about rogue ‘producers’.

Have a listen to this vocalist:

Now have a listen to her again, duetting on another record:

One of these records was made here at BlancoMusic. It was produced by Robin Taylor-Firth.

The other was produced by someone else, whom I won’t name.

We can’t claim total innocence here. The BlancoMusic record was done a couple of years ago, we haven’t released it yet. The band has twelve members, sending them out on tour would cost 50,000 euros a year, minimum. When we have that kind of money to invest, we’ll do it, but until then the record has to go on hold. Obviously, that’s not going to accelerate the vocalist’s career, and she felt she had to do something to move herself on. That’s a good show of energy on her part, a pity it was exploited so ruthlessly.

One of these records was produced in a hired studio, with the producer being paid by the hour, with no interest in anything other than scalping the musicians for as much as he could get. No interest in making it a better record, in helping them come up with a better song, a better approach, to encourage them or spend any time sitting down to talk about what might be reasonably achieved with the record, where to market it, who to play it to, or anything of the sort of fucking decency, collaboration, empathy, expertise, knowledge or taste that a producer should bring to a project. You decide which song is which.

Somewhere along with all this freedom of Music 2.o, somewhere along with all its wonder and optimism, the message has become twisted to ‘success is there for everyone now – the gatekeepers are gone, the evil corporations are destroyed and it’s all yours for the taking’. And with that the sharks have just gone into a feeding frenzy. I know that the naive and innocent will always be prey. I know the comments board is going to explode into lists of reasons why I’m wrong about this, and they’ll be very well-made points, and will prove me to be absolutely misguided. I know all that, but I also know that I am sickened to my core by what that ‘producer’ did. Don’t tell me that Music 2.0 is fair.


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Radiohead, again

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘F___ you’ to this decaying business model.”

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, October 2007, speaking about their release of In Rainbows via the band’s own website.

When Radiohead released In Rainbows in 2007, the internet buzz could be heard from space. Available via a ‘pay what you like’ platform, the album was touted by every Music 2.0 devotee as an example of the new music landscape, a landscape in which the traditional major label approach to selling music was destroyed forever. This, they told us, was the future. A band, recording an album themselves, taking it to their fans, eschewing the gluttonous pricing system of the fatcat major corporations and allowing fans to enjoy the music whilst compensating the band directly. What’s more, it came from an act with a solid, devoted fanbase, rather than from some desperate wannabes who were hungry enough  just for the public’s attention to consider fair payment a reasonable sacrifice in return for publicity. Radiohead didn’t need publicity, they already had the fans.

Let’s get one thing straight. Radiohead have never cheated in any way. They gigged like maniacs in the early 90s, relentlessly. They gigged in the shitty little dives that weren’t even considered traditional live venues. I remember them playing Tracks in Portrush, Northern Ireland sometime around 1991, in a nightclub that was and still is better-known for alcopop-fuelled nights full of students sitting on the dancefloor to ‘rock the boat’. Achingly-hip and packed with major label a&r men it is not. Nor was Tamworth Arts Centre, where my wife saw them around the same time (I hadn’t met her yet, incidentally). The band made sure that everyone got a flyer for their mailing list, and made sure that they used that mailing list to its fullest potential. What I’m saying, is that in terms of fan outreach, Radiohead were doing it right before the internet even existed in any significant way. Whatever you think about their music (I’ve never been a fan) is irrelevant, what matters is that they developed their fanbase, made it a devoted fanbase by doing everything exactly the way that a band whose fans matter, should. They toured, they kept in contact, they NEVER compromised their sound or took any factor other than the music into account when they made it, they innovated and mutated and evolved their music with every release. No cheating.

It went really well for them, as we all know. Massive adulation, massive critical success, massive commercial success, massive fanbase. Somewhere along the way, they decided that it was time to release a record without the collaboration of a record label. Their reasons for doing so are unclear. For many successful bands, a label is something of a millstone. Labels traditionally offered a sizeable advance to a band, based on what they felt the record would sell. If the label thought the record would make millions of pounds’ worth of sales, they’d advance the band some of that money, and recoup it from the record sales. Music publishing splits are complicated, and are bargained over in advance. Songwriters get one payment per record sold, performers got paid another amount. Songwriter royalties are untouchable, but performer royalties can be bargained with. The more of the performer royalty the performer is willing to sign over to the label, the more the label will advance them. This is grossly oversimplified, and the complications are myriad, but the general idea is sound. However, a band in Radiohead’s position in 2007 might well wonder what purpose their label served them. They had financial success, so needed no advance. They had a fanbase, so needed no marketing. They had live demand, so needed no help getting gigs. They had critical acclaim, so had no need for help in getting reviews. Another aspect of the label system is that a certain amount of the money a label makes from a successful act like Radiohead inevitably gets lost on paying advances to new bands, or established bands, who don’t become commercial successes. Labels, to get anywhere, have to take risks. They have to gamble on those bands that might go huge. No label has the funds to only sign acts who are sure-fire successes, because those acts, obviously, demand bigger advances. The unfortunate part is when an act does well, and then realizes that it’s success is subsidising the ones who don’t do well. They may well just ask themselves ‘why do we need a label?’.

Guy Hands, (who was at the time CEO of EMI), responded to the news in a now famously-leaked memo, entitled simply ‘Radiohead’. In it, he acknowledges the need for major labels to move beyond the system by which successful bands subsidize the less-successful ones:

In this note, I want to address what Radiohead’s decision means for EMI and what it means for artists generally.

For EMI, this is a welcome reminder of the new digital world in which we operate and the need to focus on the services we provide to our artists.  Those artists break down into three categories:

•    Those who are already established and in whom we have invested heavily;
•    Those with whom we are working to make really successful; and
•    New, start–up bands.

EMI needs business models which work for all three categories, the reality being that the vast majority of the third category will fail to achieve commercial success and have historically been cross-subsidised by the first category.

Radiohead voted with their feet and released In Rainbows on their own. They did so on an ‘honesty box’ system, by which the consumer paid what they wanted to for the album. They also released a luxury physical box-set option, priced around £50 or so, I really don’t remember. One line of thought was that this was the way forward for the industry – treat the music as expendable publicity-fodder, make the actual money on the luxury options. Deeper than that though, was the trust that Radiohead put in their fans to pay for the download. Reznor and Gabriel and a multitude of bloggers and tweeters had been saying for years that filesharing and piracy were only used as a way of hitting out at the major labels and acts who had exploited fans for decades, and that given a fair price and a transparent approach to artist-remuneration the ‘problem’ of illegal downloading would go away. Artists would be compensated directly for their music by their fans, fileshared music would increase fanbase, live shows would comprise the majority of an act’s income and everyone would be happy. Aside from the fact that I consider ‘luxury box-sets’ and their ilk to be the slimiest example of fanbase exploitation there is (charging 50 notes for something that cost 5 to produce is, even by my label-manager standards, obscene), aside from that separate issue, the premise seemed fair enough.

There are a lot of conflicting reports about how In Rainbows did. The official line is that it turned a ‘healthy profit’. Rumours suggest that it wasn’t as healthy as anyone would have liked, and that the honesty box system resulted in a majority of consumers not being very honest. But those are rumours, and can’t be trusted as fact. Yesterday Radiohead announced the release of their new album King of Limbs. It will be released on Saturday, through XL Records (in the UK, via two different labels elsewhere), presumably part of the ‘decaying business model’ Yorke wished to say ‘F— you’ to. The pre-order site crashed under the weight of fans buying the album in the first ten minutes, which is gratifying to those of us in the industry. It tells us that, where there is demand, people will buy music. It also tells us that demand does not need free giveaways to be created, nor does it need any sort of undignified pleading and cajoling on the part of the act to achieve. There are no gimmicks on the Radiohead pre-order page (unless you consider a luxury cd, vinyl and artwork edition to be a gimmick. I don’t like such things, but they’re hardly a new idea), other than a chance for buyers to win a signed12″ version of the record. Again, hardly a Music 2.0 strategy, it’s been happening for decades, as have pre-orders. You can interpret the release however you wish. For me it is a return to dignity in the music business. A situation where the band simply puts it thus : ‘we have a new album, if you wish to have it, pay us this amount and we will send it to you’. Simple, fair, dignified for band and fan alike. No auctions of hand-painted ukuleles, no 1000-quid phonecalls where the band sing it to you, no ‘pledge 20 quid to have your name in the credits’ gimmickry. It’s true, those tricks are for smaller bands to make money out of a limited fanbase, but frankly, they’re becoming the hallmark of acts who are obviously resigned to their positions as unlikely to ever make a living from simply making and selling music. That’s why Radiohead’s version is more dignified for the fan – because they don’t have to wake up some day and realize that they once spent 600 quid on a hand-scrawled banjo decorated by a now-disappeared vocalist. Sure, Radiohead have a huge demand already, they can sell cds, it’s ok for them. Well, they got to that point by gigging, by building a fanbase, by getting a record deal that allowed them to develop and mature, by never compromising. They didn’t get it by clogging up people’s FaceBook walls with ‘check out my free download’.

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What’s all this about Spotify, again?

Well, Helienne Lindvall wrote an article in The Guardian yesterday, which reported that certain independent labels are withdrawing their music from Spotify. As you know already if you read this blog regularly, BlancoMusic have never knowingly had our music up there. We also took the decision over a year ago to withdraw our music from Last FM, and Pandora. Funny thing was, that although the music had seemingly magically appeared on a number of streaming sites, we had no knowledge of how it got onto most of it. Now, before I go developing any conspiracy theories here, we work with a digital distributor for the sole reason that they get our music on sale in iTunes (a necessary evil). One of the services they offered was to put the music onto So that wasn’t a mystery. When we asked to take down the music though, they informed us that they were unable to do so, as the music is put up there by users, and they have no control over people re-posting material they’ve taken down. So therefore, we can’t take it down from there. After a bit of dialogue with them, well, we had other things to do, and let the matter drop. were another story altogether. Everything we released ended up on there, without anything resembling a request for permission. Our request to them to take the music off was met with the assertion that unless we approach them via a lawyer specialising in Californian law they would not enter into dialogue. That’s just to ASK them to take it down. Well, we have a lawyer, but not a Californian one, so again, we have no option but to comply with their rules. No doubt that somewhere in our contract with the digital distributor we use there is a clause saying that ‘your music may be distributed to other unnamed parties’ or suchlike. I could go on. Maybe you’re already beginning to discern the pattern. There are people out there who are profiting from musical material which belongs, in it’s compositional and performed forms, to BlancoMusic and our artists. They are doing so despite our requests to them to remove our music from their archives. What’s more, honest music lovers are paying for their services under the impression that they are paying for a legitimate, honest service which benefits the artists in question, and is a fair alternative to the cost of buying unlimited music or the moral and legal quagmire that is filesharing. That is the real tragedy here.

Lindvall’s piece quoted me, saying “The rates offered to us as an indie label were so insulting that we’d prefer to forgo the ‘privilege’.”

I replied in the comments thread thus:

Thanks for the quote Helienne.
I await the onslaught of ‘but of course BlancoMusic got offered a crappy rate, they’re nobodies’. The thing is, even though we haven’t made much mainstream impact with our material just yet, all the material on the label features Robin Taylor-Firth. That might not mean much to a lot of people, but as co-writer with Nightmares on Wax and Olive, the guy’s made a lot of money for the music industry. When you consider that Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’ got sampled by Tinchy Stryder in 2009, and was a hit for Mads Langer in 2010, and that NoW’s ‘Smokers Delight’ still shifts units that most indie labels would trade their right arms for, well, you’d expect that Spotify might channel some of their resources into even replying to e-mails from the guy. I’m not posting a truncated Taylor-Firth CV here to big BlancoMusic up (well, maybe a little), but just to highlight the blind arrogance of services such as Spotify, who feel no need to research, or negotiate, or even engage with content-providers who could be significant to them, were they to show even the tiniest interest in the music they acutally profit from (not that they are officially in profit, but we can be sure Daniel Ek’s not short of a quid).
More than anything though, the big question about Spotify, Mog, YouTube etc, is at what point does the ability to propagate your music via such channels stop being a useful publicity resource, and start being a detriment to the demand for your product? Artists are falling over themselves to take really crappy ‘deals’ for unlimited use of their music, under the hope that the exposure will be a compensation for the pitiful rates of payment. What they don’t seem to take into account is the supply/demand graph, and that merely increasing the supply of their product is not, on its own, likely to increase the demand. That’s a large part of BlancoMusic’s decision to make very little of our music available to the public before we’ve built a healthy demand via live performances. But the predominant reason is that we are not so desperate for publicity that we’ll consider insulting rates of payment for music that Spotify or others will use to make themselves exceedingly rich.

Lindvall’s article about Spotify’s payment rates wasn’t specifically about how insulting Spotify’s payment rate per play is. As far as I can tell from their website, it’s around 0.0085 pence per play, but I may have missed a zero somewhere in there. Rocio, lead singer of Mil i Maria (link to her music is up on the right of this text) was asking yesterday why we didn’t just go onto the streaming sites (she insists that she has seen her album on Spotify, despite our never having put it there) and click away mindlessly at the ‘play again’ button. Well, the answer is that at a hundredth or a thousandth or a penny per play, it wouldn’t even cover the electricity it costs to turn the computer on. Lindvall’s article was actually about a rumour that Spotify have a two (or more) tier system when it comes to payment. She mentioned the Scandanavian newspapers which had first sniffed out the story. Those original sources claimed that Spotify had been paying major label acts up to six times the rate that they pay to independent label acts. Keep the figure ‘six times’ in mind. It becomes important later.

Now, we already know that Spotify sweetened the deal for the major labels way back when it was starting out, by offering them a share in the company. Whilst the payment made to artists was insultingly low, the labels didn’t have to worry about that because they ‘d be getting a scoop of all those subscription fees and advertising revenues. Sod the artists. We also know that Merlin, an umbrella organisation representing the interests of independent labels, had meetings with Spotify early on in the game too. What they agreed on as regards company equity and per-stream rate, we don’t quite know. The truth is, we know very little about any of this stuff because it is all subject to something called a ‘Non-Disclosure Agreement’. With an NDA, all parties in a meeting agree that they will not share any details of what was discussed with anyone who was not present at the meeting.

Anyway, Spotify, upon hearing of Lindvall’s piece, retaliated almost instantly with their own statement. In it, they seize the ‘six times’ quote and cling to it with the grip of a drowning man hanging onto a swimming-float.

To suggest we pay major labels up to six times more than the indies is utterly false. Additionally the Guardian article refers to a series of dated and extremely speculative stories.


They then go on to spout more of their usual spin about how they pay millions to artists, and that we should all just shut up and be damned glad that we’re getting anything at all considering that there’s such a thing as FILESHARING, or didn’t you know, ungrateful pups, just don’t know they’re born etc, etc.

Now, everything about the pros and cons of streaming sites aside, what really bothers me about all this is the NDAs. Why hide behind NDAs Spotify? Why can’t we know exactly what you’re paying the majors, and how it is or isn’t different to what you’re paying the indies? Clearly it’s not six times as much. You made that quite clear. That seemed to have hit a nerve, and given you something to plausibly deny. Good work there, that put us right off the scent. We’re all convinced of your honesty now. So publish the figures, why don’t you?

Next. Merlin. What are they paying your representatives, Merlin? Where are those figures? Why are you hiding behind NDAs?


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From Helienne’s Blog

First off, I’m pasting in Helienne’s original Guardian piece about Spotify. I’ll comment in the next post.

Spotify should give indies a fair deal on royalties

Independent labels are considering leaving the music streaming service, claiming it treats them unfairly

Lady Gaga performs in Milan Spotify pays artists on major labels such as Lady Gaga differently from those on independents. Photograph: Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPALast year, major labels Universal and Sony received more revenue from Spotify than any other Swedish music service or digital and physical record store, according to local newspaper reports.

The news came as a surprise to many independent labels and to Swedish songwriters, as their royalty statements tell a very different story. It appears that not only do the majors own shares in Spotify, they – and their artists – also get much better streaming rates than the indies. Some of the indies threatened in early December to withdraw their music from Spotify in response.

The Swedish head of Naxos, one of the world’s biggest classical record labels, told Dagens Nyheterin December that despite Spotify’s number of paying subscribers soaring to 750,000, his label has not seen much of an increase in revenue. Indie music consortium Merlin, which represents a number of independent labels, including Naxos, and negotiated their members’ deal with Spotify, says this was due to a misunderstanding, that it didn’t represent the facts as they now stand and that they wouldn’t accept a substandard deal on behalf of their members.

In response to the Swedish newspaper reports, Spotify said: “Indie label content is a crucial part of Spotify and offering their music on the service allows our users to experience a hugely diverse catalogue spanning every musical genre. In return, we give indie labels a powerful monetisation and promotional platform as well as exposure to an eclectic and passionate audience of music lovers across Europe. Crucially, Spotify has paid many millions of euros to the indie music community since our launch and we enjoy an excellent relationship with the vast majority of our indie label partners.”

Blancomusic Records – a small indie based in Spain – is, however, far from impressed by Spotify royalties: “The rates offered to us as an indie label were so insulting that we’d prefer to forgo the ‘privilege’.” Digital director Simon Wheeler of Beggars Banquet, one of the largest independents (also represented by Merlin), agrees that each licence would have different terms. “As to how different they are I can only guess,” he says. “The majors aren’t as accommodating as they used to be in sharing information.”

Though all deals with Spotify are covered by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), it is well known in music industry circles that Universal was able to secure a minimum streaming rate for the ad-funded version of the site – something, it is understood, not even the other majors have been able to accomplish.

You can’t blame Universal for securing the best deal possible. After all, it has a lot of leverage, being the world’s biggest music group. Spotify would be a lot less successful without Universal artists such as Lady Gaga, Eminem and Black Eyed Peas.

I do, however, have an issue with a track by Lady Gaga earning more money for 100,000 streams than, for example, one by Adele or the xx, just because Gaga is signed to a major label.

After all, when their songs are played on the radio in the UK, they receive the same royalty rate. This is because radio royalty rates are negotiated by PPL, which collects performance royalties for all the labels and performers (including musicians featured on the recordings), in the same way PRS for Music collects – and negotiates rates – on behalf of songwriters and their publishers.

Traditionally, record labels only collect and distribute the revenue from record sales (so-called “mechanicals”) and synchs (advertising and use in games, for example), while PPL collects radio and live (so-called “performance rights”). So why wouldn’t PPL negotiate the Spotify rates for all the labels? Because the bigger labels don’t want them to. Their argument is that on-demand streaming is not the same as radio.

If you think all this is confusing, you’re not the only one. Many people I’ve talked to inside the music industry do too – and members of the public even more so.

The publishing (songwriters) copyrights system is just as confusing. The local collection society negotiates performance rates for all music played in their country: PRS sets rates for all UK radio and live performances, Stim sets rates for Swedish radio, and so on.

But for mechanicals, publishers and songwriters can choose which European collection society they want to belong to – Universal Music Publishing, for example, belongs to the French society, Sacem. So Sacem negotiated the rates with Spotify for all songs belonging to Universal Music Publishing. To put it in simpler terms: If a song written by Mariah Carey, who’s publishing is signed to Universal, is streamed 1m times on Spotify, and one of my songs is streamed an equal amount of times, Spotify could pay us different amounts, since I belong to Stim.

Granted, when it comes to songwriter royalties we’re talking about very small amounts, even for high levels of streaming. Even the major publishers I spoke to in Sweden said that they earned a pittance from the music service. Judging by other streaming deals, it’s probably less than a fifth of what the major labels earn.

It often seems digital music services only calculate the cost of licensing of major-label recordings into their budget, before launching, with independent labels a mere afterthought (the latest example being Rdio’s deal with Merlin). The fact that they need to get a licence and compensate the songwriters is seen as an unwelcome extra expense – even though, I’d argue, without great songs there would be no point in having a music service at all.

Spotify is a great music service for its users and I’m sure most musicians would prefer to be featured on the site. What they don’t want is to be treated as second class. A popular track is a popular track and should be rewarded equally whether it has had the powerful PR machinery of a major label or not. The internet was supposed to liberate artists, giving unsigned artists the same chance of succeeding by cutting out the middleman.

This is not only a Spotify issue: it is a growing problem for smaller labels and unsigned artists with most new digital music services. In addition, the major labels tend to get upfront payments from new services, which is rarely the case for independent labels.

If in the future, as many predict, almost all royalties will be distributed not on a set rate per stream or download but on a share of subscription revenue – a share divided according to usage reports from the music services – what are the chances that smaller labels and independent artists will be remunerated correctly?

If the bigger labels are shareholders in the service, I must say I’m sceptical. Even major-label artists could be shortchanged, as they’re not allowed to know on what basis or what rate they’re paid due to NDAs. Is this really the price music creators must pay for free enterprise?

• This article was amended on 2 February 2011 to remove references to a Swedish newspaper report and a dispute in Norway

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Is pop dead?

Surely by now we must all know that titling an article ‘Is ‘x’ dead?’ is simply a ploy to garner attention from the trigger-happy twitterati, offering the opportunity for kneejerk condemnation in 140 characters or less. How one converts this viral equivalent of Chinese whispers into any sort of material or spiritual gain, I have no idea, but it seems that social networkers are still happy to participate.

Last week’s example took aim at rock music. Should we accept rock music as a dead format? If so, by which criteria do we make such a pronouncement? Falling sales? It seems an inappropriate methodology. Rock music shouldn’t ever have become a dominant musical form, what with its conflict in sonic frequency range between the lead singer (85 – 255hz) and the lead guitar (82-660hz). By rights, the unit should have long disintegrated beneath the weight of competing egos. String quartets manage to survive a similar sonic battleground between violins, but only by adhering to a strict definition of roles – first and second violin (hence the term ‘second fiddle’). Rock bands, in general, do not enforce such strict role definitions, at least not formally. Inherent in the creation of rock music (and I must generalise here, otherwise this piece will metasize horribly), is a democratic process by which voice, bass, percussion and guitar create a coherent musical whole. To help them do this, there are structures of harmony, arrangement and time which allow certain elements of songwriting and performance to be pre-supposed. Rock musicians largely stay within a small number of those structures. Whilst at its worst, this can constrict and restrain the creative process (and at its worst, rock music is truly awful), at other times the diversity of influence brought to the songwriting process by four independent sonic elements allows for a Darwinian adaptation that can be alchemical.

Take pop though, and although the genre is too wide to allow the same generalisation as can be applied to rock, there is a branch of the pop format which can be mentioned. I’m referring to producer-led records, in which the personality contributing the vocals and imagery plays a secondary role in the creation of the music. Singling out any one example is almost futile at this point, which is exactly the genre’s weakness. Taylor Swift, Rhianna, Justin Bieber, Lady GaGa. Essentially (and at this point I realize I am about to write something controversial) they are interchangeable. A zeitgeist producer creates a soundbed, usually using tricks of arrangement picked up via an unhealthy amount of time spent in Ibiza superclubs in the early 90s, molds that tension/release house anthem formula into an arrangement which can support a verse-chorus-verse vocal, applies a couple of fashionable sonic effects onto what are quite simple major chord progressions and then, this is the cynical part, drops the vocal track over the top. Forget whether the vocal took advantage of auto-tuning software or not (another day’s article), the simple fact is that in most of these records, there is no sonic or emotional integration between vocal and song. If anything is to kill pop, it is cynical, mass-produced pap of this ilk.

Pop will survive as long as people continue to buy records. It’s slippery definition is simply that it is ‘popular’ enough to sell units. By such definitions, a great deal of rock music is pop, as is metal, jazz, opera etc. For clarity, I’m lazily defining pop music as any piece of music which had as its primary stated goal the objective of selling units. Some pop becomes popular without this aim, some other forms seek primarily to sell units, but are called rock. Whichever way we look at the sales figures of the past decade though, it is abundantly clear that it is pop music which is being decimated by recorded music’s falling sales. It must be obvious to anyone with an internet connection that the opening up of sales channels to musicians without label intervention has allowed niche acts to benefit from cheap online distribution and retailing. With the marketing channels open to all, the very concept of a hit record has changed. Artists selling twenty-thousand albums via their own website can now net more monetary reward than if they had sold a million records via a major label. Where this has hit hardest is at the entity that is a ‘popstar’. In an online marketplace where the smallest niches of musical taste are catered for, the role of the hyped and mass-marketed pop act is threatened. Competing for attention is expensive and time-consuming, and although major labels can still beat mileage out of a constricted number of high-profile pop acts, or create formats such as The X Factor to circumvent traditional marketing approaches,, the investment/return ratio is becoming less attractive every year. Take Taylor Swift’s US number one album from last week ‘Speak Now’. A vindication of pop, one might say? A pop album at number one, surely that proves dominance? The record topped the US chart with the lowest ever number of sales for an album in that position – 52,000. Legacy albums such as Dark Side of the Moon sell that many units every few months, despite being over three decades old. Nightmares on Wax’s ‘Smokers Delight’, whilst nowhere near Pink Floyd’s level, continues to sell units fifteen years after release. Pop, pure pop, which has at its heart the celebration of the immediate, and makes no claims to being composed for posterity, can never hope for the ‘long-tail’ sales profile which is enjoyed by other genres. I won’t say it’s dead, it certainly isn’t. Nor will I accept that rock is either.


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