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, MOG.com 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 Last.fm. So that wasn’t a mystery. When we asked Last.fm 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. MOG.com 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.

(http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/spotify-denies-reports-of-paltry-payments-to-indies-925440#form-wrap-commentform)

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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Christmas greetings

Let’s take some time off from my frustrated ranting about the music industry (new and old) and offer you all my genuine best wishes for Christmas and New Year. It’s been a weird year at BlancoMusic, typified by a supernatural strength in terms of music-creation, with a corresponding super-weakness at getting it out there, listened to, loved and supported. Over the last twelve months I’ve expressed a number of frustrations with the realities of the internet as a primary platform for fan outreach. Some of these have been opinions of my own, some were adapted from others’. At times we must have looked like a very hypocritical organisation, as the blog tracked our rejection, subsequent acceptance, and re-rejection of certain music platforms or concepts. All I can say in defence is that you’ve seen these decisions happen in real time, you’ve watched as we’ve tried desperately to find new methods of achieving the publicity and acceptance we crave, and you’ve also seen our frustration as the whole charmless edifice that is Music2.0 grows with every new low it achieves in its much-hyped contest to see who can prostrate their art to the lowest point possible in  the hopes of selling a few b(r)anded weed-grinders or t-shirts. (Phew! Deep breath.) If we have any real talking-point as a label, it’s that we are absolutely transparent with regard to policy and strategy. In an age where music has largely become a secondary marketing tool for monetizing branded lifestyle entities, BlancoMusic’s transparency and commentary appeals mostly to a fairly marginal group of people – many of them musicians, or in the industry one way or another, others of you are pure music lovers whose interest goes beyond the notes and chords you hear on the recordings. You’re the kind of people who read sleevenotes on albums. If you’ve come hear to listen to our music, to read my words or even just to use the comment board to tell me that I’m a deluded arsehole who should get the hell out of music, we sincerely love you for it. Because what it shows is that you care enough about music to have an opinion, that it’s not just some ubiquitous-but-ignored part of your life. We need more people like you.

What 2011 will bring, who knows? We have some astounding music on the way, that’s for sure, and no amount of debate about the future of the music industry affects that. Vanito Brown should have his album finished by February, which if there is any justice in the world, will be the album that finally brings modern Cuban music into the consciousness of music-lovers worldwide. The Cuban sense of rhythm is unique, and Vanito has it in his bones. It will be a very interesting record.

Piano Segundo will gather together the fruits of a winter spent performing and composing, to result in a split-personality album. Half funky Rhodes-washed dancefloor mayhem; the other half intriguing, pensive piano improvisation. We’ll be sending them out live to everywhere we can manage.

SubMachena will also put some more material out. In their case it’s more of a curation job, as they have mountains of material, and the challenge is picking out which to release. Two SubMachena tracks will be going out on George Solar’s Comfy Dub 2 album.

BudNubac’s second album is pretty-much completed, just needing a couple of licks of the producer’s magic brush to make it shine – that’ll be coming too.

Sara Garvey will be coming over to record another few tunes towards her own album. Having heard the demos, it almost feels worth putting them out in their raw state – her voice is just so rich and evocative. Nevertheless, production techniques can take a beautiful vocal track and either bury it in noise or enhance and enrich it. Guess which we hope to do.

There are some other projects in the works, but it’s far too early to say anything about them yet. A lot of recording, a lot of work, a lot of energy and effort coming in the next year. That’s why we get so frustrated by filesharing, streaming, Music 2.0 etc. And ANOTHER thing…..

Happy Christmas to you all, to your loved ones, and even to those who aren’t. A bit more happiness would do us all some good.

Sean, Robin and all at BlancoMusic.

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Get Off!

There’s a little bit of a pun in today’s blogpost title, which seems only fair. ‘Get Off!’ is the title of a tune by Prince, and although I really don’t make a habit of writing about the guy, today it seems apt to acknowledge him. Today, I’ve started the surprisingly complicated process of taking BlancoMusic’s web-presence off the social networks of the World Wide Web. I was just about to type the title ‘getting off the internet’ when I remembered the Prince song. Apt, because it was he who famously referred to the internet as ‘dead’ way back in July. Although his statement was clearly timed to coincide with the release of his ‘2010’ album, and drum up some publicity, there was a truth in what he said that has been playing on our minds here at BlancoMusic for some time now. Bit by bit we’re dismantling our online footprint and focusing our energies instead on all those things that a record label really should be doing with its time. Things like meeting with our acts; working on their stage presence; contacting people who will book them gigs; sending their music to people who might actually be interested in hearing it and who might spread the word. Social networking doesn’t do any of those things. Maybe it did once, but it doesn’t any more. It’s not just the case that Facebook users are bombarded with so many links to music that they really can’t be bothered checking them out any more. That’s certainly true. But that’s not the problem – all that circumstance shows is that the people sending the music out need to be a bit more appealing in the way they present their product. What bothers us is the whole idea of giving away music, and the whole relentless pressure upon musicians and labels to do so.

Bringing your music to a place where the most common listener experience is a snatched moment at work, through crappy earphones, in an environment which is dull and stale does not serve the artists’ interests in the slightest. Let’s turn this around and think about exactly how a musician hopes you will experience their work. Maybe they’d like you to hear it through a really good hi-fi system, in the comfort of your own home, as the primary focus of your attention. Perhaps they’d prefer that you heard their music in a nightclub, surrounded by beautiful people and in a state of euphoria, the music accentuating that rush. A lot of acts would love if everyone could hear their music as they play it, live, in an interactive experience between artist and audience. I’m sure there are plenty of variations on the ideal listener environment. I very much doubt that the typical social network experience figures very highly in the list. Musicians aim to bring their listeners into a different headspace for the time they are listening – to create an experience that lifts the listener out of the everyday and offers them a moment or two of transcendence. That applies equally to the most vacuous pop record as it does to orchestral symphonies. How is that served by the social network experience where, when a link to music is received by a user, that user’s first assumption is that the music will be yet more crap that they don’t want to waste their time listening to? How is the artist’s wish to bring the listener into their sonically-created world served by having the music heard in a rushed, habitual, complacent environment? This is why the internet is dead for musicians. It reduces music to something as easily and as readily ignored as the banner advertisements that are the true function of social network spaces.

Social networks exist online as a means of making their founders rich. They sell advertising, that is their primary function. Good for them, we don’t have any axe to grind with social networks per se. They are a good place to keep up contact with friends and family. But putting music on there, in the hope of creating some visibility for your act, really looks like it’s had its day. As a way for musical acts to keep in touch with their fans it has it’s uses, although I do think they’d be better-served by building their own webpage and updating it as and when they feel like it. But really, do people actually get excited by receiving a Facebook update from an act they like which reads something like ‘Greetings to all you lovely people. Mistakes are the lessons of humanity, it is how we recover from them which is the true measure of life. Hey, check out our new outtakes compilation and be sure to pre-order the album‘? Do people get excited enough by those messages to put their reputation on the line and recommend them to their friends? Are social network recommendations as worthwhile as someone meeting a friend for coffee on a Monday and telling them about an amazing gig they were at on Saturday? We’d much prefer to have more of that sort of buzz – the buzz generated by our acts playing amazing gigs and blowing peoples’ minds. It’s harder to create, and it is not as quick as blasting out a mailshot with a bunch of links in, but it is far more powerful a tool for raising awareness of an act. The next step in the same thought process is – why not just take it all offline? Or as much as is realistically possible?

You see, we really, really have looked at the Music 2.0 phenomenon. We’ve looked at it so much that we’re cross-eyed. Music 2.0 could really work, if it weren’t predicated upon giving people music for nothing. But giving music away for nothing in the hopes that it will promote a desire in a user to buy your other records is a sales strategy built upon the loss-leader concept used by supermarkets. They sell a product at less than cost price, publicise it, knowing that everyone has to do their shopping somewhere, and if they get you through their doors to buy an artificially cheap product, you’ll likely continue buying the products that are full-price. How can that be expected to work with music? The user gets some free music via a social network link (it’s probably the act’s best tune), checks out their webpage, listens to a preview of the tracks on sale there, then goes to YouTube or Spotify to listen to them again. If they really like the music, they can go to a torrent somewhere and download them for free, or just use a streaming recorder to grab a copy from somewhere. The whole Music 2.0 idea is based upon the predicate that the music itself is unimportant, that what artists really need to do is create a brand that people will be loyal to, and which can be used to sell physical products like t-shirts or box-sets. I’m not even convinced that this works either. To get someone to shell out fifty quid for a box-set takes a very serious level of devotion – devotion that I do not believe can be generated by social networks. And anyway, musicians are supposed to sell music, not t-shirts and box-sets. Giving away music for free is like a taxi-driver ferrying people from place to place, in the hopes that they might appreciate it so much that they’ll pay him. If the taxi driver decides that only the first ride is free, what’s to stop people from just taking a different free taxi next time instead? Why would they bother coming back to his? In this analogy, the taxi driver would hope that there was something special about his taxi that meant people would only want to use his taxi. In music, every musician wants his music to stand out from the rest, to be utterly compelling. And it quite often is like that for some fans. For many though, the ubiquitous availability of free music means that there never has to be any sort of perceived relationship with the musicians who create it. It’s simply there, and if it’s not, something else will be that is similar enough. Why would any act wish to throw their music into such a maelstrom of chaotic indifference?

I was on YouTube last week and watched a Drugstore video. It was their single – ‘El Presidente’, which they recorded with Thom Yorke in the 1990s. The video had been played some 45,000 times, presumably by Radiohead fans, because the rest of the Drugstore videos had play-counts in the hundreds. This is the level of complacency we’re trying to fight. Almost 45,000 people were just not bothered enough by Drugstore’s song (including a vocal by Isabel Monteiro) to check out their other songs on YouTube. Not curious enough to wonder who they were, what they sounded like. It’s a chilling example of just how worthless, or close to worthless online buzz really is. We could throw every piece of music we’ve ever recorded onto the web, spend hours and hours pushing it down peoples’ throats via social networks, blogs, podcasts etc. The truth is, it has very little effect other than to make people go ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of them, they’re pretty good…oh LOOK, it’s a picture of an owl in a party hat! COOL!’ There are plenty of music ‘fans’ who howl and protest and say that music has to be free, that they have to be able to hear it before they’ll buy it, that free music is great publicity and it’s only the dinosaurs who don’t know how to innovate who suffer. Fine, the rest of the music industry can go chase them. We don’t do chasing.

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Mil i Maria – Vivo en Penumbra

There’s only so much I can really say about the music industry. I’m not by any means a guru on the subject. Most of the limited notoriety I’ve so far earned as a commentator stems more from the partisan rage I can’t help but convey. I certainly don’t have any great depth of experience or insight into the act of getting soundwaves to move through the air in a way that, more or less, corresponds with the melodies and rhythms a given musician hears within their own minds. I don’t think anyone does. You’ll notice that I’m back to using the personal pronoun ‘I’ (to which I have a certain childish devotion) and that this blogpost is written in the voice of me (Sean, the label manager of BlancoMusic) rather than as some detached, bodiless opinion doggedly hoping that narrative anonymity might somehow fool the reader into accepting its opinionated guesses as being somehow authoritative. Writing about music has its tricks and its tropes, the same as any form of critical appraisal. What I’m doing right now: bringing you into a conspiratorial embrace by the use of semi-rarified vocabulary and register in a first-person, self-conscious narrative – is the undergraduate approach to a dilemma that faces anyone who chooses to write publicly about music.

The issue is not whether a writer can describe a piece of music to a reader. The truth of that is established. It’s impossible. Even if you and I were to sit in front of the same speakers and listen to the same piece of music, even if we were to go to great lengths to assure that the soundwaves you heard were identical to the ones I experienced, it wouldn’t make any difference. The little drums inside your ears are different to the little drums inside mine. As for the interpretative mechanisms that follow the physical inputs, those are a world of their own. The very keyboard rill which evokes an aching longing for a half-remembered joy sometime in my childhood could just as well remind you of the time you spilled hot spaghetti hoops onto your lap when you were ten. It’s all subjective, and can only ever be. So instead, the writer tries to establish a type of authority, something to convince you that our opinion matters. Ideally, that authority would be built up over time, with credibility enforced by a track record of writing interesting opinions about pieces of music that, even if you didn’t fully agree with them, were at the very least valid or worthy of respect. But as a blogger, relatively new to your acquaintance, that accumulated authority is something that I can’t hope to depend on. There are shortcuts. Being snide and hypercritical of musicians deemed too mainstream is one of those shortcuts. Being catty and arch works well too, just the way that bitching about a colleague tends to forge superficially pleasing relationships in the workplace. Dropping lots of references to music on the periphery of our knowledge is a good start. That’s a staple of the music-blogger’s approach – when the blogger feels the focus should be more on the blog than the music. Ten there’s the schoolyard music-bore’s method – dropping references to increasingly obscure acts from the past, as if littering the text with the names of 1980s Polish speedmetal bands guarantees a developed sense of critical appreciation in the writer. Knowing asides mentioning Cabaret Voltaire in a review of a synthpop act tend to work well, for other genres there is always the chin-strokey fallback if Zappa or Can. When all else fails, mention Nick Drake.

Doing it again, aren’t I? Getting into a froth about the posturing that typifies this industry. What else can we do though? All we want, any of us, is that you listen to our music. Whether you like it or whether you don’t is for another day, another string of therapy sessions. Last week I wrote about the industry, the marketing mechanisms, the rise of the South Korean music market (published the day before that country came under fire from it’s northern neighbour – horrible timing on my part). That piece was an effort to appear a little professional, detached, authoritative. Many thanks to Stuart Dredge of MusicAlly.com for picking the post up and running it as their opinion piece for the fortnight. This week though, I’m back to being me. A bit emotional, a bit susceptible to fits of ire and a bit too sensitive to moments of musical art that strike me as interesting. Can we establish, or at least indulge in the fantasy that I am a critical voice worthy of your indulgence for the next thousand words or so? I certainly don’t have a long history of music writing that you can refer to, nor do I write for a publication you already admire. I do have an option at this point, but it is not one I’m willing to exercise. Scorn, doled out at a well-picked target (something at the lower end of the public perception, building momentum, but without a sufficiently visible history of penury and graft), is a shortcut to the affections of the reader. A sneering propensity to damn with faint praise. A jaded cynicism about everything I hear, as if the trials of having to listen to a constantly growing pile of free CDs were somehow as laborious and drudging as clocking in for another eight hours of packing tomatoes into crates or manning a call centre cubicle. I don’t want to do that, or even pretend that I feel that way. One of the few jewels of the music industry as I have experienced it so far, one of the all-time joys which pisses on all of the challenges and disappointments and frustrations, is that I get to hear chunks of new music as it gets sent to me on the SoundCloud dropbox, or via the postie, or best of all, as it gets composed and recorded. So, instead of dwelling on the negatives or using cynicism as a vehicle to enlist the sympathy of the reader, for a change, I’m going to write about a song that really interests me.

Vivo en Penumbra translates as ‘I live in the shadows’. It’s a nine-minute saga. When Maria (the singer and songwriter) penned it, she had a whole story to tell – a whole scenario involving claustrophobia, agorophobia, self-imposed alienation, failed rebirth, atavism and longing. It’s a lot to get across in nine minutes, and it’s not at all comfortable listening. Should it be? Music is not always designed to soothe. At its worst, music is a superficial product, churned out on an industrial basis as a saleable by-product of a marketing drive. Recent changes in technology have shifted the emphasis off music as the primary by-product of that branding process – relegating it somewhere behind box-sets, figurines, fragrances, dancemats and iPhone apps, so it doesn’t even have the dubious privilege of being the focal point of a manufactured popstar’s market value. Let’s not name names, you can all think of someone. That’s music at it’s worst – not because the music is bad, sometimes it’s not – but because it is strictured by the parameters enforced upon it by other aspects of the marketing process. Popstars cannot be out of character for a moment, even the most avant-garde of them have to display a consistency in their ‘experimentation’ that tallies with the brand image they maintain. So, remember the bit about establishing credibility in the first part of this post? Well, here’s my only really useful claim to credibility. I can definitively say that Mil i Maria are in no way constricted by any aspects of the branding phenomenon. As the manager of their label, I have to admit that I do sometimes wish they would conform a bit to the branding process. From the point of view of marketing the act, it would be a whole lot easier if Maria would choose a look (psychobilly rockchick would work) and build a stage persona around that. The best branding happens when an act merely take a genuine piece of their defining spirit, and just exaggerate it a bit. Creating something completely alien and artificial has no value, because it it too difficult to sustain. An exaggerated stage persona works though, for the consumer and the act. It allows the members of the act to differentiate between the aspect of themselves that replies to interviewers’ questions from the aspect of themselves that buys milk at the cornershop. Nevertheless, the point I am trying to make, is that there is no restriction on Mil i Maria’s music from the point of view of branding or marketing. Musically, there is quality-control, production, arrangement, feedback. Of course there is that, but as a collaborative process, not as an imposition. You can’t coerce her, many have tried.

So, then. In Vivo en Penumbra you have the unsullied expression of a songwriter/performer who is free to record the song she hears in her head, without the restrictions of market, audience, branding. That may not sound like much, but it’s getting rarer by the minute.

The song opens with an opressive ticking – perhaps a clock, perhaps a heartbeat. The protagonist sings what would translate as ‘I live in shadow /I don’t recommend it / My house is small and I walk around it sideways – so that the mirror won’t watch me’.

There’s an autobiographical element to the song, it continues to describe a protagonist who spends the day in an untidy flat, filling notebooks full of short, aborted lines, tearing them up. Standard. But the repetition of the guitar line, and that invasive ticking hint at something more malevolent. With a songwriting flair that is unusual in a debut album, the song takes a twist at this point. The phone rings, our protagonist answers, is invited to a meeting, accepts. And on leaving the house, chaos, agorophobia, panic, fear:

ah, que miedo, alguien me punta con un dedo. Ah, que miedo!

Scared! Someone pokes me with a finger, Scared!

Outside it is bright, it’s crowded, it’s terrifying. But on encountering a busker playing flamenco, the scene calms. Something timeless and comforting in the guitarist’s music soothes the narrator. For a moment, everything is fine. What makes the song really interesting though is that, despite the breakthrough, despite the atavistic calm that descends on the song with the flamenco phrase, there is no happy ending. The song ends where it began, back in the small untidy house, terrified of the outside world and loathing of the oppressive regime it denotes.

I’ll stop here. I’m not a music critic, nor am I unbiased. I love the song and I want you to love it too.

Hear it at http://blancomusic.com/vivoenpenumbra

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Is the revolution almost upon us?

They’re still coming in, still clogging up inboxes. Today it was The Music Industry Report who sent out the day’s version of an article everyone in the music business must have read (in one form or another) at least a hundred times already. You know the one: ‘the field is levelled, independent labels and bands now have access to the same tools and technology as the major players, there really is no reason why you can’t all benefit from these new utilities and become the next big thing’. The article then goes on to list a few miracle tools that now exist for bands to develop their fanbase awareness (amongst which are YouTube and Twitter). At this point, that article, and all the daily variants thereof, are about as much use to a new band or independent label as a lighthouse in the middle of the Sahara. Brilliant, but useless. Then, sometime last week, the always-interesting Steve Lawson published a very succinct and concise evaluation of the music-consuming public’s reaction to having their social media areas bombarded with bands telling them to ‘check out our new tune here’. What Lawson wrote captured in prose form, a phenomenon that anyone who makes use of online social media has seen coming for quite a while now – it doesn’t work as a promotional device unless there is a genuine outreach from the act in question, a real reason to bother clicking the link for the user, and a pre-existing level of trust between the user and the entity posting the link. That takes a lot of time and effort from the act in question, and the discussion we may all be having soon is, ‘is the time spent courting fans via social media a help or a hindrance?’. Because to do it well, leaves precious little time for gigs, recording, practise, sleep, etc.

Lawson’s article examines and explains much, and there is no good reason to parse it here. The link is given above, the article is well-recommended. Instead, the rest of this blogpost is going to go speculative. Let’s take it as a given that the ‘levelling’ of the music industry is a reality, and that small bands and businesses now have access to the same tools as the majors. Theoretically, it’s true. Distribution: well, at least for digital downloads, there is no difference, except that the majors certainly don’t pay the full 30% cut to iTunes as the indies, they’ll have negotiated something far less. Recording: if anything, the majors pay more. Their studios are professionally-run, so there’s no hope of getting a few hours recording done free as a favour. Same goes for mixing, engineering, mastering, production, session musicians and all the rest. When EMI or Warner are funding a project, people tend to invoice everything up correctly. Independent projects depend on a lot more goodwill and liberal use of the phrase: ‘if it makes any money, we’ll make sure you get a share’ PR, promotion, publicity and performance. Well, theoretically, the field is levelled there too, although the fact is that all this stuff – from sending CDs to journalists to getting a pretty girl to stand behind a table selling t-shirts, costs an ever-escalating sum of money (although drummers tend to be an excellent source of pretty girls, no idea why). Anyway, flippant sexism aside, as long as the indie band or label can find a ton of cash to compete with the established PR infrastructure of major labels, it’s there for the taking.

The concentration of this blogpost (so far) on PR is deliberate. Considering that every other aspect of the music industry has been made level to all players (and, let’s be generous about it, it has), the most sought-after commodity in the music business in 2010 is public visibility. Not access to a studio, not rack-space in record shops, not the services of the zeitgeist-defining producer, but visibility: the ability to be noticed in the sea of competing bands and acts and labels. Neither are we talking about having a poster at the bus stop or a banner ad on a popular blog. Even that is becoming ever more useless. What acts need now is editorial, actual words written about them, by journalists whose opinions are trusted. Here’s the first inkling of revolution. It was a truism of the old music industry that ‘words don’t sell music’. In 1980, a profile in Smash Hits or Melody Maker was wonderful, but had nothing of the sales impact on a record as being featured on Annie Nightingale’s Radio One show. People bought music because they heard it, loved it, and had no other option if they wanted to hear it again than to go and buy it. The other recommendation option was getting a cassette from a friend. Very different from anonymous filesharing, the passing of cassettes from hand to hand was a genuine promotional tool, because it usually came from a source whose musical taste was trusted/envied. Now, in 2010, text written by journalists about music is about to become more important than it has been since somewhere around 1910. Listeners simply have too much material to choose from. The old paradigm by which ‘words don’t sell music’ is dead. More than ever before, they do. Or at least, prompt people to listen to something. If this blog had an autoplay feature, playing music automatically when the page is opened, the first reaction of the majority of readers would be to shut the music off, or click elsewhere. Music is now that ubiquitous. Another of Steve Lawson’s observations: if you receive a ‘listen to this’ link in your Twitter timeline from an act, you ignore it, right? But if the same link comes from a tweeter whose tweets you enjoy, or have been impressed by, or whose articles you have previously read and respected; you’ll likely open it. That’s the power of real recommendation. But it takes trust, and time, and effort, and lots of words which captivate the reader, and which rarely look like promotional text. This is why even the well-funded, major label acts, now spend so much of their time putting phials of blood into their boxsets, or releasing albums full of ukulele-accompanied Radiohead songs – because it gets words written about them, proper editorial, proper content, written by trusted journalists and commentators. Still, if an indie label can get some journalist contacts together, and get a press-release off to them on a slow news week, and cross their fingers and pray hard, some of these stunts can actually get some column inches, although time is running out for this approach – the public are getting sick of it. Nevertheless, let’s consider that aspect of PR level as well.

Filesharing. Yes, that old bugbear once more. At least 90% of all music ‘owned’ by music consumers in 2009 was illegally downloaded. It’s the single reason why the major label music industry still exists. By now, independent acts should have swept away the old system, which should no longer be necessary, and reclaimed the music industry for themselves. Unfortunately, along with the ability to record and distribute music, the internet also made it simple to own that music without paying. So the way to make sales happen was to control the PR and relationship-forging channels (which are what now drive sales). That’s a lot easier for companies with the clout to pay advances to X-Factor winners, or buy advertisements in national newspapers, etc – the majors win again. What would happen though, if filesharing wasn’t such a significant factor? What would happen if a band’s promotional efforts went into making sales, rather than making curious people download their music illegally (or listen to it on YouTube, or Spotify, or Mog – which is financially no more worthwhile to a band than filesharing anyway, or as near as dammit)? That would be the revolution that Music 2.0 promised us. Let’s speculate a little, shall we?

It’s hard to know if we’re still approaching the revolution, or if we’ve already had it and are just about to enter the reign of terror. The major labels are dead, vive le revolution! Perhaps, peut etre, who knows? This isn’t a post about finger-pointing or blame, there’s been more than enough of that lately. One thing Napster and PirateBay and LimeWire did do was shake things up a little, rattle the crowns of Warner, Sony, EMI and Universal. It may have been enough, depending on what the goal is. This is all still panning out. If musicians can now get their music made, played and distributed to people who want to hear it without having to depend upon the capricious whims of major label a&r men, well, there’s obviously a benefit there. Not that the capricious whims of a&r men deserve to be scorned either. Their job was always straightforward: find the act that will turn a profit, and then find another one. If the acts that didn’t fall into that small category now have a viable means of reaching an audience, that’s great. Humans are a diverse lot, we deserve diverse entertainment.

So we went and destroyed the music business as it was. There’s no need for statistics or pi charts here, the music industry of the 1990s no longer exists. That’s a good thing. Complacent, monopolistic, indolent. Good riddance to it. None of us liked paying £15 for a CD, however life-affirming the music may have been. It’s hard though, stepping back a little and examining trends and statistics (and pi charts) to see anything that suggests that the music business of the 2020s won’t still be dominated by Warner, Sony,EMI and Universal (likely joined by Apple and Google).

The nations of the world are, one by one, legislating against online copyright infringement. That has implications. Check out the music industry numbers at IFPI.org for 2009 and have a look at South Korea and Sweden. In a music market that is shrinking globally at a rate of 7.2%, Sweden and South Korea are showing a GROWTH of 10-11%. What do they have in common? They both legislated against internet piracy in the previous year. There is no doubt whatsoever that anti-piracy laws have been clunky, unworkable, unfair and ineffectual in every country they’ve been introduced to. There is no doubt that half an hour’s web-searching will provide any user with a multitude of ways to circumvent the piracy detection process. People though, are people. We tend to know when the game is up. Even if we know we’ll get away with it, most of us don’t park on double-yellow lines. There’s a deeply-rooted tribal atavism in the human condition that accepts, somehow, that rules usually benefit the group. That the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Sweden and South Korea look like confirming that. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps they’ve all just had other things to do over the last year. Let’s not get into the filesharing debate, the rights and wrongs, the wronged parties, the shouting and the abuse. It’s not what this post is about. This post is about revolution, and whether or not we’re having one.

Why is it, that if we’ve all destroyed the hegemony of the major labels, and democratised the process of musicmaking, and toppled the historical might of the conservative dinosaurs that stifled creativity and fed us mass-marketed pap, that the biggest-selling act of the year will almost certainly be EMI’s well-loved beat combo, The Beatles? The Beatles are great, but they’re hardly new, hardly the embodiment of the zeitgeist, hardly fresh. But they are what the people who actually pay for music want to own. There’s a failure somewhere here – a failure in the public for wanting to pay for new music, a failure in musicians and labels in not making the public want to pay for new music. Why have we squandered the chance to make everything level and let music stand out and become successful (or, if you like, LUCRATIVE), merely on the basis that it moves people, that it is good? Why are the charts dominated by the products of multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and acts chosen for their sexual appeal, when virtuoso musicians have access to the same tools and outlets? The internet was supposed to have destroyed corporate money’s ability to dictate musical culture, it was supposed to bring about a new meritocracy. Why didn’t it?

Lady GaGa gets a lot of marketing budget. So do Take That. Is that why they sell a lot of records? No. Would Mil i Maria sell as many records as Take That if they got the same amount of marketing? No. What’s happening, is that we look at things the wrong way around, and blame the relative obscurity of small acts on the fact that the big acts get all the marketing budget. After all, in a market where anyone with a laptop can get an album onto a digital retail platform, visibility is the difference between success and ignominy, right? It’s hard not to labour the obvious point here, but it’s not really like that. Even for a huge megacorporation, a multi-million dollar marketing campaign doesn’t come easy. It’s not going to get squandered on an act that no-one’s going to like. Lady GaGa, Take That, Susan Boyle, Beyonce. That’s what people like. You can squirm and argue and deny all you like, but this stuff is what people want to buy. It does not matter if your favourite indie band sounds like the music at heaven’s gates. Unless it’s something that moves people to buy their records or buy their concert tickets, no amount of marketing effort thrown at it, no amount of destroying the hegemony of the major labels is going to make any difference.

We probably haven’t destroyed anything anyway. If anti-piracy legislation is having such a striking effect on music sales in Sweden and South Korea, there’s no reason why it won’t do so elsewhere. If that’s actually the case, and UK and US music consumers decide that they’d prefer pay for recorded music than take it for nothing, then the landscape changes again. If people are going to pay for music, surely the CD becomes a viable proposition again? Downloads are convenient and quick, but there’s an attractiveness to a CD – the cover art, the case, the small print on the back cover, the satisfying aesthetics of a wall stacked with visual proof that you are a discerning music lover, and that this is the music that moves you. There are arguments for and against both formats, my point is that relative economics of free versus paid may soon no longer be a significant one. Right now 90% of all music consumed is not paid for. Even if ten percent of that figure comes back to the domain of the paid product, we may have something worth getting excited about. Think about it for a moment. If a band can now make an album in a home studio for next to nothing, and get it onto their own website shop for next to nothing (even if they don’t want to learn how to make a commercial wordpress site, Bandcamp will do it all for a paltry 15% anyway), and puts that album on sale at , say, £7 a go, they only need to sell a few thousand to make a career from music. Everyone has different needs, but a lot of musicians would settle for £20 grand a year if it meant they could embrace music as their primary profession. Surely, surely, this would be a good thing? Three thousand albums sold per bandmember, it really doesn’t look that hard, but in a time when 90% of music is unpaid-for, it’s a gargantuan task. Not impossible, but one which depends upon the band becoming a brand, a cog in a marketing machine that demands more time and effort than making and playing music does. Take that aspect away, break the equation where all a band’s PR activity is focused on creating a 90:10 ratio of ownership:sales, then we might really start to see some interesting things.

The music is never going to be enough. The 21st century music consumer demands that a relationship be developed between themselves and the musician before anything even approaching a monetary transaction might be considered. This is the genius of X-Factor and it’s like. Rather than hope to sell music for it’s musical qualities, the talent shows instead uses music as a small, purchasable product associated with a sympathetic entity created in the public mind by the challenges of the show’s format. Advertisers and marketers have been learning this for decades: ‘sell the advantages, don’t sell the product’. Perfume commercials don’t try to interest their target audience in perfume, they try to interest their target audience in a lifestyle which includes prosperity, health, beauty, allure, and their perfume. Successful musicians have done the same for decades too, whether it was John Lennon’s cheeky quips to Eric Morecambe or Lady GaGa’s hats, musicians have long known that getting to the big money takes more than just having a good record, it depends upon creating a persona with which the buyer wants to associate themselves with, enough to part with cash to be reminded of that association. It exists in Music 2.0 too, more so than ever before.

But imagine if an act could make a record, and sell it just because it was good. Imagine if music was all the musicians had to worry about, and all the other stuff was unnecessary. Imagine if the bands who wanted to sell five million records still had to do all the hoop-jumping, wear the silly hats etc., but the ones who just wanted to be musicians only had to sell 3000 albums each. Not reach 300,000 people who wanted to own the music, just reach 3,000 people who wanted to buy the music. A decent band could do that just through gigs. They wouldn’t even need a Twitter account. That would be a revolution.

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