Stereolab at Melbourne Zoo

There was a recent newspaper article about the number of older rock stars having to cancel tour dates due to ill health, injury and just plain old age. The irony is that when most of those performers started out as professional musicians, no-one really expected their careers to last 10 or 15 years, let alone 40 or even 50 years. Now that artists increasingly rely on income from ticket sales (rather than royalties from streaming services), there could be lean times ahead for ageing rockers – and that’s before we take the effects of COVID-19 into account. Thankfully, Stereolab were able to play at Melbourne Zoo last week, before cancelling the rest of their Asia Pacific concerts due to the virus. Of course, by comparison to much of rock’s gnarly royalty, they are mere babes, having “only” formed in 1990. And although they have not released any new material for 10 years, during which time the band has been on hiatus, Stereolab have an extensive back catalogue to draw upon now they have started touring again.

Alongside contemporaries Saint Etienne, Stereolab were part of a reaction against late-80s grunge and acid house, and between them they ushered in a return to more interesting melodic and harmonic structures, vintage/retro sounds and complex textures, all informed by an aesthetic that embraces electronica, exotica, soundtracks, bossa nova and dub effects. In fact, both bands have collaborated with similar post-rock artists on each side of the Atlantic such as Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise, Mouse on Mars and To Rococo Rot, not to mention The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan. (Both bands also have extensive back catalogues, with frequent non-album, one-off, limited and rare 7″ singles scattered throughout their discographies.)

By going back on the road after such a long break (and with no new material to promote), there was a risk that Stereolab might simply be going through the motions – even coming across as their own tribute act at best, a self-parody at worst. Thankfully, despite the familiarity of the songs, the band managed to keep everything sounding fresh, energetic and full of enthusiasm. And despite maintaining that original aesthetic, Stereolab have enough variety to remain interesting and avoid sounding samey – which has no doubt helped with their own longevity, unlike many contemporary artists who will likely be forgotten quicker than a Crazy Frog ringtone.

Next week: Margaret Tan and Dragon Ladies Don’t Weep

 

 

 

The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

I was browsing in one of the last remaining record stores in Melbourne’s CBD last week, flipping through the secondhand racks for independent vinyl releases of the 70s and 80s. (I was in search of some sounds of the Paisley Underground, if anyone is interested.) The shop owner, who also runs a record label, lamented that there are a whole bunch of out-of-print recordings of that era that he wants to license for reissue in physical format – but in many cases, the rights have since been acquired by major record companies that have no interest in re-releasing this material themselves. Yet, when approached for permission, oftentimes they ask for prohibitive licensing fees, making the venture uneconomic.

The sound of the Paisley Underground (on vinyl, of course) – Image sourced from Discogs.com

The irony is, most times the major labels have no idea what they have in their back catalogues, because the content they own has been scooped up through corporate mergers or is still managed via a series of archaic territorial licensing and distribution deals based on antiquated geo-blocking practices. Plus, understandably, they are usually more interested in flogging their latest product than curating their past.

There’s nothing wrong with content owners wanting to charge licensing fees, but surely they need to be commensurate with the likely rate of return for the licensee (we’re usually talking about a small circulation among enthusiasts, after all). Plus, the original production costs have either been written off, or amortized on the books – so, given there is little to no new cost to the content owner, ANY additional revenue stream would surely be welcome, however modest?

But what about streaming and downloads? Surely all this back catalogue content is available from your nearest digital music platform of choice? Well, actually no. In many cases, “out-of-print” also means “out-of-circulation”. And even if back content is available to stream or download, the aforementioned geo-blocking can mean that rights owners in certain markets may choose not to make the content available in specific countries. (I’ve even had the experience where content I have purchased and downloaded from iTunes Australia is no longer available – probably because the rights have subsequently been acquired by a local distributor who has elected to withdraw it from circulation.)

Of course, copyrights eventually expire or lapse, and unless renewed or otherwise maintained, usually fall into the public domain (but not for many years…..). Again, nothing wrong with affording copyright owners the commercial and financial benefits of their IP. But, should content owners be allowed to sit on their assets, and do nothing with their IP, despite the willingness of potential licensees to generate additional income for them?

In a previous blog, I ventured the idea of a “use it or lose it” concept. This would enable prospective licensees to re-issue content, in return for an appropriate royalty fee or share of revenues, where the copyright owners (and/or their labels, publishers and distributors) no longer make it available – either in certain markets and territories, or in specific formats. To mitigate potential copyright exploitation, copyright owners would be given the opportunity to explain why they have chosen to withhold or withdraw material that had previously been commercially available. There could also be an independent adjudicator to assess these explanations, and to help set an appropriate level of licensing fees and/or royalties.

Meanwhile, on-line sites like Discogs.com provide a welcome marketplace for out-of-print back catalogue!

Next week: Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will streaming kill the music industry?

The resurgence in vinyl sales is certainly not enough to save the music business. But will streaming finally cook the goose that once laid Gold Discs?

statistic_id273308_music-album-sales-in-the-us-2007-2014

US album sales (in all formats) are in decline. (Source:  Statista)

What can we learn from the music industry based on the apparent rebound of vinyl sales in recent years? Is streaming doing enough to halt the decline in total music revenue? Will CD’s soon disappear altogether? What future for LPs in a world of “Album Equivalent Sales”, “Track Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums”?

Are there parallels here with other content, publishing or entertainment sectors?

Back to Black

Last month the 8th annual Record Store Day was launched with a fanfare of upbeat data for vinyl sales. It was a good news story in an otherwise depressing saga of declining album sales, stagnating revenues, and mixed messages about the impact of digital downloads and streaming services on the music industry.

Coming off a very low base (like, near-extinction levels), the extraordinary sales growth of vinyl (especially in Australia) can be attributed to a combination of factors, although it is difficult to see how any single trend is responsible for this growth:

  • The growing popularity of Record Store Day itself (although it’s not without its problems – see below)
  • Baby boomers buying their record collections all over again
  • Hipster interest in analogue technology
  • Record labels mining their back catalogues
  • Niche market interest among audiophiles, collectors and the cool kids
  • New approaches to packaging vinyl with downloads and other bonus content
  • DJ culture
  • Secondary markets via E-bay and Discogs
  • Retailing switching from megastores to specialist shops

Infographic: Vinyl Comes Back From Near-Extinction (Source: Statista)

Where Is The Money Coming From?

Latest industry data suggests that digital sales (downloads and streaming) are now on a par with physical sales (CD, vinyl and the rest). Overall revenue has stabilised, having fallen from a peak in 1999. And streaming services are enjoying huge growth.

But the true picture is harder to establish:

First, while the IFPI provides global aggregated data, each local industry body (RIAA, BPI, ARIA etc.) likes to tell a different story from its national perspective. So it’s difficult to compare like with like. (For example, while Taylor Swift is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, she does not figure at all in the BPI data for 2014…..) One brave soul has tried to compile data for the past 20 years.

Second, because of the changes in distribution and consumption, music sales have to be counted in different ways:

  • Wholesale revenue vs retail sales
  • Physical sales vs digital sales
  • Per unit download sales vs streaming equivalents
  • Product revenues (e.g., album sales) vs licensing revenues (e.g., soundtracks)
  • Subscription fees (e.g., Spotify) vs per download revenue (e.g., iTunes)
  • Advertising income from video streaming vs royalties from broadcasting and soundtracks

Third, when more and more music is accessed via video platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, and Vevo, streaming platforms like Spotify, Pandora and Omny, or apps such as Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud and Shazam, “sales” data starts to become less and less relevant. (And some people are still hanging on to the ailing MySpace platform….).

The bottom line is that despite the growth in streaming services, digital sales (in whatever format or media) are not yet enough to compensate for the continued decline in album sales in particular, and music overall:

The peak era of CD sales is over. (Source: Talking New Media)

Record Store Day Woes

The success of Record Store Day has divided opinion as to whether it is actually a “good thing” for the industry. It started as a campaign by independent record labels, distributors and retailers to revive the habit of buying records in-store. Labels produce limited edition and often highly collectible items for the occasion, and there are rules as to how, when and where these releases can be made available to the public.

At first, it really was driven by the independent labels, many of whom brought out interesting product that otherwise wasn’t available, such as label samplers, unreleased material and one-off artist collaborations.

Now, the major labels have jumped on board, meaning the market is flooded with unnecessary re-releases (do we really need Bruce Springsteen‘s ’70s and ’80s albums reissued on vinyl?) drawn from their extensive back catalogues (no need to pay for recording costs or new artwork!).

This means that smaller labels who release new vinyl records on a regular basis (not just once a year) get bumped from the production line, as the major labels exert their purchasing power over the pressing plants.

In addition, some Record Store Day releases are so badly distributed that stores are unlikely to take delivery of the items in time for the event. Or bad decisions lead to over-supply of certain items, which end up in the bargain bins (major labels again especially guilty of this offence).

Some store owners appear reluctant to participate because they feel embarrassed about the prices they may have to charge for many of the limited releases, which get bought by speculative customers, rather than collectors, fans and enthusiasts – a fact borne out by the immediate listings and inflated prices on E-Bay and Discogs….

As one store owner I talked to commented: “Every day should be record store day…”

What Else Does The Data Reveal?

For all the new young pop stars that the industry keeps churning out, there’s nothing like longevity and back catalogue to prop up the sales numbers. For example, Barbara Streisand was in the Top 10 for US album sales (and with new material!), and the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Bob Marley and Oasis feature in the top-selling vinyl records. Will Record Store Day 2025 herald the vinyl release of Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent “demos”?

The decline of album sales has been particularly steep in the genres of Hip-Hop and R&B, while rock and pop continue to dominate the market. Some industry commentators have suggested that music sales are merely “in transition” as consumers switch from buying CD’s and downloading music to subscribing to streaming services. Meanwhile, in the US, country music’s #4 position by overall consumption reflects substantial album sales, as streaming is still a small component for the genre.

And those vinyl sales numbers? They’re simply a blip on the chart and largely driven by avid fans willing to shell out for deluxe editions….

The future is streaming?

Apple and others certainly believe (or hope) that streaming will save the music industry. Having demolished the market for CDs, iTunes is in a battle for its own survival among competing streaming services, where Apple itself is about to lead the charge having acquired the Beats platform.

But others are not so sure, predicting that streaming is already in decline, along with download sales:

First, the streaming platforms are yet to make a profit. Part of this is due to the cost of content that has to be licensed from the record labels and artists. Part is also due to the cost of acquiring customers, even if this can be done via social media, because the decline in music buying has been so abrupt, so the industry may be permanently damaged that streaming cannot bring back paying customers.

Second, even though streaming may overtake downloads by next year, there’s still nothing certain that teen pop fans (the target audience) will pay $7.99 – $9.99 per month to listen to music via so-called “freemium” services. Evidence suggests that consumers are happy with the free services, even if they have to put up with ads.

Third, while I agree that the freemium model is a fixture in the digital economy, the problem with Spotify et al is that they are not growing the market for music, but simply cannibalising it by displacing existing platforms (commercial radio, digital downloads, physical sales), while being tied to third-party distribution channels (the internet) and devices (smart phones, tablets and computers).

Anyway, subscription-based music streaming is nothing new, and was first launched over 100 years ago (and thanks to Mark Brend’s “The Sound of Tomorrow”, I learned that Mark Twain was the first subscriber).

If the “old” record companies are charging streaming services too much to license their content, then the streaming services should just find other sources – there’s plenty out there – but then, just like the major record labels, they are not really interested in music, only in shifting product and promoting “artists” (even if they are still figuring out how to make digital pay). The record labels don’t help themselves with their reliance on back catalogue, and their archaic territorial licensing practices either – forcing customers to circumvent geo-blocking barriers (legally or otherwise…).

Unfortunately, file sharing, illegal downloads and “free” streaming have meant customers don’t feel compelled to pay for digital music content. Personally, I prefer to curate my own listening, and not let someone else dictate what I hear, even if the service “knows” my preferences…

And the moral of the story is…?

More distribution platforms, more formats and more content may not be enough to save ailing industries, whether it’s music or television, newspapers or movies. These businesses will have to learn to live with lower margins and/or smaller market shares. The quality of a home-made movie uploaded onto YouTube may not be anywhere near that of a Hollywood blockbuster, but if cat videos are what grab punters’ attention (and by default, pull in the advertisers), the studios may have to find alternative strategies. And if music fans prefer to use free streaming services, the industry has to do a better job of producing content that consumers may be willing to pay for.

Ironically, in publishing, one sector that has been written off ever since the arrival of CD-ROM’s and the internet, teen consumers are still happily buying and reading print editions, alongside e-books. More so than other content industries, publishing has rapidly adapted to the new user-defined model: aspiring authors find it easier to self-publish (e.g., via Tablo and dedicated crowdfunding platforms such as Pubslush and Unbound); they can easily connect with an audience (especially in the realm of fan fiction); and a platform like Wattpad allows writers to test material before they commit to formal publication, and lets readers vote for what they’d like to read more of.

Next week: Making connections between founders and investors