Monday, September 06, 2010

The Future of Music

Sparkomatic. Let the word sink in for a moment. Spark … O … Matic. If you were a working-class kid in the early 80s, this was the automotive radio/cassette deck of choice. Preferably with a Big Brute power booster (which seemed to make the muddy Sparkomatic sound like mud and shit) and whatever speakers you could afford. For Dad’s yellow Hornet station wagon, I made my own speaker cabinets with some bottom-of-the-line Pioneers and particle board Dad left in the basement. One of those still sits next to the coal bin. The damn thing looks like something they listened to The White Album on at Spahn Ranch back in the summer of ’69.

Sparkomatic is not the future of music. It wasn’t then. It was something you bought when you had just enough money to afford a system for your car, but this was still momentous, as you could make cassette copies of your vinyl albums and take them on the road with you. Eight tracks had been in vogue before this, but I recall very few people having eight-track tape recorders. One of Brother M’s friends did, and I recall the huge ordeal we went through just to have the guy make an eight-track copy of ELO’s Face the Music. Brother M had acted as if this guy had just mixed and produced the album himself. It took the guy 40 minutes. He probably made a copy for himself and got stoned the whole time!

It may not have been the future, but it represented a greater mobility and freedom of choice for the listener. Of course, you had to have the records and stereo at home (in my case, the similarly budget-priced Soundesign audio system) to first create your own mixes, but that was understood. A few years later, the Sony Walkman would roll in and change everything. I bought one almost immediately. I’ve read quite a few articles over the past few years regarding how isolated we’ve all become because of iPods and everyone listening to music on earphones in public. Shit. I’ve been doing this since the mid-80s. A lot of people have. It’s nothing new.

Why bring up Sparkomatic now? Because it occurred to me the other day that the state of the recording industry now would be like going back to the early 1980s and having Sparkomatic dictate to record companies how they should operate. All they did was supply consumers with a mode of listening – granted, a great one that allowed them to take their music with them. The concept would have been ludicrous.

We have the same today with Apple’s line of products, kicked off by the iPod and followed by a handful of devices that allow the consumer to take his music anywhere. But we also have iTunes? Steve Jobs himself has said it exists only to sell the devices. Same goes for the music he doesn't create or own: it exists only to sell the devices.

Let that sink in, too. The music exists only to sell the device it is played on. Go back in history again. Records existed only to sell record players? No. Record players existed so consumers could listen to great music at home. There has always been a culture of cool around great stereo systems, but it was just that. A cool thing to own, especially a higher end one. But it meant nothing without the music to play on it.

The same basic concept still holds true today, but Jobs has turned the world so upside down in terms of making the listening device the “cool” thing to own that it’s very hard to see this. And a lot of people don’t. The listening device has become more important than the music on it. Free downloading has done more than any other factors to decimate the recording industry in the past decade. There are many other lesser reasons: the industry humping hiphop into the ground by making it the driving financial force at least a decade past it’s sell-by date, price gouging, suing individual free downloaders at random, installing root kits on CDs without the artists' permission or fan's knowledge, outrageously priced live ticket prices with two-figure hidden fees, lopsided corporate structures that threw far too much money at top executives, refusal to help brick-and-mortar stores survive at the turn of the century (by not budging on list prices on physical product in the midst of a downloading revolution) … it’s a long list.

Suffice to say, the recording industry has treated its fans like shit for as long as I can remember. This was driven home to me as a kid in the 70s every time I went into chain record stores at the local malls. For every cool record store owner or employee, there were a dozen who were the worst sort of douchebags. Snotty, arrogant, acting as if they were the recording artists themselves (many were … in Foghat cover bands). Buying a record became a test of “guess the cashier’s moods and tastes” which was usually wrong as they’d smirk at your purchase no matter what it was. When I moved to the city in the 80s, I was introduced to the wonders of Tower Record employees, perhaps the kings of shithead record store employees in terms of their blithe lack of respect or concern for the customer. It seemed like they hired these people solely for whatever sub-genre of music their limited taste in clothing and hair styles represented. (But I have to say, Tower had some great employees mixed in with the shithead parade, not to mention some very cool people running small indie stores all over NYC.)

It may not have seemed like much – how can you blame an entire industry for lower-rung retail employees? But that same arrogance and disdain towards consumers that was so ingrained in the foot soldiers was common currency in every facet of the recording industry. They just didn’t give a shit about the people supporting them. But you know what I’ve learned as an adult? Every major industry is like this, and in some cases, as with oil, cable TV and real estate, displaying outright hostility towards the people helping them not just survive, but live like kings. It’s a system built on shit, and it will fail someday. Of course, I’m not sure what will happen when it does – life could grow much worse than what we know now – but that doesn’t make the lack of respect for the common consumer any more acceptable.

So, when the “music is free” revolution started going down in the late 90s, you better believe my sentiments at the time were “couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of pricks.” Of course, that was before I realized free downloading was going to crush the industry and threaten the ability of many recording artists to go on making music in any form. When the massive retail stores went down a few years ago – which was like an empire falling – followed shortly by the indie stores that were the heart of the industry, very few people seemed to recognize the huge blow this was. “Oh, the mode of consuming has simply changed, people are downloading from iTunes and buying the occasional physical product at Amazon or Best Buy.”

No. An entire generation of kids has been raised on the concept of free downloading all music being perfectly normal. Sure, there’s a sizable contingent of people still buying music legally, as downloads and physical product, but the numbers are so far below what the industry normally puts out, and not coming back, that it should be crystal clear that things have changed forever and will never be the same again. Video gaming has also usurped music listening in terms of cultural coolness with kids, and this is just bad news all around, as far as I’m concerned. You need to see a few kids who play these games for hours daily to grasp how warped and ultimately uncool this trend is. It’s a waste of time that makes a kid listening to his album through headphones for an hour or two (which I did routinely for years at the same age) seem profoundly productive in comparison.

So, in this climate where music has little to no monetary value with the next generation, yet a vast majority of them own some type of Apple product to play this value-less music on, you have to wonder where things will go from here. When you can download the entire catalog of Led Zeppelin or The Beatles in a few minutes for free, the acts of absorbing and growing with the music become negligible, and those two acts were what made the recording industry so powerful and lasting in its prime.

Thus, we have THE CLOUD. If you’ve been reading up on this topic lately, THE CLOUD will save us all. A lot of people are putting forth that Jobs annual unveiling of new products in September not including larger hard-drive iPods represents his understanding that THE CLOUD is just around the corner, and he no doubt has his fingers in that pie financially.

Simply stated, the cloud is music by subscription. You don’t own it in a traditional sense of having physical product or files on your hard drive. In the future, we are told, the consumer will pay a monthly fee to a service that allows him to stream any song at any time at any place. The cloud will include music officially sanctioned by both major and indie record companies for the consumer to listen to. (Right now, that means The Beatles would not be in the cloud as they’ve denied digital rights to their music.) There are countless bands that would not be in the cloud simply because they were on small indie labels pre-CD age that no longer exist. There are thousands of live tracks that fans have downloaded religiously over the past decade (where they once would have paid a small fortune to bootleggers …) that will not be officially sanctioned. And there are thousands of bootleg tracks out there, studio outtakes and such (think Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes) that will not be near any cloud. Much as we see certain channels dropped from cable companies due to rate disagreements, certain artists will surely pull their catalog from the cloud routinely when they dispute how much they should be getting reimbursed for renting out their music.

Barring all that, the cloud will contain a huge selection of music, no doubt about it. It will be yours, but you will not own it. If you stop paying your monthly subscription, your cloud will disappear, which could mean tens of thousands of tracks and playlists you’ve assembled over the course of years. Think about that. You’re 72 years old. Have a cloud that contains 50,000 tracks, and an intricate system of playlists that spans every genre of music known to mankind. You’re now on a fixed income , can barely afford the grocery bill at the senior citizen high rise, and something has to go: the cloud.

I’m looking that far ahead, because your average Facebook fuckhead carrying on about the beauty and inevitability of the cloud isn’t. I’m looking that far ahead because that’s what music fans do – we look to grow and move forward with our music collections, like greedy land barons snatching up every available piece of fertile ground we can find. It’s a good thing, to see an appreciation of music as some type of personal growth, because it is in a way. I can look back to the first singles I bought in the early 70s (Gilbert O’Sullivan, Elton John, etc.) and trace my development with the passing years and desire to learn more about music in general, particularly music outside my daily cultural reference points. To have something as banal as not making a monthly subscription payment completely wipe out what would literally be an empire of lifelong musical tastes carefully constructed over the course of decades?

It’s bullshit. That’s an extreme case, but it’s good to look at that extreme and understand just what renting music means on a long-term basis. Which is to say, something like the cloud would make sense to the casual fan, someone who listens to music intently through his teens and early 20s, or the adult who wants to hear “the oldies” from that time in his life, or have a tasteful collection to play at family gatherings and such. This is the bread and butter of the recording industry – where they surely make the bulk of their profits. Selling to kids buying the cool stuff now and adults looking backwards.

But right there is the problem. Kids now are either not interested in music as a cultural force … or they’d downloading it for free in massive numbers! Either way, there is no or limited financial value in trying to sell anything to them, much less the commitment of a subscription service. There are obviously some kids buying music, but they’re heavily outnumbered by those who aren’t.

And we’re going to sell a subscription service to these kids who are already swiping gigabyte upon gigabyte of music? No. They’re not going to buy. You will have a set audience for this, the kind of people who buy everything on iTunes, the Apple army and adults who don’t really care enough about music to own it (i.e., a lot of adults). Admittedly, this is a large cross section of people who could make this a viable option … but nothing, and I mean nothing, like the financial windfall the recording industry was in its prime. I have no problem with the cloud being another option, but knowing how fucked up the recording industry is now, and desperate, too, I can only hope they don’t fall for this line of reasoning, hook line and sinker. Obviously, this isn’t going to happen immediately, but again, I’m looking down the road.

Which is what has a lot of people thinking “cloud” when Steve Jobs doesn’t even mention the iPod Classic and only puts out product with smaller storage drives in this year’s annual unveiling of new product. He seems to be gearing his tastes towards boutique purchases, incredibly small iPods, the size of half dollars, that you just know are going to be hot sales items with all the kids. But that’s all. It worries me that the lifelong fan, the sort of person, like me, who could easily fill up a 160 GB iPod (I’m at 110 GB now and will have this thing filled up in another year or two … and this is sparingly putting on music, not throwing artists’ catalogs on there wholesale), are being viewed as non-entities in the future of music.

We are the future of music. Some kid buying a fucking iPod Shuffle is more than likely not the future. A decade from now, he’ll look at the cute little colorful thing in the drawer and think, “Yeah, man, that summer we saw MGMT at the shore, fuckin’ A, dude.” (Presumably, he'll then add some MGMT songs to his subscription service.) I have to believe your average consumer of products like this is not the future: the musical passion is not there. (As it wasn't for most kids I knew in high school who championed Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, etc., and their CD collection today represents a time capsule of all those bands and nary a whimper from any band that came into existence past 1985. Nothing wrong with this in my book, but just underlining the fact that kids glomming onto popular bands, while showing little or no desire to appreciate other kinds of music, represent a one-off sale, not long-term customers. Of course, the recording industry has been built on millions of one-off sales as opposed to thousands of long-term customers.)

The desire to sport a fashion accessory is the future. And, again, as noted upstream, music has become an accessory to a fashion accessory for far too many people, who have mistaken the vehicle for the driver. It’s a Catch 22: you can’t sustain an industry without creating a sense of passion and dedication that will carry a fan through decades of listening experience. Gadgetry does not create passion. It creates a love of gadgetry. Which has nothing to do with music. Unfortunately, the world we live in now, music needs the gadgets to survive.

I can’t fault Jobs too much. He’s simply responding to market demand. Sure, creating it, too, but he’s not going to be making product that no one wants to buy. I have to believe there will be a built-in market of hardcore music fans who will always buy a larger, hard-drive based player. (I would hope he’d shoot for a 250 or 320 GB player down the road.) Forget about just music, a lot of people would buy a larger-faced product to watch TV shows and movies that they own, too. I’m not against the concept of a subscription-based service for all these forms of media. I’m against the idea of that becoming the sole or leading way people consume these media.

The pain of it is, I could go out and buy a 500 GB Archos media player tomorrow if I wanted. But I recognize Apple as putting out superior product and having such a broad consumer base that there are any number of accessories being manufactured by other companies that make switching to Archos much less appealing. (For me, I’m speaking directly of iPod charger/speaker systems, which are fantastic – does Archos have anything like this for its players?) I like the iPod and have invested over 18,000 tracks into its system design at this point … transferring those files, and a few dozen heavily-detailed playlists, to another system at this point would be an enormous pain in the ass. But catching wind that Jobs may be gearing future efforts towards much smaller players in anticipation of THE CLOUD sits even worse with me.

What do record companies need to do? I’d say one thing only, if they are to survive. Invest heavily in companies that will challenge Apple’s market dominance in media players. Now’s the time. Because this company that does not create music has usurped the creative direction of companies that do create music. It’s not right. The universe is out of balance, much as it would have been in 1983 with Sparkomatic telling CBS and Warner Brothers how to market and distribute their music. The thought of that would have been laughable to the extreme at the time. The extremely laughable has become reality in 2010, save I can see only one person laughing, and that’s all the way to the bank.


Beatles Comment Guy said...

I've thought little about the business side of music and never really at all about the tech end. Perhaps this is because I was never enough of an audiophile to worry about stereo specs and such. I can remember guys from high school who cared more about their car stereo than they actually played on it. I spent much of jr high using a tape deck. This was more than a few years into the era when CD players had become the norm-and 95% of time, the left speaker would cut out.

Anyhow, in between watching 18-20 something year olds pretend they care about Spanish and French, I observe their musical direction. French rock sucks, incidentally. The best you can hope for is Téléphone, a Police knock off who managed to open for the Stones and Trust-a grimier/sleazier clone of AC/DC and Judas Priest with twist of anarchist politics. (Only the French could do these groups grimier and sleazier, never mind the syndicalist twist)
Worth checking out if you like new wave or late 70s/early 80s metal, at least. The ipod was a sort of status symbol that went from hot to have to "have or you're hopelessly out of step". What gets me is that the tech side of things has surpassed general musical taste, and oddly enough, on a device not noted for its audio capabilities. It was bad enough that music itself was always a "product", now even the playback and distribution has managed to be become even moreso.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Also, there is good French music aplenty; they just can't really do rock. Folk, pop, "art" music, etc, yes sir. But something about Rock does not mesh well with the French mindset and skills.

Andy S. said...

"Let that sink in, too. The music exists only to sell the device it is played on. Go back in history again. Records existed only to sell record players? No. Record players existed so consumers could listen to great music at home. There has always been a culture of cool around great stereo systems, but it was just that. A cool thing to own, especially a higher end one. But it meant nothing without the music to play on it."

Exactly. Because as much as I may have spent on my stereo system, I spent many times that much on records. Now, records, or more accurately, music files, are nothing more than promotional items designed to sell what used to be considered the ancillary stuff. It's all turned upside down.

I think the big reason for it has to do with the dominance of technology that's become the norm in every area of society. All the big businesses that used to run on personal skill and ingenuity now all run on technology. Most art forms now run on technology rather than personal talent or vision. Even the government runs that way, because it pretty much has no choice. So it's no surprise really that the music business, and music as an art form, would follow that path. And novels and literature are heading down the same road.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Andy S.-These things happen. The introduction of the printing press changed a lot of things. This, combined with an increase in literacy, helped to bring about the popularity of prose fiction. Prior to that, poetry had been the major form of literature. Novels sell more books than poetry does, even down to our day. On the other hand, I don't think portable readers will surpass books in the long term. Pure speculation on my part, but I think reading is tied more to attachment to the physical object than listening to music.

I was blown away by the popularity of the cell phone because they took a product that had existed far beyond living memory and sold people a modified version of the same. The ipod is an updated walkman wherein you can take a larger part of your collection with you. To me, it's even LESS innovative than the mobile phone. Frankly, I don't need my entire collection with me at all times.

But hey, we still have live performance, right? The industry side of things might price gouge you, but the business/distribution angle won't screw that up as much as musicians usually control their live sets. As for the rest of the issue, recall the George Carlin bit advising to be happy with what you still have because it's only going to get worse. I knew this when I realized people were talking more about the size/brand/style of their mp3 player than music itself.

Also, the ipod shuffle line of thinking means that the "whole album problem" may well be gone for singles artists. Why ought they bother to make 10 filler songs when the distribution network can simply make the same money with the 3 songs they care to promote? I believe the accountants call this "efficiency".