Monday, June 09, 2014

Last Of The Summer Whine about digital music

Obviously, I should talk, but I was interested to see three old gimmers weighing in this week on the subject of the harmful effects of free content.

The splendid Van Dyke Parks started with a piece in the Daily Beast about how he'd recently written a song with Ringo Starr. In the past, he argues, this would have bought him a house and a pool. These days the streaming revenues would barely buy lunch.

This led to a piece by David Carr, venerable media editor of the New York Times, noting that digital downloads, which had been growing steadily for the last few years, are now declining and therefore the future of music appears to be in having access to music rather than owning it, which is unlikely to increase its market value.

This in turn led to a rant by music business opinion-monger Bob Lefsetz which pointed out, among other things, that the only people who seemed to be bothered about this state of affairs were old farts who wished things could go back to the way they were.

With the greatest of respect to all three, I would like to make three points. To Van Dyke Parks I would say, don't you think it's remarkable that a musician like yourself has maintained a profile and a career for almost fifty years - and have you ever checked which of your school friends can say the same?

To David Carr I would say, if you value certain music that much and appreciate Spotify for giving you access to it, do you not think it's worth paying for the premium service in order to help those people make it?

To Bob Lefsetz I would say, I think you're more right than wrong.


  1. Pop music is moving towards becoming a kind of 'bespoke folk music'. Where once in the 19th and into the early 20th Century - just long enough for song collectors to capture a great deal of the traditional songs of the British isles before the oral tradition died out - individuals and communities would preserve bits of a shared repertoire and sing them in family or community events, with no transactional activity, now we have individuals singing songs they have written and giving away electronic copies of said songs in no-cover-charge pub events and online.

    It's become a hobby again, for people who inevitably have to make their living doing other things.

    I wonder will the 21st century equivalents of Seamus Ennis, Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson be scouring the land in 50 years time hoping to find some elderly people who once wrote some pop songs and might still remember them?

  2. Pat Poynton10:15 pm

    agree with every word, David. Music's going somewhere , we have no idea where yet. I get my music from Spotify (premium, no ads), BBC radio player and the odd CD every now and then. And I'm 63. who knows where my grandchildren will get theirs from?

  3. Another take from the intellectual giffer Eno....

    'I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time..."

    "It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you'd be stuck with your whale blubber."

    "Sorry mate – history's moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.

  4. Anonymous1:44 pm

    Obviously Van Dyke Parks hasn't been house-and-pool shopping in a while if he thinks he should be able to afford one off a song written with dear old Ringo.

    @ Colin: Surely the good news about the digital age - as opposed to the "bad" news that the industry can't force us to fork over our money for its old rope - is that all this stuff is being saved forever in ones and zeroes. True, there's a million bedroom recording artistes struggling to gain ears, but they'd have to be particularly stroppy or disorganised not to save their work, even if it's only ever burned to disc as a keepsake for relatives.

  5. You're right Gaz - music as a hobby is great fun, and I'm all for people recording things and sharing them around, especially if they delight a handful of others. I've made a few recordings when the muse has struck and it's rewarding to simply just do that - though I've often been amazed at PRS (well, IMRO - Irish equivalent) royalties occasionally: often several hundred pounds from airplay for recordings which have sold maybe half a dozen copies through a very small run being available via CDBaby. Funny old world.

    The internet is tremendous as a free-access historical resource - and musical history is my thing. The unfortunate thing is historical recordings owned by commercial organisations (labels/broadcasters) which have not yet entered publicly accessible space - been released - for such things to then become available online. It's increasingly difficult to find a viable way for locked-up goodies to be made available because the commercial release market is shrinking (and also because, with only three major labels left, there is a massive logjam of specialist label licensing requests waiting to be answered - often by literally one or two people employed as gatekeepers of a VAST amount of commercially recorded music.)

    Eno's analogy with whale blubber wealth is a good one. There are still Brits alive who made a living as whalers (a doc on BBC 4 on the subject this week, I believe). We probably view such people with a mixture of quaint bafflement and disgust. Maybe in 50 years people will view those who were late 20th Century professional recording artistes with similar bafflement - though hopefully not disgust. (Although given the 1970s Light Entertainment scandals of late, who can be sure...)