Monday, 27 August 2012

The Legacy of the "Greats" and the Legacy of Piracy

Hello kids, today we're going to talk about piracy (I apologise in advance, longpost is very long).

I know every fucker in the music industry has a mouthpiece on this shit, and I also know you're sick to death of hearing about it, but I came across an article in a national (free) newspaper the other day that pissed me off.

Above is a photograph taken from a large-scale exhibition that uses artists' own CDs to create a likeness of the artists, in domestic situations. The artists themselves, Mirco Pagano and Moreno de Turco were quoted in the article as saying that "Piracy infects and destroys music, preventing artists to succeed and become idols as in the past."

My fury is two-fold: piracy of music prevents no-one from succeeding let alone infecting and destroying music, and also this (frankly outdated) notion that to be successful in music you have to be some kind of mega-stadium-level superstar money-machine. We'll come to the latter later and deal with the former now.

This first notion that music piracy crushes the dreams and streams of many an artist/band is outright false. It's safe to assume that these "greats" and "mega-stars" were on a major label - after all, that's how this media used to get heard primarily, through these labels doing a massive amount of promo work and shoving it in the public's faces enough for it to be heard, correct? If you look at the slice of record sales that the average record deal gave a musician, it's tiny. It's usually less than 5%, after the production costs, the advance, the A&R, the PR, the management, and the general profit is taken out, it's a tiny, tiny amount. Now, that usually goes towards just the people who made the album, not the individual. Then from there you've to pay performance artists and writers, producers etc (unless they were paid as part of a one-off from the advance) so that tiny slice gets shared once more again. Piracy just means that there's less of what is pretty much a pittance going around, and the ones who suffer most are major record labels (and who really cares about them, but more on this later).

It's long been known that an artists' largest revenue stream is from touring. Does piracy affect an artist, signed to a major (or major-ish) record label, in terms of touring? Generally not - usually their management will take take care of this side of things, and even the most basic of torrent sites have statistics on how many times something has been downloaded (you can tell from the amount of people seeding it and leeching it). So again, you can calculate your venue size almost as well as you could without piracy. It's slightly more of a gamble, but generally you know what you're doing.

But what about an up-and-coming artist with an indie backing and no management? This is the real concerning battle ground. Indie labels take much less money from record sales, and therefore the artist tends to get more of the sales revenue, so piracy would be a bit of a kick in the proverbial balls for an up-and-coming artist. On the other hand, paradoxically, a lot of up-and-coming artists are quite flattered if their work gets pirated, because it means they're liked and their work is good enough for someone to attempt to search for it around paywalls. Furthermore, altruism starts coming into effect at this level. Although rare, some people will choose to effectively donate their money to the artist after listening to and enjoying the album. Personally, as a bit of a technology-loving future-hippie, I think this model should be encouraged. It's satisfying to know that your work is not only good enough to buy, but to donate to even if someone already has it.

Anyway, I digress. The real money AGAIN is in touring. Can you still gauge, in this day and age, through an indie label/going independent, the size of your audience even if your album has been leaked/pirated?

The simple answer is no. At least, not safely. And not solely.

But this is why digital music, and the realm of the future greats is now spread across several devices. For better or worse (read: better) piracy is here and it's changed things. These days an artist has to have a presence over data-rich streaming sites such as soundcloud and bandcamp if they accurately want to gauge the size of their audience and tour efficiently enough to get money out of it and start building a reputation. And even then, it's risky, but it negates the main problems with piracy and money can, and will, still be made. I certainly wouldn't say that piracy is killing music. In fact, it's making a lot more music more widely available, which increases the amount of different breeding grounds there are, technically (though not necessarily) increasing the amount of interesting acts and artists out there.

In fact piracy of music software has broken down boundaries even further. Not only can people hear and experience a wider range of inspirational existing music, but now musical creation has become more widely available. The creation of music is no longer the preserve of the rich. And yes, before you moan, in many ways previously it has been a class issue. Again, though, I digress, and this argument is for another time.

So onto my second point.

The notion of music needing idols is, I think, a bit false. I have no doubt that we'll make them, though - the digital age has already given us several artists that people put on a pedestal, including Lady Gaga and Burial. But I don't think it's necessarily something we should be aiming and hoping for, as consumers, or as people involved in making music.

Putting musicians on a plinth to be worshipped by the "unwashed masses" I believe is massively condescending. For a start it means in some respect putting all talent and skill in an unreachable place, beyond people, which discourages the making of art by all except the dim or the ballsy, because to be frank, they're the only people who would choose to enter into such an artistic endeavour with those glaring god-figures looking down and figuratively pissing on your attempts at a bonfire. It's hardly sympathetic to growing a culture of varied types of art, is it now?

And this is one of many reasons I really appreciate how piracy has changed the face of musical culture (along with the internet in general, of course): it has forced musicians to stop the whole rock 'n' roll, "untouchable", get-the-fuck-away-from-me attitude that beleaguered "legends" for some time, and encouraged artists to interact with their fans. This not only creates entirely new platforms for interaction other than just through audio (more on THAT later too), but has also de-fangs and de-mystifies these people, which then decreases the amount of "artist anxiety" someone faces when looking to create.

My biggest gripe with the whole "legends" argument, however, is that there needs to be some form of monopoly on 1) record sales, and 2) the public consciousness in terms of music. The second point, I fear, is the impulse of monoculture - that same impulse that abhorred subcultures in times past (which is slowly also being eroded, thankfully - be who you want! choose your friends! etc. - another wondrous example of what technology can bring you). Either way the suggestion is that, the way musical culture has been headed for the past few years is utterly wrong. That you shouldn't have your specific tastes catered for by a small number of musicians who either work for a hobby with a few bonus bits of cash, or otherwise work for a modest living through touring and recording with only occasional holidays. Granted, musical culture and money are in a strange state of flux at the moment, but the trends have been leaning towards a more aware, more (arguably) moral state of business: that you pay for what you enjoy so that these musicians - who generally tend to be very thankful - get if not all the cash you gave them, then at least a fairly sizeable chunk. The key element is that it doesn't generally go to some massive faceless business that will throw pocket change at the artists and keep the rest.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: fuck your idols, forget the horrid "traditional" view of record labels and SUPPORT YOUR (LOCAL?) ARTISTS.

As a reward for sticking with me this far, here's a musical treat from a dear friend (it dropped last week and I'm finding it hard to listen to much else):

Monday, 13 August 2012

Music History Lesson for the Digital Age 2.0

Fresh thoughts fermented from the blackened pool of rotting ideas and information that live in my brain.

I'm entirely obsessed with patterns. Human beings are good at patterns, but filtering out the inefficient ones and seeing working patterns is the sign of true human intelligence. Science exists to accurately predict and measure mechanisms which can be, to all intents and purposes, abstracted to the level of patterns. Examples are notable in Nobel prize winners. Einstein defined that energy and matter are the same thing - he discovered that pattern and expressed it elegantly. Ditto DNA. Ditto evolution.
Patterns, right?
My biggest hobby in life is to spot patterns in history - musical and social to be precise. Someone pointed out to me today that the rap game appears to have finally changed. Instead of vivid dreams of ice ‘n’ asses, there is more meaning in the music. He pointed to Lil B in particular. It’s worth quoting in full:
“As I listen to the new Lil B, it’s become clear that the rap game is finally changing. He’s not the greatest rapper by far and wouldn’t last a second in cypher (old school rules) but the cypher has changed. It’s not on the street, it’s on the internet and if you have substance of some kind that resonates, you’re the hot one. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for people to stop eating the bullshit ice fantasies.” - John Michael Garcia of CREEPING WAVE 
He’s got a point. But like I always contest - this has happened before. It’s taken roughly 25-30 years to get to this point in what could be termed the modern era of hip-hop. Obviously there’s not a clear cut-off - there never is with these things - but we’ll put the timeline there for arguments’ sake.
The same thing happened in rock music. For convenience we’ll put the timeline at about 1952 - basically when Rock began to move away from Skiffle and Blues and become a distinct art form. The basic rock song was always about dancing, getting in with the girls, fast cars drinking, and later on drugs. Outsiders that were popular generally remarked upon social issues too. Roughly the same pattern as hip-hop - you had radicals writing protest songs but they were usually ghetto-ised and singular characters. These groups and individuals were frowned upon in their own community for becoming “serious” when their youthful music was about getting teens to have a good time - right?
(Bear with me - it’s going somewhere, honest)
Instead of being completely static, people always wanted MORE. Bigger tours, bigger stage shows, bigger songs, bigger concepts. Big. Aspirational. larger than life. Lots of people would argue that these ebbs and flows had more to do with sexuality and economics than anything to do with musical culture - largely because those people don’t understand musical culture in the least. People involved in music scenes get bored - this is rule number one of being involved in making music. The people in the rock scene got bored with three chords and songs about rockin’ around the clock, or Californian girls etc.
Enter David Bowie and Black Sabbath - bizarrely around the same time. Sabbath came in with big fucking slabs of guitar noise and scary imagery. Bowie came with visions of space and the future as predicted by George Orwell - bigger concepts than those of gettin’ drunk ‘n’ gettin’ laid, right?
Move further down the line - prog rock, EVEN BIGGER. EVERYTHING HAD TO BE BIG WITH POINTY HATS, ALL THE INSTRUMENTS IN THE WORLD AND DRAGONS! Decadence of the highest order - from concept to full-blown fantasy.
Then punk appeared. 3 chords and the truth. Outsiders. Back to the old days. Only not - it was all still massively external. This is where post-punk really outshines to this day, roughly 25-30 years on from the start of the modern era of rock. 
Post-punk/goth/new wave/new romantics/industrialists/whatever came along. They made it OK to write about personal shit - shit inside your head. None of this going out and stuff. Freudian music about battles of the psyche, about things that bother them, not that they SHOULD bother anyone else (John Lennon I’m looking at you).
This is roughly - give or take a few memes - what has happened with hip-hop and rap. Early days took wrote about social issues (generally outsider groups) but also about getting fucked up. The latter quickly became the most prominent until bitches and cash and dissin’ and cussin’ etc really was the soup of the day for most rap artists. More and more it’s been OK to rap about personal fucked up shit about what’s inside your head.

Everything goes from external to internal expression content within music (and from sparsity to decadence to a violent reaction against decadence and back again). Take any period, any genre, any fucking YEAR and I you can see this pattern manifest in a scene, regardless of economic wellbeing of a scene and the gender issues of the day. Everything begins with posturing and moves on to personalisation.
Any problems with the above, let me know. Or questions (I have an “ask me” button for a reason). I will kindly provide several more examples in depth.
PS. Next time we’re gonna talk about styles and melting pots in music. Or the death of the CD (since it’s pretty plain that vinyl is now here to stay and no-one thinks a CD is pretty).
PPS. Honestly this could’ve been better I just got bored towards the end.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Music History Lesson for the Digital Age 1.0 (recycled post from elsewhere)

Fresh thoughts fermented from the blackened pool of rotting ideas and information that live in my brain.

This is going to seem ramble-y but I swear it goes somewhere so just bear with me. 
So I was talking to a ‘net friend today, im passim, about the state of digital culture and in particular listening preferences when it comes to muzak. He was saying how the album had become passe and that he now preferred to listen to music in singular form for the most part anyway.
Not many people know this: I am an analogue freak. I love the pops and crackles of my very early home stereo, 1969 model Dansette-style record player, and the masses of vinyl I have picked and rooted and smelled around for, the long hours of research as to which version it was best to get etc. - vinyl freaks will know what I mean. And thus I found myself in the familiar position of defending the album, with all the familiar remarks of purity of vision, the experience to be treasured over a longer time period, the comfortability and completeness of inter- and meta-textual reference usually included within albums of a certain nature.
And then I realised the growing fear of digital culture that has begun amongst audiophiles of a certain bent: OH NOES! DA BIG MEAN BITZ IZ GONNA DESTROY QUALITY CONTROL! WHARR IS DA PHYSICALITY ANDSENSUALITY OV HOLDIN’ DA FING!… 
But this is an unnecessary fear. This has happened before. People taking these same stances, crowded over different technology, different methods of musical dissemination. At least three times to my musical history memory have the musical “purists” descended on new technologies.
The first came around the time of the first printing presses, circa 1800 when the middle classes were able to afford sheet music, and composers began adopting a new employment system (pioneered by Mozart, in which composers were now no longer employed by persons of official - mostly royal or ecclesiastical - position, but instead employed on a piece-by-piece basis or fuelled - as Beethoven mostly was - by a patronage scheme). These changes meant that music was not only largely secular (pre-1650 it was mostly not), but also widely-available to a burgeoning middle class. This led to the fear the music would devolve into a serious of short (meaning cheap: less paper to use) secular pieces, composed for the home with little or no musical expression, progression, or vision. Sound familiar?
The same again appears when we take a look at the early 20th century. The invention of the phonograph again made people terrified that music would be condensed into easy-to-swallow short loads. An injection of speed into the veins of public that craved ever more pop and crackle to their music. This coincident with the ascent of Jazz and Blues - a double pronged attack on the “supremacy” of “high art” and longer forms. 
And again, repeat picture with radio and the 3-minute pop song. Rock and roll. The Moog. The DX7. Tapes. The sequencer. Computers. Audio software. And now .mp3’s, .flac, and the deadliest of all - streaming music.

The thing is - people find a way to make everything complex after a certain period of ubiquity. The chorus of the choir became augmented with instruments and, eventually lost the voice altogether. This was chamber music, which expanded to become the symphony. The symphony was then again augmented with voice and became the opera. Which became a total entity and became Wagner’s “total art work”. Then came Jazz, with longer and longer improvs, til we hit Charlie Parker with entire hour-long shows dedicated to one jazz header. Then we hit rock and roll, resent, until the Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” closely followed by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Longform albums. Complexity.
Now you have mixtapes. The art of using interconnecting strings to link from one bit of appropriated or changed music to another. Mater Suspiria Vision’s “Zombie Rave” mixtapes are the next step towards totally original streaming mixtape-type albums or interconnected material. 
And the thing is this: there is always an audience for complexity - people always want more. More of the same, more different, juxtaposition, new contexts, more inter/intra/metacontexts. More content.
It’s what human’s do. It’s why we’re never happy. It’s how we’re still here. Whatever new technologies are on the horizon there will always emerge complexity, as well as simplicity. Two modes that will coexist, not necessarily harmoniously, but indifferently.
So there’s nothing to fear, really.