Why can’t we work out a technological solution for music distribution?

In February 1983 Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, the Parisian archaeologists surveying the renowned cave pantings of the Pyrenéan Ariège, faced a conundrum. Some of the famous artworks appeared in otherwise insignificant side passages — surely our ancestors would want to decorate the larger, grander spaces?

As they surveyed the site, Reznikoff would hum to himself out of habit and, he later claimed, to ‘feel’ how each chamber sounded. In one cave in particular (Le Portel), his humming echoed noticeably, leading him to propose an experiment. The pair whistled and sang their way through the cave systems, building a ‘resonance map’ as they went. To their amazement most cave paintings were very close — to within a metre — of the most sonorous zones of the caves. Indeed, some ‘paintings’ were little more than markers, red dots indicating resonant areas of the cave system. More profoundly, some spaces only worked with singing, or with higher or deeper instruments.

In other words, our forebears of 14,000 years ago chose particular spaces for particular types of music-led ritual. “For the first time, it has been possible to penetrate into the musical world of Palaeolithic populations,” the pair surmised. Wrote Professor Steven Errede at the University of Illinois, “Perhaps these occasions were the world’s first ‘rock’ concerts – singing and playing musical instruments inside of a gigantic, complex, multiply-connected organ pipe, exciting complex resonances and echoes as they sang and played!” The capability to create music, to sing, to dance is part of what it means to be human — Darwin himself suggested our musical abilities, shared with animals and birds, emerged before our use of language. Like birds, our abilities to create and to perform music are inherent to our very existence. About 500 years ago however, something changed.

At roughly the same time as Gutenberg was designing his printing press, in the late 1600s luthier Antonio Stradivari worked out techniques to apply varnish to wood, enabling it to hold a note better, and Bach experimented with the ‘well-tempered’ clavier, tuned such that a majority of notes were mathematically aligned (meaning most scales could be played without any ‘off’ notes). Coupled with the reproduction of musical notation (thank you Gutenberg), the notion of distribution was introduced into the arts. Suddenly it became possible for one person to write a piece of music, which someone else could then print, and a third could perform without the whole thing needing to be written out by hand.

Not coincidentally, it was only shortly after, in 1709 that the Statute of Anne first enshrined the notion of copyright into law. A hundred years later, in the post-Napoleonic, heady musical times of Chopin, Liszt and Paganini, book and music publishing was already big business (as was illegal copying of scores). Only a matter of decades passed before sound recording devices, the first (from the fantastically named Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville) captured a garbled version of Claire De La Lune. Another Frenchman, Louis Le Prince made the world’s first film in October 1888, sixty-odd years after his compatriot Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the world’s first photograph. Quite why the French had such deep involvement in such world-changing technological creations is unclear; but in doing so they spawned a global empire of industries based on the business of making art and then getting paid for it.

The irony was (and remains) that across the ages, only the luckier performers have become rich on their creations.  In days of yore, if you had not achieved notoriety for your works you looked for a rich patron who would support you, or for the state to support you. The advent of technology (in the form of pressing discs) did not change things much: according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts, median earnings in the for US musicians were a paltry $2,958 in 1969, rising to $5,561 in 1979 and $9,900 in 1989. A 1980 artists employment survey found that, “of those with second jobs in 1980… over a fourth of musicians were in sales, clerical or service jobs — jobs with a history of low pay and benefits.”

The desire to break out of this beatnik existence was, and is still, compelling for artists, but also focused the minds of the industry. “The earnings of the highest paid members of the professions, perhaps ‘superstars,’ increased faster than earnings of the profession as a whole,” continues the report, illustrating a mathematical reality: that a very small number of artists earned the lion’s share of the reward. Given the fact that music sales were stagnating (wrote Pekka Gronow in 1983, “Perhaps records, as a mass medium, have now reached the saturation point.”), catalysed by the rise of home taping, each label felt it had little choice than to remove all but the most profitable bands and musicians from the rosters. Not-successful-enough bands such as Pure Reason Revolution, culled by Sony/BMG in 2006, were simply removed from the rosters.

These two factors — that humanity has been compelled since the year dot (and before) to make music, and that its mathematical profitability is highly skewed towards the few — have laid the foundations for what appears, on the surface, to be an industry in crisis. In 2010 for example, total album sales had dropped steadily from 1999’s figure of 940 million to only 360 million; by 2014 US recorded music revenues were down by almost two thirds since their height at the turn of the millennium, to $21.50 per capita. To continue a decades-old theme, the fault has been squarely placed at the door of technology, first with home taping, then CD ripping (though at least CDs offered a temporary injection of cash into the system), then file sharing and torrenting, and most recently streaming, which remains the bogeyman of the industry.

Add to this, the alleged daylight robbery from streaming services like Youtube, Spotify and Apple Music.  YouTube’s journey has not been a bed of roses: in 2006, even as Google paid 1.6 billion for the site, news sites suggested that it was losing 500,000 per month. Two years later Eric Schmidt, then-Google CEO, remarked, “I don’t think we’ve quite figured out the perfect solution of how to make money, and we’re working on that.” Nobody doubts YouTube’s dominance today: billions of videos are watched daily, a third of which are music related. Meanwhile, Spotify now has 50 million paying subscribers and many millions more who use the advertising-supported version of the site, Apple first launched iCloud with its built-in “piracy amnesty” for music, then its fully fledged Apple Music service; and Google and Amazon have launched their own music offerings. Each is seen as working with, or conspiring against the music industry or individual artists, depending on who you ask.

Thus we have the pervading narrative of today’s music industry: corporations in crisis, streaming services the culprit, musicians carrying the can. Behind the lines though we have a fundamental factor and a cause for optimism, reflected in artist royalties. Despite taking a recession-based hit, royalty payments from US rights organisation Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI, representing 600,000 members) have been increasing year on year since 2000. In 2016, the organisation some distributed over a billion dollars to its rights holders, as did the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP, 460,000 members). UK licensing revenues are also up year on year, and have been for almost a decade.

The ensemble of ‘rights holders’ — people who licence their songs or recordings — have never been as well off as today, so where is the problem? The answer, simply, is that there is a lot more of them than ever before. Remarks acid house DJ and polymath Andrew Weatherall, “Here we are at the apex of the punk-rock dream, the democratisation of art, anyone can do it, and what a double-edged sword that’s turned out to be.” It is difficult to know whether one is listening to a professional musician recording a song in an expensive studio, or some troubled kid making a song in their apartment — if, indeed, it matters. A positive consequence is massive diversification, driving a positive explosion of culture, with artists as diverse Korea’s Psy and Morocco’s Hala Turk from Morocco gaining almost-overnight international attention when their compositions went viral. The downside is a massive increase in supply: the total number of musicians in the US was 189,510, clearly the rate of growth of ‘rights holders’ far surpasses that of ‘professional’ musicians.

What does all of this mean? Within the backs and forths, the amount being spent on music, and the sums arriving at its creators, are increasing. Whether the revenues are distributed fairly is a hot question: the answer is a probable no, itself unchanged since third parties inserted themselves in the pathway of musical distribution. The second, hot question is whether we, the punters are paying enough for the music we consume. While the prevailing answer (largely from the industry, but see question 1) is a resounding no, the reality is more nuanced. Musical purchases come from that economic category of “discretionary spend”, a variable pool of funds allocated according to desire, diligence and, frankly, what can be got away with. A few quid saved on a free listen to a new album via Spotify could equate to a trip to the cinema or a new t-shirt.

This is no glib comparison, as it shines a spotlight on the importance of good marketing for musicians. If marketing is about getting a signal to cut through the noise, in this case “the noise” equates to every other product and service vying for a slice of the discretionary pie. If, as we have already seen, industry players are going to focus on the few to the detriment of the many (and rightly so, mathematically — they’d be out of business otherwise), those outside of the high-street-shop-window inner circle are missing a trick if they are not creating “a signal” of their own.

Of course, many if not most independent artists are already following the lead of pioneers such as Marillion, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and a host of others. Services such as Bandcamp (offering direct sales of music and merchandise) have become a go-to platforms, reflecting an increasingly empowered relationship between ‘content creators’ and ‘content consumers’; and nobody blinks at the idea of crowdfunding today. More importantly, artists with active relationships with their listeners appear more sanguine than industry representatives about the horrors of streaming revenues. Commented musician Zoe Keating in 2015, “The dominant story in the press on artist earnings did not reflect my reality, nor that of musical friends I talked to. None of us were concerned about file sharing/piracy, we seemed to sell plenty of music directly to listeners via pay-what-you-want services while at the same time earn very little from streaming.”

With all this in mind, it’s not hard to see just why sections of the musical community set so much store on technology as a disintermediating force within the industry, as illustrated by ongoing dialogues around Ethereum. Even as the chicken lickins of the music industry scream about the sky falling in, a number of certainties remain: that we will continue to listen to music, and, despite what some may say, we are prepared to pay increasing amounts to do so, even as we default to simpler and cheaper before more complicated and more expensive (through simple human weakness). The trick is to create a platform which is artist-controlled, which costs only as much as the processing required to deliver it and which is accepted as a place to go for the listener: a musical RSS feed with a straightforward front end, artist search and micro-payments built in. A cigarette packet calculation suggests that one could listen to 2,000-5,000 songs a month: if these cost an acceptable ha’penny a time with 20% (say) going to the platform provider, the debate would be in a very different place to now.

While the challenge is clearly more complicated than music revenues (who pays for studio time, or indeed artwork, what about live performances, advertising revenues, and so on and so on), the bottom line is, nothing technological is getting in the way of giving artists a fair deal vis-a-vis the music listener. If this means the problem lies elsewhere, for example in convoluted music licensing, poorly written contracts, business models which continue to put artists last and so on, then we have two directions. One, optimistically, is that producer-consumer axis will find an acceptable technological solution: numerous precedents exist for this in other industries, but we are not there yet despite the best efforts of many — the latest, Choon, is to be applauded. The second option is that musicians and punters will continue to rely on big business to control the flows of musical content, putting themselves in thrall of a small number of organizations whose profitability obligations lie with stockholders.

The choice, ultimately, is ours.