Doom Bull

It seems that not a fortnight can go by without some prominent figure in the classical music world predicting doom for all classical music within an arbitrary, short period of time. The latest candidate is the conductor Kent Nagano, in an interview with Kurier magazine (German), and the timespan in question is “a generation”. The culprits are the usual, including music education and today’s youth seeing classical music as being “of the past”. (Those things are not unconnected, as I’ll explore below.)

Inevitably, these claims get a pile-on of support and well-practised drum-banging. Writers on comment threads get on their favourite hobby horses, asserting that music education standards have declined, that young people just don’t care for some reason. It gives readers the self-important feeling that they’re the last bastion of cultural hope, that they’re standing on the deck of the Titanic.

“Most 12 year olds,” asserts a commenter on this Classic FM post, “could not name a great composer”. Does the commenter really think that working class kids a hundred years ago had a better music education than they do now? I’d be stunned if the proportion of kids who can’t name a great composer isn’t pretty much the same today as it’s ever been. But today those kids have a voice in society; a hundred years ago, they didn’t. A free general education for all children has only been available in its modern form since World War I. Music education as a part of that has thus only been available at all to most children for a hundred years or so. The belief that we’ve come out of some idyllic time where children had a great music education is nostalgic, and it’s cuckoo.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement in the way music is taught. It’s hardly surprising, as Nagano also asserts, that young people see classical music as belonging to the past, when so many music curricula focus almost exclusively on dead composers. In a lot of syllabi, even “modern” classical is given to mean music written in the early twentieth century (with maybe a nod to minimalists, and a brief mention of a couple of the other schools). There seems to be a fear that students would have a hard time with more “difficult” modern music. In my experience, precisely the opposite is true. Students are often far more receptive to Ligeti, Cage, and Pärt than they are to Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. Music students, like most people who are interested in music, want to explore new sounds, and sounds that are relevant to life today. It’s teachers who are wary of modern music, not students.

If young people see classical music as belonging to the past, that’s not in spite of music education, it’s because of music education.

In 2010, Roger Ebert tweeted: “Young people should above all be taught to read with pleasure. Everything else will follow.” The same goes for music. When children are told to respect the great composers, when they’re dragged through the structure of the music without seeing why it’s marvellous, it’s no wonder that they leave class and listen to Justin Bieber. It’s like a Shakespeare class that only teaches about the metre of the lines, and never the humans in the plays.

Show students something to like in John Cage, even if it’s not as deep an analysis, and you’ll make some fans who can find their own way around.[1]

My controversial assertion is that classical music isn’t about to die. Nothing that’s loved disappears completely, as long as there are people to remember it—and art is particularly hard to kill. The Seikilos epitaph—the oldest complete piece of music known—was written two thousand years ago, and finding recordings of it is trivial. Classical music flowered in the Soviet Union: far from being crushed, it proved some of the most passionate, subtle rebellion against the authorities. Are we really going to see it extinguished in the technological age? And even if, somehow, every classical music performer, composer, and teacher vanished from the face of the earth, there are still recordings, and there is still sheet music, and there are still countless books and treatises. Some day, someone would find Beethoven’s third symphony, and it would change that person’s life. And it would all start again.

The Kurier article closes with Nagano arguing passionately for classical music, and with a more positive tone:

Especially in this unbelievably complicated world which young human beings today are born into, classical music can help. Help to dream, to think.[2]

He obviously means well here, but I think that this kind of crusade is wrong-headed, and is partly causing the problems. Classical music isn’t suffering because it’s elitist—not wholly, at any rate. Lots of things that are seen as elitist are doing just fine today: Apple computers; BMW cars; good quality typography.

I see this a lot in classical music apologetics, and it always seems to me that those selling it are trying to classify the music as a vegetable: “Listen to classical music because it’s good for you.” I’ve been interested in classical music my whole life and it’s never once been because it expands my mind or gives my brain a full-body workout. It’s because I enjoy it.

Don’t listen to classical music because it’s good for you. Listen to classical music because it’s good.

Update: It’s been pointed out to me that in the Kurier interview, Nagano says he’s worried about classical music losing its cultural significance. Nagano was really just a jumping-off point for me to write about something I see a lot in classical commentary: the “last bastion” mentality that sees classical music’s few stalwart defenders, well, complaining about everything. Though I misunderstood part of what Nagano was saying, my arguments were more general, and I stand by them: for classical music to have relevance to culture, and especially to young people, they need to discover what there is to love in it, and far more time should be given to teaching and performing contemporary music.

As for the cultural significance of classical music, that’s been changing for six hundred years, and it’s going to keep changing, as culture and society change. Only by resisting change, by trying to be significant to a culture that’s moved away from it, will it be lost.

  1. I recently explained the thinking behind 4′33″ and the instrumentation of Water Walk to a class of three adolescent students, and played them extracts of both pieces. Two were nonplussed, but the third has come back to me several times and asked for the names of other pieces by Cage. None of the students was cynical or dismissive of the music, the way I’ve found a lot of adults to be.  ↩
  2. Many thanks to M.T. for the translation.  ↩


I wrote a quick couple of words about Terry Pratchett earlier, and I couldn’t get any more, partly because I was on a short train ride, and partly because there were tears in my eyes. It’s funny how much you can be affected by the death of someone you’ve never met. I felt the same sense of loss at the passings of Steve Jobs and Roger Ebert.

It’s a peculiarly 21st-century phenomenon that the response to the death of a loved public figure is the outpouring of grief and of stories on social media. The effect is cathartic and community-building.

It’s no surprise that my first memory of Pratchett was uncontrollable laughter, but my first experience of him was bemusement, when in my teens I read his novel Small Gods backwards. I’d always wanted to be a fantasy reader, but after Tolkien I’d never found anything I liked. Paul Kidby’s Discworld covers had always jumped out from the library shelves, chaotic and colourful and more than a little grotesque, and I think I must have looked over the series a few times before I finally chose Small Gods. I’ve got no idea why it was that one that I chose, but it was.

I didn’t get it, then. I think I got about a hundred pages in, and I remember that I enjoyed the plot but not the writing. Wanting to find out what happened, I skipped to the end, didn’t understand anything and skipped back a few pages, and then a few more, and so on until I finished it back to front. I’d never read a book that way before, and I’ve never done it since.

It was only on my second or third Discworld novel that I started to get into the rhythm of his writing, the wonderful linguistic turns that make his humour sing. I’ve often noticed that I’m not alone in that: many people take a couple of books before they start to enjoy his writing, and some give up after the first or second.

I haven’t read all the Discworld novels yet—let alone all of Pratchett’s—but I got through a few of them when I was a teenager, and more when I was in college. His writing is light, but not frivolous, with a clear, direct style that shows his roots in journalism, and his books often served me as palate cleansers between the heavier stuff I was reading for class. His more serious journalism, in particular his recent work campaigning for Alzheimers awareness and for the right to die, still carried that sardonic edge, as light and keen as an assassin’s knife.

Every Discworld fan’s got a favourite character. For me, inevitably, and though the brilliant Machiavellian Lord Vetinari comes a close second, it’s Death. Sardonic, world-weary, and full of dry quips, profound sentiments, and sometimes surprising warmth (especially towards cats), always in all caps, he was both the Grim Reaper and the friend taking everyone home. Pratchett’s Twitter account gave Death the last word:


Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

R.I.P. Terry Pratchett

Gutted to hear of the passing of Terry Pratchett. No-one else could make me laugh like that, always from the smallest turn of phrase, or play on words, or some absurd image. So many times in my teens I had to bury my head in my pillow to avoid waking my whole family with laughter.

Rereading quotes from Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, and smiling through tears.

“Accessible to All”

So an ad for a new Dublin-based music festival called MusicTown[1] popped up in my Facebook feed yesterday. Here’s some of their advertising copy:

The symphonic sounds of the city will reverberate in a celebration of the Capital’s music and music-makers this April in the inaugural ten day MusicTown festival. Tapping into our lyrical, musical and storytelling culture, this eclectic programme, brought to you by Dublin City Council, will host over 50 musical events for all ages and all tastes in a diverse, entertaining and compelling production inspired by the Capital’s musical heritage and vibrant music scene. Everything from Handel’s Messiah to Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee and all the genres in between will feature in a packed programme that makes the music of Dublin accessible to all.

I can’t think of anything more condescending than the phrase “accessible to all.” Who wants to go to a gig with “accessible” music? Who wants to be a member of “all”? Things that are for everybody are, by necessity, of broad, simple appeal: to appeal to everybody in general, you can’t appeal to anybody in particular. The phrase “accessible to all” implies music that’s been watered down and made friendly and easy. That’s not what any festival-goer wants. The phrase’s inclusion is a blatant attempt to avoid scaring off “regular” listeners. Instead it scares off the people who would enjoy it most.

Accessible to all means interesting to none.

The festival programme itself is all over the place, but it has some pretty good stuff. The failure is one of marketing: the opening copy, full of bland adjectives, clichés, and pandering, shows that Dublin City Council hasn’t thought about who the audience might be. The music that’s being performed—whether it’s hip hop or contemporary classical—is highly specific to its audiences, and while it’s certainly true that those audiences could and should grow, that’s not likely to happen by drawing in a host of the half-interested.

It’s sad that, when this festival is over, and the organisers wonder why it wasn’t that successful, they’ll decide that it was because people aren’t interested in contemporary music. And they’ll be wrong. Plenty of people are, but they want to be taken seriously. No matter how good the music, loyal fans won’t come if it looks bad.

A music festival that takes over Dublin for ten days is great news, but the marketing message needs to be “Come to the festival,[2] because we have something for you,” not “We’ll make contemporary music simple enough for everybody.”

  1. They really called it MusicTown. How long was that meeting?  ↩
  2. I’m not writing the name again.  ↩

Serve the Music?

Ever since Arnold Schoenberg dismissed the usefulness of an audience “except for purely acoustical reasons,” the approach of the classical music institution to the public seems to have been:

  1. Move into an ivory tower.
  2. Act surprised when nobody wants to visit.

There has, inevitably, been a ton of proposals on how to increase audience numbers. The one that seems to be doing the rounds at the moment was written by “Pliable” on his blog On an Overgrown Path. He called it “Stop trying to serve everybody, instead serve the music”, and wrote a post detailing how he sees that being done:

This means telling celebrity musicians that their profligate demands can no longer be met. Serving the music means embracing business models that secure the long term future for composers and rank and file musicians, instead of sacrificing their interests on the altar of new streaming technologies. Serving the music means rejecting the twelve pieces of silver offered by music festivals backed by repressive political regimes. Serving the music means dramatically reducing the influence of management agents, whose self-interest distorts the music. Serving the music means re-balancing financial models to reduce dependency on ethically tainted sponsors. Serving the music means thwarting the ambitions of cradle-to-grave corporations such as Universal Music, the BBC and Amazon. Serving the music means correcting the oversupply of classical music. Serving the music means putting music education back on the agenda. And serving the music means eliminating discrimination in every form.

There’s plenty wrong with several of these, but it’s not worth dwelling on too much.1

He concludes:

Simply serve the music. If you do, audiences—both new and old—will come.

“Serve the music” is a good sound bite but a shitty business model. Fact is: if you don’t think about how to make money, you’re not going to make money.

Pliable’s problem here is the same as the classical music industry’s as a whole: he sees the problems, but his solutions don’t apply to the world as it’s becoming today. He complains about monolithic corporations, but he doesn’t even seem to have considered the idea that musicians might abandon labels entirely.

Compare the appeal of working as a performing musician in a large city with that of being a recording musician online. As a performer, you have a pool of, say, a few million people from which to build your audience. Those people then have to go out of their way to listen to you on faith that you’ll be worth travelling for, and (assuming it’s a professional gig) you’ll have to draw in at least a hundred of them per gig or somebody makes a loss. For the touring musician, you have to count on drawing out an audience of this size in every city you visit purely on the basis of your reputation and repertoire.

If, on the other hand, you sell2 your music online, your pool is over three billion people. They don’t have to travel to hear your music, they can be anywhere in the world, and failing to sell a copy costs you nothing. Moreover, gradually building up a sustainable audience of a few thousand people in all the world is far from impossible. It’s easier by far, in any case, than creating a consistent audience in a single city.

I agree with Ben Thompson’s argument that the internet is great for enormous corporations, and great too for small, independent artists. In music, the people in trouble are the people in the middle: record companies with too many costs to function like independents, but not enough clout to compete with the massive labels.

Independent musicians don’t need to serve the music. They need to serve the audience.

Serving the audience

Serving the audience is not the same thing as serving the mass market. It’s the opposite. Success in the mass market means having broad appeal, in order to get a small amount of money from a large number of people. In music, this usually means being bland, neutral, and inoffensive. But serving an audience means finding something that appeals specifically and deeply to a particular group of people, and specific, deep appeal tends to be divisive.

A big part of serving the audience is figuring out who the audience is. Pliable, again, seems to think that there’s an oversupply of music, but I don’t know if that’s true. I think the problem is that most classical musicians and performing groups are competing for the same audience with the same material.

What’s important for musicians—particularly independent musicians—is providing a unique sound. Sadly, this goes against the training of most classical musicians, who are taught to defer to the score and to the composer’s wishes,3 but for those musicians who can manage it through technique, style, instrumentation, repertoire choice—even personality—or a combination of those, there’s literally a whole world out there in which to find an audience.

Serving the audience means treating your listeners with respect.4 It means communicating directly and honestly with them. It also means being your own record label and promoter, but doing that in ways that big labels simply can’t.

And of course, serving the audience means playing and recording the music as well as you are able. In serving the music alone, you reject the audience, but to properly serve the audience you must do justice to the music.

  1. All right, just one or two:
    • If you reduce celebrity fees, someone else will pay them, and all you’ve accomplished is to ditch a sell-out concert. So your best bet is to get every concert organizer in the world to agree to pay reduced fees to these musicians (and good luck with the anti-trust lawsuit afterwards, by the way).
    • Music education is a canard. Education generally has been accessible to far, far more people in the west in the past hundred years, and consequently so has music education. What music education accomplishes is to give young people the tools to understand music and to communicate using music, and the myriad benefits that come as a result. But if it made people more interested in classical music, the concert halls would be packed.

  2. As I’ve said several times, niche artists—and most classical musicians are niche artists—should probably avoid streaming services as they hurt sales without providing enough substitute income. Some suggest that streaming is good promotion, and it is, provided the musician has control over what gets released. 
  3. And that’s fine, of course, and there’ll always be room for new ones. But minor differences aren’t enough to stir up the love and hate that makes for a loyal audience. 
  4. Another of Pliable’s hobby horses is what he sees as the hopelessness of attempting to attract rock audiences to classical music. He seems to think that the failure of the industry to attract such listeners is because they’re a lost cause, but, as someone who knows a few rock listeners, that hasn’t been my experience. The biggest reason for the failure to draw in new audiences from the broader musically-interested populace is because the majority of attempts have been blatantly condescending and insincere. In other words, they haven’t worked because the people pushing them have no understanding of or respect for the audience they’re trying to attract. But more on that another time. 

Selling music

Shortly after I posted my latest piece on streaming, a friend chastised me for taking the stance that piracy is better for musicians than streaming. Citing his “intractable stance” against piracy, he wrote, “I don’t see what I help make [i.e. videogames] as ‘art’ but rather a product.”

But the problem with streaming services is that they don’t treat music as a product: they treat it as a service, one for which any constituent part can be substituted for any other. That’s how streaming devalues music. When I say that some musicians are better off being pirated than legally streamed, I don’t mean that piracy is a better way for the musician to get their music heard. I mean that streaming provides a much stronger disincentive than piracy does to buying music, thus is inherently harmful to music as a product.

Economies tend to be subject to Pareto distribution, typically described as an 80:20 split—80% of the wealth goes to 20% of the population, and vice versa—in a graph that looks like this:

Pareto distribution
From Wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons.


The extent of this distribution varies (and to be honest, its extent in the world economy is pretty worrying at the moment), but the point is that the bulk of wealth tends to go towards those few on the left side of the graph, and the remainder to those on the right, in the so-called “long tail”. I’ve said before that record companies benefit from having musicians distributed throughout all points on that graph, so that there’s always something they own playing. Sure, they’ll make the bulk of their money from the 20% of their artists who get the most plays, but it helps to have supplementary income from the other 80. It’s like getting small royalties from fifteen million radio stations. On streaming services, the big record labels can’t lose. But the musicians can.

On streaming services alone—and a lot of people are predicting that streaming will be the whole future of recorded music—the amount of income from anywhere other than the far left of the graph is paltry. Pareto distribution tends to describe economies, and if your only source of income is streaming, the long tail is a very bad place to be.[1] But it also describes the economy as a whole, and there are a lot of people in the world. If you’re getting a thousand plays a month, and you’ll have made about $0.60, so maybe don’t quit your day job. But sell a thousand albums and you might be ok.[2]

I believe that musicians can and should make a living from selling recordings. As services like Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music develop, I think we’ll see a lot more musicians abandon both traditional labels and streaming services, and concentrate on selling their music directly to their audiences. This isn’t an impossible ideal. The cost of recording equipment has plummeted in the past fifty years, and it’s easier to use as well as having readily available training. The harder part for musicians might be the business side: music being a typically left-leaning profession, it doesn’t generally attract a lot of market researchers (who presumably have a better idea of how to make money anyway). But anyone who wants to make a living as a musician will sooner or later have to sell their music, and the main component of an independent business isn’t flowcharts and market research, it’s communicating directly and sincerely with your audience.

First diversion on videogames

The videogame community tends to be broken down into two main groups: “casual” gamers, and “hardcore” gamers, and there isn’t a lot of overlap between games designed for each group. It was with casual games that videogaming went mainstream. The Nintendo Wii and DS, rather than try to compete in the incredibly competitive hardcore gaming market (where Nintendo had come in third place on two successive consoles), targeted a new audience: people who had never played games before. Games like Nintendogs and Wii Sports were light entertainment rather than a serious hobby. Serious gamers—those who owned an X-Box or a PlayStation, or who built their own PCs specifically for gaming—scoffed at the relatively lightweight consoles, but the Wii and the DS sold extraordinarily well.

Fast forward to today, though, and Nintendo’s more recent consoles have flopped. The reason? Casual gamers, the market that saved Nintendo, have just as quickly abandoned them. Since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, smartphones have become ubiquitous. To someone who likes games only as passive entertainment, the best computer is the nearest one, not the one with the best specifications. So if a casual gamer can take out his/her phone and play Flappy Bird for five minutes, why would s/he carry around a DS to play Mario? Because it’s better? To a hobbyist, quality is less important than convenience, and carrying one device is more convenient than carrying two. Serious gamers, on the other hand, have kept playing serious games, and the latest incarnations of the X-Box and PlayStation have sold considerably better than a lot of market analysts predicted.

The point here is that casual fans—of games or of anything—aren’t loyal fans. Casual fans are a good bonus to have: there are a lot more of them than more serious fans. But casual fans are the same people who’ll stream a five-hour randomly selected playlist in the background. They’re too unreliable to be a core part of the audience, unless the performer (or developer, or whoever) appeals to millions of them. There are always fewer serious fans, but those fans will always spend a greater proportion of their income on what they enjoy.

It’s devoted fans that musicians need to seek out. If they pick up some casual listeners along the way, that does no harm. Some of them might even become more serious fans, but that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.

Second diversion on videogames

A few years ago—I don’t remember why—I downloaded and played a game called Braid. It was something like a revelation: the game took traditional gaming elements and turned them on their head in a startlingly original way. I did some research on the game afterwards, and discovered that the bulk of work on it had been done by a single developer.

Braid is not alone. We’re living in a golden age for independent game makers, who in generations past wouldn’t have had the budget to make their games, or to publish them to major platforms. Developers of games like this focus on making a game that appeals to a small audience, and making it very good. Braid did unusually well for an independent game, selling over 450,000 copies (a drop in the ocean compared to sales of blockbuster games), but it takes far fewer sales than that to make a living.

We live in the mobile age, where pretty much any artistic experience we want is a button push away. That’s great news for independent artists of any type: it’s hard work to find an audience, but it’s far easier than it once was to get a record contract. And once you’ve found your audience you’re never far away from it, even though it can be literally anywhere in the world.

  1. I know musicians can still theoretically make a living from live performances, but there are two problems with that: First, it’s far harder, as your audience has to be in your area; Second, not all music is suited to live performance.  ↩
  2. Yes, of course a lot of people will listen to an album over and over, so a thousand sales may be far less than the equivalent of a thousand plays, but streaming services encourage constant “discovery”, steering people away both from album listening and from repeat listening.  ↩

Rewards of Long-Form

About halfway through Africa Express’ joyous, humanistic new recording of Terry Riley’s In C, the instruments begin to drop out one by one. Eventually, only a couple are left, playing fragmented, exploratory motifs. The music seems to float in space, drifting in almost-silence between the two halves. Then, without warning, a musician speaks.

It’s such a surprising moment, so fresh and different. It’s one of those moments that makes us fall in love with music. But here’s the catch: without the preceding 20 minutes of music, without the following 15, it would just be storytelling with musical accompaniment. You can get that from a hundred audiobooks on Audible. The fact that it exists in the midst of an exuberant musical celebration is what makes it magical. The moment needs the context of the whole.

The first music recordings, for technical reasons, were limited to about three minutes’ length: whence the three-minute pop song. When technology finally allowed for albums, they emerged as unimaginative collections of those songs. Only later did musicians—most famously the Beatles with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—start to think carefully about the order of the songs, about how the songs flowed into each other, how each fit and contrasted with those on either side of it, and functioned as a part of the whole.

This was new to pop, but it’s been a strength of classical music for centuries. Musical flow has been paramount to connecting smaller parts of large works from the concertos of Vivaldi and Bach (and earlier) right up to the music of Ligeti and Reich. Although most people’s introduction to classical music is through small pieces of larger works,1 good long-form music gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. Listening takes more work, but the rewards are greater.

Take Beethoven’s fifth symphony: the opening is probably the most famous four notes in music, the legendary (and probably apocryphal) “Fate knocking at the door,” used in cartoons to signify doom, and as morse code by the Allied forces in World War Two to proclaim victory. But knowing only that movement (or just the motif) gives you just a fraction of the story. The tempestuous theme comes back again and again throughout the symphony, until a genre-defying moment where it’s obliterated by a glorious C Major daybreak.

If you only know the first movement, you hear the challenge but not the triumph.

If you only know the fourth,2 it’s an army charging onto an empty field.

Recently, I wrote about why I think streaming services are bad for many musicians, and why I’m optimistic about the future of music regardless. I think I’m right, but I also hope I am, and it’s for moments like these. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening to a symphony or a rock album: they’re only possible in longer works.

For fans of long-form music, streaming services present a lot of problems: the intrusive ads, the relatively poor audio quality, the insistence on track shuffling. None of these problems is insurmountable. (On Spotify, two of them can be surmounted by paying for the service.)

But the breadth of choice alone discourages spending substantial time with any artist. You’ve just finished listening to the first movement of the fifth symphony, and you’d love to go on to the second, but Bolero is right there in recommendations. This isn’t down to attention span, but to context.3 Streaming services benefit from showing you how broad their catalogue is, because that’s what encourages people to stay. This is borne out in Spotify’s recently-released numbers infographic: only two of the artists in their top albums (at numbers four and five) even figure in their top tracks (at one and nine).

Long-form music is a poor match for streaming on the musician’s side too: a stream of a seventeen-minute symphonic movement4 pays out the same as one of a three-minute pop song. So if music were a simple game of financial incentives, musicians would “aim to maximise their profits” by releasing shorter and shorter works. Thankfully, many musicians are more interested in artistic incentives than financial ones—who gets into music to make money?—and they’ll just carry on making music. Of course they still have to make a living, so in the long term I think a lot of them will decide that they’re better off selling their music than letting people stream it.

Maybe it’s true that streaming services will control the bulk of the music industry, but there’ll always be musicians interested in making long-form music, and I think (and I hope) that there’ll always be people willing to buy it, to pay the little extra it costs and to spend the extra effort to for a greater reward. They won’t be mainstream, but then they almost never have been. The internet is an Eden for obscure interests, and for small, passionate communities to develop around them.

  1. The first movement of the Moonlight sonata, the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the overture to William Tell, the first movement of Spring from the Four Seasons. You know the stuff I mean.  ↩
  2. Who only knows the fourth?  ↩
  3. I can’t stand hearing people whinge about attention spans. Modern audiences have more than proved to possess attention spans at least as long as their predecessors. Years-long TV dramas like Breaking Bad and the advent of the three-hour blockbuster are testament to this.  ↩
  4. Or a twelve-minute prog rock ballad, if that’s your thing.  ↩

More thoughts on streaming

It seems like everyone’s talking about music streaming these days.1 Alex Ross had a piece in the New Yorker in September on how it creates problems for classical music, but it was Taylor Swift’s much-publicised decision to withdraw her music from Spotify that made it mainstream news.

Given the rise in popularity of streaming services over the past couple of years, it’s easy to see streaming as the future of music. The appeal is clear: you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, and the cost is low (although if you pay for a premium service, as many do, it’s far higher than the typical person spends on new music in a year).

Business analyst Ben Thompson, on a recent episode of his podcast Exponent, highlighted the problem with this approach: music by its nature is intimate, and in the act of listening there’s a relationship created between listener and performer.

The problem with Spotify is…when you buy an album, when you go and you download it from iTunes, or you (heaven forbid!) drive to a store and get a shiny plastic disc, there’s a reciprocal act there where you’re giving away something that’s important to you, in this case money, to get something that is very valuable. And I think…that act of reciprocity…deepens the bond, and I think it increases the value of Swift’s music, not by the $12.99 that it costs, but by the act of actually buying it. And Spotify whoops that all away. …

Me listening to someone on Spotify is effectively worthless. And people sell that as the allure, “You go on Spotify, you can listen to anyone you want,” but I’m not committing to anyone. Music has that value of, it reaches people deeply, and services like Spotify take away that reciprocal nature. That’s fine, that’s perfect for the artist of the week who’s gonna have one hit song I’m gonna never listen to again. Like, I don’t want to commit to them either. But for those two or three artists that are really meaningful to me, Spotify denies that connection. And I think any artist who is in that position, like Swift, should think very seriously about doing exactly what she did. Make it worth something. Make it harder to connect with me. Because once you do, it’ll be worth that much more.

When you can have anything, everything is less meaningful, and something that’s clearly everybody’s can’t be uniquely yours.

The profits from digital goods tend to concentrate. A few people will succeed enormously, and gain most of the profits, while the remainder is spread amongst everybody else. For a musician on a streaming service, this is a problem: if people can listen to your album for free, why would they buy it? Spotify estimates that the average pay per stream is between US$0.006 and $0.0084.2 And though Spotify has now paid out two billion dollars in total, the bulk of that has gone to performers of megahits. In Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s response to Taylor Swift, he estimated3 that she was on target to earn six million dollars for her record company over the next year. I would not like to be on the other extreme of that average.

Of course, piracy comes into play here as well. In his post, Ek attempts to argue that piracy, not streaming, is hurting music sales. Why would someone buy your album if they can download it for free? And if they’re going to listen to it for free anyway, a small reward from Spotify is better than nothing at all, right?

Maybe not.

The utility of guilt

Numerous studies have shown that the greatest pirates are also the greatest purchasers.4 Someone finds music that they like—an experiment is free, so what can it hurt?—then wants to support that artist and pays for subsequent releases. So maybe they didn’t pay for the first few albums, but now they know they like it they’ll buy everything else. Free music is excellent for discovery. Discovery leads to loyalty, and loyalty leads to sales.

Substitute legal streaming for piracy, though, and the motivation to switch to buying music diminishes. There’s no guilt because the musician is getting paid, right? So you feel better because some amount of your money is going to the artist you like, and you get to keep discovering new things. Besides, you’ve already spent a fortune on your Spotify subscription this year.

Not everyone who pirates music will go on to buy a lot, but some will. Streaming services pay artists for their work, but they also create disincentives for listeners to buy music. And with such pitiful payouts to the non-megastars, is it better for many musicians to withdraw totally from these services?

So who wins in the Spotify ecosystem? Well, Spotify do well for themselves, obviously. As do the big record labels, those who have a wide enough variety of popular artists that chances are something they’ve released is being streamed right now. There are artists who’ll do well too; those who can take advantage of streaming in the same way that OK Go took advantage of YouTube.

But for smaller labels and independent musicians, streaming may be a worse alternative to piracy. It certainly benefits Spotify to have an enormous catalogue, but does it benefit the musician to be part of that catalogue? Musicians need to think about what they may be sacrificing in return for exposure, and decide whether the money they’ll receive from is worth the lost album sales.

So what’s the alternative?

A thousand true fans

The internet is a good place to be independent.5 The sheer number of internet users—2.92 billion at the time of writing, according to Google—means that being a successful artist is not a matter of reaching everyone, but of reaching the right audience. The popular figure at the moment suggests that to make a living, an artist needs to reach a thousand true fans.

Finding those fans is hard. Nurturing that relationship is hard. An artist who wants to go it alone will not only have to write and/or perform strong material in a unique, interesting way, but to be their own publicist, to engage with fans on social media—in short to make themselves something worth being a fan of. Because a true fan is more than just an admirer; a true fan is, as Kevin Kelly described it:

someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

It’s definitely possible to succeed at this level. Ben Thompson has written about it, and is living proof himself. Jonathan “Song-a-day” Mann has made it work with a simple premise that he’s stuck to for years. Amanda Palmer calls her somewhat idiosyncratic approach the future. It works. Part of it is the sense of belonging to a community. Part of it is helping out someone whose work you like.6 But most of all it’s finding something that’s perfect—absolutely perfect—for you.

I’m optimistic. I don’t think the future holds an end to manufactured superpop, but as ever those of us who don’t like it can ignore it. And for those of us with specialised interests, it will be far easier to find music that fits those interests; just as it will be easier for those musicians to reach us. Music lovers will have to keep buying music, but music lovers never had a problem with buying music in the first place.

And whither classical? Specialised interests are surely more easy to come by in a centuries-old, detail-obsessed art form than in any other, and surely this will be better than having so many musicians focussed on the core repertoire. Musicians will have to do more to promote themselves, and get better at it, but finding the audience will get easier.

As I see it, streaming is a superb way to discover new music, but a poor vehicle for building a real fanbase. If musicians want to make a living, they’ll have to keep selling music—and that’s good. Spotify may be the future, but it’s not the whole future. For musicians, selling music directly to fans has never been easier, and never been a better prospect.

1 I had my own piece a while back, but reading back over it, I’m not sure I was particularly clear. As I think unclear writing is a symptom of unclear thinking, consider this a rethink.

2 Those figures are a year old; musicians may now be making double that!

3 Somewhat disingenuously: her sales were spiking due to a new release, and he followed that trend line to a rather inflated conclusion.

4 Leading to many observers wondering what the industry hopes to gain by locking up its best customers.

5 It’s an interesting paradox that it’s also an excellent place to be a massive business. This is explored in some detail on another episode of Exponent.

6 And, if you’re a member of a small group of fans, your contribution makes a clear difference.

Dejan Lazić and the Right to Be Forgotten

The latest scandal in the classical music world has been the story of Dejan Lazić, who is trying to use the European Right to Be Forgotten law to suppress a four-year-old negative review that appeared in the Washington Post. There are plenty of articles that detail the story. Lazić insists that it is not the review’s negativity that has led to his campaign, but the fact that it has consistently appeared as the second result on a Google search for his name, right after his own website.1

There are two things to discuss here. The first is the review, and its potential impact on Mr Lazić’s career. The second is the Right to Be Forgotten law, its intention and its use.

The Review

Lazić, on his website:

I could have in this case simply and quietly contact [sic.] Google Europe and ask for this single, in my opinion defamatory article to be retracted from their search engines within the E.U.—something I have not done.

It seems extraordinary that Lazić thinks of this review as defamatory. Critics give their subjective opinion, with their authority coming from experience, not objectivity. Defamation is objective falsehood, by definition.

In any event, the review, though tough, is far from completely negative. Even its title, Sparks but no Flame, suggests a strong performer who failed to reach his potential on this occasion.

It’s not that Lazic isn’t sensitive—or profoundly gifted. The very first notes of Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signalled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler’s precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.

Of course, if Lazić wants the review removed by court order, he has to make the review seem as damaging as possible. He won’t succeed if he says, “Well, she could have been a bit nicer.” But it’s hard to imagine even the most excoriating review by the most respected critic having any serious impact on an artist’s success. Just look at Mark Kermode on Sex and the City 2, or read Roger Ebert on Kick Ass.2

Lazić has said that he’d prefer to see the first page of Google filled with stories about this controversy than to see that review in such a prominent position. Whether or not it’s better, this campaign has had the notable P.R. result of pushing the review off the first page. It’s unclear if that was Lazić’s intention, but it’s been the result.

And this blog is contributing to it.


The Right to be Forgotten

(Road, Hell, Intentions)

Surely anyone with aspirations to professional performance wants to be remembered. Otherwise, why perform in the first place? Equally, those in the public eye have a right to control their image as much as they can. But “as much as they can” doesn’t include altering or hiding what other people have had to say about them.

Whether or not he’s successful, Lazić’s campaign is a case study in the problems with the well-intentioned Right to Be Forgotten law. Although the motivations are good, the law is written extremely broadly, and, though it allows for data to be kept online if it is in the public interest to do so, in some cases it seems to have been applied too liberally. Plenty of mistakes will be made, both by the lawmakers and by the companies, in the early days of the law.

All of that being said, perhaps the fairest assessment of the whole affair comes from the critic herself, Anne Midgette, in her response on the Washington Post:

Lazic has a point. I don’t agree that the review should be taken down. But I do think it’s worth discussing, in this evolving internet climate, the way that decisions are effectively made about what information clings to you and what falls away. Lazic didn’t like the review, and he doesn’t like me, but his main point all along has been that he is tired of being dogged by this single review after all this time. There are a lot of factors involved in how prominently something appears in a Google search, including how many hits it has and your own search history; furthermore, my review is also almost certainly one of the longest devoted exclusively to Lazic in a major newspaper.

A concert review is an opinion about a moment in time. Its value tends to decrease as time passes (with some notable exceptions). But the internet is built for permanence. Lazić is in the unenviable position of a public person at the beginning of his career. Any review on a major news source, good or bad, is going to remain prominent in search results until those reviews are the only search results.

Data permanence is one of the new categories of problem created by the internet that society currently has no clue how to solve.3 The Right to Be Forgotten law started from a sincere intention to solve a real problem: what can you do if you commit a misdemeanour at 18, and it appears every time a prospective employer googles your name? What can you do if your ex posts nude photographs of you online?

These are the real, serious problems that this law was written to solve.

But what if you gave a performance that a critic disliked?

You might just have to live with it.

1 Not any more.

2 I miss Roger Ebert.

3 See also: massive proliferation of data; what to do with data after death

UPDATE: I learned after posting that the pianist’s name is Lazić, not Lazic. I’ve corrected it in my writing, but left the Post’s, as I assume they had a reason for omitting the accent.

Who wrote Bach’s cello suites?

Clive Paget, in Limelight Magazine

Written by Mrs Bach, presented by the respected British composer Sally Beamish, apparently uses analysis of ink and handwriting to support the idea that Anna Magdalena wrote not only the six Cello Suites, but also the Aria from the Goldberg Variations and the first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Paget tweeted this this morning and specifically referenced the cello suites. Funny that my first thought was there was no way the prelude from the first suite and the first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier were written by different people.

This hypothesis, the brainchild of Martin Jarvis of the Charles Darwin University in northern Australia, reminds me of the claims that do the rounds every so often that Shakespeare didn’t write the works that are known as his, or that Beethoven was black: fascinating, and a serious coup if true, but without nearly enough corroborating evidence.

Which brings us to:

Jarvis’s theory hinges on the long-known fact that the source for Bach’s Cello Suites exists only in the hand of Anna Magdalena—long considered a simple copyist as far as her husband’s work was concerned. Jarvis considers the originals to have “vanished”. Stylistic examination of the handwriting by researchers, according to Jarvis, is indicative of a creative outpouring, lacking the typical methodical slowness of a mere copyist.

Graphology. Less than worthless.

The article does mention Heidi Harralson, a respected forensic document examiner. She:

is convinced that “within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty” the composer was Anna Magdalena.

Note the position of those quotation marks. I expect her certainty relates much more to the handwriting—which we know in any case was Anna Magdalena’s—and less to the authorship of the work, which would be well outside her area of expertise.