Monday, February 20, 2017

Spotify has indicated that in 2013 of it's 20 million track catalog 4 million of them have never been played?

The blockbuster effect has been even more striking on the digital platforms that were supposed to demonstrate the benefits of the long tail. On iTunes or Amazon, the marginal cost of “stocking” another item is essentially zero, so supply has grown. But the rewards of this model have become increasingly skewed towards the hits. Anita Elberse, of the Harvard Business School, working with data from Nielsen, notes that in 2007, 91% of the 3.9m different music tracks sold in America notched up fewer than 100 sales, and 24% only one each. Just 36 best-selling tracks accounted for 7% of all sales. By last year the tail had become yet longer but even thinner: of 8.7m different tracks that sold at least one copy, 96% sold fewer than 100 copies and 40%—3.5m songs—were purchased just once. And that does not include the many songs on offer that have never sold a single copy. Spotify said in 2013 that of its 20m-strong song catalogue at the time, 80% had been played—in other words, the remaining 4m songs had generated no interest at all. [emphasis added]
The blockbuster effect seems to ensure that no matter how "long" the "tail" gets the blockbusters have the advantage of promotional apparatus. 
C. S. Lewis, if memory serves, once remarked that every generation, within certain limits, gets the kind of science that it wants.  That may not really be true but it may be true, in a sense about literary critical fads.  Take the Bard.  There have ben any number of theories as to who Shakespeare was and one of the ideas being formulated in the last few decades can be described, perhaps not unfairly, as Shakespeare-as-brand.
It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product.  ...
The idea that a famous literary figure with an associated body of work having been a historicized brand reflecting the work of a collaborative team isn't new to scholarship.  Plenty of biblical  scholars refer to the Pauline literature with debates and discussions about which epistles were genuinely Pauline.  That's old hat.  Sun Tzu is another author who is regarded by some military historians as kind of a brand who "may" have been an individual but who may not so certainly have written everything attributed to the name, a possible military Solomon who funded a collection, so to speak.  So far the Bard to be a brand rather than a lionized individual makes sense in terms of the last half century of critical scholarship in general.
But since the Bard has been canonized as high art and since, well, dead dudes get canonized in a way that women haven't, it seems interesting that the Bard-as-brand can come up these days.
To put it another way, when women are brands now how lofty is the brand?  Take Beyoncé or Taylor.  These women are brands if there were ever such a thing as brands.  One might regarded as fake and another as authentic or vice versa but brands are brands, right?  The authenticity may lay less in any "real" authenticity in the branding that Beyoncé or Taylor do or don't do than in the imputation of the self on to or away from ... the brand.  Both make more money in a year than I'll probably ever manage to see and both can be regarded as alpha females by just about any stretch of the imagination.  But people decide stuff like whether or not one or the other is faking the persona or not.  Show business is still show business.  Perhaps with the advent of social media the show must go on even when a person isn't on stage.  But the show is the show, not the person.

Now perhaps Beyoncé and Swift are expected to be "real" in a way that in itself saddles their personas with unrealistic expectations.  David Bowie let us know which characters he was playing, didn't he?  Johnny Cash had a persona, a character useful for performing songs but why is it that a persona as formulated by a guy would be recognized for what it is while with women a persona would be assessed as "real" or "fake"?  I remember a few years ago a friend of mine said she liked Jennifer Lawrence but disliked Anne Hathaway, the former seemed sincere and the latter seemed fake.  My reply was that since Hathaway's job is faking things, since that's what acting is all about, it hardly seems fair to hold it against an actress that that's what she does for a living. 
What's interesting for me to read, given the ... slightly Marxist or quasi-Marxist cant in a lot of arts coverage and criticism, is that it can seem as though mass culture and the commodification inherent in capitalist production of culture is totally bad UNLESS "I" happen to like the brand.  Then it's okay, it's even "redeemed" in some sense by a capacity to read radical politics on to the thing or to observe that radical political ideas are actually articulated in the mass cultural product.  Thus ... Chaplin.  Now perhaps the praise or blame can be laid at the feet of folks like Walter Benjamin.   Ironically, perhaps, the Frankfurt school wrier and a pre-suppositionalist Christian apologist like Francis Schaeffer might essentially agree that the "truth content" of the art work is paramount in assessing the form and content of any given art work. 

To the extent that we are inching toward a proposal that the great geniuses of yore in the artistic canon can be thought of as brands as much as individual agents is this ... a possible triumph of a corporate conception of "genius" or "art" that is retroactively being read back on to the canon?  It might be a necessary subversion of Romantic era tropes regarding the solitary genius who somehow transcends the petty limitations of "the rules".  The more I absorb 18th century music the less clear it is that the so-called "rules" were articulated as clearly or as insistently as the Romantic era theorists and critics said they were.  It's begun to seem, particularly in music, as though the rule-bending or rule-breaking advocated for by the Romantic era music critics was a weird, paradoxical double bind.  It turns out that as often as not 18th century guitarist composers might write sonata forms in which theme 1 might not come back in the recapitulation where it "ought" to have, or that themes would be recapitulated in truncated, almost gnomically "symbolic" ways (Matiegka, for instance).  Finding these composers wanting for a failure to live up to the ideal of sonata as a Hegelian dynamic process when Hegel wasn't even around to formulate this approach during the consolidation of 18th century idioms seems ridiculous and yet it seems to have been a scholarly commonplace on the subject of sonata form.

In other words, is proposing that Shakespeare's art was a collaborative effort suggest to us now that we should reassess our taxonomy of genius into something less individual and more social or communal?  That doesn't seem like it's really worth the trouble.  Didn't Dwight Macdonald point out in his explanations of the highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow that the highbrow pinnacles of art happened in relatively tiny, insular and fiercely competitive circles?  That's not so different from positing a friendly or unfriendly rivalry.  The history of the arts is full of tales of rivalries and resentments.  Haydn liked Mozart's work and Mozart loathed Clementi's music even though Beethoven was influenced by Clementi's work in a few ways and so on.   Personally I find I've preferred a few of Clementi's works to almost anything I've heard by Mozart.  That's sacriliege to people who hold that Mozart is the pinnacle of the Classic era but I think Haydn was the pinnacle; that my own opinion is informed not just by the music itself but a historical observation that Haydn was the most celebrated composer of his generation isn't me saying Haydn was "better" than Mozart--it's my proposal that Haydn was regarded as the best because he, so to speak, solved the problems of the arts in his generation in a way that met with the most popular and critical approval.  My own personal take is that Haydn found a set of solutions to the high/low cultural dichotomy question that people from the Romantic era on forward have tried to reat as conceptually incommensurate spheres. 

But introducing the idea that genius can be corporate could make that kind of art/entertainment separation ultimately impossible to sustain.  If even Shakespeare could be proven to be a kind of brand with a team effort behind it then one of the more sacred tenets of high art defenses seems quite a bit shakier if the tenet of the artist as solitary rule-bending genius is to be embraced.  I think it's best rejected with prejudice.  Shakespeare didn't invent the sonnet any more than Haydn invented the sonata form or Bach invented the fugue.  We've had a century and a half of innovation without a set of observable moves toward consolidation that academics would like to concede have happened.  We might get told the thing to avoid is cliché.  Sure, but if people wanted to avoid everything because it's been done before will the whole human race foreswear ever having sex or food or water again?  Obviously not.  As we approach more possibilities that the ways we think within the arts may be, so to speak, hardwired or constrained by proclivities observable in the brain we may run into another phase of consolidation.

Maybe pop songs are all starting to sound the same because they "are" starting to sound the same.  But that's going to be expected of "low" musical culture, won't it?  There are truly only so many hymns in the Baptist or PResbygerian or Methodist or Lutheran traditions before you start picking out tropes.  One of the disadvantages in high culture defenses that goes unacknowledged is that a lot of the high culture material that's survived is just the "best" that has worked.  A lot of hymns are musically very simple while having theologically rich texts.  In fact many of the popular songs that have shoddy texts in theological or liturgical terms are far more musically sophisticated than the hymns they at times supplanted.  This isn't just the case now, it was also going on in what we now call the Baroque era.  The pietists were into fancier songs than the traditionalist Lutherans in a number of ways.  They may have wanted to get "back" to pure spirituality in song but paradoxically could end up embracing what was ultimately the more trendy style of the time, while the traditionalist Lutherans took a more pragmatic approach of retaining the musical idioms that they considered "not broken". 

So by the time we get to Johann Sebastian Bach his work was an urban and urbane cosmopolitanism that fused elements from German, French, Italian and English musical styles with maybe a few Polish folk songs thrown in for good measure here and there.  Yet thanks to histories that set agendas for how we are told to understand the past Bach became the archetypal German Lutheran purist in some accounts--never mind the actual history of his musical development, the mythology was more important. 

Of course Bach was not all that well known for a while, a musicians musician.  Bach's work is probably not in danger of being among those tracks that are never listened to even once, ultimately. 



chris e said...

I'm somewhat dubious about the premise of the original Economist article, mainly on the idea that the 'tail has lengthened'.

In the case of music - it has, but maybe not in terms that matter. It's in some ways more of a thing to self publish music over books - it's been widespread for longer, add in a digital music aggregation platforms, and suddenly your music goes to 30 different places most of which not even *you* are aware of. And even if spotify is well known, a smaller percentage of the music listening public have access to it than would be the case with book buyers and amazon.

So if a tail has been lengthened but no one ever hears about it (or even knows to search for it) does it exist?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yeah, between soundcloud and any number of other options self-publishing in music is far, far easier. I spotted the general state cited over at Slipped Disc but Lebrecht and company didn't link to the Economist article on the one hand or mention much more than the number. A commenter put it this way, the longer tail may just be all the stuff that people can self-publish via laptop and garage work that in previous eras would never have made it past the A&R process in a more traditional music industry practice. A dry way of saying that longer tail of unlistened-to stuff may be stuff that doesn't need to be heard yet that some streaming services just grabbed.

On the business side of things it seems a lot of musicians actually hate streaming because of the grisly-low rates paid. Ted Gioia had a recent piece that may have been slightly alarmist about how streaming seems to have supplanted owning albums in which he argued that if no one is buying music as such because they stream everything the way we share music may be negatively changed. I'm not entirely sure I can agree with that. Digital download albums have the big drawback of not being on a physical disc, perhaps, but for public domain works by Dvorak or Tallis there's the gigantic advantage that the digital download version of an album can cost a tenth the price of getting the same content in traditional discs sets.

ANd since I'm into obscure chamber music for classical guitar by composers from central and eastern Europe the digital age means that there are works I can hear I literally couldn't hear about or hear in any other way. It means sometimes I only know of an album because I get an email announcement, but that's what I love about this era. The vast sea of obscurity can be offset, at least for musicians and composers, by the removal of friction in contact networks.

So it's nice to be in a position to hear that Koshkin's no doubt fantastic cycle of preludes and fugues for solo guitar is in the pipeline for publication through Editions Margaux, for instance. :) And if there's a digital album of everything Tansman wrote for guitar it's fun to be able to listen to that. That said Brilliant Classics can be downright awful about metadata for track listings in spite of having some fantastic recordings of recent guitar music.

chris e said...

Back in the -era there was a trend where artists started to mass produce their demo tapes for sales to fans before they actually had a 'proper' album recorded. The increasing viability and falling cost of computer based recording made this more common, and they shifted towards EPs in CD format, and when the likes of Orchard and IODA came on stream to 'itunes' or whoever [as an aside, a lot of them never realised that the aggregators were pushing their music into other venues, as iTunes was the only thing on their radar. In the current era, some of them will not even be aware that their stuff is on spotify or neither might their fans].

So in general there is some truth in the idea that a lot of the music is stuff that would not have made it through the A&R process. Simultaneously though, there was the rise and fall of the independent label, and the introduction of platforms like CDBaby as either a sole or alternate means of publication for those who found the label process to onerous (there are a large number of jazz artists who essentially self publish because of past woes with the industry).

I think in general the idea that streaming is unsustainable is probably correct at some level - I think there are a whole bunch of artists in the middle who do fairly badly from it, either because they are signed up to traditional music labels and the model of streaming involves a fairly significant revenue drop for them, or because recorded output is their primary output.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'd read that streaming has been kinda bad for Portishead because of the low rate of pay. Taylor Swift's game of chicken with Apple over revenue for royalties suggests that even for the top income earners streaming is an issue, maybe not for them personally but as a concern about the industry as a whole.

It might be slightly different for "classical" composition because of commissions and endowment but Taruskin's comments over the last twenty years have been that to many people in this part of the industry have taken the gravy train for granted--his particular polemic has been the gap between the repertoire canon (what people actually want to buy) and the academic canon (what professors regard as respectable to teach). So there may be a group of composers and musicians who are able to do stuff they like because they're ensconced in an academic scene that lets them imagine they're more artistically free/viable than they might be because they're tied to university scenes.

Iverson links to it over here