Swinging Modern Sounds #46: The Distribution Problem, Part Two


Dave Allen is a formidable commentator these days on all things Internet, a sort of web 2.0 version of Marshall McLuhan: less New Age than Jaron Lanier, less Palo-Alto-Research-Center than Bill Joyce, less corporate than Mark Zuckerberg. There is a fierceness to him—he strikes first and warms up later—that makes him perfect for the job.

The above would make him a fine choice for a discussion of the distribution problem in music as it specifically relates to the Internet. Except that in calling Dave Allen an Internet strategist, or a pundit of the digital realm, or a high-tech agit-prop genius, you would be leaving out the job he had before that, when he was Dave Allen the bass player, first in Gang of Four (on their first two albums, and then for a couple of years during their reunion victory lap), and later in Shriekback. As such, he has experienced all of the vagaries of the music business as a player, producer, label owner, and now as a copyright owner of a great number of great songs from the seventies and eighties that are routinely streamed on Spotify, et al. Few people of my acquaintance (and we have known each other since I interviewed him on one prior occasion for Frederick Barthelme’s online magazine Blip) are better situated to talk about distribution and the difficulties thereof without romanticizing the story.

As part of my attempt to explore all aspects of modern distribution—and all of its possible positions and rationales—I talked with Dave for a few weeks by email. The results are herewith. As with all of Dave’s opinion pieces (of which more can be found at North, a Portland-based branding company where he works as a digital strategist), his responses here are heavily outfitted with links and citations, because he always gathers intertextuality in close to him, as though the Internet is somehow contained in his vest pocket. That’s part of what makes Allen such an exciting resource these days (and it’s why I can’t resist going back to find out what he’s thinking about on any given day): the web is in him and around him, and bends to his influence, whatever his subject is. See more below.


The Rumpus: What do you think music distribution will look like in ten years?

Dave Allen: Well, if a Nobel Prize–winning economist doesn’t have the answer

It’s often too easy to look at current technologies and believe that they are entirely new. This is a mistake, as “new” is usually built upon the foundations of something in the past. In the case of music, there has been a sense of doom for at least two decades now, that new technologies would tear the fabric of the music “business” asunder and all would be lost.

If we look back to the ’80s and the introduction of the CD, we’ll see that technologists have a knack for creating solutions to problems that don’t exist for everyone, just an initial subset. I’m not convinced that, at the time, the recording industry was seriously searching for a new way to deliver music to fans. I would suggest that they were talked into it by technologists who convinced the execs that there were new profit margins to be had by switching to a shiny disc with ones and zeros stamped on it. I say this because at its heart, the modern recorded music business is in it for profits more than the arts. The CD was supposed to deliver higher-quality audio—though really analog vinyl still sounds better. The CD did create an income bell curve for the labels, though, when everyone replaced their vinyl albums with this newfangled disc.

The CD didn’t put an end to vinyl records, as they were kept alive as a format by professional DJs, and they have been the only bright light for record labels recently, in terms of an uptick in sales of vinyl albums to young collectors. Meanwhile, those ones and zeros came back to haunt the business, as we now know.

The landscape for musicians has clearly shifted. And yet the past lingers on. The Internet offers unparalleled opportunity for them, but the benefits are only available in full if they control their own recording rights. The ball and chain of a label contract is often the reason for the failure of many musicians to truly adapt to the new platforms. The Internet offers the “container-less” ability to get music into music fan’s hands cheaply, quickly, and conveniently.

And then there’s the shift in the social construct: music fans, especially the younger crowd, don’t want to own music, they want convenient access to it wherever they may be. And so, Spotify. I believe that the rise of these music-streaming services is detrimental to the long-term health of the music industry. And yet the media are complicit in championing the services as some kind of savior of the industry. Musicians are complicit too. Anecdotally speaking, the musicians I talk to here in the musician-rich city of Portland all use Spotify. Meanwhile, musicians and songwriters get peanuts in terms of payment from music-streaming services, unless they own their own digital catalogs, which is rare.gangoffour2

The problem: most streaming-music services tend to be unprofitable and require financial backing to survive. The large labels have an advantage over musicians, as they take an investment slice of the services. And as the labels are licensing the catalogs to the services, artists, under the terms of most contracts, only receive 50 percent of their standard royalty rates. And 50 percent of .00000000000056 cents per stream isn’t a lot. Then we see a service go public, e.g. Pandora. Pandora is barely profitable, and yet it opened on the stock market at $20 per share and became valued at $3.2 billion! This article says Pandora will never be profitable. And then, of course, there is Apple’s iTunes Radio service that will disrupt Pandora’s plans. And in its royalty battle with ASCAP, Pandora recently purchased an FM radio station!

As I write, Pandora’s stock is at $13.79. Pandora, as a public company, has to return profits to its investors. That’s been difficult, apparently. Subscriptions and advertising in the stream are a ridiculous business model (though venture capitalists still back that model), so no wonder Pandora is simply sputtering along. And then, without any sense of discernible irony, Pandora has been lobbying the US government to reduce the amount of payments they make to labels!

Meanwhile, Pandora’s Tim Westergen, perhaps rattled with regards to the upcoming Apple iTunes radio competition, unloads his company stock to the tune of $1 million a month. Divesting his shares may have been his plan all along, but the timing looks strange. I’d like to add here that none of this should be perceived as an ad hominem attack on Westergren. When I first met him, at my former online independent music company offices in Portland, he was very excited about Pandora and how it would bestow great things upon independent artists and would be great for their careers. Those words, surely spoken in honesty but also coming from the mouth of an entrepreneur, seem very hollow to me today as a music copyright owner.

So what are musicians supposed to do? Nothing. Unless they own the rights to their own digital catalogs, and better yet, own the rights to their own recordings and song publishing. Or are very successful. If the contracts between labels and artists are in place, then it is hard to make a bean out there, as we all know that digital-royalty income hasn’t filled the gap created by declining music sales. (This is where some indie musicians and labels will jump in with their own evidence of making money from digital payments—fair enough, as some do quite well, but it’s still a minority, a tiny minority.)

Ten years might as well be measured in light-years when it comes to guessing what technology will bring. This article says that digital will be the predominant revenue stream for media and entertainment companies by 2015. Let’s consider the demographics. Let’s say a host of five-year-old kids all over the world were blessed with an iPad Mini last Christmas. They will be fifteen in ten years. How will they want to access their music? How will they want to access any media? In ten years, maybe much less, we will be living in a hypermobile society, where by “mobile” I mean people not just the devices. It’s not hard to imagine everyone having a device in their pockets and purses that can access the Internet at all times. The margin for smartphone device sales globally is really huge, and Samsung and Apple intend to capture those margins, aggressively.

How does any artist, musician or otherwise, reach these mobile folks? That thought is one of the mainstays of my digital class at the University of Oregon: when discussing a mobile society in terms of technology, we have to ask, when trying to reach users: who, what, why, where, when? I doubt that most musicians ever sit down and consider who their audience really is, what they are doing, where they are doing it, and how to reach them. I think Thom Yorke, Beck, Amanda Palmer, The Weeknd, and Trent Reznor have this figured out. Yes, we can count them all one hand.

If the future of music distribution is still streaming-music services, then I will despair. If that’s the best technological innovation that engineering talent can come up with, then all is lost and, frankly, hopeless. Perhaps the good old-fashioned mix tape, sold on the streets of the five boroughs by aspiring hip-hop artists, now transferred to the web, is the way that artists can control their own music and distribution.

Rumpus: So the uptick in vinyl is an aberration in your view?

Allen: An aberration only if used as a metric against the vast drop in music sales. If that drop hadn’t occurred, no one would pay much notice to vinyl sales. I’d have to see what the data show, but I’d take a guess and say that the uptick is minor and not filling the gap. Hipsters and audiophiles enjoying the analog/tactile experience, I’d say. Alongside the vinyl sales, record decks have seen a sales uptick too. Meanwhile, the record industry is clutching at straws that are still soggy from last time they clutched them. Look at this [New York Times article] from February:

The music industry, the first media business to be consumed by the digital revolution, said on Tuesday that its global sales rose last year for the first time since 1999, raising hopes that a long-sought recovery might have begun.

The increase, of 0.3 percent, was tiny, and the total revenue, $16.5 billion, was a far cry from the $38 billion that the industry took in at its peak more than a decade ago. Still, even if it is not time for the record companies to party like it’s 1999, the figures, reported Tuesday by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, provide significant encouragement.

“It’s clear that 2012 saw the global recording industry moving onto the road to recovery,” said Frances Moore, chief executive of the federation, which is based in London. “There’s a palpable buzz in the air that I haven’t felt for a long time.”

Everyone is encouraged! Zero point three percent!

Here’s some links re: vinyl and vinyl album sales.

That last link points to an article that says vinyl is on the rise, but accounts for only 2.3% of total music sales. So…a ways to go!

Rumpus: Your own relative silence as a recording artist, in recent years, when you were a significant presence in postpunk for more than a decade, coincides with some of these changes in distribution. Is that a coincidence? Or do you yourself find it a fearsome thing to make and distribute music in this environment?

gangoffour1Allen: There are multiple answers to your question, but the most direct is that it is a coincidence with respect to the Internet’s disruption.

I don’t feel the need to make music currently, and I’ve felt that way for quite some time now. Personally, it is more inspiring to attempt to get my head around, and to try and write about, how some of the cultural institutions, not just music, have been reshaped if not completely destroyed by the Internet. Also I’ve always believed that having delivered Entertainment! and Solid Gold, the feather was inserted into the cap a long time ago. It’s a young person’s game too. I suppose you heard that Gang of Four is now Gang of One, as Andy Gill is going out with three session musicians. And if you remember, from our last interview, I mentioned setting up web cameras in our London rehearsal room to share our songwriting methodology live to the Internet…If Gang of Four were to start out today, I would be pushing real hard to share as much as possible for free across the web a la Radiohead. Fear of the Internet is Luddite in nature, and here I will refer to Paul Krugman’s recent remark: “The Luddites weren’t unskilled manual workers; they were skilled weavers and others who found themselves displaced by such technologies as the power loom.” Nothing new with Internet disruption, in other words.

Rumpus: I can follow the music-for-free distribution model in terms of generating a name for oneself and disseminating, but for every Amanda Palmer, there are dozens of bartenders and janitors and maîtres d’ making music they deeply care about and posting it on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, where no one much is paying any attention. They aren’t, it seems, gaining market share. So in the long run, is the free model a lasting fee-structure for the professional musician?

Allen: This question feels like leading the witness. The Internet cannot be rolled back. Everyone who wants to be in the marketplace, including musicians, has to adapt to the platform—or whither away. It’s been around in a public form for two decades now. That’s ample time for any creative person to adapt to it. If they haven’t adapted already, then they’ll be in real trouble adapting to the mobile platform.

As an author, you know that not every writer has talent and deserves to make money. It’s the same way with musicians. Musical talent is not democratically or genetically distributed. And now that musicians have to work hard to be heard, and have to market themselves and try and stand out in a crowded arena, then we’ll see who makes it and who doesn’t. I honestly believe that now, more than ever, the cream has a chance to rise to the top.

More early-morning thoughts: It dawned on me, as I was reading back through this, that in Europe, during the rise of punk and postpunk, the playing field was fairly level for aspiring rock stars. The welfare system was easy to manipulate for the jobless musician; city councils and governments invested in youth community centres and allowed music performances. The college and university touring circuits were robust. New Musical Express and Melody Maker were both widely read abroad. National radio in European countries, such as the BBC in Britain, had shows like the John Peel Show, which exposed new music to listeners, and if you sold enough records, you ended up on Top Of The Pops. Every musician had the same chance—not every musician was successful. And there was no Internet to blame.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that the Internet performs a sort of “natural selection” when everyone can hear everything online and decide what is worthy of their time and what’s not. So it’s a double-edged-sword situation. Your mediocrity or lack of talent is multiplied a thousandfold online, and conversely, it works the same for the talented.

So in my “if Gang of Four started today” example: if a younger version of me were as Internet-savvy as I am now—and I don’t see that as being impossible—then I would no doubt be the member of the band who worked all angles in an online and mobile world to get as many people as possible to hear Entertainment!, come to the shows, and buy our music. This is what the label system used to do, and in many cases, labels now expect the musicians to do it themselves. It means more work for the musicians. But so what? It was always hard to get a record deal, it was always hard to get an audience, and it was always hard to get paid. The biggest change is the Internet itself. But it is also the greatest opportunity for unsigned bands to make money. As I said in my first response, if a musician doesn’t sign away their copyright, they stand to be in a better financial position than those who do.

Rumpus: But it’s not the game-as-was if the big labels still exist, and if the total sum of available publicity online is in a zero-sum orientation, with the vast majority of publicity resources being deployed on behalf of fewer and fewer artists, most of them artists who appear on The Voice and American Idol, while most of what is otherwise produced or attended to is music made in the idiom of the web (on laptops, of bits of reconstituted sound with some synth patches)—that is, if all music is just an advertisement for a “survival of the fittest” modality. Saying, “This is how it is” is not unlike saying, “Capitalism may not be the fairest of all systems, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” A libertarian position, no? My assumption, my fervent belief, is that there is “free” music out there by musicians who are perhaps better than Mumford and Sons, which music is liable to go unheard, because there is not a system in place to help shepherd this music forward from the great wash of effluvium floating around on the web.gangoffour3

Allen: Okay, let me try and clarify. John Peel was probably one of the only radio DJs I know who tried to listen to everything, where everything was constrained by “what arrived in his mailbox” at the time. It is not humanly possible to listen to everything out there. No different today than it was in Peel’s day, I’d say. I know that it feels like there’s “more” to listen to today, but I’d check that thought by saying that the new platforms make it easier to notice that there’s a lot of music out there to be listened to, but not necessarily “more” than there ever was, except as a percentage of a bigger population giving rise to more people making music. And then mix in the ease of making music through technology—the “bits of reconstituted music with some synth patches” as you note. A slight aside: one thing that I do know about discovery of “new things” is that word of mouth from a best friend or an influencer is still the number-one most-trusted source of information, both online and off. You recently did it by describing to me how much you love the new Eno album.

I just don’t see a difference in how one gets discovered, talented or not. What if, when Gang of Four released Entertainment! on EMI and Warner, no one heard it because what little initial hype there was never occurred and radio didn’t play it, and we couldn’t tour the US…Surely that’s the same as if we started today, released Entertainment! to the web for free, and…nothing happened? Isn’t it the “system”? In the old days, the system was the labels (and their distribution and retail prowess) coupled with the nascent college-radio system. Today, it’s YouTube. And as for the publicity resources you mention above being unfairly distributed, it was always that way. The top-ten artists at any label got 90 percent of the marketing department attention, because they made 90 percent of the income for the label.

I don’t believe I’m being libertarian when I defend the Internet, and remember, the Internet doesn’t care, just like the flat car tire doesn’t care when you kick it. I am perhaps slightly leaning that way when I hear musicians say that the Internet is killing their careers. My position is that in an unfair world—where the only thing about the Internet that is scarce is attention, where the label system is in slow decline, where the audience is fueled by ADD—the Internet is a musician’s best hope for getting their music into people’s ears.

And let’s not forget the niche. The niche leads me to discover music on Bleep.com, where I bought Atoms for Peace on vinyl, and to order from Amazon, just yesterday, the remastered albums Dark Side of The Moon and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd on 180-gram vinyl. A quick glance at my iTunes playlists on my iPhone shows me Bombino, Blackdown, Burial, Chromatics, The Cinematic Orchestra, Danger Mouse, Bowie, Fever Ray, Kid Smpl, The Heartless Bastards, The Knife, Lonelady, Nightmares on Wax, Piano Magic, PJ Harvey, Raime, Stars of the Lid, Tussle, Washed Out, and The Weeknd. That’s just my playlists. I don’t need Spotify or Pandora, et al., to discover music. I listen to what my friends say they are listening to. Filter is the word. I filter, you filter. Everyone now needs a trusted filter. Just as it ever was.

[in a second, later email] I had some thoughts on my way in to the office this AM. Perhaps instead of attempting to solve, or at least come up with answers for, the unholy mess that has been created by the Internet and how people want to access their music, we should instead be looking at what happened in culture and society when the Internet arrived. Is its disruption like the switch from silent films to the talkies? From radio to television in the early sixties? Those were times when the platform shifts changed, and sometimes damaged, careers. If your voice was squeaky, you didn’t make the transition from silent film to the talkies. We know of the “faces for radio” joke. Television was the largest technological take-off ramp in American history, followed and matched only by the Internet and, now, smartphones and iPads. In other words, there is nothing new; technological advances always caused disruption.

And I’m reminded of David Ewald’s thoughts in my recent essay on the Future of Music: “Very few people really take a step back and look at all our parts in the system. Banner ads are only there because people have clicked them in the past. Advertising itself only exists because people buy the stuff advertisers push.” And, he continues, “While it is just a nugget of a thought, I think there’s something to a reminder that we created the system. Not just technology, not just artists, not just Google or advertising—the interconnectivity of all of us created this ecosystem. Each lever that gets pulled/pushed has an effect on other areas. In the music debate, access/convenience (in current forms anyway) means artists aren’t getting paid.”

One of the first industries to be crushed by the Internet was the small travel-agency business. I never heard the howls of outrage in defense of those businesses or teeth gnashing over the loss of thousands of jobs…so…

Why are musicians not adapting en masse? Or, why are they not outraged about being wronged? Where’s the rioting in the streets? Are they too busy enjoying Spotify? I bet they are. If you couldn’t make it in the talkies, did you not watch them? I doubt it. If musicians are really upset with not being paid, why are they not doing something about it? Why does an uncritical media cozy up to Pandora and have deep love for Spotify’s Daniel Ek?

Rumpus: I suppose I am ill-equipped, rhetorically, to debate the existence of the Internet with an Internet strategist. It would be unwise to attempt to do so. And yet, you have used anecdotal evidence, and so here is mine: an extremely good singer of my acquaintance, perhaps the very best singer I know, a woman of astonishing musical range and ability, is in fact these days making more money on her T-shirts than on her records, her shows, or her publishing, and though she would never complain, I believe she rues the fact that her career is essentially a t-shirt manufacturing business. To me, this is a shame, and I don’t believe it is her fault for not hustling enough. It is certainly not the case that she lacks talent, and you will have to trust me there. I believe that this problem is widespread, that the career in music is, these days, often a career in merchandising. And as someone who cares more about music than about T-shirts, I therefore pronounce popular music, as I understood it, so paradigmatically different from what I once loved (e.g., Gang of Four singing “Capital It Fails Us Now”) as to be an unrecognizable medium.

My wish is not to pretend the Internet does not exist at all, because that would, in fact, be like claiming the printing press does not exist. But neither do I think (a) that the Internet is beyond reproach, as you yourself have said above, and nor (b) do I think that the system should be beyond modification through some concerted effort. The EFF and its allies make like it’s ungentlemanly to, for example, introduce a sheriff on the frontier, to, e.g., prosecute copyright online, and I have never thought this was an entirely tenable position, and I think youngsters who insist on a post-copyright world do not know what they are asking for. The forces that shape the Internet itself—the streaming services, the web hubs, the creators of mobile devices—are oligarchical forces, corporate forces. And the oligarchical forces do not care what happens to the end user, as long as he uses. Your kind of idealism, a kind I certainly understand and respect, says of this state of affairs, “Do not be oblivious to the reality at hand,” which is great advice if you agree on the reality at hand. But what if you don’t agree?

I believe that the system with streaming services manifestly hurts musicians, and I think we both know this to be the case. I use your own factoid about Lady Gaga and the $127 dollar royalty check from European Spotify regularly. And then there was another such tidbit I saw recently: Q: Given income only from Spotify, how many plays would a contemporary musician need in order to manage minimum wage for one month? A: Four million plays per month. (Which means Psy is the only guy making any money.) The question, from my point of view, is: To what extent is there any incentive for oligarchical forces to modify the situation? They will always say they’re in it for the artists (except for Sean Parker, who says that Spotify has to remain “neutral” on royalties), but they aren’t really in it for the artists, even if the artists are where the revenue ultimately comes from. Sure, the artists should be better equipped to protest on their own behalf, but, you know, they are artists, not revolutionaries (and you are a great example here, coming from the band with the reputation for revolutionary slogans), and if the oligarchs control, to some extent, the media through which the debate happens, then it’s hard for those voices to be heard. You will say, I expect, that there are all kinds of blogs and other platforms, through which the musicians can assert their rights, but I will respond by saying that I think the proliferation of the Web, however democratic, does serve one oligarchical function: It atomizes dissent, and by atomizing dissent, it ensures that the unionizing tendency, a gathering of voices, happens only in a way that fails to challenge effectively oligarchical forces.

skrillexWhich leads us back to the same question: What’s next for music? Skrillex, to me, sounds like the music a Japanese lab rat would hear in its head just before being vivisected. To me it sounds like the sound of a hundred multinational corporations implanting a control chip in your brain. And yet this is the contemporary sound, to me, of a highly mobile streaming-music platform. I, for one, prefer the sound of someone playing an acoustic instrument in my living room. Maybe with a shitty little practice amp, just so people against the far wall can hear a bit. But then again, I still buy CDs. I bought some yesterday, in fact (the new Alvarius B., Colin Stetson, and Mats Gustafson, and a Hilliard Ensemble recording of Lassus). So I am one of those music people who is still purchasing the product. (I don’t have a smartphone either.)

Allen: Mmmm…I think we are in total agreement about artists such as your friend re: the decline of music sales and the advent of the Internet (two separate events in my mind), yet your anecdote unfortunately confirms what has always been true—most bands make more money selling T-shirts than they do selling CDs or concert tickets. The Gang of Four comeback tour netted us more income from T-shirt sales than CD sales, and we were selling our own CD at every show. Again, re: your friend, neither you nor she might want to hear that, yet making money from album sales has historically been very difficult. Beyond the advances that bands get for signing, money is hard to come by. I refer back to what I said in this thread earlier, once the labels stopped marketing bands as much as they used to, it became the band’s job to market themselves, mainly via the web. To put things in context the whole package is required: free samples of music online, live performance, social media activity that requires constant interaction with fans (although I do think it dreadfully unseemly to pull back the curtains on the mystery of rock), /t-shirts and music for sale at shows, etc., etc.

Meanwhile, the Internet is beyond reproach. It’s Internet users that are required to be ethical, not the Internet, as I wrote in the Oregon Humanities essay. Human behavior on the web is certainly a large problem, but changing human behavior is distinctly difficult. In defense of EFF et al, they are also not the problem. The copyright laws as they stand today after decades of tinkering by politicians and lobbyists (hello, Sonny Bono) are a shell of what they used to stand for. Two points of view about that intent here and here. And in defense of young people, they don’t even understand that when they “purchase” a CD or an album on iTunes, they don’t own it, they simply license it for their own use under the fair use doctrine. I don’t believe they are insisting on a post-copyright world at all. I’ve said this before, but— kids have grown up in a world of free: Facebook, MySpace, Napster, Gmail, Flickr, Instagram, and all the music streaming services. So the social contract shifted to “music ought to be free.” Of course, I don’t believe all music should be free, but if artists choose to make free music available, it’s their call.

I can only agree about the streaming services and royalties, but let’s not forget the sheer conservativeness of most recording artists and American youth. There’s no Bob Marley–style “Stand Up For Your Rights” here. For instance, why do musicians complain about infringements on the web while saying nothing about being reamed by the streaming services? And why does the media think streaming music benefits fans without questioning how it might kill music careers?

In the end, I have no idea what’s next for music. My gut tells me that eventually the recording industry will collapse in on itself like a giant black hole. It cannot be a sustainable biz model to deny artists their share of the financial transactions. You’ve come full circle to a place that I’ve been at for quite some time! By the way, you mentioned Skrillex, an artist I can’t listen to. I’m puzzled that the music media have no idea that by championing Skrillex as a dubstep artist, when he is patently not, they make a mockery of all music genres. The distinct lack of music “critics” with a deep knowledge of popular music is another disruption that harms culture.

Rumpus: Dave, in the end, I think that you and I agree about everything but means—I think saying the Internet is beyond reproach is, figuratively, a lot like saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” I think the possibility for change is there, can be there, will be there someday. And I figure that the music will get made, no matter what, because it comes from a deep place. The question is whether the profession of musician makes sense in the current environment, and can again. It is a ludicrous profession, in some ways, and the strike-it-rich American band model of old, long cherished by boys in the garage with their amps and drum kits, certainly doesn’t help with that.

Allen: I see your point on the gun analogy, yet guns are used for killing or harming people and are actually unnecessary for many reasons. The Internet is a critical resource that, yes, harms business and careers if used unwisely, yet at the same time it helps liberate society because of its open platform.

You mention change. Change could come in many ways, and for musicians the best way to avoid “piracy” or giving away “free stuff” is to release their music on vinyl only. Never create a digital file. Of course it is possible to rip an MP3 from vinyl too, but it makes it harder. And free comes with a cost if you have to spend time ripping vinyl records to MP3. It would be a start, but the dirty secret is that musicians themselves use Spotify and enjoy having their music on the service, as well as other services, because it makes them feel like they are participating in a cultural phenomenon. It’s like applying the poison to your own dinner every night.

That leaves the issue of how music fans want to access their music. Increasingly, they just want to rent it via these streaming services, and never own it.

Here I refer to Brian Eno’s POV on the recorded music industry:

I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate—history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.

My vision of heaven is a return to vinyl, though. Quality pressings, the warmth of analog, an uptick in record-player sales, and a shrunken, high-quality talent market that we all care to support. Just like the ’60s and the ’70s! One can dream…

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →