The True Value of Music

The blogosphere has been buzzing ever since U2 manager Paul McGuinness gave his talk at MIDEM in which he explained that:

he believed the Silicon Valley culture and its ecosystem had to undergo a cultural shift, noting the original “hippy values” of the west coast technology pioneers in the late 1970s and their internet equivalents in the late 1990s.

“Embedded deep down in the brilliance of those entrepreneurial, hippy values seems to be a disregard for the true value of music,” he said.

Evidently he believes ISPs have a responsibility to stop P2P music exchange, although:

He said his plea was not made from a position of self interest, pointing out that U2 had sold more than 150m records and grossed $355m on their Vertigo tour.

Where to begin? Well, others have been tearing this apart on many grounds, but I want to take a stab at “the true value of music.”

I used to work in a record store. When they switched from vinyl to CDs, the labels raised the prices dramatically although we all knew the actual production costs went down. The music business has never had any moral claim to recognizing, honoring, or promoting “the true value of music.”

When I read McGuinness’s comments, I wondered, as I often do these days, when it happened that the industry came to believe it has an inherent right to speak for Music. Or, perhaps more honestly, how it came to believe that, in its current incarnation, it has an inherent right to exist at all.

People have been around for a very long time. Tens of thousands of years. Music has been around for most of that time. Every culture managed to invent it, even without professionals to help them manage it. Miraculously, despite the absence of music industry professionals, for all those years music created connections within communities, music enhanced spirituality, music provided entertainment, music moved, music taught.

And then, not that long ago historically speaking, recording technology came along and businessmen got involved. And now they seem to think they own the stuff. And I’m sorry, they may own some copyrights and they may have fronted some of the costs of making physical objects and moving people around on tour. But they don’t own music. And they don’t have a right to own the business of music. If their model is failing it’s in part because they have put the true value of music below the true value of money.

Yes, it’s good if musicians can make enough money on their music to do what they do for a living. But the true value of music is priceless. The challenge is how to reinvent the business of music given a technological ecosystem that includes the internet in a way that allows musicians to receive appropriate financial reward for their efforts (something the industry has often prevented, just look at all those poor people who wrote hit songs of early rock ‘n’ roll). The challenge is not to save the music industry as it currently exists.

On another note, I recommend that in the future before lambasting those hippy valley 1970s tech pioneers, Mr. McGuinness read up a bit on internet history, like how it started well before the late 1970s, and how those “hippies” were motivated by military security concerns. And seem now to be motivated primarily by capitalistic wealth-accumulation concerns. Now there’s a pair of hippie causes! Janet Abbate’s book Inventing the Internet is a good starting point on internet history.

But why learn when you can blame? Blame is so much easier!

Fans, Translation, and Cultural Flow

My favorite band, Madrugada, has released a new record. It’s an emotionally-loaded time for them and their fans: their guitarist, whose contribution to their sound cannot be replaced, passed away last summer, just a month after most of this record had been recorded. The surviving members returned to the studio, finished the record, and have just released it to fawning reviews.

As a fan, I find myself tremendously moved by the music and eager to consume anything that will enhance its experience for me.

The challenge is that Madrugada are Norwegian, and the only media covering them are Norwegian. I don’t speak Norwegian.

But on their fan forum, fans are dutifully and rapidly translating article after article into English so their international fan base can be as informed as they are. While it may be fun for some of these people to get to practice their English skills (which, I might add, are humblingly good), their effort is extremely generous — the rest of us have nothing to offer in return but gratitude.

These translating fans are making critical contributions to extending Madrugada beyond Norwegian borders. On their MySpace page, part of a new entry reads:

And thanks to you Madrugada are charting on iTunes stores: 1 Norway and Greece, 20 Sweden, 23 Germany, 34 Switzerland, 44 Netherlands. Considering it is the fans who know as there has been no radio or press outside Norway.

Against this backdrop, I was interested to see Henry Jenkins’s report on a conversation he had with a journalist in Shangai:

She notes that some of the amateur media fan groups in China can translate as many as twenty television shows a week, suggesting how Prison Break fits within larger patterns of cultural practice. She noted that the technical languages used on contemporary procedurals such as CSI and the slang used on many American programs posed particular difficulties for Chinese translators, who had mastered textbook English but had less exposure to more specialized argots.

Add translation to the list of fascinating ways fans are reshaping global entertainment flows and global entertainment flows are reshaping fans.

Big News From users may have noticed that the 2-toned indicators of whether a song could be streamed in its entirety or for only 30 seconds changed colors today. The small aesthetic shift is a sign of a much larger one announced on the Blog today:

Something we’ve wanted for years—for people who visit to be able to play any track for free—is now possible. With the support of the folks behind EMI, Sony BMG, Universal and Warner—and the artists they work with—plus thousands of independent artists and labels, we’ve made the biggest legal collection of music available to play online for free

In shades of Zune, after you stream a song 3 times, you will get a message about subscribing.’s subscription status, which once offered special features worth subscribing for or at least instilled a sense of supporting an indie upstart but which came to be of all but useless, is also being revamped:

The soon-to-be announced subscription service will give you unlimited plays and some other useful things.

And finally, artists will be paid each time a song streams. Artists can upload their own music and be paid directly.

Monetizing streamed plays means that artists whose music endures will continue to be paid over the long haul, not just in initial sales.  It also creates a strange incentive to subscribe and listen to their streams even if one owns an album — if I listen to my own copy, they don’t get paid, but if I listen to their copy, they do.

Calling my music biz readers

picture-1.pngI’m going to be keynoting next month at by:Larm, which is basically Scandinavia (especially Norway)’s version of SXSW — big music conference with talks in the day and concerts in the night. I’ll be talking, not surprisingly, about building community amongst and with fans.

I know some of my regular readers are musicians, run indie labels, or are otherwise involved in the music industry. I’m wondering if you might help me frame my talk by giving me some feedback on the main thing(s) you’ve gotten out of reading what I write about this topic, either in comments or emails. If you’d never heard me, what are the main things I’ve said or argued that you’d want to hear?

Mucho thanks in advance.

You Can’t Force Them To Come To You

As you have likely heard, Prince has been ruffling the righteous feathers of many fans lately by seeking the domain names of a number of Prince fan sites. The grounds are ‘intellectual property violations.’ Among the violations are photos of fan tattoos of images to which Prince holds the rights. Nevermind whose body they’re on.  You can follow the struggle from the affected sites’ POV on their site Prince Fans United.

In their year-end Pop review, the Telegraph offers their take on this, and on Prince’s move earlier this year to release his recent album as a free newspaper supplement:

What is being established is a new and more direct relationship between artist and fans, apparently with the intent of cutting out the record-company middleman, but it is not without its own complications. Prince gave his latest album away with a Sunday newspaper, using it effectively as a marketing exercise for his fantastically well received 21-night live run at the O2 Arena .

It was a move that reflects the profitability of the booming live sector and, in many ways, marks a welcome shift towards performance becoming (once again) the principle source of income for working musicians. It is the one musical transaction that still requires all parties to show up in person.

But what Prince giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other, launching lawsuits against internet sites (including dedicated fan sites) for unauthorised use of his image. Suing your own fans is not usually considered good for business, but Prince may get away with it on account of his legendary eccentricity.

Prince’s unstated aim, in forcing YouTube (among others) to remove all footage of his performances, is not so much to control his image as to compel fans to come to him (and his own internet portals) for all Prince-related material.

If compelling your fans to come to you rather than building sites of their own isn’t control, what is? He may well “get away with it” but it would take some pretty hard evidence to convince me that he did not do damage to himself compared to where he would have been if he respected the fans’ dedication and let them do their thing.

To expect all the fans to come to you for all their needs is to misunderstand the internet, fandom, and what it means to have “a new and more direct relationship between artists and fans.” You don’t make new friends by insisting they always come to your house and do what you want to do. Sometimes you have to go to their houses and do what they want to do.

Fans like official sites. Fans also like — and many downright need — to build their own spaces where they create the culture.