Buggy Whips, Part 5

So it appears that, whatever else, the (somehow still) shambling corpse of the record selling industry has landed on streaming. I mean, they’ve been circling for awhile, so there’s not necessarily anything new to report there (especially not with 2016 being, as reported, the lowest-selling year for records across formats since the dawn of the SoundScan era – about which see below). But with the forces of the industry (or at least the most visible and vocal part of the forces of the industry) themselves galvanizing around Apple Music and Tidal (soon, if reports are to be believed, to be one entity, mirroring the satellite radio merger of a decade or so ago), and foursquare against YouTube, it’s fair to say that the support is in the camp of the elite, preferred streaming services over the people’s chosen service1, continuing in a now century-long pattern of trying to force people out of easily-shared, easily-reproduced recorded sound and into difficult-to-mange, highly-proprietary forms2 – YouTube must be bad, because there’s no way to funnel the content, so you’ll have to use AppleTidal.

1 One of the things that could, potentially, come out of this is a new, useful metric for what popularity actually means, and also what’s going on with how music is consumed. That will be interesting, and is practically inevitable, given how much of the record selling industry is devoted to tracking and making use of that kind of numbers. But even without a hard measurement, it is still apparent that YouTube has a great many more listeners than anything else – estimates show it as a matter of several orders of magnitude, and even the available anecdata suggests that there aren’t very many people at all who have ever used YouTube that haven’t used it to listen to music in some fashion.
2 this battle is literally as old as the ability to sell physical reproductions of music, and includes sheet music, Edison cylinders, every cassette format, vinyl records, CDs, and several dozen abandoned formats that were meant, for one reason or another, to be the future.

I mean, there’s always going to be someone making money off of selling the artifacts and experiences associated with listening to music. The absurdity here is not that the corporations formerly in charge of selling records want to get more revenue out of people’s listening behavior (which is what they’ve always done), but rather that they’re trying to build a barn and coax all the horses back into it by offering them less product for more money, with the promise of “exclusivity” with, I don’t know, fancy carrots or something3. The point of which is, they’re doing what they always do.

3 I mean, horses are proverbially associated with carrots, right? I’ve never eaten dinner with a horse. I prefer to dine in more formal settings.

The idea, of course, starts from a flawed place. This Pitchfork piece does a good job of outlining the problem in this kind of thought4, which is the idea that the revenues should climb back to where they were in the physical scarcity, radio-controlled nineties. Leaving aside, for now, the idea that this winner-takes-all, lottery-ticket approach to running bands worked for functionally no one5 that to say “this system is what’s best for the artists” is only possible to sell to people that aren’t really paying attention. If you’re interested in the vagaries of why that argument, people have written at great length and with great passion about it. Most of them are in ground-level bands that have a better artistic life as a result, and their words aren’t hard to find.

4 it also does a good job of illustrating the problem with Pitchfork (or any other big construct taking charge of reportage on such matters – it’s not unique to Pitchfork), which is that it’s got a huge stake in being part of the promotional mechanisms of the record-selling industry, and is therefore bound to their interests.
5 that is to say, it worked for such a teensy percentage of people, many of whom are now, unsurprisingly, the people who are coming out strongest against YouTube and in favor of the old-guard-controlled streaming platforms, that statistically it works out to just about nothing. In the case the apparent discrepancy is that the people for whom it worked are so high-profile, and penetrate the culture so deeply, that there’s no easy way for people who aren’t specifically interested in this problem itself*
* “this problem itself” being perhaps best expressed as “How do the arms of industry come to enfold artistic output in an economy that favors industrial qualities over personal ones and how, given that those arms have (largely) been pried off and the content itself wrested out of their control and into the control of the people listening, do those arms reassert themselves?” This is the central question of the Buggy Whips piecesa, so of course the first time I’ve ever typed it out, I’ve buried it here in a footnote. Obviously.
a a title which is, itself, short for “Boy, the Automobile Sure Put a Lot of Buggy Whip Salesman Out of Business, Didn’t It?”

No, I’m more interested in dragging out people that were successful at the end of the record industry boom, and talking about how the end of the physical-medium era6 is going to spell the doom of all popular music everywhere. The boom at the end of the nineties was not a real thing. Oh, it really happened. There’s no denying that. But it was a confluence of two marketing rivers, and sustaining it was never really an option – people engineered a system whereby a bunch of people could make a bunch of money, and are now in the process of acting like they were entitled to it the whole time (and still are).

6 this is an imperfect thing to call it. People still buy music on physical media, and I’m very much one of them. It’s merely meant to differentiate between now and an era where there was literally no choice.

For several decades, the record-selling industry controlled the radio, and even used the radio to shift the way the public bought records7, and then, over the next couple of decades (from about the early seventies to the late nineties), used it to tighten their control over what happened – they were so capable at that point, that even when music videos and a growing network of underground music distribution and touring channels had opened up through the eighties, they were still pretty well primed to absorb the change in consumer habits (i.e. Hip-hop and a shift in rock music away from glam or whatever you’re going to call it8). Hell, the third major change came from the industry itself – when they moved away from the self-reporting era of tracking record sales and started using SoundScan, which actually tracked items at the point of sale, they discovered that a bunch more people were buying country records than they had previously thought9. All of which was easy to move around in, because it was just a matter of resupplying the existing radio stations (who depended on the product being marketed by the radio promoters) with whatever kind-of-different thing they could find while they figured out how to retool the existing mechanisms around the new sound10.

7 through a fairly long story that isn’t really worth opening all the way up, but it has to do with using the concurrent forces of popular record criticism (Rolling Stone, et al) and FM radio to convince people that singles were kid stuff and serious grown-up people bought albums. Please note at this point, also, that not everything the record-industry ever did to sell more stuff was bad, and I’m not arguing against format length, of all things.
8 I am uninterested in differentiating between strains of glam music. I fyou have big dumb hair and spend as much time on your stage choreography as you do playing your instrument, you play glam music and I almost certainly am not interested.
9 the country boom, at least in the beginning, was actually less a “boom” in popularity and more of a “boom” in knowing that it’s being sold, and thus more effectively marketed. It’s worth noting that country records are among the only ones that sell consistently across a genre.
10 the evidence of this, in addition to the aformentioned country music thing, is the brief period where super-weird but tameable bands made major-label records in the nineties: the move away from one hard rock form (glam) to another (grunge) meant something of a vacuum in the minor leagues (i.e. the bands that were using the structures of the underground to pretend to be a real band until the label deal came along), which meant money was dangled in front of people to make careerist, possibly-lucrative moves. Obviously very few of them worked, but, y’know, it was a weird time anyway.

With an ability to move so (relatively) quickly, the radio maintained dominance over what was heard, and thus created a direct channel for everything that was easy to find, and was able, therefore, to allow radio listeners to construct the illusion that what they were hearing was everything there was, and that they therefore didn’t have to do much other looking around11, but also that if they wanted to not rely on the capricious and fickle tastes of radio programmers (disguised as popular opinion/other listeners), they would have to go buy the records anyway. That’s where the CD stores come in.

11 it is at this point that I will go ahead and say that that is kind of a broad stroke – I don’t think I know anyone who only heard new music on the radio, even if you include MTV or whatever as a sort of visual radio. The point is more that it was easier, then, for the people selling records to rely much more heavily on the radio than it is now.

The CD was a boon to everybody. It was the fancy portable format of the future – it necessitated buying new equipment on which to play it, it necessitated buying all of your music yet another time12, on top of which they were the most portable format – they were so small, and could be kept easily in a binder as opposed to the clunky, oppressive cassette tapes. Cassette tapes were never much in favor, at least not from the record-selling industry itself13, but even so, it was now possible to make it so that people had to buy their music all over again if they wanted to listen to it in their cars or whatever (when they weren’t listening to the radio, of course).

12 it would be interesting, I suppose, to know if they ever considered the long-game benefit, also: while much of the early CD marketing included hyperbole about the durability of CDs, they’re also a format that will corrupt if you do nothing at all to them, all by themselves. That sort of temporariness must have been an enticement, even if the format didn’t dominate for quite long enough to take full advantage of it.
13 they had less than a decade as the dominant format (tapes started outselling records circa 1985, CDs started outselling tapes in 1993), and they started out, basically from their introduction, as the bogeyman by being the means of people sharing music with each other without industry intervention, hence the “home taping is killing the music industry” campaign from the eighties – but with portability, size and convenience covered by the new format, they fell spectacularly*.
to be revived a few years ago by well-meaning but frustrating young people who run tiny labels and put out music on cassette for reasons that remain baffling to me.

Regardless of any number of reasons14, the CD took off. And while there was a booming business in catalog reissue (more on this in just a moment) – you already own Brothers in Arms, but do you on Brothers in Arms on CD? – there was also the fact that CDs were quicker, easier and cheaper to make15, so there were new ones more quickly. The sheer number of pop stars16 There were more radio stations, ticketmaster was making it possible for labels to prop up more bands, and the end result was that there was a huge amount of music that was being marketed at whoever you were, and you needed to buy more of it just to keep up.

14 someday I may write about why I think the “skip” button is more responsible for much of what follows than it gets credit for, but this is not that day.
15 part of the speed with which they could be made was due to some extreme, nigh-unbelievable (but for the fact that it actually happened) mishandling on the part of the actual mastering of the recordings, but that’s another story for another time.
16 ”pop stars” in the general sense – this is not only the era of boy bands and Britney and all, this is also the era of the pop-stars-as-rock-bands that included the rap-rock morons and the apres-grunge nonsense that clogged the radio in the late nineties.

And then the genius happened! What if we could make everybody buy everything again – if, by using the hold they had on the magazine publishing world, and the idea of classic rock radio, they could convince everyone that not only did they have to get the catalog items in addition to the new things that were coming out at an alarming rate, they should also get the super-deluxe-expanded reissue version with bonus tracks and a live album and seventeen minutes of Glenn Frey coughing into a microphone and everything! In glorious remastered sound17! At the same time, labels started churning out inexpensive “Greatest Hits” collections (Sony BMG’s Essential series and UMG’s 20th Century Masters are the two that spring directly to mind), some of which were…. let’s say particularly inessential, but were an easy way to scrape a few more dollars out of the market that still somehow existed for Rainbow (or whoever – seriously just about everyone got one of those frigging things).

17 to be fair, I mentioned in FN15 that some of the early CD mastering closely resembled a Three Stooges film, and it was a good thing for many of these records, which had botch-job CD masters. Sometimes it’s necessary, or at least welcome. Again, not every marketing idea is a terrible one. I’m also not going to touch really on SACD, or those weird dual-discs, or any of the other gimmicky marketing formats that proliferated and, largely, died. They’re special cases, and there’s not much point in considering them.

The upshot of all of this is that, no matter who you were, there was literally as much content being marketed at you as someone could think of18. That in and of itself is good, but the more lucrative aspect of it is that they controlled the price of the objects they were flooding in (and crowding out the other, non-industrial product by result). Since the radio is controlled by very few people, and they’re the people who are currently convincing you to 1) buy their new product and 2) invest heavily in their catalog, you ended up with a captive audience who you could convince they needed to have it all, and would pay a lopsided amount of money17 to do so.

18 one of the worst effects of which was crowding the physical shelf space – which was an important consideration when it was actual, physical space being taken up – so that the people who were releasing actually good product, who did exist, and, generally, continue to be great to this day, and couldn’t afford the same kind of grift to get it in there, were left to compete for less space.
17 the price of CDs was always something of a sore spot – there was a lot of vocal complaint about it at the time, and there were times when it was patently absurd ($18-19 for a regular old new release)

And then that stopped being the case. The internet enable you to hear about things outside of the carefully-policed channels18 much more easily, as well as the ability to hear more things – outside of the radio or television – than you were before, largely at your own direction. I probably don’t have to detail all the ways that the internet changed the ease and simplicity of finding what you were interested in, rather than just what was brought to your attention by organizations with huge amounts of money. The end result being, of course, that organizations that had previously not been particularly associated with the provision of musical content to listeners (Apple, Amazon, any of several dozen startups of various stripes, including the might Bandcamp and Discogs) entered the fray, and altered the market in a way that was so fundamental way it changed the way people think about and interact with music. And what was once “piracy”19 became “the way that we share music” in a lot of ways.

18 this was always possible, of course. If people hadn’t gone out of their way to hear things that weren’t specifically supported by the industry itself, there’ wouldn’t have been any kind of sea change, because there wouldn’t have been a thing to change to.
19 Avast, ye swabbies! I’m boardin’ your mizzenmast! Yo you got that Kevin Gates on your mizzenmast?

So for the last eighteen or so years, the record selling inudstry has been left playing what they call a game of catch-up. There were stopgap measures in the form of iTunes (and, eventually, Amazon), where you could pay for the songs individually, at the control and permission of the same people that were filling the record stores previously, but it turns out that what people actually like is the ability to listen to the radio, or an even better, improved facsimile thereof. Enter Pandora (which billed itself as a radio station, or rather a series of interlinked radio stations, and suffered greatly for their existence), and, eventually, the stream-on-demand services that are currently battling it out. They leave inventory management to someone else ,they enable you to hear whatever you want (kind of) whenever you want to (mostly), and you don’t have to worry about paying a la carte, or keeping track of whatever it is20. It trumps the convenience of basically anything else, and convenience has been proven, time and time again, to be the primary force behind these consumer decisions21.

20 as a brief editorial aside, things like Spotify and, yes, YouTube are great for hearing new things, or for listening to half-remembered old things, or for occasionally listening to things I don’t care about enough to entertain spending money on them. I used to own CDs that I had bought in case I wanted to hear something somewhere down the line*, and now there’s YouTube. But for things I actually care about, I’m probably going to spend some money on them so at the very least I have access to the files themselves (if it’s really important I’m going to shell out for something physical), because all of the libraries of content that are currently streaming are doing so at the pleasure of a company or a set of people who have nothing vested in my musical best interest, and it’s better to rely on yourself in that situation.
* I freely admit this is a completely insane practice, but I was a weird young person, and also I knew a bunch of other people that were also doing the same thing, so it seemed somewhat less insane at the time.

21 as opposed to things like permanence (actually, the history of recorded media has, at least for the last few decades, been a tale of a journey toward impermanence), sound quality (despite the record selling industry’s continual arguments otherwise) and, y’know, actual quality.

And, of course, that’s a tremendous garden to try to build a wall around, so it’s an uphill struggle to fight against the forces that are keeping people from driving down to Best Buy to buy a Coldplay record or whatever. So the trick is to start your own services – Apple Music and Tidal, in this case – and convince people that these are the things you “should” use to listen to music (they are the things that are the most expensive for the least content), and they’re doing what they always do: tacitly implying that the problem is you, by attacking (now) YouTube22.

22 after this very tactic failed to sink Pandora, or Spotify. I guess it did take Grooveshark and, in the long-ago, Napster.

You see, there’s no real evidence that people aren’t just doing what they’d do naturally. The technology allows them an unprecedented ability to do it – that is, listen to whatever they want whenever they want at the point of lowest effort and lowest cost to themselves – and the audience, such as it was, is no longer captive. So now there’s a big “A Bunch of People You’ve Heard Of” petition being signed, and YouTube has thrown the sop of YouTube RED23, and I’m sure by the end of the year there will be some highly public “treaty” or whatever governing (or, well, “governing”) the way YouTube and the record selling industry interact.

23 which, I will admit, is attractive because it includes the feature where you can pay some money to have YouTube videos play on your phone without keeping the app actively open and the phone on the whole time, something that has plagued the YouTube phone app for as long as there’s been one. Plagued, I tell you.

All of which requires a lot of song and dance because, really, what they’re saying is that you, the person who watches music videos, the person who streams stuff rather than buying it, the person who plays Pandora at their office, the audience and consumer base for musical product, are wrong in your behavior. In actuality, the thing the record selling industry should probably realize – as many, many industries based around outmoded ways of doing things have had to realize before – is that the nature of their music business has changed. That things were good for them (and for the highest-level recipients of their business practices, i.e. the people signing petitions and whatnot) beyond all possible reasonable measure, but they aren’t now, and it’s time to become a different thing. It’s going to have to happen inevitably (and it is happening, in its way – the transition to industry-supported streaming is at least an acknowledgment that people are listening to music differently, even if it comes with a pile of blame and stuff), and that spending the intervening time shouting at people to stop doing what they’re doing and give them a bunch of money like they used to24.
24 there are also economic realities at play – there was, for a large amount of time in this particular dramatic movement, a recession going on. These have, at least traditionally, ended in a new dominant consumer format – the recession in the 80s, after all, ended with the CD on its way to ascendency, if not already ascendent. The reasons for that particular thing – the shift in consumer media formats at the end of a recession – is probably due to multitude of factors, and they are probably worth looking at at some point, but maybe not right here in this footnote.

So they’re trying to get people to shovel money at them by dint of rarifying the content itself – Tidal is a single point of sale (its revenue is solely through the membership you’re buying), so the opportunities to increase the value of that sale are focused on exclusives, and on keeping content off of other services – at least putatively, and at least at first. Apple music is slightly more vertical – you can still buy the songs on iTunes, after all, and thus focuses largely on being the first to play something, and on the curatorial sort of nature of its centerpiece, Beats 1, a kind of streaming-based radio station (more like a satellite radio station than a terrestrial radio station). In both cases, the idea is to get people in the door with something they want, then rely on inertia to keep them there25. It doesn’t take much to notice that these two complement each other as services, and so a merger would be beneficial (largely to Apple, but it would present an option other than “slow failure” for Tidal). And, although I try not to make serious predictions in this space26, my best guess would be that whatever is brewing with YouTube is going to be another attempt to wall something off, and that it will (because it’s the Google way) probably be tied to or merged with one of Google’s other dumb music services.

25 to point out that it hasn’t worked is true, but also kind of unfair: as of the time of this typing, not a single streaming service has turned an actual profit.
26 largely because they tend not to be correct, and there’s very little point in an incorrect predicition

And all of that, however it shakes out, will last until the next time the technology changes, at which point this will all happen again, with whatever remains of the record selling industry once again pointing the finger of blame at people who are only really interested in hearing the damn things. But things are unlikely to become more difficult to hear, or even more difficult to buy27. It’s hard to put those horses back in the barn, no matter how much money you have available to try, and even so, it’s unlikely that it’s going to lead to the sort of return to the Glorious Nineties that the record selling industry would like. But regardless of all that, it’s never the customer’s fault when an industry has to change the way it operates, and it’s definitely nobody’s fault but the people involved in falsely inflating the whole thing with the expectations that revenues would never fall.

27 I can count on one hand the number of times I have, as an adult, gotten interested in a record and found no way to buy it. Sometimes cost was a factor, but it was never actually impossible, or even particularly difficult beyond the dollar amount.

And really, this schismatic change in the way the industry has to operate is leaving aside the most obvious function of the whole thing – when the record selling industry was in charge of the promotion, distribution and sale of an overwhelming portion of the product (or at least that which was visible to most people), it was hard to know that there were things available that were more to your taste than the things presented, and you made more compromises (which, in this case, means that you paid more money to the people doing the promotion, distribution and sale). Now it’s as easy as finding a bandcamp site, or a tumblr, or a soundcloud page28, all of which are ven before you get to the nigh-infinite repository of YouTube. That’s going to naturally fragment the audience – when you can’t funnel people into the same three things and expect them to choose the one that is the most like something they might like, and instead they have access to exactly what they’re looking for (or a reasonable approximation thereof), those first three things are going to lose a lot of customers.
28 although it must be said that, as a result of these very fights, Soundcloud is kind of transitioning into something less useful. It’s difficult to tell how hamstrung it will ultimately be, but there’s already a bunch of unhappiness with the way it’s turning out.

Of course, all of this notwithstanding, it’s possible that, for the time being, gaining some measure of control of streaming services could grant the powers that sell the kind of stability they’d like to launch the next wave of promotion (as opposed to having to shotgun Event Marketing everything that sells). Until the next time the technology people use to listen changes, at which point we’ll return to this point, squabbling over the price of buggy whips.  

One thought on “Buggy Whips, Part 5

  1. Pingback: A Considered Look at Every Inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part 1 | Ohio Needs a Train

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