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On the Alleged Devaluation of Music: It’s Probably Better Than You Fear

Craig Havighurst recently posted an article at Cuepoint titled The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You ThinkIn the article, he explains how he feels “starving artists” have been affected negatively by circumstances beyond piracy and streaming royalties.

As I have done with another doom-and-gloom article before, I’d like to counter Havighurst’s points one at a time. Then, I will share some reasons why I feel working class artists have never had it better.

The Death of Context

“Digital music ecosystems, starting with Apple’s iTunes, reduced recordings down to a stamp-sized cover image and three data points: Artist, Song Title, Album.”

I share Havighurst’s nostalgia for liner notes, especially with regards to classical music, where historical context is important to the informed listener. However, the internet now serves as our listening companion. Why should I lament the omission of liner notes when I can access countless articles, both historically objective and critically subjective, from anywhere I happen to be sitting? If an artist or label wishes to offer their own comments regarding their recording, why not direct listeners to a web page? With bonus media, this page could be even more immersive than printed liner notes, and it’s much greener than manufacturing physical media. Another advantage of utilizing the web to complement your recorded work is a deeper engagement with your fan base.

All this said, I don’t see how a lack of liner notes affects “starving artists.” How many more units would they sell out of the trunks of their cars if they were able to provide more informative packaging?

Commercial Radio

“An ethos of musicality and discovery has been replaced wholesale by a cynical manipulation of demographics and the blandest common denominator…As with liner notes, this makes for more passive listening and shrinks the musical diet of most Americans down to a handful of heavily produced, industrial-scale hits.”

We all share a disdain for commercial radio. But how is the current state of radio different than it was before the advent of digital media? Let’s remove commercial radio from the discussion; it’s completely irrelevant to us “serious” musicians. What about internet radio? Here in Madison, we have a listener-sponsored community radio station that streams live via the internet. I can drive to their office and drop off a CD, or even simply email them a digital file, and if they put my music on the air I know it is potentially reaching listeners worldwide. If that isn’t an option, artists have the ability to broadcast themselves. Streaming services (set aside the concern over royalties for the moment) make it possible to reach millions without gaining the approval of a DJ or station manager. Conventional media is for conventional music. Today, “independent” doesn’t just mean unsigned; it means you need not kowtow to large corporate entities.

The Media

“In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music.”

Here is where I agree the most with Mr. Havighurst. We do have a problem with the feedback loop that exists between mass media and popular music. Thankfully, the listeners worth reaching — those who delight in bucking trends and discovering music outside the mainstream — care no more than us artists about what the media says. It is just as fashionable to voice one’s hatred for Justin Bieber as it is to be a fan of his. The press and the record labels often represent the same interests, so the media’s hyping of artists with mass appeal is shouldn’t be surprising. You can’t fix the media. But you can address the mass appeal factor. Why does banality sell? Educate the public, and hope for a resulting elevation in standards among large demographics.

Conflation

“iTunes started it by taking software ostensibly for collecting and playing music and morphing it into a platform for TV, film, podcasts, games, apps and so on. This is both a symbol and a cause of the dwindling meaning and import of music in the multi-media onslaught that is our culture.”

I am starting to detect a trace of anti-Apple fervor (confirmed by reading a bit of the author’s previous work). How does the conversion of a digital music player to all-in-one media player have anything to do with the plight of the suffering artist? One still purchases music in the Music section of the iTunes store, just as they once visited the Music section of their local Borders, or a record store that was one out of many unrelated shops in a mall — both of which, by the way, were not at all effective in selling locally produced music.

In fact, placing music albums on display alongside books and movies can be useful in cross-promotion. If I wish to release a book of tablature to accompany my album, wouldn’t it be useful for me to list both products in the same store, where a search for my name will bring both into view? What if an artist’s track was featured in a show or film?

Anti-Intellectualism

“Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied.”

Mr. Havighurst, your elitism is showing. Comments like this are one step away from belonging in /r/iamverysmart. As a rationalist, I fully understand the bogus nature of “heart versus head” talk. But even the most cerebral music of Bach and Webern evokes emotion. It’s the response that we count on in our listeners.

Also, again, how does this affect the independent artist? Based on Havighurst’s arguments, the industry is in fact in crisis, but only if you are a classical or jazz musician who wants to sell physical media and be heard on commercial radio.

Movies and Games

“How does a young person steeped in the faux-Shostakovich rumbling of a war game soundtrack hear real Shostakovich and think it’s any big deal?”

I was first inspired by the music of Carl Orff and Richard Wagner when I heard it in Excalibur. Later, I purchased the music. Just a couple of weeks ago, I drove past a marquee promoting a concert featuring music from The Legend of Zelda. When I last visited my local game store, the clerk was playing the Lord of the Rings soundtrack through the store’s sound system. At my comic shop, it was anime theme music. Film and video game music sells. The Minibosses are a popular band that covers video game music. I don’t see a conflict between music and other media here. Soundtracks sell albums and tickets.

Music in Schools

“As music’s been cut from more than half the grade schools in the US in a long, grinding trend, the pushback has been based increasingly on evidence about music education’s ripple effects on overall academic performance — the ‘music makes kids smarter’ argument. This is true and vital, but we tend to lose sight of the case for the value of music in our culture — that music education makes kids more musical. Those who internalize music’s rules and rites early in life will be more likely to attend serious concerts and bring a more astute ear to their pop music choices as adults.”

I could not find any data supporting the claim that music has been cut from more than half of all US grade schools. The only report available from the National Center for Education Statistics contains five-year-old data, and shows no decrease in availability year over year. There are plenty of op ed pieces online expressing fear over a decrease in funding, and one site that I found seems to misrepresent the data in the NCES report.

Americans seem to place music programs second to sports in priority, which is a pretty secure place to be. This means extracurricular programs like foreign language exchanges, science clubs, and drama clubs are more likely to suffer cuts. A marching band supplements an athletic program, and provides an outlet for less athletically inclined students to participate in an activity that bolsters their school’s public image. I do not see arts programs in major decline; hundreds of my undergraduate colleagues are still currently teaching somewhere.

I do strongly agree with Havighurst’s point that music programs must be supported for their own sake, and not just because it helps them achieve higher scores in other subjects. I shared some feelings of my own about this not long ago.

If there is a crisis in music education, it’s that we are teaching the wrong things to the wrong people. Directing a band is essentially a coaching job. You are training students who are already motivated to learn the subject in a physical skill. It does very little to address the problem of the music industry being laden with awful music  and independent (and “serious”) artists not thriving as they should. We would do better to educate non-performers in how to listen to music. I would prefer a school with no band, but mandatory music history and appreciation courses spanning several semesters, over the current model which includes band but only a single music appreciation elective at most.

Why Things Aren’t So Bad for Musicians

Let’s take a look at the reasons things are as good as they have ever been for working musicians:

Music is easier than ever to produce.

Modern recording technology places a recording studio on your desktop. With some training, anyone can produce their own album with little expense. Even without the equipment and training, studios can be rented by the hour. Labels pay high premiums to have popular producers work in big, over-equipped studios for very long periods of time only to crank out homogenized music designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In your private studio, you can create what you wish. For hundreds of dollars at most, you can have access to recording and mastering software that allows you to work at your pace without concern for deadlines. No executive need look over your shoulder to check that you’re delivering what he and his bosses feel the public wants to hear. Some expertise does help in ensuring that the final product sounds polished; but for every starving musician there is a starving producer.

Music is easier than ever to distribute.

Once your project is complete, it takes minutes to upload it to a distribution service. Within days, it can be accessed via Amazon, iTunes, and Google play, and streaming services like Spotify. The costs involved in digital distribution are a fraction of those we once incurred through CD duplication and printing, the design and printing of inserts, and retail packaging.

Music reaches larger numbers of people than ever.

Promotion is pretty much free of charge. With a Facebook page and YouTube channel, you can announce new releases on a grass roots level. Gone are the days of record store posters. Many web forums and user-contributed news sites allow the promotion of music that you’re selling. Streaming services include quick links to online stores.

Music is easier than ever to purchase.

Back in the days before digital media, I had to be present when my band’s CD changed hands. It was a physical thing that we took with us to gigs, where we asked our friends and significant others to manage a sales table. Now, artists are selling albums without any effort. Streaming sites turn listeners into buyers. Artists’ websites and social media pages make it possible for customers to buy their singles and albums with only a click, or a tap of the finger, wherever they are.

Sales margins are wider.

Independent artists may charge whatever they wish, minus a percentage to be divided among online stores and distributors. Their cut of the sales used to be pitiful. Touring was the cash cow; it was necessary for even the most successful artists to earn a living through ticket sales, with albums serving mostly as advertisement for the live shows. Now, an internet sensation can earn more with fewer units sold, without leaving her home town. And crowdfunding has sometimes even reduced the net cost of production to zero.

Music is easier than ever to learn.

In this discussion, we focus primarily on the sales of recordings. But for those of us in the trenches, local gigs are our bread and butter. If I need to learn a song that I like, I can purchase it in an instant. But sometimes I need to learn a song that I dislike. Why should I purchase it if I have no use for it after learning it? YouTube has become one of my most valuable tools for learning covers. Not only can I listen to the songs themselves, but other musicians’ explanations of how they perform those songs. Thanks to the streaming of music for free, gigging musicians are saving a lot of money, and are able to honor requests in less time.

 

 

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