Who Stole My Music? Wall Street Journal TechCafe in Shoreditch #WSJTechCafe

2013-09-25 11.08.55

During the annual Wall Street Journal TechWeek, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd fame says of a copy of their album ‘Animals’ on vinyl: “That’s a real babe magnet, that one”. Held by Gren Manuel, executive editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, the pair discuss the body of work that is an album – from the aggregation of the songs, to the artwork to the lyrics inside. It’s a canvas, it’s an identity, it’s artwork for the wall. Now, it’s the device that one uses to define themself, not the album.


Explaining the reasons why Pink Floyd were initially resistant to joining Spotify, Nick Mason not only laments the well-known imbalance in profit between the record companies and the artists, but also the diminishment of the album as a musical whole; a user can “cherry pick” the songs and listen to them in any order.

The way we consume music has changed – the concept of an album as 8-10 songs each 3-5 minutes each harks back to an era of vinyl and radio. Now, listening via the internet allows for longer mixes and for a fan to go on a rampage and very quickly make their way through all content an artist has chosen to upload, should they wish.

This model also removes the necessity for a record label. Contracts in the new music era have become more bespoke with selectable services allowing for artists to retain their rights, as opposed to the historical “onerous” contracts, on on-going concern for artists. Major labels are still the easiest and quickest route to mass distribution, however. But the focus for major record labels has become how to interact with the fans, how to compete with the other forms of entertainment for our attention.

But what does it feel like to work at a record company these days? Fred Bolza of Sony demonstrates: “Who has listened to music in the last 24 hours?” Almost everyone’s hand shoots up. “Who has used Spotify? Deezer? CD? YouTube? Through Twitter? Live?” Hands are shooting up and down across the room like a Whac-a-mole until: “Who bought a CD?” Tumbleweed drifted across the stage. “Well that’s how the industry has changed.”

Much of the music industry has accepted (forced or otherwise) the sea change in business model that occurred with the advent of the Internet as a widespread entertainment tool.  Since the uproar after it was discovered that consumers were downloading music for free and there was very little anyone could do about it, the music industry has tried it’s darndest to regain our respect (and pocket-money). As a consumer, there is much imagination and entrepreneurship in the industry now.

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For example, here is the pattern of the way I consume music: I go to Pitchfork and read the latest album reviews, click on the Soundcloud link in many songs, listen to a few songs. If I like it, I’ll go to the band’s website, buy the album (most likely electronically) and look at their tour dates on Songkick. If they’re touring in the UK I’ll most likely buy tickets when they come to London. But that’s just me. Word of mouth is still hugely influential, as is radio, but new(ish) to the arsenal of word-spreading is social media.

An artist must have an online presence, especially when they are first starting out – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – but these communication tools are also a way for the smaller, dynamic companies that have become popular in the last few years to get their message across. Detour is a new arm of Songkick that launched in December 2012 – simply put; it is a way for fans to pledge for an artist to come to a city.  As Ian Hogarth (co-founder and CEO of Songkick) explains: “The fans then take on the risk of touring, not the promoter.”

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With the floor open to questions, a musician questions why consumers think that music is something that should be free. A big discussion ensues: It is a trade that has to be learned and takes time, effort and is ultimately a skill – ergo it should be paid for. The other side to the coin, of course, is that perhaps the intrinsic value of music has changed. Compared to a big game like GTA 5 that has 1000 people working on it for 4 years, an album is a smaller number of people and potentially a shorter period of time. Of course, labels used to take a fee for the packaging and distribution of an album – that concept has changed now, so why does so little of the Spotify fee per track go to the artists in favour of the ‘rights holder’?

A question was asked to Nick Mason as to whether he would support a system whereby every time a consumer listens to a track, that information was sent to a database and then the artist was paid for that track. He seemed to think this was a good idea. I felt a little apprehensive at the idea – who would the cost fall on? There is obviously a difference in how established artists can reach people now than how a new artist can become established. If an artist has a fan base, they can move online easily, but a new artist starting out needs to persuade people in an Internet age that they should pay for their music.  For Pink Floyd and other established artists this may work as a way to generate cash, although I’m not too sure I feel value for money to pay for a song every time I listen to it. As they say: I bought the vinyl, then I bought the tape, then I had to buy the CD too. But, I would not like to pay for exploration; for a one-time fleeting glimpse of a song that I might only be half listening to.

A musician asked what they would suggest if she wanted control of her own fan database. Having your gigs on Songkick, tracks on Spotify or SoundCloud is all well and good, but how about a musician who would like to reach all their fans directly? Perhaps space for another company to centralize contact details of someone who considers themselves a fan of a certain artist. Contact details and patterns of consumption are, after all, the commodity of de jour.

The Internet offers everyone equal tools in the endeavour to become an entrepreneur, should they choose to try. Use the tools, communicate, create a buzz. There were no ultimate answers, of course, for how to create a utilitarian music-listening, money earning, ethically consuming society, but I want to pay for music I like; I want my money to go to artists whose music I enjoy. Through a combination of excellent music and good business sense, I hope that a balance is reached and musicians are happy.

Then again – the best music is written in times of strife…

2013-09-25 11.07.17

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