Happy Tuesday! Hope you survived April Fool’s Day, the only reason anyone should be celebrating fake news.
If you’ve been following my newsletter for the past several months, you know I’m obsessed with words. As a writer, I devote much of my life to language and its meaning. As a journalist, I take this one step further by seizing any opportunity to cut out the vague and/or sensationalist bullshit enabled by language, and to get to the truth. As a music journalist, I abound with such opportunities, for better or for worse.
A previous Water & Music installment discussed the true meaning of the word “industry”
in the context of music, and I’d like to expand on that approach here. Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a variety of events, including SXSW and the Harvard Business School Music Summit, that revealed how language simultaneously fosters and prevents understanding in the complex music ecosystem. Below are some highlights:
One of my favorite SXSW speakers was Piper Payne
, a mastering engineer and President of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy who was one of the featured panelists for “The 7 Hottest Topics of Music Tech in 2017.” Most of the seven topics were nothing new to me (VR, mobile, video, data, etc.), but Piper’s dynamic personality and her often-overlooked perspective from within the studio and behind the mixer made the conversation more interesting. Perhaps her most invaluable insight concerned hi-res audio
, which is gaining traction
in terms of corporate investment but certainly not on the level of the average music listener.
“How many of you are audiophiles?” she began. Only around 5% of the room raised their hand—not a surprising figure.
She then rephrased the question in an ingenious way: “How many of you are music fans who want to hear your favorite music the way the artist wanted you to hear it, without crappy data encoding and file transfers over the internet and low playback systems that aren’t even your fault to begin with?” Nearly the entire room raised their hand this time, after having a good chuckle.
Piper argued that audiophilia doesn’t mean alienation, and that one doesn’t have to exclude the passive mp3 listening market to drive the hi-res industry forward. She even asserted that “a company that’s able to deliver hi-res files when the fans want it, and lo-res files when the fans don’t need hi-fi, is going to make a lot of money"—an intriguing claim, considering that Tidal and Spotify
are pursuing this very strategy but yielding ambivalent results.
During the "Innovator’s Dilemma” panel at the HBS Music Summit, Ajay Kalia, Senior Product Owner at Spotify specializing in Taste Profiles, encouraged us to ask different questions around data-driven artist development
. Against the backdrop of companies like Next Big Sound, My Band Market
, alongside the recent rise of streaming-only, AI-driven record labels (Warner’s Artists to Watch
and Swiss-Swedish startup Utopia Music Group
both launched within the last month), “breaking artists” with algorithms seems to be the bubbling new industry imperative. Such companies claim that one can predict which artists are on the verge of “breaking” by analyzing historical online trends of previous artists who made it big.
According to Ajay, this narrative isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. “What about the bedroom artists?” he asked. “Is ‘breaking artists’ still a thing that needs to happen in the industry, largely driven by the incumbents? Or is the question itself changing?”
Ajay not only drew a distinction between engagement and growth, but also outlined a key debate about the viability of the “long tail” in the music business—i.e. a wide variety of smaller, niche products (in this case, genres/artists/sounds) thriving in the market, as opposed to a relatively fewer number of hits. Some argue
the long tail is dead; others aren’t convinced
. What obfuscates the debate is that Spotify and SoundCloud were both founded on the premise of helping the indie/DIY community, only to give away ownership stakes to all the major labels for the sake of financial stability. I think I still take Ajay’s side, in the sense of wanting to use data to rethink possible career goals and trajectories for artists, rather than further ingrain old ones in the industry’s consciousness.
While doing readings for my Technomusicology course, I came across a fascinating essay
by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken that digs into the ecologically destructive connotations of the word “consumer,”
and their limitations in the context of digital culture. Unlike physical goods such as food or clothing, digital goods are not destroyed or diminished by the act of “consumption.” Rather, digital goods gain
value in being shared, recontextualized, revitalized; at their best, they serve as platforms onto which others (whom Grant calls “multipliers”
) can construct new meanings, as part of a larger, collective cultural process that the original creator couldn’t possibly master alone. The concept is reminiscent of what the likes of Kyle Bylin and Lucy Blair Pettersson have written about storytelling in music marketing, in terms of the ultimate narrative being driven
, not artists. My favorite quote from McCracken’s essay, which is simple but technologically and theoretically profound: If there is nothing in the product, service, or experience that can be built on, well, then it’s back to the drawing board.
What’s your stance on these words? Do they help you, or hold you back? If you have any lingering thoughts or ideas, simply reply to this email—I’d love to start a conversation!