Category: Music

You don’t learn jazz in school

…human capital investments play significant, but different roles, in the earnings from jazz music and non-jazz music.  Years of schooling and years of playing music are positively correlated with the earnings from non-jazz musical styles.  With respect to earnings from jazz music, however, years of schooling has a negative impact while the point estimates for years of music experience nearly double.

You can find the paper here.

Is satellite radio only for old fogies like me?

What is it now, seventy music channels, mostly commercial-free?  Yes they have reggae but when will they get an all-dancehall station?

When I first subscribed to satellite radio, I used it to try out musical genres, such as Country Classic, that I didn’t otherwise listen to much.  But now I have become lazy.  My search buttons cover seven channels, making it easy to track down favorite songs.  By punching a button I can pull up something like "Wooden Ships," "Poli High," or "C Moon."  Why bother learning more Merle Haggard?  At some margins, diversity makes us less interested in innovation.

Yana, who is now fifteen, likes satellite radio less than I do.  She hasn’t accumulated a large enough stock of favorite songs.  She wants stations that play the same material over and over again, so she can accumulate such a stock.  The Top 20 station fits this bill, but most of the others do not.  They are about something different every day, at the whim of the usually silent disc jockeys.

You can discover something you like, and then buy it.  But most fifteen-year-olds are poor.  She wants to discover something she likes, and hear it again tomorrow for free.  (This suggests, by the way, that illegal downloads are the friend of satellite radio, but that is for other families.)  This is precisely what satellite radio does not deliver, and why most of mainstream radio resorts to play lists.

By the way, did I mention that "under 25s" drive music sales?

And that is why satellite radio will have a hard time becoming more popular and maintaining its uniqueness.  Stay tuned, as they say in the business…

The obsolescence of classical music labels

Deutsche Gramophon pulled the plug on John Eliot Gardiner’s plans to record the complete Bach cantatas.  So how did he respond?

"At the end of 2001 we put together a CD compilation from the tapes and sent it to lots of people who had helped with the project. We raised £40,000 from people who had come to concerts.

"Most of it was in £100-£200 chunks from people who had been in the audience, plus a couple of large chunks. Then we received £130,000 from a donor."

The Prince of Wales is the project’s patron; donors include American arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar, charitable foundations and corporate sponsors…

The cheaper model of recording live from concerts (as does the LSO’s label, LSO Live), rather than from expensive and lengthy studio sessions, also points the way forward.

The performers are paid on the basis of royalties, a far cry from the fat contracts handed out by record companies in the heyday of the industry.

Ms de Sabata estimates that in order to recoup costs and allow them to continue putting out the CDs from the cantata project they need to sell 4,000 to 5,000 copies each.

"Our orders and preorders suggest we are going to make it," she said.

Gardiner has now launched his own label and plans further recordings; here is the full story.  But you can see the future: more live recordings, more not-for-profit recordings, and a smaller role for music companies as the relevant intermediaries.

China fact of the day

It is not just LeBron James who is banned in China:

Cyndi Lauper suffered [censorship] when the censors decided her song "I Drove All Night" sent our a potentially dangerous message to motorists…

Yet copies of [this track are] available in China if you look hard enough because a staggering 95 percent of music sales are pirate copies…In fact, the government’s insistence that any foreign record label must submit for approval a translation of all lyrics is partly blamed for fueling the illegal trade.

Here is the full story, FT subscription and password required.  And read my earlier post on how censorship and cultural protection make legitimate copyright harder to enforce.  Not to mention this earlier post on why Cyndi Lauper is so much to blame.

Addendum: Chinese censors are now pondering a naked Pam Anderson.

The earthquake that is Germany

…the Berliner Symphoniker, the smallest of the city’s eight official orchestras, is looking to start anew — as Germany’s first [sic] private orchestra.

Here is the full story.  Here is a previous installment on German earthquakes, here is another.  It is amazing how slowly Germany is moving in the right direction.

And here is a short piece on a strategy for revitalizing musical non-profits, podcasting is the suggested solution.

Why are music companies suing their customers?

Isn’t it bad business to sue the people you hope to sell a product too? Why is the music industry going down the path of litigation? Can they hope to succeed with this strategy?

I address these questions in my recent column for the Social Affairs Unit in the United Kingdom. You might know that an international music consortium has just started bringing lawsuits in the UK and on the continent as well, thus prompting the essay.

Here is the bottom line:

I see the music companies as trying to hold back a new commercial norm. Specifically, the music companies are trying to maintain the old norm that you should always pay for music.

Two years ago most [American] downloaders did not know that their activities were illegal. Few uploaders felt guilty about making large numbers of songs available for free on the Internet. It was viewed as akin to lending your CDs out to your friends, except that the “friends” here were both anonymous and large in number. “Art should be free,” right?

Since the United States lawsuits, there has been a subtle shift of opinion. Many people, especially those beyond their teenage years, are now proud of not being downloaders. They brandish their Apple iPods with pride. The cultural climate has shifted to the point where people, even if they download, are embarrassed to admit as such. Only in the under-twenty crowd is illegal downloading still a badge of honor. And many of these children now face (admittedly imperfect) regulation from their parents.

The music industry knows that the long run will bring a network of free music. It knows that free music may have illegal status, a “grey” status, white status (recorded from the radio), or perhaps be pirate (from abroad) but not illegal in the actionable sense. But there will be two networks, a pay network and a free network.

The pay network stands a good chance of competing against the free network. Perhaps the pay network can offer better sound quality, tie-ins (concert tickets, T-shirts, etc.), upgrades and maintenance service, better information such as album liner notes, song selection services, easier interface, and other benefits. The future course of technology is difficult to predict. Nonetheless it is easy to see why a pay network will have a greater ability to finance these goodies than will a free network.

The music companies – present and future suppliers of the pay network – do not wish to face a ten year period where everyone is used to getting music for free. They do not want an entire generation to grow up thinking of music as a free commodity. They do not want hackers and illegal downloaders to become established as folk heroes.

Once commercial norms become established, they are difficult to dislodge. We are all used to breathing air for free. Imagine the response if suddenly we had to pay for air as we now pay for ice cream cones. Maybe the air would have a better quality and the price would be very low. Still I predict there would be a public outcry. It would be very difficult, in the legal and public arenas, to set up a business to charge people for breathing clean air.

Similarly, bread riots were a common phenomenon of the twentieth century in the Third World. When bread subsidies were removed or cut, the price of bread would rise. The new price of bread still might be lower than would be found in many other poor countries. Still rioting might occur. People cared not only about the absolute level of the bread price, but the level of the price relative to what they had been expecting.

The music companies know they are in for a rough ride. They will never win the competition on the basis of price, but they hope to win on the basis of quality. They feel they need commercial norms on their side. And this means that downloading cannot be allowed to proceed unanswered and unhindered. They cannot live with a norm that music should be free.

Note that the music companies are demanding far smaller penalties than they might hope to win in a formal lawsuit. This is not out of benevolence to the illegal downloaders. The lawsuits are about spreading the idea that downloading is wrong and illegal, not about inflicting the maximum possible punitive damage. Think of the lawsuits as one way to buy space in the newspaper, but without paying advertising rates. And the company gets the journalists – a more credible outside source – to be the ones reporting that downloading is illegal. Too high a penalty would make the companies look mean.

I am not here to attack or defend the behavior of the music companies, but rather to explain it.

Compact discs are overpriced, installment #421

The DVD format is taking over the classical music world, especially opera:

Sales regularly hit 5,000 units, the standard break-even figure for classical CDs, and go as high as 40,000 worldwide, says Klaus Heymann, the Hong Kong-based head of Naxos International. Also, the hard-core classical community doesn’t have to wait around for the video companies to finish issuing meaningless Luciano Pavarotti galas before going on to the real stuff.

Major classical labels initially hesitated to jump into DVD, so smaller, specialized concerns took the medium directly into niche marketing. Upfront “authoring costs” (translating video to the small disc) were as low as $2,000 a few years ago, says Gilbert, and are now half that.

Once a nightmare of regional formats, DVDs are increasingly universal (look for the “0” in the code box), though savvy consumers still need a specially doctored player to read all codes on discs available on European Web sites. Disc prices, which range from $10 to $35, are still unstandardized. The Deutsche Oper’s Die Meistersinger is $39, but the Australian Opera’s better cast sells for as little as $25.

Whatever the reason, even the most expensive DVD operas cost less than sound-only, full-price CD sets (emphasis added).

Here is the full story.

MP3 blogs

Why not use blogs to become a virtual DJ? The latest blogging trend is to offer MP3 files to your readers, combined with commentary and useful links. The tracks tend to be obscure rather than from mainstream pop, which everybody knows about anyway. Copyright status is often black or grey but so far the marketing has proven useful and these blogs have not been a legal target.

Could this be the future of marketing in the music industry? Here is an article on the phenomenon.

Here is one example of such a music blog.

The bottom line: Why don’t econ bloggers post their classroom and public lectures? Or short answers to public questions of the day? Hmm…

The Sledgehammer of Wow

By this point in life I’ve stuffed so much material down my gullet I feel I am hard to impress. When it comes to new books and music in particular, I can go many moons without feeling The Sledgehammer of Wow. But yesterday I felt it twice:

Blueberry Boat by The Fiery Furnaces dispays a level on ongoing invention that one expected from Brian Wilson circa 1968.

Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel has been called a “Harry Potter for grown-ups”; it starts by asking whether magic has disappeared in England. Only rarely have I been captivated so quickly and so deeply by a novel of our time. Read the ever-insightful Henry Farrell ( on this wonderful book. Here is another good review, also courtesy of Henry; here is a review.

On a sadder note, Johnny Ramone has passed away. “Twenty-twenty-twenty-four hours to go, I wanna be sedated…!”

We Will Rock You

The answer is Queen’s Greatest Hits, and Freddie Mercury is the lead singer. The accompanying booklet “tells Queen fans that Bohemian Rhapsody is about a young man who has accidentally killed someone and, like Faust, sold his soul to the devil. On the night before his execution he calls God in Arabic, “Bismillah”, and so regains his soul from Satan.”

Here is the full story. It is reported that the album, shorn of a few love songs, is selling well.

We will not rock you

Virginia and 39 other states sued eight music distributors and retailers accusing them of price-fixing and all I got was a lousy Michael Bolton CD. Well, not me personally, but that is what lots of libraries and public schools in Virginia and across the nation are getting as their share of the $75 million non-cash part of the settlement. Other CDs distributed as part of the deal include teen band Hanson’s “Snowed In” and, get this, Martha Stewart’s “Spooky, Scary, Sounds for Halloween.” Not every CD is a dud but it’s fair to say that the value of the CDs is substantially less than $75 million. If you were a member of the class and signed up you could also get a check for almost $13, $67 million in total.

According to the judge, pure transaction costs were $6-8 million and the lawyers got just over 14 million so depending on how you evaluate the free CDs (I think $35 million is generous) total transaction costs might eat 20-30 percent of the settlement – not bad as far as these things go. Note, however, that the plaintiff’s claim was that consumers were being overcharged by 23 cents a CD. Personally, I’d be happy to pay the extra 23 cents to be free of class-action lawsuits like this. But then again I don’t buy as many CDs as Tyler.

What I’ve been listening to

1. Rodrigo, Concerto for Guitar. I used to think this piece was classical radio fluff, short, lightweight, and accessible. I now see it is as a precursor of modern ambient music. So much of the Spanish acoustic guitar tradition makes sense when heard through this perspective.

2. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. A sprawling mess, to be sure. Hardly anyone is drawn to the melodies here. Is this his worst and least listenable symphony, or the beginning of a new Mahlerian sound world? If you want to hear it swift and severe, try the Boulez recording as well.

3. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the Piano Concerti. I put these on immediately after returning from Mexico. The slow movement of the Emperor Concerto is one of Beethoven’s most beautiful moments. And could Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who plays on this CD, be the greatest pianist in the world today? Try his Ligeti Etudes or Debussy as well.

4. Late Elliott Carter. Carter remains prolific beyond his ninetieth birthday. His late short pieces, dryly contrapuntal, are usually written for a very small number of instruments. I used to think of Carter is an amazing composer in his early years (e.g., Sonata for Cello and Piano), but who later stagnated. This picture could not be more wrong. Over the last ten years his reputation has skyrocketed, and rightly so.

5. Handel’s Theodora, conducted by William Christie. Much of Handel is too earthy and straightforward for my tastes, but this is the best Handel recording I’ve heard, up there with S. Richter doing the keyboard sonatas. Here is an excellent blog post on why Handel operas and oratorio are less boring than the modern listener might think.

6. William Byrd, Complete Keyboard music, by Davitt Moroney. The scrunchiest parts are the best, and seven CDs are not too much. Byrd has one of the best claims running for “most underrated composer,” try also the vocal music.

And when Yana gets home from visiting her high school friends, I hear a great deal of Beck, arguably the best popular musical artist of the 1990s, with apologies to Kurt Cobain.

Do you know the old saying: “Music is enough for one life, but one life is never enough for music”?

What rap stars crave

1. Looking at the Billboard Top 20 for rap music, 59 brands have been mentioned 645 times in songs so far this year.

2. Very high end and very low end brands are the most popular mentions.

3. The top brand so far this year in rap songs is Hennessey, a kind of cognac. Cadillac comes in second.

4. Mercedes, a previous favorite, now has fallen behind Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, and Jaguar.

5. Autos, fashion, and beverages provide the brands most likely to be mentioned in rap songs.

6. Cristal, an extremely expensive champaigne, may be losing appeal because it is now so closely identified with hip-hop.

7. Polariod, in contrast, has benefited greatly from rap music. The product has been hurt by digital photography, but Outkast sang “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” in its hit “Hey Ya.”

That is all from the Mexican edition of the Miami Herald, August 26, sorry no link available from here. Agenda Inc., a San Francisco marketing firm, compiled the data.