Category: Music

China fact of the day

"There are maybe 9, 10 million young pianists in China now," says international piano phenom Lang Lang. There, young classical artists like himself are treated like rock stars.
    "It is different from the U.S.," he explains. "Everyone goes to [classical] concerts and CD signings. They have to have police to hold back the crowds, and to have this life is the dream of many young Chinese people."

Here is the story.  From those in the know, I have heard horror stories of badly tuned and badly maintained pianos rotting in humid climates.  Still, I cannot help but feel that the future of contemporary classical music composition lies in Asia.  Where else are so many young people passionate about the genre?

How do we know if the music industry is doing well?

To re-iterate my extremist line against even [Mark] Cuban, however, aggregate sales aren’t really all that relevant. If the music is getting made, and the music is getting listened to, well then, that’s a healthy IP environment. The creation and consumption of new works is the end, sales are merely a means to that end.

Matt Yglesias continues:

I don’t believe I’ve even heard anybody try to argue that fewer new songs are being written or recorded or that people are listening to less music than they used to. It’s the availability of new music for consumption that we’re supposed to be protecting here. P2P, through both authorized and unauthorized uses, obviously leads to an uptick in the number of people who listen to any given song. You would need a pretty huge decrease in the quantity of new music being recorded (and, as I say, no sign there is such a decrease at all) in order to make the case that the progress of musical arts was being seriously impeded here. P2P probably is a problem for the major record companies, both because infringement will reduce their sales potential, and also because it will make it easier for public domain and independent works to be distributed and publicized. This, however, simply isn’t something IP law is supposed to prevent. The health of music-production as an endeavor is not at all the same thing as the financial status of the RIAA’s membership. As I say, if there’s evidence that thanks to copyright infringement kids aren’t forming bands anymore, artists are quitting the business in droves to go to law school, or clubs are finding that nobody wants to go on tour anymore then that would be interesting and relevant, but I’m not familiar with any such evidence.

He truly ought to be an economist, albeit with more Milton Friedman driven into his blood (although here is his George Stigler impersonation). 

I’ll add two points of my own.  First, file-sharing is in the long run a greater danger for capital-intensive movies; I worry less about music.  Second, most new CD releases fail to either earn money or attract real attention, with or without file-sharing.  Furthermore most consumers listen to only a subset of what they buy.  A first best probably involves lower music sales, not higher sales.  Let’s say you sample a CD on iTunes (or illegally for that matter), don’t like it, and then don’t buy it.  The music company stops funding that kind of music.  Why is that market failure?  Admittedly we may be cutting into a cross-subsidy of some winners; the fools and their mistaken purchases help cover the fixed costs of the music company.  Still it is probably better to move closer to a better informed optimum, which again means less music not more.

Addendum: In addition to the excellent Mark Cuban link at the very top, Matt offers more data.

Pierre Boulez turns 80

Today is his eightieth birthday, here are some appreciations and critiques.  I side with George Benjamin:

…a rigorous compositional skill is coupled to an imagination of extraordinary aural refinement. Pli Selon Pli, Eclat/Multiples, the spectacularly inventive orchestral Notations, Explosante-Fixe – these are among the most beautiful works of our time. Boulez’s music has a very distinctive flavour – a love of rare timbres and spicy harmonies, a supreme formal elegance and a passion for virtuosity and vehement energy. The polemics that periodically surround him obscure the intensely poetic source of his musical vision.

Guero and Crunchy Frog

Amazon.com lists Beck’s new album —Guero — as coming out next week, but today I found copies in my local Starbucks, bless their hearts.  The sound is muddier and murkier than usual, with plenty of rhythm changes and scratching. On first listening it is at least as good as Odelay (and similar in style), but not quite up to my favorite, Mutations.  But then again, I’ve underrated every other Beck album on first listening, so why should this one be any different?

While we are off the topic of economics, Entertainment Weekly lists the 20 Best Monty Python sketches.  Most of the picks are on target but "Miss Anne Elk" and "Summarize Proust" are conspicuous for their absence.  And "The Argument Clinic" (the original inspiration for "Markets in Everything," I might add) deserves to be way higher than #20.

Musical protectionism

The French police are arresting symphony orchestra musicians from Eastern Europe.  Why?

The reason for importing musicians
from the east to play in countries like France is simple: money. "The
tour would’ve been too expensive with French musicians, so there
wouldn’t have been a tour at all," Mr. Miller argues. While a company
like the one conducted by Mr. Miller might charge about €15,000
($20,055) for a show, a French orchestra would probably cost three
times that amount, Mr. Miller reckons–pricing them out of the 300- to
800-seat venues they were playing, typically in towns of less than
100,000 people. "I don’t feel at all that I’m taking work away from a
French musician," Mr. Miller told me. Musicians like the Bulgarians he
was conducting, meanwhile, "need the work, they don’t hold out for very
high fees and they play well." "Artistically," he added, "the tour was
a great success."

Not all the musicians have their papers:

A German conductor, Volker
Hartung, whose Cologne New Philharmonic was also employing some East
European musicians, was arrested as he came out for an encore following
a performance of Ravel’s "Bolero" and Bizet’s "Carmen." After also
being held for two days, Mr. Hartung was released with a warning but,
according to the Guardian newspaper, has been banned from performing in
France "until further notice." This was, according to Gerald Mertens,
director of Deutsche Orchestervereinigung, or the German orchestra
union, the second time Mr. Hartung was arrested in France for
underpaying his musicians and not obtaining proper authorization for
them to perform in France.

After deep reflection and debate, the French musicians’ unions have decided to side with the French police, and not with the Muse.  In fact, some of the arrested musicians blame the unions themselves for the crackdown.

Why has classical music declined?

Norman Lebrecht writes:

Why the world has gone off classical concerts is a conundrum in which
almost every reasonable assertion is disputable. Take the
attention-span thesis. Many in the concert world believe that its
decline stems from the public’s flickering tolerance for prolonged
concentration. If politicians speak in soundbites, how can we expect
voters to sit through a Bruckner symphony?

It is a persuasive argument but one that I have come to find both
fatuous and patronising. Around me I see people of all ages who sit
gripped through four hours of King Lear, Lord of the Rings or a
grand-slam tennis final but who, ten minutes into a classical concert,
are squirming in their seats and wondering what crime they had
committed to be held captive, silent and legroom-restrained, in such
Guantanamo conditions…

So what, precisely, scares them off? In a word, the atmosphere. The
symphony concert has stultified for half a century. It starts in
mid-evening and last two hours. The ritual cannot be altered without
inconveniencing the musicians and alarming the subscription audience;
so nothing changes.

My take: You can cite twenty factors, but my core hypothesis is simple.  First, the stock of "non-classical" music is much better and much larger than it used to be.  The competition gets tougher every year.  Second, we are biologically programmed to respond to individual personalities in the arts, also known as celebrities.  Classical music, as hard as it tries, cannot communicate such personalities with equal ease.  The classics were not designed for electronic reproduction, most of the composers are long-dead, and the performers can innovate on the core material only so much.

Honesty about illegal file-sharing

The Supreme Court has been hearing a major case on file-sharing.  Should Grokster and other web-based file-sharing services be held liable for contributory copyright infringement?  Forget about the law, what does the economist say?  Yes "fair use" provisions are excessively stringent, but here are three reasons why I cannot accept the radical anti-copyright position.

1. In ten year’s time, what will happen to the DVD and pay-for-view trades?  BitTorrent allows people to download movies very quickly.  Note that DVDs already account for more than half of Hollywood domestic revenue.  Furthermore the process will be eased when TVs and computers can "talk" to each other more readily.  Yes, I am familiar with Koleman Strumpf’s excellent work showing that illegal file-sharing has not hurt music sales.  But a song download can be a loss leader for an entire CD or a concert tour.  Downloading an entire movie does not prompt a person to spend money in comparable fashion.

2. Perhaps we can make file-sharing services identify (and block) illegally traded files.  After all, the listeners can find the illegal files and verify they have what they wanted.  Grokster, sooner or later, will be able to do the same.  Yes, fully decentralized and "foreign rogue" systems may proliferate, and any identification system will be imperfect.  But this is one way to heed legitimate copyright suits without passing the notorious "Induce Act."

3. I question the almost universal disdain for the "Micky Mouse" copyright extension act.  OK, lengthening the copyright extension does not provide much in the way of favorable incentives.  Who innovates with the expectation of reaping copyright revenues seventy-five years from now?  But this is a corporate rather than an individual issue.  Furthermore economic research indicates that current cash flow is a very good predictor of investment.  So the revenue in fact stimulates additional investment in creative outputs.  If I had my finger on the button, I still would have pushed "no" on the Mickey Mouse extension, if only because of the rule of law.  Privileges of this kind should not be extended repeatedly due to special interest pressures.  But we are fooling ourselves if we deny that the extension will benefit artistic output, at least in the United States. 

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.