Category: Music

Musical chairs

I’ve been listening lately to Jeff Tweedy’s group Wilco, a group with a very high “critical praise to sales ratio”. Here is the Coase theorem in operation:

[Jeff] Tweedy’s canonization doesn’t actually happen until 2001, when he records “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel,” an ambitious, often gorgeous album that is famously rejected as too obscure by Warner/Reprise. Tweedy buys back the album for $50,000, sells it to the far smaller Nonesuch Records and becomes a folk hero, especially to major-label haters, when critics decide that “YFH” is pretty much a masterpiece. (Never mind that Nonesuch is actually another subsidiary of Warner. )

Here is the full story.

Mellencamp on Payola

Following my earlier post on payola, Les Jones points me to an interview with John Cougar Mellencamp. Key quote:

Look, in the ’80s when people were paying openly to get songs on the radio, here’s the way it worked. “We want you to play this record and we’re going to give you a spiff [kickback] of $100 to get it on the radio.” OK, the guy plays it for a week and says, “I’ve been playing the song for a week and nobody likes it.” “Well, here’s $200 to play it next week.” They’ve been playing the song for two weeks and nobody likes it. Guess what, they’re done paying. It’s over at that point. You cannot pay your way into having a hit. It won’t happen. The only thing you can pay your way into is having the opportunity to have a hit. If you don’t pay, you don’t even have the opportunity. That’s the way it should be done.

Payola II

Following my earlier post, an astute reader pointed me to an excellent analysis of payola:

[Payola] helped new musicians gain airplay. Payola combatted conformism and racism in the music business… Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” his first hit and still one of his most popular songs, was given initial airplay because of payola. Leonard Chess of Chess Records went to well-known disk jockey Alan Freed with a large catalog of material. Chess offered Freed partial songwriting credits on any song of his choice, provided that he would play and promote the song. Freed now had a stronger incentive to pick the best song and to promote it. After listening to hundreds of recordings, Freed picked “Maybellene.” Berry became a star, and the Freed estate continues to receive royalties…

The discussion, of course, is from Tyler’s book In Praise of Commercial Culture. (Yup, he’s the astute reader also!). See the book for more, including how racism factored into the payola “scandals.”

Why is Payola Illegal?

Actually, payola isn’t illegal if it goes to the station, rather than to the DJ, and if it is disclosed. But if radio stations don’t want their DJs profiting from payola they can easily write this into their contracts. Since contract law can handle the DJ issue it seems doubtful that the real intent of the Federal Communications Act was simply to help radio stations from being abused by their employees. Apparently, the requirement of disclosure was a big enough deterrent to prevent the real issue, payola to the stations, although some stations occasionally do play songs “as presented by Arista Records.”

The issue is further complicated by the role of Billboard magazine and other radio charts. Getting on the chart may generate momentum thus

Canadian pop rocker Avril Lavigne’s new song “Don’t Tell Me” aired no fewer than 109 times on Nashville radio station WQZQ-FM.

The heaviest rotation came between midnight and 6 a.m., an on-air no man’s land visited largely by insomniacs, truckers and graveyard shift workers. One Sunday morning, the 3-minute, 24-second song aired 18 times, sometimes as little as 11 minutes apart.

But what many chart watchers may not know is that the predawn saturation in Nashville — and elsewhere — occurred largely because Arista Records paid the station to play the song as an advertisement….The practice is legal as long as the station makes an on-air disclosure of the label’s sponsorship — typically with an introduction such as “And now, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Don’t Tell Me,’ presented by Arista Records.”

Using advertising to bias the charts in this way seems like a relatively new phenomena so I don’t think it explains the animus towards payola. Correcting this problem, say by counting only top-hour plays, doesn’t seem so difficult either.

Can we hold the interest of classical music audiences?

Museum goers love to wear headphones during special art exhibitions and hear special commentary. Perhaps classical music should take a cue from this experience:

…subscribers to the orchestra’s e-mail list have been invited to try another technological advance: this time a screen small enough to fit into your hand. The device will provide a play-by-play analysis of the music as the concertgoer listens. No pictures (so far), only words: the text changes every 15 to 20 seconds. Think sports patter, only highbrow, musical and blessedly mute.

“Curious about what Charles Ives is up to in his `Three Places in New England?,’ ” the e-mail message asked, inviting subscribers on Wednesday to a performance of the Philharmonic’s Charles Ives Festival next week. “Concert Companion will tell you as the music unfolds before you.”

Viewers had already rejected large movie screens of the performers, a’ la rock concert. Many found it “distracting.”

Here is the full story. Many American orchestras are experiencing fiscal troubles, and London’s low cost, commercial Savoy Opera just closed. So perhaps some innovation is in order.

What would I want?: I’d like to check my email during the concert; I’d also like to discuss the proceedings with my companions, perhaps through silent Instant Messaging of some kind. But I won’t predict any of these will happen. In the time of Beethoven people ate and drank during classical concerts. They played cards and sometimes brought their animals. A contemporary non-profit, dependent on donations and government grants, is unlikely to take such steps. For another solution, read this article on classical crossover. Until classical music makes a comeback in the home, it won’t be self-financing in the outside world. Perhaps the future of the genre lies in Korea.

Ten percent of the world’s music market

That’s cell phone ringers. I doubt if the estimated numbers measure the true “world” market, but the point remains that this is an important and growing revenue source.

And how is this for a marketing question?

The rise of the ringtone throws up some puzzling questions for the music industry. “One of the things we have to look at is why kids are perfectly happy to spend £3.99 on a ringtone, but they think a similar amount is too much to pay for a single,”

Phone users will buy different ringers and change their ringer, depending on the time of day or their social circle. And did you know that there is a Ringtone magazine.

The new music gatekeepers, namely you

Do you want to know what other people are listening to? Go to, where you can find large numbers of playlists. The old Napster used to offer user song directories, but of course the new file-sharing companies have to plead ignorance of what their downloaders are doing. So it is only natural that such a “recommendations” service should migrate elsewhere.

WebJay is designed for music that is freely available on the web, though it is not restricted to such music.

Clay Shirky writes:

…you get three filters in one – someone else has vetted the music for quality, the music is rolled up in thematic playlists, further raising the “If you like X, you might also like Y” quotient, and everything you hear is (at least putatively) music libre.

This is just a start but the idea has enormous potential. Where else can you follow “Brazilian techno pop rock experimental and (why not?) samba”?

Does file-sharing hurt CD sales?

A new study by two researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, finds that sharing digital music files has no effect on CD sales. This is the first study that directly compares actual downloads of music files and store sales of CDs.

The authors, Associate Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard Business School in Boston and Professor Koleman Strumpf of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conclude that “File sharing had no effect on the sale of popular CDs in the second half of 2002. While downloads occurred on a vast scale during this period – 3 million simultaneous users shared 500 million files on the popular network FastTrack/KaZaA alone – most people who shared files appear to be individuals who would not have bought the albums that they downloaded,” say the authors…

Even in the professors’ most pessimistic statistical model, it takes 5,000 downloads to reduce the sales of an album by a single copy. If this worst-case scenario were true, file sharing would have reduced CD sales by 2 million copies in 2002. To provide a point of reference, CD sales actually declined by 139 million copies from 2000 to 2002.

Here is another interesting tidbit:

31 percent of all individuals who download music live in the United States. Other important countries are Germany with a 13 percent share of worldwide users, Italy with 11 percent, Japan with 8 percent and France with 7 percent. File sharers in the United States are particularly active. While they represent 31 percent of worldwide users, they download 36 percent of all files.

U.S. file sharers download files from all over the world. Only 45 percent of the files downloaded in the United States come from computers in the U.S. 16 percent of music files are downloaded from computers in Germany, 7 percent from Canada, 6 percent from Italy, 4 percent from the U.K. A legal strategy that focuses mostly on the United States is unlikely to change the supply of music files.

In other words, going after domestic uploaders, as the RCAA is doing, won’t cut off supply.

Here is one summary. Here is the original research.

My take: Yes I believe the result. Most downloaders are young or just sampling songs for kicks. But I doubt if this, legal developments aside, would be true five years from now. Over time I expect more people to forgo buying the CD, unless of course the law intervenes.

Addendum: Newmark’s Door offers some additional links. Larry Lessig argues for complementarity. Here is an article that copyright is too strict more generally, and yes The Grey Album is wonderful.

Piece work

Violinists at a German orchestra are suing for a pay rise on the grounds that they play many more notes per concert than their musical colleagues – a litigation that the orchestra’s director yesterday called “absurd”.

The 16 violinists at the Beethoven Orchestra, in the former West German capital Bonn argue that they work more than their colleagues who play instruments including the flute, oboe and trombone.

The violinists also say that a collective bargaining agreement that gives bonuses to performers who play solos is unjust.

Here is the full story. Here is a useful site on the labor theory of value. How about paying composers by the number of notes as well?

Punkers for capitalism

With his mohawk, ratty fatigues, assorted chains and his menagerie of tattoos – swallows on each shoulder, a nautical star on his back and the logo of the Bouncing Souls, a New York City punk band, on his right leg – 22-year-old Nick Rizzuto is the very picture of counterculture alienation. But it’s when he talks politics that Mr. Rizzuto sounds like a real radical, for a punk anyway. Mr. Rizzuto is adamantly in favor of lowering taxes and for school vouchers, and against campaign finance laws; his favorite Supreme Court justice is Clarence Thomas; he plans to vote for President Bush in November; and he’s hard-core into capitalism.

“Punks will tell me, `Punk and capitalism don’t go together,’ ” Mr. Rizzuto said. “I don’t understand where they’re coming from. The biggest punk scenes are in capitalist countries like the U.S., Canada and Japan. I haven’t heard of any new North Korean punk bands coming out. There’s no scene in Iran.”

Here is a New York Times article, don’t forget to check out the pictures (password required). Here is a website for GOP punkers, they seem to approve of Reagan’s famous threat to bomb the Soviet Union. Or perhaps it is just irony. They stress that they are not libertarians because America is “at war” with the left, and the libertarian philosophy is not well-suited to fighting a war. Here is their cited critique of the Canadian health care model. Good economics, but these punkers, oppositional by nature, feel a kneejerk need to defend every action of the Bush administration. Here is the website, which offers an interview with right-wing punker Johnny Ramone. Here is yet another site, which cites right-thinking punk bloggers. And will National Review be pleased that links to them approvingly?

My take: Punk music needs an idea of evil and an oppositional stance. So punkers will adopt every position of defiance they can find, including in-your-face right-wing politics. But in the long run? Remember what The Clash sung: “You grow up, you calm down, working for the clampdown…”

Alison Krauss + Union Station

Alison Krauss has the voice of an angel. You probably heard her on the Academy Awards singing a track from Cold Mountain or on the wonderful soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? where she sings the heart-breakingly beautiful Down to the River to Pray. She plays with the versatile Union Station whose I am a Man of Constant Sorrow was also featured in O Brother. For more, Alison Kraus + Union Station Live is an excellent place to begin.

The baby boomers take over music

For the first time, people in their 40s are buying more albums than teenagers. According to recent figures from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the 12-to-19 age group accounted for 16.4% of album sales in 2002, a sharp fall on 2000 (22.1%), while 40- to-49-year-olds went the other way, rising from 16.5% to 19.1%. Buyers in their 50s (14.3%) are not far behind. Soon, half of albums will be bought by people who have passed their 40th birthday.

That’s Britain, of course. Here is the full story. America is not yet at this point, but a mix of demographics and downloading has changed our music market as well. So expect more stars like Norah Jones and more Paul Simon reissues.

And does this line make you feel old?

The term “adult oriented rock”, meaning the Eagles if you were lucky and Boston if you weren’t, was common currency 30 years ago.

In the U.S. last year, the biggest musical earners were The Rolling Stones and the Eagles, largely through touring. Paul McCartney was next in line, I shelled out over $100 to see him lip synch through the high notes of “Maybe I’m Amazed.”

Is the music business dying?

…with album sales rising and the phenomenal growth of ringtones and legal downloads, plus record-breaking years for merchandising and publishing rights, it seems the death of the music industry has been greatly exaggerated.

According to recent record industry figures, UK sales rose by 4% in the first half of last year. The Publishing Rights Society reported that performance royalty collections (everything but record sales) in 2003 were the highest since records began in 1914.

In the US, Billboard Boxscore reported that the number of live music events worldwide was up by 25% in 2003 (generating £1.2bn in North America alone). Legal sales of downloadable songs topped 2m units a week for the first time last week. Apple’s iTunes service has sold more than 30m songs, and has yet to celebrate its first birthday.

Moreover, the astonishing growth of the ringtone market continues to take everyone by surprise. Estimates as to its true size vary widely from a conservative £600,000 from Jupiter Research to a bullish £1.9m by the ARC Group.

And all this is happening in the age of illegal filesharing.

Here is the full story.

So is the music business dying? Or are downloads, even illegal ones, complements to many kinds of musical services? Will the music business win its competition with DVDs for our dollars? Perhaps the real battle is not “stolen music vs. property rights in music” but rather “music as a whole vs. many other ways of grabbing your attention.” You tell me.