Waking Up from the Music Industry’s Complacency Nightmare

Josh Strawn (Azar Swan, Vaura) goes deep on supporting musicians in the digital age.

You’d think that after more than fifteen years of nonstop turbulence in the music industry, we’d have it more figured out. Can you remember the last new opinion piece, artist anecdote or industry insider’s analysis that offered any groundbreaking insights? Neither can I. Artists either scold people for not buying records or pretend they’re on the cutting edge of culture because they can spew Silicon Valley CEO talking points. Meanwhile, we’re inundated with useless figures about quarterly record sales and streaming business models. Why does this conversation feel like walking in circles?

Instead of going the familiar routes, I want to explore the music industry through the lenses of the philosophy of art and the politics of tech, because I think this can give us a better foundation from which to understand our current situation. From there, we might find a few strategies to help us move beyond the limbo of the post-Napster world.

I don’t think you can talk about what the Internet has done to the music industry without talking about Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Yes, it’s Marxist critical theory; yes, the reading itself is a bit dense and it can sound stuffy to name-check German philosophers in regular conversation about the music biz. But the thing about theory is that, at its best, it can often be boiled down to a basic, digestible point. Have you ever felt the pang that buying a digital file is less fun or satisfying than buying a record? Most of us have. Benjamin gave us a language to describe why that is. He claimed that the more reproducible a work of art is, the less “aura” it has. “Aura” is basically the term he gave to the magical vibes you get from a unique work of art or performance.

Even though vinyl and cassettes and CDs were always mass-produced, there was still some small bit of aura in them.

Digital files are the most easily reproducible formats for music that have ever existed, and, to put it bluntly, we just don’t get much magical feeling from buying or owning them — even if we love the songs they deliver. Even though vinyl and cassettes and CDs were always mass-produced, there was still some small bit of aura in them. We can argue about the commodification of that aura, but people paid for it.

When Trent Reznor says, “I made [my record] as well as I could and it costs ten bucks or go fuck yourself,” he’s making a legit point from the artist’s perspective. Recording studios, record labels and pressing plants and an artist’s time are hard economic realities. What we’re currently grappling with is that those realities are too abstract for the consumer. They don’t want to pay for something with no aura. Independent labels and music scenes have attempted to resist the problem with digital reproduction by emphasizing the purchase of objects, especially vinyl. But there’s a strange sense of duty to the notion that we must now make a deliberate decision to support an artist. Whereas buying records before was alluring, something we felt compelled to do, now it’s an obligation to be conscientious. That’s a really hard sell for a lot of people, even if the vinyl comes with a free download.

There used to be a kind of middle class in the music industry.

The grab at aura has also backfired: what small amount of vinyl pressing plants exist are now backed up with workload because major labels have capitalized on the resurgence of interest in vinyl by doing expensive re-pressings of old records and fancy Record Store Day releases. This leads to the next problem: the music business is often subject to the same problems that Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders have been discussing for the last several years: the concentration of power and wealth into fewer hands, the death of the middle class and the growing number of working people in poverty. This has happened in the music business, too.

There used to be a kind of middle class in the music industry; it was the thriving “big indie,” the sort of label that could sell enough units to keep its roster of more rebellious, creative artists fed and housed. Think Sub Pop, XL or Kill Rock Stars. That middle class has been hollowed out. With fewer records being sold overall, smaller labels have been forced to scale down, and with that scaling down has come the new normal of “successful” well-known musicians having to work day jobs to pay the rent. When artists are told to accept it, to buck up find a way to make it work, it sounds suspiciously like Wall Street types giving their “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” lecture to struggling workers while getting rich off of their labor. We should start thinking of it that way.

Music has also by and large become “web content,” and as such we should discuss it in terms of how Silicon Valley ethics and power are shaping the world. We hear about how Uber and Amazon are essentially scorched-Earth business strategies, designed to destroy certain segments of their respective industries (publishing, transportation) and create “platform monopolies.”

The reason we should consider being more dystopian in our thinking instead of so enthusiastically futurist is because music still makes money.

Destinations such as YouTube (and to a lesser degree Spotify) are now some of the primary places young people discover music. Silicon Valley has told us that “information wants to be free” and since a digital file is just information, expecting it for free now means that you’re just hip and up-to-date with The Way Things Are Now. Musicians as “content providers” are, like journalists, now paid less and expected to be thankful for what little they get. In a saturated media universe, we are told we should be happy for whatever little bit of attention we get. Tech entrepreneurs have succeeded in making some artists (off of whose content they profit) repeat their arguments almost word-for-word. I love Brian Eno and I have great respect for his futuristic thinking on music and technology. But when he says that recorded music was a blip in history that’s gone the way of whale blubber and that he’s fine with it, I hear the ideology of Silicon Valley spoken by someone who benefited from living during that blip. The problem isn’t that he’s wrong; the problem is that he sounds so OK with where we are.

The reason we should consider being more dystopian in our thinking instead of so enthusiastically futurist is because music still makes money — the question is how and for whom? It makes plenty of money for such entities as YouTube and Spotify. Here we’re often reminded that these businesses don’t often actually turn a profit. YouTube is only a break-even endeavor for Google. Spotify is still a privately held company with very low revenue, even compared to YouTube. But it’s not our job to figure out how YouTube can be made profitable. The thing to focus on is that YouTube’s share of Google’s earnings amounts to nine billion dollars, and a portion (we can’t know how much with any certainty) is coming from music. Spotify isn’t turning a profit, but it has an eight-billion-dollar valuation. That valuation isn’t a guarantee of anything, but it could make Spotify some serious money when it goes public.

Here the work musicians make must be understood as part of the raw material that Spotify needs in order to get valued at eight billion dollars. The question about profits is a sneaky way to avoid discussing the role music plays in advancing the financial interests of tech giants and startups alike. We know they’re making money off of what people click, but how exactly does that process function?

How can you commodify human attention?

Here it’s worth recounting an illuminating perspective from Douglas Rushkoff, who makes an interesting connection between traditional colonialism and the new digital economy. Rushkoff, in his recent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, suggests that once we ran out of land and resources to conquer in the real world, digital space represented a new playing field for continuing the business of endless corporate growth. But how exactly do businesses go about using the Internet as a new space for the market economy’s hunger for growth? Rushkoff suggests that in the digital economy, human attention has become a key commodity. How can you commodify human attention? First you come up with a way to measure it. The best way to understand how your likes, shares and other various button clicks on social media really function is by realizing these actions help businesspeople monitor and measure your attention. By creating these metrics, your attention can now be sold to potential advertisers, to so-called Big Data or any number of potential buyers.

So recorded music has had the aura drained out of it, and it has been flattened into web content. The purpose of this web content is primarily to help capture your attention and make it sellable to others, as well as to streamline your consumer experiences (i.e. turn you into a more efficient consumer). In this context, a controversial Tweet can bring an artist as much traffic and attention as a great song. Think about this reality for a second: an artist spends hours writing and recording a new song, invests hundreds, maybe thousands in mixing and mastering, but that song’s value on the Internet can be equivalent to or less valuable than an inflammatory Facebook post, a politically divisive Tumblr post or a Twitter insult that gets people talking. Look for yourself at the coverage Azaelia Banks got for her Twitter wars during the long period of time between her first hit single and her album release. Look at the coverage DJ Khaled gets for his Snapchat.

It isn’t that artists should have no non-musical content for online consumption. The artist essay can be a great thing — and why wouldn’t you Instagram your tour? The distinction to be made is between hype-cycle filler, which exists mainly to drive social media traffic, and items that enrich your work as an artist. The distinction is between items that cater to the dark incentives that gossip media have given to musicians — the very same ones that have helped Donald Trump become a “serious” candidate for president — and items that rebel against those incentives.

The problems with the music business aren’t unique; they are the opposite of unique. They are manifestations of some of the same political and cultural ills we are grappling with from economics to politics. If we want to solve them, we need to understand how those manifestations look within our specific universe. And while we may not solve everything wrong in the music world quickly, I do think there are ways forward for musicians and especially for consumers of music and people who want to have an active, supportive relationship with the artists who create the music they love.

The Internet doesn’t care whether you commented to say it was great or awful, it just cares that the comment is there.

One of the first — and easiest — is realizing that there’s a middle ground between dutifully spending mountains of hard-earned cash on vinyl records and using free and cheap streaming services. Music fans and consumers should start using their social capital in ways that benefit the artists they like. By social capital I mean likes, shares, comments, reviews and ratings. I’m aware that music fans spend some of this capital. But not many spend it as if they’re rich, and they are — they’re practically millionaires. With the exception of writing reviews, most of these things take very little effort or time. Understanding a general hierarchy where comments, shares and reviews are worth more than likes, music fans should spend freely and generously. They should make sure they never listen to a song they like without pressing “Like” or leaving a comment, even if the comment is just one word like “cool!” Because the Internet doesn’t care whether you commented to say it was great or awful, it just cares that the comment is there.

The flip side of this is that fans should be more punishing toward media outlets that reward gossip, hype and controversy just as much if not more than music itself. And that doesn’t mean commenting on clickbait with scolding comments or complaining about Dave Mustaine’s most recent wacko Tea Party rant in status updates. As mentioned above, a comment is a comment. It’s all just “engagement” to the measurers of attention. When Facebook scrapes the site for keywords to see who’s trending, they don’t measure content of commentary, just the number of times a word or set of words appears. That means garbage has to be punished with silence, not outrage. As long as what an artist said on Twitter rakes in more likes, comments and shares than what some up-and-coming new musician poured their heart and their last pennies into making, we will have a major problem because our underlying values are in disarray.

If you don’t pay for the record, spend some of your social capital on the band, and spend it generously.

Don’t have the money to buy all the records you want? Fine, I know what it’s like to be a poor music lover. But if you don’t pay for the record, spend some of your social capital on the band, and spend it generously. When that band goes to shop a record to a label, and asks a manager to manage them or a booking agency to book them, many of those people will base their decisions in part on what kind of “engagement” numbers the band has. How many followers? How many post likes? Have they seen people sharing news items about this band a lot recently? Show artists and the people who write the media what you want to read and hear. Show them what you value, but do it in the language they understand: the metrics of your attention. This is how I think we should function within the digital media landscape, but I think we should still be thinking of ways to reconfigure it.

There’s an even deeper question here, and perhaps the most important one, which speaks to the problem of the work’s lost aura. Part of the aura of records has long been that they represented participation in an outsider culture. Are we subconsciously less excited about songs, videos and interviews when they come at us as part of a newsfeed? Does this dynamic contribute to the fact that many of us now feel that there is no longer any such thing as an outside? A place where one can function, think and exist independently of the expectations of the dominant culture, which is now digital culture?

We tend to treat social media platforms as digital utilities — public services that are empty vessels for whatever we want to put into them. We feel like if we post about a radical political candidate or an underground artist, we’re rallying around the forces of progressive ideas and works. But try this thought experiment: go look at your newsfeed and imagine it all as branded. Imagine all those posts about all those amazing thinkers and musicians are branded. If we start to see platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as thoroughly branded — as if they’ve invisibly smattered their logo across everything that gets posted, which they basically have — we can start to see why the music we buy might no longer feel like it’s part of the kind of outside that progressives, radicals and avant-gardists have always been pushing toward.

The thing we need to improve the relationships between bands and fans is a culture of collective resistance.

I’m not even talking about the cliché of “switching off” or “going off the grid.” Technology isn’t the enemy. The people that make the tech and the values they imbue it with might be, though. The question isn’t whether or not you’ll throw away your smartphone or delete your accounts. The question is whether these tools that have been sold to us as great ways to get our work out to people actually serve Mark Zuckerberg’s business plan more than the interests of artists and fans. “This is just the way it is. Adapt or die; everyone who resists just doesn’t get it,” should come to be understood by labels, fans and bands alike as precisely how scorched-earth tech industry capitalists want us to talk.

The thing we need to improve the relationships between bands and fans is a culture of collective resistance. I’m not talking about anything that would even be dramatic or require much of anyone’s time. Because we still need the first building block, and that is a shared consciousness. All it requires is that we reject the current state of things, that we agree it could be better. But most of all, we need to recognize that the biggest question facing us is, where is the outside? Does it exist anymore? Do we want it to? Because the challenge ahead isn’t really how we make streaming profitable or whether we download songs. The challenge is for artists to remember their role in creating and nurturing an unbranded space, a space for community outside the corporate logic of everyday life.

Josh Strawn is currently one half of the electronic duo Azar Swan and the lead singer of the moody metal supergroup Vaura. He was closely involved with the now-defunct Wierd Records label and party, at which time he fronted the post-punk band Blacklist and played in the psychedelic doom folk band Religious to Damn with Azar Swan co-conspirator Zohra Atash. He has contributed written works of political and cultural commentary to various publications including Flavorwire and Slutist.

(photo credit: Jason Rodgers)