Flaming Lips stage set Sasquatch 2008. Image: Dave Allen
“We all have opinions, where do they come from?”
— Gang of Four: Why Theory?
This weekend I was spending time with one of my favorite albums – Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. I would describe Cave as a lyrical author rather than just a lyricist; his songs are narratives, poems and short stories; often the characters in his stories are street-hardened naifs living lives that skirt between fantasy and reality. At their best, on this album and others, his songs could be the soundtrack to that dark, brooding novel by Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian.
Cave’s awareness of his music as art shows up as a subtle third person reference in Finishing Jubilee Street where he speaks/sings “I’d just finished writing Jubilee Street, I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep.” Bertolt Brecht would have been proud.
That preamble is a set up for where I’m going here. I just finished The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths a fascinating non-fiction book by John N. Gray. A synopsis I would apply to the book is that humans have always struggled with the idea of progress and often don’t realize their response to progress is laced with illusions and myths. (Dear Nick, a freebie – there are many ideas for songs here should you need them…) I’ll return to the book’s insights later in this post.
In response to musician’s plaints against the way people access their music these days, I’ve often said that I don’t believe in the nostalgic idea that there was once a Golden Age of music; a period where the music recording industry was overflowing with cash, so much cash that it showered it evenly to all musicians, proving its largesse whilst creating an egalitarian income stream that treated everyone the same. I’d argue that the business has been pretty steady for decades except for a bell curve in the eighties and nineties when music fans bought CDs to replace their vinyl collections and concert ticket prices went through the roof. If I look to the left and to the right of that bell curve I’d say that the recorded music industry has regained a kind of equilibrium.
A question that might be put to me: Are you suggesting that the Internet didn’t flatten the recorded music industry? I would reply: Not entirely flattened it, but it didn’t adapt well to it. I would also reply that the Internet certainly flattened many, many businesses – Kodak comes to mind – and the businesses that adapted to the opportunities that the Internet brought – Oakstreet Bootmakers for example – came out on top. The correct question might be this: Do you agree that the Internet disrupted not only business, but culture and society too? And I would reply: Now that’s something that we agree on.
We have been living with the Web for two decades now and in that time two new generations of young people have been building upon its startling capabilities and opportunities. Not blinded by nostalgia, these young people see only a bright future. They are building Apps for example, and some of those builders are only nine years old. Those Apps may well upend your business very soon. These young people are hackers, they embrace Makerbot and flock to Hackathon days whenever they pop up. They may well jump into building something in the new Beats Music Public API. In other words, the new era of technological progress is not just about musicians and the recorded music industry; I believe we are looking at another major societal shift.
Is this progress, and if so what is it? If we were to ask John Gray he would say it is an illusion, that humans believe in the idea of progress because it gives us hope for the future. While the recorded music industry was looking in the wrong direction for two decades, that idea of progress marched on in a different manner. There were attempts to control what was happening – hello, the RIAA – and that was because the controlling of things is built into the human psyche. Those efforts fell flat; society had shifted. Napster created fear; The fear of the new led to missed opportunity. Music fans weren’t concerned with progress, they were enjoying the new toys that technology companies had invented.
Today, music fans know what they want and they know how to get it, to paraphrase the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. And I’m not talking about illicit music file sharing.
There’s a brilliant metaphor in the book. Gray points us to Maurice Maeterlinck’s study of the White Ant: Life of the Termites.
“All this destruction is carried out without one’s perceiving a living soul. For these insects, which are blind, are endowed with the genius to accomplish their task without being seen. The work is done under the cover of silence and only an alert ear is able to recognize the noise of the nibbling of millions of jaws in the night, which devour the framework of the building and prepare for its collapse…”
If the recorded music industry doesn’t quickly adapt to music’s White Ants, that building is theirs.
There is no room for pessimism here. I see only optimism and an opportunity for growth. I do not have to look too hard for evidence of music’s brilliance and musician’s ability to right the boat in the darkest of storms.
Jon Pareles, in an article about the reunion of Outkast, points to the major festival circuit in the United States – Governors Ball, Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch and Firefly, to name a few. It is not hyperbole to say that hundreds of thousands of tickets will change hands, as hundreds of thousands of music fans bear witness to some of the strongest festival line-ups in 2014. Another article I read recently, Brooklyn On The Spree, tells of how a “bohemian cadre of ex-New Yorkers is invading Berlin’s libertine club community and electronic music scene.” This is a geographical reversal of what happened when the Brits, Germans, French and Italians made the Spanish island of Ibeza the Mecca of European dance and electronic music decades ago; Americans heading east to ‘kick out the jams’ as it were.
The experience of gathering in tribes at music festivals cannot be duplicated after everyone has decamped. It is an innate, emotional response; we developed in the womb to the beat of our mother’s heart. These large musical gatherings are not going away anytime soon – if ever.
Something else that is not going away anytime soon is the way people access their music these days. We will not be seeing a return en masse to the CD; people will still buy those shiny discs as well as vinyl records while collectors of tactile recorded music products will still collect. That is a fact. Musicians will continue to make music under any circumstances. That too is a fact. Music fans have shown a huge preference for accessing their music through music streaming services such as Beats Music. That is also a fact. Yet it would be disrespectful of me, or anyone else, to simply say that record labels and musicians should just deal with it. It goes much deeper than that.
Here I turn to cognitive dissonance to help explain why musicians and other subsets of society feel abused when things don’t go their way.
Gray points to a social psychology study undertaken by Leon Festinger and his team. The study was published as a book, When Prophecy Fails, in 1956. Festinger wanted to test the theory of cognitive dissonance. (Let me help you out here in case you think I’m going off the rails. An example of this theory goes like this: an individual is likely to experience dissonance if he or she is addicted to smoking cigarettes and continues to smoke despite believing it is unhealthy.)
Festinger summarizes the process as so:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irreversible action because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may show a new fervour about convincing and converting other people to his view.
Leon Festinger realized: ”Humans are not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one.,” and T. S. Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Gray responds: “Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition.’
So yes, everyone, and I mean everyone, is downloading music for free! Not. Streaming music services are the Devil and will destroy the music industry. No. As the famous phrase goes: You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. This is not to say there won’t be another transitory effect that may destabilize the current models, it is just to say that we must work hard to untangle our strongly held beliefs from the actual reality of the situation. That is where the opportunity for informed debate lies, and the opportunity should be embraced by all who have strong and passionate feelings for the “future of music.”
Meanwhile, I’m with WME’s Marc Geiger here when he outlined the future of the recorded music industry at Midem this year. He imagines a $100 billion global recorded music industry in two decades. That statement comes with a proviso though: “only if it (the current recorded music business) abandons pushing music ownership and fully embraces the streaming subscription model.”
White Ants exist; Flying Saucers exist too if you believe they do…