In 1986, Tony James’ post-Generation X outfit Sigue Sigue Sputnik released a record that included advertisements between its songs (If you haven’t heard it, you probably should. It’s called Flaunt It). James explained the move saying, “Commercialism is rampant in society. Maybe we’re a little more honest than some groups I could mention… Our records sound like adverts anyway.” Though it was taken with the appropriate amount of irony twenty-five years ago, the idea was disruptive. Well, my good friend Dave Allen invited me to join him on a panel at SF MusicTech Summit this year where I heard someone propose — nay they had a business based on — the same idea as the Sigue Sigue Sputnik farce, designed for streaming online… The topic of our panel? The Lack of Disruption in Music Technology.
Audio streaming sites and services seem to be all the rage this year, and whenever he starts a new project with a client as Digital Strategist at NORTH, Dave always asks “What does it solve?” In our panel meetings we added “Who does it serve?” to that. Streaming services have become what Dave calls “the mechanics of consensus.” That is, they all use the same outmoded model (i.e., draw up business plan, acquire venture capital, launch service, place advertising on the free part, charge for premium service without advertising, etc.) as if it’s the only way to do things. This model follows and barely updates the broadcast radio model of the 1920s. As Dave says, “There’s nothing new in digital!” In his pre-talk post, “What happened to the Big Idea in music technology?” he points out that
…when FM radio became homogenized and the US radio stations formed into conglomerates such as Clear Channel, they neutered the DJ. When Wolfman Jack was programming his own rock shows in the USA, and across the Atlantic in London John Peel was exposing young people’s ears to music they’d never heard, they were just two examples of the extraordinary power DJs had on the music business. They were tastemakers, influencers, and filters of music culture. When the conglomerates did away with the role of the DJ in favor of automated playlists they ruined everything. The DJ was the voice of the station and he or she was considered dangerous to the bottom line if they were to offend their advertisers – they had to play nice, or go. The music streaming companies didn’t see the problem that needed solving – the lack of authentic DJs who programmed their own shows – because they thought “interactivity” was the answer.
The streams on these services are controlled by algorithms, and they’re similar on every service. If you like one Norwegian Black Metal band, you’re soon to be recommended every Norwegian Black Metal band. Discovery comes from difference, and these algorithms are based on similarities. They all serve up sameness. How about some Swedish Black Metal for a change? The DJs at KEXP (or whomever), as well as Wolfman Jack, or John Peel might keep you in a stable groove, but they also know when to yank you out of a rut. Dave says that getting up from his desk to flip over a record on the turntable is about as interactive an experience as he can imagine while at home listening to music. Either way: The human element cannot be replaced with playlists.
It’s not all about interactivity though. There is also a mounting wave of social-media fatigue — on both sides. TAG Strategic’s Corey Denis pointed out that some artists don’t want or like to engage with their fans. We often say that a 21st-century art inherently involves multimedia, and while that might be true more often than not, it doesn’t mean every artist wants or needs to tweet. There are as many kinds of artists, performers, and entertainers as there are arts, performances, and entertainment. Some of them don’t require status updates. Social media killed the video star. Where companies and consultants are still pursuing interactivity and engagement, Dave often pushes for more passivity. People are tired of engaging with you, and sometimes there’s just no reason for you to “be social.” From the other side of the fourth wall, my man Tim Baker just posted this piece at SYFFAL about how social media kills fandom. He writes,
As for artists, I can’t tell you how many have destroyed their legacies and turned me off to their works completely based soley on their Twitter accounts. Artists and Twitter should be a match made in heaven but time and time again it is used as a sounding off board for the most idiotic, self absorbed and generally dickish thoughts, or recaps of the minutiae that only someone on the autism spectrum would need to share. Additionally most artists are not smart in the sort of way that translates into short form quick bursts. It comes off much more as indulgent at best, and idiotic at worst. Gone are the days of artists being interesting because they were mysterious and unobtainable and here are the days where modern artists are overexposed and not even remotely interesting. It is sad really that the tool that when used sparringly is so effective, is abused to such a level.
David Ewald calls this phenomenon the “erosion of trust,” and it happens at every intersection: artists to labels, labels to radio, labels to technology, everyone to “social media experts,” fans to everyone, artists to everyone, etc. Why should they trust you with something they can do themselves? But also, why should they trust you with something that don’t want to do and don’t necessarily care about in the first place? Artists should concentrate on their art. As fans, we’ve bought and replaced every format out just trying to hear the artists we love. If the music is good, we will find it and support it. We don’t need your help. As a lifelong music fan and someone who doesn’t use any of the online services, I can honestly say that my experience with music is better right now than it ever has been. Anyway, by design our panel asked more questions than it answered — and definitely more than we could answer sufficiently in an hour. Here are my thoughts from SF MusicTech Summit, collected in web-ready, low-bandwidth blurbs:
- Solve real problems and serve real people. Artists and fans are real people. We don’t care where your money comes from.
- Discovery is disruptive. Discovery comes from difference. Stop seeking and serving sameness.
- The human element cannot be replaced with playlists. Just because technology can curate doesn’t mean that it should or that it does it well.
- Social media killed the video star. Be social when it makes sense. Shut up when it doesn’t.
- Music will take care of itself. Stop acting like music needs you to save it. It doesn’t.
Many thanks to Dave for inviting me, Lily for going with me, my fellow panelists for the great talk, and to Brian and Shoshana Zisk, Cass Philipps, and all at SF MusicTech Summit for putting this thing together. Also, props to Luke Williams for getting us stoked on this idea in the first place. Onward.
[photos by Lily Brewer]