Music Streaming, 2016: The surprising endurance of non-artificial intelligence.
There is no question that technology is connecting more people with more music than ever before, but when there is disrespect between the tech, finance and creative worlds things get weird. In the early years of the Internet, major record companies were famously awkward, sometimes stupid, in embracing the new world. At the same time the apparent disregard by some tech companies for the economic value of creative content was both immoral and counter-productive.
And then there are those tech executives who minimize the value of forms creativity that do not involve writing code. A recent example of the latter syndrome was in a recent speech by Eric Schmidt in which the Chairman of Alphabet Inc., which owns Google and YouTube, offered some thoughts about music streaming.
"A decade ago, to launch a digital music service, you probably would have enlisted a handful of elite tastemakers to pick the hottest new music.
Today, you're much better off building a smart system that can learn from the real world -- what actual listeners are most likely to like next -- and help you predict who and where the next Adele might be.
As a bonus, it's a much less elitist taste-making process -- much more democratic -- allowing everyone to discover the next big star through our own collective tastes and not through the individual preferences of a select few."
It's hard not to consider the possibility that Schmidt was not merely expressing an opinion but is also taking a shot at competitors like Apple and there is something a little surreal about an Internet multi-billionaire railing against "elites". As Springsteen taught us long ago,"Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything"
Nonetheless Schmidt's argument will be seductive for certain types. There is an old saying in Hollywood that "everybody has two businesses -- whatever it is they actually do to make a living, and show business." The very intimacy that millions of people feel with mass culture leads to the feeling among many that being a fan is the same thing as being an expert. There is always a receptive audience of haters who are jealous of people who get to watch movies, listen to music, or go to sports events and get paid for it. And of course there has never been a shortage of frustrated artists whose creative dreams were thwarted by the prevailing system of any era.
However, there is absolutely no evidence idea that "collective tastes" valuable they are to absorb, can completely replace human curation. The fantasy of such a "smart system" is reminiscent of the crackpot theory of Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" that promoted "the think system" as a way to learn musical instruments rather than to spend the necessary hours to practice them.
The "real world" is a place in which one size does not fit all, in which all "actual listeners" are not the same and in which various kinds of popular music did not find audiences by the same route.
There will always be a "pop" business -- the business of magic songs, which the crowd responds to on first listen, and technology is indeed able to identify and expand those particular kinds of viral hits faster than ever.
But there are also artists who eventually become extremely popular and culturally powerful, who most members of us don't "get" on first hearing. They only become known over time because of those dreaded "elites" who spend hours and days listening to and thinking about music and who have the insight and charisma (and willingness to take a creative risk) to influence enough people to listen again.
A significant percentage of music fans, especially the most passionate and engaged ones, want media and culture that turns them onto music that they cannot currently imagine.
Audience research is a rear view mirror. It can tell us what we liked five minutes ago but not what we will love a year from now.
Even at the peak of "American Idol" there were a wide variety of very different artists finding audiences in very different ways, some of whom have created careers far more significant than the contest winners. (By any measure, Arcade Fire is a much more important artist today than Daughtrey is.)
The entire genres of hip-hop, and punk rock were met with indifference by most radio listeners when researched by broadcasters when they first emerged. Artists now considered legendary were initially only exposed by alternative media thought leaders who trusted their own intuition. As a result, cults grew up around music played by such "elite" programmers who had the talent (yes, it is a talent) to recognize certain artists and songs before the "crowd" caught up to them.
In the rock world where I've spent most of my career, two notable examples were "underground radio" stations like Boston's WBCN of the late nineteen sixties, playing albums by artists like Led Zeppelin that didn't "research" at pop radio stations, and "Alternative Rock" radio stations in the early nineteen nineties like LA's KROQ that played punk artists like Depeche Mode and Jane's Addiction who got "negatives" in mainstream rock radio research .
I was lucky enough to be one of Nirvana's managers when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" exploded across the world musical culture with a velocity comparable to any Taylor Swift or Rhianna hit. But without the previous twenty years of non-pop punk media and culture, there would not have been an audience for Nirvana.
The first albums by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, and U2 among many others, records that are now considered classics, were initially rejected by mass media precisely because they did not connect instantaneously with the tastes of the pop audiences of the times.
One forgotten Internet fad of the aughts was the notion that the "crowd" could pick successful artists better than elites at record companies and that the whole idea of A&R was going to disappear along with Tower Records. Of course the "crowd" picked music that sounded like what was popular at the time -- and which was passé by the time it was released. No new stars were actually discovered this way and every start-up based on the idea that algorithms combined with fan feedback could replace record companies failed. It was XL Records, run by a fierce individualist named Richard Russell, who recognized and signed Adele
As someone in the music business who is also a music freak, I've signed up for and enjoyed every streaming service starting with Rhapsody in 2006. But the reality is that in most other parts of the world the streaming option has not been culturally exciting enough to explode with the intensity that MTV and music radio did in eras past and has thus not motivated enough paying subscribers to create an economically sustainable ecosystem for anyone involved.
Music has only had the cultural power to make it a paying business when it is combined with culture whether it was charismatic DJs like Allen Freed or Vin Scelsa, graphics and showmanship like MTV, an integrated cultural environment like Lollapalooza or Jazz Fest etc.
Spotify Discover is certainly an improvement over the kinds of emails I used to get in its early days that said things like "Since you like Bob Dylan, you might also enjoy Jim Croce." But like similar recommendations of books and movies on Amazon and Netflix, they are only occasionally useful and lack the impact of subjective human vision. There would have been no Oprah's Book Club without Oprah.
Whatever bumps in the road Apple Music and Tidal have had with their "elite" programing, their creative experimentation is a lot more likely to create a new cultural wave than a search for a new algorithm is. Beats One may not yet have achieved the kind of critical mass that makes them invulnerable to skepticism by the haters but it's silly to pretend that the Drake premiere was not a big deal.
It is worth noting that the struggle to develop a viable music streaming business and culture is occurring at the time of two distinctive and sometimes opposing trends in the digital world. On one hand there advertising driven sites leads to an increasing reliance on short attention span tabloid culture that generates large quantities of clicks at the expense of every other kind of content. At the same time, there is the quiet explosion of podcast culture, which rewards depth, human authenticity and unpredictability.
In the musical culture writ large, one sees the counter-intuitive growth of vinyl (which by some accountings generated more money last year for artists than streaming did) and an increase in the number of intense fans who will spend large amounts of money for concerts and festivals where they prefer a deeper more intimate experience to relying solely on viral hits (of course it's fun to hear a hit at a concert. When the music business really works, short term and long term kinds of art can co-exist and feed each other).
Yes, actual creative experimentation means a high failure rate. As the Main Ingredient sang "Everybody plays the fool. No exception to the rule." But only by honoring the creative mysteries attendant to music will the long sought after breakthrough occur. As Dion has said, "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original." And in the "real world, originality still matters.
Danny Goldberg is the President of Gold Village Entertainment at the author of "Bumping Into Geniuses." He is the subject of the "Keynote Conversation" with Rob Barnett at the New York Media Festival at 2:30 on Wednesday Oct 7th at the Safra Auditorium.