Music, books and the Man

In February 19831 two Parisian archaeologists, Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois, faced a conundrum. The caves of the Ariege, at the foot of the Pyrenees were already renowned for their paintings, but it seemed strange how some of the famous paintings appeared in caves that were otherwise insignificant: side passages, for example. Surely our ancestors would want to paint the larger, grander chambers? As they traversed three caves in particular, they stumbled upon a fascinating discovery, that some caves were more resonant to certain musical frequencies than others. Reznikoff had a habit2 of humming to himself when entering a space, in order to ‘feel’ how it sounded: in the case of one cave in particular, Le Portel, his humming echoed noticeably, leading him to propose an experiment. The pair whistled and sand their way through the cave systems, building a resonance map. Most cave paintings happened to be very close — to within a metre — of the most resonant zones of the caves. Indeed, some ‘paintings’ were little more than markers, red dots indicating resonant areas of the cave system.

More profoundly, what became clear was that some resonances only worked with singing, or playing higher or deeper instruments — in other words, our forebears were choosing particular spaces for particular types of music-led ritual. “For the first time, it has been possible to penetrate into the musical world of Palaeolithic populations, to understand the link between musical notes and their use in ritual singing and music; this research is based on direct evidence, rather than simply on analogies or suppositions…” the pair surmised. While Reznikoff and Dauvois recognised their study led to more questions than answers — “The goal was above all to open the chapter on the music of painted caves,” they said — they demonstrated just how important music was to our ancestors, some3 14,000 years ago. Writes4 Professor Steven Errede at the University of Illinois, “Perhaps these occasions were the world’s first ‘rock’ concerts – singing and playing musical instruments inside of a gigantic, complex, multiply-connected organ pipe, exciting complex resonances and echoes as they sang and played!”

The capability to create music, to sing, to dance is part of what it means to be human — it was Darwin himself that suggested our musical abilities, shared with other animals and birds, emerged even before our use of language. Indeed, as the link between resonance, cave paintings and ritual suggests, our abilities to create and to perform are inherent to our very existence, going back into the depths of our history.

About 500 years ago something changed, however. At roughly the same time as Gutenberg was designing his printing press, in the late 1600s luthier Antonio Stradivari was working out techniques to apply varnish to wood, enabling it to hold a note better, and Bach was experimenting with the ‘well-tempered’ clavier, tuned such that the majority of notes were mathematically aligned, meaning most scales could be played without any ‘off’ notes. For the first time, the notion of distribution was introduced into the arts. Suddenly it became possible for one person to write a play, or a piece of music, which someone else could then print, and a third person could enact without the whole thing needing to be written out by hand — in music’s case, using instruments able to replicate the original author’s wishes. Not coincidentally, it was only shortly after, in 1709 that the Statute of Anne first enshrined the notion of copyright into law. A hundred years later, in the post-Napoleonic, heady musical times of Chopin, Liszt and Paganini, book and music publishing was already big business.

It was only to be a matter of decades before electromagnetic discoveries led to the creation of sound recording devices, the first5 of which (from another, fantastically named Frenchman Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville) managed to capture a garbled version of Claire De La Lune. Another Frenchman, Louis Le Prince made the world’s first film6 in October 1888, sixty-odd years after his compatriot Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took7 the world’s first photograph. Quite why the French had such a deep involvement in such world-changing technological creations is unclear; what is better known is how they spawned a global empire of industries based on the business of making art and then getting paid for it. known as either the creative, or the content industries. The former referring to what is being delivered, in terms of music, writing, film and TV, and indeed videogaming, which couldn’t exist without technology. “Content” references the format of delivery, in that any of the above can be seen as a stream of data which can be transferred, watched, listened to or otherwise interacted with. While humanity may enjoy a range of experiences, the fact that they share the ability to be digitised is important to those who deliver the experiences from source to consumption. And, by this very token, each of these industries has been impacted quite dramatically by technology.

Fast forward (to coin a phrase) to today and on the surface at least, all is apparently quite unwell across the creative industries. US recorded music revenues are down by almost two thirds since their height at the turn of the millennium, to8 $21.50 per capita, for example9; total album sales plummeted steadily from 1999’s figure of 940 million to only 360 million in 2010. It isn’t just mainstream bands such as Metallica that claim to have suffered; many smaller, independent bands have felt the same pain, without having a major label’s lawyers to defend them. The fault has been squarely placed at the door of technology, first with home taping, then CD ripping, then file sharing and torrenting, and most recently streaming10. A bonus was that technology (in the shape of the CD) did offer a temporary injection of cash into the system. This influx of capital, coupled with carefully marketed controls on demand, remained unchallenged until 2004, when digital formats once again enabled consumers to access music they actually wanted to listen to. By 2008 single sales had once again overtaken album sales, and the industry was once again in freefall. The bogeyman at the time was piracy, as few appeared able to resist the lure of simply copying the digital version of a musician’s hard work, or using platforms like Napster, then Bit Torrent to do so. Still today, the industry claims that up to 95 per cent of all music is illegally distributed, and therefore un-monetised — that is, the artists don’t see a penny.

Add to this, the alleged daylight robbery from streaming services like Youtube, Spotify and Apple Music. Since it was founded a decade ago, YouTube’s journey has not all been a bed of roses. Back in 2006, even as Google paid 1.6 billion for the site, The Economist reported11 that it was losing 500,000 per month. Two years later Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, remarked12, “I don't think we've quite figured out the perfect solution of how to make money, and we're working on that.” The site was expected13 (finally) to make a profit by the end of the 2010. Nobody doubts YouTube’s dominance today: four billion videos are watched daily, a third of which are music related. Meanwhile, Spotify now has some 20 million paying subscribers and many millions more who use the advertising-supported version of the site, Apple first launched iCloud with its built-in “piracy amnesty14” for music, then its fully fledged Apple Music service; and Google15 and Amazon have launched their own music offerings. Each service is seen as working with, or conspiring against the music industry or individual artists, depending on who you ask at the time. 

The Gutenberg-inspired world of book publishing has its own nemesis, Amazon, which dropped its first economic bombshell into the world of book sales — it turned out that books are sufficiently a commodity to fit the nature of e-commerce better than many other product lines. According to publishers, two markets now exist for books: high street bookshops for bestsellers, and Amazon for everything else. Even the largest publishers are still working out how to deal with the 'revelation16' that Amazon was not going to be the friend of booksellers, nor even necessarily authors.

Amazon’s second bombshell came in the form of the Kindle device. For a while, as sales of both e-books and readers surged, it looked like the pundits were right about the ‘end of print’. Amazon reputedly17 sold five times as many ebooks in Q4 2012 compared to the previous year), which is quite a hike. And meanwhile sales of printed books were eroding. Overall US book sales increased by just over 6 percent, of which 23 percent is now ebooks, up from 17 percent. But the rate of growth of e-books is levelling off, as illustrated by recent figures18 from the Association of American Publishers. This may be temporary: Tim Waterstone, bookshop founder and all round publishing guru, gives19 it 50 years before all formats are digital — but even this suggests humans will lose all touch with tactility.

And meanwhile, film has suffered from a similar challenge as music, in that physical formats such as DVD remain a major target of piracy, as are films themselves given the availability of high resolution recording devices — together these are said to be costing20 the industry half a billion dollars a year. Online services such as Netflix offer new forms of competition, though at least negotiations are with studios rather than individual actors, who tend to be paid a fee rather than a royalty. While it looked like TV would go down the tubes, success stories like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos show that quality, plus good use of the same online tools that are creating part of the threat, show a way forward. Indeed, perhaps it is the earliest of all content industries, photography that has suffered the most, as cameras have been put in the hands of everyone, with results instant and the quality threshold relatively low. Video games have had a strange advantage over other content. Not only have producers benefited from a diversity of consoles, but also because of a knock-on effect of Moore’s Law: the format has grown in size right up to the limits of what is possible at the time, in principle making ‘Class A’ high-end games more difficult to pirate. All the same this, too, has risen fast over the past five years — indeed, one research study21 suggested nearly $75 billion was lost to piracy in 2014.

So what’s the net net for the creative, or content industries, and indeed for the artists that make it possible? Alongside artists such as Pure Reason Revolution, culled from Sony/BMG’ rosters in 2006 in an effort to ’streamline’, the real casualty of the digital revolution, it appears, has been the industry itself: of the big six, once-proud behemoths of music for example, three have already been merged into the others. “Technology created the music industry, and it will be technology that destroys it,” remarked Marillion’s lead singer, Steve Hogarth. And while film and TV studios work differently to music, they nonetheless are struggling. Meanwhile, while book publishers don't lack for challenges — questions around digital rights, self-publishing, discoverability, the role of social media and so on — this part of the industry appears to have managed to withstand the digital onslaught better. “At least we haven't made the same mistakes as the music industry,” says an editor from a larger publishing house. Unit pricing has largely survived the transition from print to digital, and piracy is not the runaway stallion being experienced by other industries. Perhaps the biggest sign of optimism in books is the fact that Amazon has itself chosen to open not one, but several book stores. And meanwhile, in 2015 UK chain Waterstones recently turned a small, yet genuine profit22.

But what of the artists themselves? Technology is proving both a blessing and a curse, now that the constraint of intermediation has been removed both on who can record and deliver content, and who controls its flow to the general public. “Here we are at the apex of the punk-rock dream, the democratisation of art, anyone can do it, and what a double-edged sword that’s turned out to be, has it not?” remarks23 DJ and polymath Andrew Weatherall. Indeed, in this day and age it is difficult to know whether we are listening to a professional musician recording a song in an expensive studio, or some troubled kid making a song in their apartment24 — if indeed it matters.

As we saw in the last chapter, technology is changing the very nature of our organisations, with more and more control being put into the hands of a broadening number of individuals. As illustrated by Marillion, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and a host of others, perhaps the collapse of parts of the music industry is a reflection of the increasingly empowered relationship between ‘content creators’ and ‘content consumers’. Services such as Soundcloud and Bandcamp (offering direct sales of music and merchandise) are springing up to support artists in these goals, enabling them to interact more directly with their audiences. Indeed, for this very reason, streaming appears to be less of an issue to artists than industry representatives. Comments25 musician Zoe Keating, “The dominant story in the press on artist earnings did not reflect my reality, nor that of musical friends I talked to. None of us were concerned about file sharing/piracy, we seemed to sell plenty of music directly to listeners via pay-what-you-want services while at the same time earn very little from streaming.”

Another positive consequence of the removal of a bottleneck is massive diversification, driving a positive explosion of culture. In music the big success story has been YouTube, with artists as diverse Korea’s Psy26 and Morocco’s Hala Turk27 gaining almost-immediate international attention when their compositions went viral. Outside of music, YouTube has created a generation of video-loggers or vloggers28, characters such as Olajide "JJ" Olatunji, better known as KSI, who has nine million subscribers to his channel. We’ve seen this phenomenon in publishing as well, in the form of 50 Shades of Grey. Of course, Spotify, YouTube and Amazon are still The Man, and working for The Man comes at a price. Musicians and authors may choose to say, “Non, Merci!” to the patronage models of today, but they still need a platform upon which to perform.

The most important bottom line for creative types is financial, which is where the blessing and the curse becomes most apparent. Despite taking a recession-based hit, royalty payments from US rights organisation Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI, representing 600,000 members) have been increasing year on year since 2000. In 2014, the organisation some distributed $850 million, up 3.2% on the year before. Meanwhile, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP, 460,000 members) distributed $883 million in 2014, having collected over a billion dollars in revenues. UK licensing revenues are also up year on year, and have been for 5 years.

On the downside, what this also illustrates is a massive increase in supply. Given that the total number of musicians in the US was 189,510, clearly the rate of growth of ‘rights holders’ far surpasses that of ‘professional’ musicians. It isn’t a coincidence that one of the biggest issues is seen as ‘discoverability’ — for example, how to identify a new piece of music without being told about it? We can expect to see innovation in social data driven search (Twitter has bought WeAreMusic for example). A frequent complaint is that listeners are not that discerning: the bar for ‘pop’, as represented by Simon Cowell, is not set that high so artists that invest more of themselves in their work are feeling quite rightly jilted. Perhaps this goes right back to the origins of our desire, and ability to perform: all it takes is one person wishes to present a poem, or a song, or a story and ask nothing for it, for any notion of a ‘monetisable business model for content’ to be undermined, and to create new opportunities for exploitation by platform providers from Huffington Post for the written word, to Pinterest for photographic images. Based on the very nature and purpose of creativity, it is highly likely that it will pervade. Equally however, it does appear that we are unable to resist the lure of sharing what we create, whether or not that causes problems for others, or indeed, for ourselves.

Which brings to a bigger question. As we share more and more, are we right to do so? Let’s consider the nature of the information we are all creating.