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When music means business

Artistes have yearned forever that the business side of art should be handled by someone who understands art as well

When music means business

These days various streaming systems are totally dominating music-making and its transmission. These services, for the first time, have made more money than the other traditional formats and with the reported ten thousand tracks being uploaded every day the power of the coveted playlist spot is undeniable.

Several books have been published recently on this topic, like the Final Days of the EMI — Selling the Pig, Spotify — Teardown inside the Black Hole of Streaming Music and Ways of Hearing.

It would not be amiss to say that the shape and form of music has changed over the ages, and in particular the medium has been heavily altering its form and the method of intonation. Recording companies, along with the technology, have had a large input in music-making. Actually, it is very difficult for us to know what music was in the very huge pre-recorded era that extends over millions of years and what went on in the evolution of the musical sound. It was varied in the various civilisations and the various regions and its documentation has escaped consistency because it existed only in time and not in space.

These days the charge in the music business is led by the streaming companies, the major players being Apple Music, Tidal and Spotify. All this change in music business may have started with one Mr. Hands who made his reputation in the art of resecuritisation, selling bonds backed by future cash flows in asset-rich cost-heavy sectors, such as pubs and rolling stock operators. He was actually a businessman and had nothing to do with music. He understood business and applied it to music, treating it as yet another business.

Spottily founders were also not music people. The change, thus, came from the outside but they were able to understand the promise of the moment. If someone could offer an alternative to music piracy they would win both political and industry support?

To qualify to be listened to on Spotify the song has to have been played for thirty seconds. The hit songs have all become very predictable, offering up all their pleasures in the first half minute. The length of the songs shortened for the payments were made on the basis of the first thirty seconds.

All the money that the streaming services have generated for the music industry very little of it flows back to the musicians, except those who have generated money for the streaming services. The streaming statistics have consolidated their popularity in a way that was impossible when radio was still the greatest disseminator of music.

The rise of the Spotify has been aided by the very old-fashioned ability to create hype. That hype has helped Spotify to deflect attention from the fact that its main business is not helping listeners discover new music but collecting information about listeners in order to sell it to the advertisers.

Over the years, it has changed its design away from the tracks, artistes and search options to music consumption centered round behaviour, feelings and moods channeled through curated playlists and motivational messages.

Data now is the key part of the talent-spotting processes. Data collected is of great use to those buying advertisements on Spotify and to the major labels who license their music to it. The data it collects enables the industry to work out whose market it is, where it lives, what else it likes, how often it listens to music — almost anything really. It is a great assemblage of information about music listener in history and it has profoundly altered the industry. It has made Spotify the music king-maker.

Data is preached to sign the artists, displacing the golden ears of talent scouts. It has profoundly changed the relationship of the music with its listeners. Music was listened till it was liked, if bought because it could not be bought again in the month due to limited resources. Now it is simply skipped to the next one and probably not given full attention. Without ownership there is no incentive to study.

Faced with the possibility of wide choice that it offers it becomes easier to return to the old favourites than when flicking through vinyls or Cds. It actually makes people into more conservative listeners, a process aided by its algorithms which steer you towards music similar to your frequent listening. It is said by experts that streaming has stripped music of its context. The real difference is of a world enriched by noise and a world that strives towards signals only.

In 2007, the British Company EMI, the fourth of the majors Universal, Sony and Warner facing financial difficulties was brought by private equity firm Terra Firma but in just four years it was unable to clear the debts and it was handed over to its main lender, the Citigroup. Before 2011, the process of breaking the company had started. Hands introduction of the business model is now standard business practice — he preached the need of using data when signing artists. It could not be relied solely on just the golden era of the golden scouts; data was kept part of the talent, spotting process. He also wanted to launch a streaming service to promote music to the public. It could be free with the money being raised from advertising and branding.

When record labels once clamoured their numbers to be heard on the radio and reviewed by magazines, the push now is to get songs into the crated mixes hosted by steaming services on video games, the gyms and high street corners.

Artistes have yearned forever that the business side of art should be handled by someone who understands the arts as well. In the days when patrons ruled the roost, the artistes were forced to make many compromises. And in this market-oriented scenario various techniques and business models determine the way music is made and disseminated. The equation of the artist businessmen remains a dream.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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