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Tuesday
May222012

Spotify: The new/old musical counter-revolution

I got two packages in the mail - a vinyl record and a compact disc. All on the day that Australian music lovers would point their fingers and laugh at my stubborn luddism. Hadn't I heard? Spotify had finally launched Down Under! I could now stream any song I wanted from a pool of over sixteen million tracks filled by virtually all the major labels and independents, sailing across it with a totally "new" musical model.

As many pundits would have you believe the Spotify "revolution" isn't one at all - it's not the Red Army storming the Winter Palace and declaring peace, bread and land for the people. It's akin to a bound and gagged family Romanov inexplicably sprouting laser turrets from their heads. Envigorated, they'd command the ghosts of Cossacks to rise from their graves and mercilessly hound Trotsky and his troops back toward the Ukraine. Spotify is a musical counter-revolution aiming to quash the orgiastic "free" producer/consumer-led music rebellion once and for all.

It’s so deliciously evil it beats life back into Monty Burns’ desiccated heart and has him whistling Dixie and calling Mater. (Ahoy-hoy?) Here’s why.

The digital arms race
Ever since the dawn of recorded music, the industry at large kept its eye on one prize. That is, controlling the content, the media and its distribution.[1] When gramophone records first appeared it wasn’t uncommon to see music on vinyl sold via totally vertical integration: ownership from top to bottom from producer of the content to the point of purchase by the consumer. (Case and point: HMV or “His Master’s Voice.”) The Compact Disc was a shift toward higher-fidelity media and lower overall manufacturing costs per unit.

The CD was jointly developed by Sony and Philips in the late-70s. CDs as a format gained consumer acceptance in the late-80s when an economy of scale was established. Together, Sony and Philips paid for the research & development, marketing and manufacturing of both Compact Discs and the machines that would play them. Like all good R&D, they could on-license the technology to other companies. It’s a no brainer – Sony and Philips were (and still are, to some extent!) multinational music labels possessing vast back catalogues and new talent primed for polymer pressing, proving positively pilfer-proof (until the late 1990s, as we all know.)

But what to do! In the yawning sunrise of 2000 AD, the medium of playback and distribution went spectacularly rogue. A stylized cat harvested innards of beige boxes, enabled by squeaky telephone wires. The pirates, once thought of as guerillas with nothing better to do than trade tapes around and occasionally burn a CD for a few bucks a pop were now legion, moving torrents (oh I love this water analogy) of (almost!) intangible data across networks without proper authorization from intellectual property holders. The content was there, like it had been since Tin Pan Alley and even centuries before 'round the campfire. Yet the stranglehold on media and distribution methods slipped the grasp of the industry virtually overnight. It felt like no amount of speech impeded Danes with expensive lawyers could ever halt their revolutionary advance.

Commodification ala mode and a cup of tea
So what now? Do record companies under the aegis of RIAA and their cronies hunt down pirates and strong-arm them back toward their sanctioned tripartite model of music consumption? Or do they spend more money than they’re prepared to on R&D creating a new medium and a new distribution method?

The iTunes model seemed “revolutionary” at the time – you know, telling people to pay for something they could get illegally for free – lest the counter-revolutionary martinets bound in and lay down the(ir) law. It was a step forward from CDs, sure. Slapping all DRM in the world on to files still meant people "got" something.  “Our content was never yours to begin with and now we’re keeping it,” they bellowed.

And lo, Spotify and its ilk emerged.

Record companies own the content. That's a given. The clever rub lies thus: remove the medium and utilize an established distribution network, which in its present broadband form has existed about fifteen years. Spotify etc. seek to change the concept or perception of content ownership back to an near pre-technological state much like in the age of travelling band shows of yore. Yes, you may hear the music but you can no longer hold it in your hands.

By removing the physical or even the illusion of physicality (files on a hard drive), the medium and the distribution is in a state of simultaneous allness and nothingness; it’s always “on” yet you can never “have” the music. It's "your" song when you choose it - like out of a jukebox - but once the last note decays, so is your claim over it (not that you really had one in the first place). You can “search” the (not your) collection but it’s never “yours” – they’re the gatekeepers and you pay for them to lower the drawbridge. Once inside their opaque vaults, they're able track your playing habits to sell you more of what you already want. Then you're their billboard as they publish every guilty play of Pat Benatar to your friends on Facebook. It’s like the IKEA of promotion – IKEA keep their prices low because they outsource the construction of the product to you. Now Spotify have got you to do their marketing for them, too.

If budding content producers are paid a pitiful commission, more so the better in the eyes of the industry. By melding (or abnegating) the medium, they’ve lowered the price of music and also its value. If Spotify spends the same amount of money paying for the rights to the new Gotye record (quelle horreur) and the entire back catalogue of Darkthrone, per se, then what is the differential of worth between the two? There is none. The only savvy trick the labels can pull is restricting the “supply” of Gotye (or someone just as horrible and popular) but that would distort the market and their profit margins (in this new medium-lite model). Make everything on offer the same (pre-paid) price per click, throw in some ads and the money rolls in regardless. Not much for those who wish to furnish Spotify with music, but big payoffs for those who control mammoth oceans - not paper cups full - of content.

But what really fucking burns my potatoes is that Spotify is the closest thing we have to the real pop music experience. Richard Meltzer in his inquiry/parody of the Aesthetics of Rock posited that rock and pop music is the act of making the mundane interesting and exciting. Shit, if you can make money off it, more so the better.

Spotify is accessible on a desktop computer which you more than likely stare into each day to earn those dollars to pay for, well, Spotify. For the fraction of a second your consciousness wanders toward the sublime tongue of rock and pop in all its tinned ferocity on your shitty laptop speakers, the music industry suits have not only breathed a sigh of relief, their tar-stained cackles can be heard from a blue million miles...

Like I said, it’s pure evil fucking genius.

---
1: Jones, S. Rock Formation: Music, Technology and Mass Communication, Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA, 1992 p. 185.

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