Robert Clayman: Rant in E Minor
Steve Lukather is pissed. To clarify, he’s American and therefore peeved, not inebriated.
David Byrne’s in a mardy strop, too. David is also American, but he’s actually Scottish, so if he was pissed, he’d be, well…perfectly happy. So why are these ageing stalwarts of the old ‘recording’ industry both suffering an attack of the gripes?
The global grapevine that is ‘articles posted by Facebook friends’ had a moment of strange synchronicity this week. It seems they’ve both, at the same moment, cottoned onto the fact that the fertile ground that sprung their vastly different sounding oeuvres has probably disappeared for ever.
In Byrne’s case a sprawling, eclectic back catalogue of New Wave post-punk, sinewy electro funk, spacious and spacey Brian Eno collaborations in ambience, anthropological explorations of both the African and South American traditions, as well as soundtracks and scores to many films and theatrical pieces. Meanwhile, Lukather, with his 25-member session musician band, Toto, played guitar and sang on some of the blandest (and most successful) music ever committed to tape. One was about tropical precipitation in Africa. Another was about really needing to copulate ‘all the way’ with duck-faced ingenue Rosanna Arquette.
The source of their mutual ire is the music streaming website, Spotify. It’s a subscription-based music streaming application, that essentially allows music owned by the last remaining big record companies to be listened to legally. Using a business model known as ‘Freemium’, it invites a six month free, unlimited download period and then asks for some payment – though most people, obviously, keep the free version. There is also a streaming radio service that plays random music, which can then be purchased through the site. Sounds brilliant, yes? Well for music lovers, it is. The record labels make access easy, whilst still retaining the digital rights of their commercial property. Everyone’s happy. Except the recording artists.
Mainly because they see nothing from the deal, or as much as would qualify as nothing. Quantum peanuts, if you will. Lukather says:
“I don’t see any money (from Spotify or iTunes) and I have A LOT of stuff out there over 35 years of making records. Have you done the breakdown on what an artist get per tune on iTunes? Pitiful. Now if you are with a label, it’s even worse ‘cause they take a huge share of that. The breakdown after all is said and done for most it’s pennies.”
Byrne, in keeping with his more reflective, incisive, I-write-books-me cognition, goes deeper: “the amount these services pay per stream is miniscule – their idea being that if enough people use the service those tiny grains of sand will pile up. Domination and ubiquity are therefore to be encouraged. We should readjust our values because in the web-based world we are told that monopoly is good for us. The major record labels usually siphon off most of this income, and then they dribble about 15-20% of what’s left down to their artists. David Lowery even wrote a piece entitled “My Song Got Played on Pandora 1 Million Times and All I Got Was $16.89, Less Than What I Make from a Single T-shirt Sale!” For perspective, Daft Punk’s song of the summer, “Get Lucky”, reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each.” Not exactly ‘Life’s Been Good to Me’, is it?
Should we care that some miserable aging rock stars are watching their pot shrink? Hasn’t music been democratised now, so that anyone can make music and express themselves? Surely, this is an exciting prospect. Well, no. The issue is qualitative, not quantitative. ‘It’s never been easier to discover something new that you do’, I hear digital evangelists say. Sounds like a boom time to get a hobby. Compare the number of 16/24/32 track professional recording studios that existed between 1968 and 1982 to the number of Pro Logic/Tools packages owned. By the vast disparity in ratio – I’ll guess 1:2000 – there should be 2000 times more interesting, vibrant, well crafted ‘records’ to listen to. There is not. Clearly.
What do we want as a culture? Music to be a by-product of a Sunday afternoon spent in the loft conversion, the 21st Century version of your dad’s potting shed? The reason those recordings and songs from 40+ years ago are jewels of a cultural high point is that songwriters and performers had to be really, really good at what they did, before they even got a sniff of (still thyself) the multitrack recording process. They’d done the hard work of learning the basic craft of their job. Which is not beat matching, or sampling, or talking over someone else’s older music. It’s utilising words and harmonic intervals and melody and instrumental interplay at a root level.
The investment in craft and skill that goes into that has long stopped being the lingua franca of the successful recording artist. It’s why Coldplay and the dreaded Mumford and Sons make albums that are utterly homogenous. They have neither the skill nor the commercial imperative to explore eclectic forms. I’m with Lukather and Byrne. I don’t want to hear the mild saplings of someone’s hobby, or the cadaverous dribbles of an industry who will keep promoting dull, predictable unscary tope rock and bling hop. I have no interest in anyone. I want to lose myself to Someone.