Archive Chris Ott

Some Alternatives: Brands, Bands, Sellouts and Meltdowns Pt. II

For Part I of this article, visit yesterday’s installment.

The Part Where I Ask Marnie Stern How Much Money She Makes

There’s a lot of speculation in articles like this one about whether musicians are earning a living from their work in the streaming age, and I figured it might be valuable if I just bluntly asked someone. Someone I admire.

Marnie Stern is an American guitarist and singer, an artist who has released four critically acclaimed albums in a row, and someone who’s often included in lists ranking the best guitar players of all time. The New York Times called her “indie-rock’s newest guitar heroine” in 2007, while Pitchfork declared, “Her music is the runner’s high, the moment when physical intensity turns into an almost meditative state.” I would be hard pressed to choose another modern artist who released four albums in a row that I love as much as Stern’s work 2007 to the present.

Stern has always been transparent about all of the ways she earns her keep as a musician: lots of touring, an ad for Levi’s jeans, filling in as the guitarist for Seth Meyers’s late night television program, selling items on eBay, teaching guitar lessons, and even once resorting to a kissing booth at her merch table (“$10 lips, $100 french”) to pay off a hefty speeding ticket she incurred on a tour in 2008.

Over email, I ask Stern straight-up: does all this earn you a living? She answers, “None of these things have been able to sustain me, but they are the only things that pay anything at all, so I continue to do them to stay afloat. My first record came out in 2007, and the illegal download wave had already begun, so I don’t know a music world where the artist makes a healthy living.”

This reply sinks my spirits, not just because it paints the picture of someone so hard working and mega-talented struggling even while they’re hustling the hardest, but I also get the sense that this bleak outlook could be altering the possibility of future output from Stern. It’s one thing for fans to be blasé about whether their favorite musicians need day jobs or not, but shouldn’t the preservation of future output be some kind of top priority for listeners? Or, in other words, shouldn’t we be rooting harder for the best art?

Sean Michaels, founder of the Said The Gramophone mp3 blog, was recentlyasked his opinion on where music was headed. He replied with a scenario I had sensed was emerging, but saw very few articulating.

“Artists are no longer going to be able to afford to keep being artists,” Michaels said. “We’re not going to see musicians, especially bands, mature and persist. There won’t be enough money to persist, not after an artist’s hype-cycle has wound down. The art’s going to change; people will give us less of it.”

Hamilton Nolan, the writer who mystified me by reigniting the “sell out” conversation by throwing Deer Tick on the sacrificial altar, insists that “art is free to make” but his article doesn’t go on to tell the reader where exactly the free recording studios are located. Some art is free to make, yes, but some of it is quite expensive to produce. Creating music in a professional studio can be enormously expensive, even more so when that same music struggles to generate revenue.

Stern echoes this reality as well, “My ideal way to earn a living of course would be off record sales. But that time, for now at least has come and gone.”

I try and wrap things up with Stern by finding some kind of silver lining to pin some hope to. “I was just reading that Steve Albini key note address,” I write her, “and he mentions, ‘Fans are more ardent for this music. They are willing to spend more on seeing it played live. As a result, gig income for bands has increased exponentially.’ Have you found that to be true?”

Stern: “For a while I think that was true. But there is so much music out there now, that they are saturated with too many options for live music and can only choose a select amount to see. The only income I make is from touring, but I have to keep touring and touring and touring in order to do it.”

Or as San Francisco producer Count Eldridge put it, in a response to Albini’s recent address, “It is physically impossible for all of the artists who actually have significant fan bases to tour. There are simply not enough dates and venues.”

Some of your favorite artists are probably already this depressed about their future.

The Part About What It Means To Not Have Your Shit on Spotify

Initially, my favorite part of Taylor Swift pulling her music from Spotify was the pathetic mix-tape that they put together for her in some sort of ill-advised PR move (everyone knows that the weaker member of the couple tries to win the other back with the perfectly assembled collection of tunes, c’mon guys).

Swift’s specific reasons for snubbing Spotify have been analyzed to death, and by now I bet you’ve read plenty of that. I did find it interesting that many journalists and musicians scoffed at the mere possibility that Swift was, even in part, standing up for the value of music itself in her decision—this notion seemed like a completely alien possibility to most commentators, and I find that so curious since they were more than happy to believe in such noble intentions when Thom Yorke pulled the same move in 2013. Go ahead, compare those two narratives, or browse this cataloging of the sexist railroading Swift has received in light of this move. It’s completely alarming.

If anyone can prove that they don’t need the streaming giant to get people excited about new music, it’s Swift. She’ll be the only artist to have a platinum selling record this entire year with 1.2 million copies of her album “1989”sold in the first week of release. More criticism leveled at Swift’s decision went something like this: “well, she CAN do it so her choice signifies nothing.” Let’s take that zen-esque critique at face value and just look elsewhere then. For instance, no one can accuse Drag City, the Chicago independent record label, of yielding anywhere near the kind of monetary power and cultural influence that Swift holds, but they’ve been a fan-favorite, critically adored label since 1990, and their entire catalogue is not on Spotify. Drag City’s precise reason for withholding is hard to track down (and they declined to comment for this piece) but I was able to find one on-the-record statement from Impact Magazine addressing it:

Drag City’s head of domestic sales demonstrates the inherent flaw of streaming services such as Spotify: “For someone like Joanna [Newsom], her records are being sold via LP, CD, iTunes and so forth, so by this reckoning, she wouldn’t need to stream 4 million songs in a month in order to make minimum wage… It is simply unthinkable for us to sign of [sic] on the potential value of a song being worth [£0.00029], even when it comes in the form of a stream. Once we put such a value on the music at that rate, we are devaluing it.”

There’s another vote for devaluing music, and look, this one is from someone who’s not a good looking, young blonde girl, so it’s harder to dismiss it as a “lovers spat”, right? But what about that math? (I know, it doesn’t help that the author of that particular piece converted it to British pounds.) Is that really what a song is worth on Spotify?

One thing that makes that difficult to answer, is that the payout rate seems to differ whether you’re on a major label, small label, or function as an independent artist —the rate even wavers from month to month for the same acts. That said, Spotify currently claims to pay between $0.006 and $0.0084 per streamed song (even though every independent artist I convinced to pull the numbers and do the math reported that they were seeing 0.005/song) so, for the purposes of this article, let’s take Spotify’s press release version of reality and say it’s $0.007 per song. Let’s also, for the sake of this conjecture, assume you’re an independent artist with no label. So, without further ado (and I can’t believe I’m doing this) let’s enter…

The Part Where We Try and Do Some Reasonable Math

[Note: Because this section involves math, which is inherently boring, the author has peppered this section with extra swear words to hold the reader’s attention]

$0.007/stream is a figure that seems to be insulting to artists no matter which way you hold it in the light. But remember, Spotify is a weird hybrid between radio play and your private record collection. So, assuming Spotify becomes a fan’s primary way of listening to music, they’re going to listen to your tracks way, way more than just once, making the profit margin possibilities per song/per fan more than it would be in the previous purchase/download model. If that’s confusing, don’t worry, I made a fucking infographic.

spotify image ryan walsh

So, how many plays of one song would one fan need to fucking stream on Spotify to surpass the download profit of a one dollar download? Drum roll, please: 143 times. How many times have you listened to your favorite song in the last five years or so? Can’t remember? Don’t worry, I asked a shit load of people the same question and had them check their iTunes data. Here’s a sampling of answers I received:

312 times since 2011

957 times since 2012

106 times since 2005

963 times since 2008

10 times since 2011

211 times since 2009

46 times since 2010

495 times since 2009

66 times since 2010

OK, so with some fans you’re definitely making more from their fandom per song with streaming, but any way you cut it, it’s going to take a long time to do that. Problems with that? Fuck yeah.

The music business moves quickly. An artist’s brand new album is old news in a month’s time if some manufactured scandal doesn’t pop-up to remind everyone to keep writing about it. New content is the name of the game to stay relevant and to ensure listeners will continue to explore your back catalogue. Waiting for five years to equal or eclipse the profit you would’ve received if they had just purchased the song via download when it came out is not a reasonable model to work with. To stay in the game, to remain a current, relevant artist, you would’ve needed to release at least two albums in that time span.

Where did you get the money to make those albums? Are banks giving loans based on future possible Spotify profits? Not that I am fucking aware of, my friend. You’re probably going to need to launch a Kickstarter to get your next album recorded.

Don’t take that the wrong way — Kickstarter is a truly miraculous engine that artists can wield to transform their fans’ enthusiasm into an idea fully realized. But don’t forget, you’re probably working a day job, working on the music project at night, and all in all, you’re probably going to be spending way more time stuffing envelopes and emailing backers this year than you’ll spend on making art. Not a bad trade-off, all in all, but nearly everyone I speak to at the end of running a Kickstarter campaign is completely burned out— these are people who get an insane, faraway look in their eye when I ask them if they’d do it again anytime soon.

If the norm for an artist is an album every two years, they’ll likely just be finishing issuing their Kickstarter rewards by the time their second album should be coming out. There’s no wiggle room, the schedule is bending with extreme pressures, and hopefully you found some time in there to write your next record.

But here’s the thing: none of this would be an issue if Spotify were merely a preview device that people used to sample music, later purchasing their favorites on iTunes, Bandcamp, or Amazon.The writing is now on the wall: sales are continually down, streaming is way up. Spotify isn’t this generation’s radio replacement, it’s their entire record collection. Artists and labels canmake money from it, but it’s a small trickle that adds up incrementally over long periods of time. You sort of have to treat it like a slowly maturing bond your Grandma gives you when you’re twelve; if you stick it in a sock drawer and forget about it until you’re 30, only then will you be pleasantly surprised at the lump sum.

Still, the old music industry stalwarts are trying to hold their head up high and roll with the rising tide. Last week saw big news from Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan as they agreed to start adding streams and downloads to their sales tracking formula. The New York Times reports, “SoundScan and Billboard will count 1,500 song streams…as equivalent to an album sale.”

The absurdity amplifies when you realize that The Recording Industry Association of America (The RIAA) will likely not be altering its classification of how many sales constitute a gold or platinum selling album. So, in light of that, what does it take to earn a Gold Record in the streaming age?

spotify big graphic ryan walsh

Speaking of U2, Bono was recently quoted on this very topic. “The real enemy is not between digital downloads or streaming. The real enemy, the real fight, is between opacity and transparency,” Bono told Reuters. “The music business has historically involved itself in quite considerable deceit,” he concluded, and I believe he’s mostly correct. However, right now, there is an overlap between the two — i.e. there is a dire need for transparency in streaming services’ deals with labels and how they calculate their pay-out rates for all artists.

Right now, Spotify is not a profitable company, and many forecast that it never will be. Meanwhile, there is the now confirmed suspicion that Spotify has cut deals with the major labels, providing them with significant portions of their shares in exchange for the assurance that their artists’ catalogues will remain part of their library. Many speculate that part of this deal also involves major label artists seeing significantly higher pay per stream rates than independent artists, but how can you know for sure when the math all happens inside a vacuum? In light of all this, it’s hard not to react with a sort of reductionist knee-jerk anger when you read that Spotify founder Daniel Ek is now ranked as the 10th richest on “The Sunday Times Rich List”, tied with Mick Jagger. It took Jagger fifty years, dozens of beloved classics, and a whole lotta ass shaking to get there. Ek isn’t even thirty years old yet.

With profitability in permanent question, pundits like Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent Jordan Weissmann have felt compelled to present the idea that, “Spotify and Beats are destined to serve, at best, as loss-leaders for larger tech companies like Apple and Google.” If Spotify simply became a feather in the cap of a tech business, if profit was no longer the top priority, perhaps then the artist payout structure could actually be altered to satisfy all involved. Even a simple alteration of their formula, like paying a much higher rate for the very first time a listener heard any particular track, could do wonders for properly compensating music makers for their work via streaming platforms.

Here’s a few questions worth asking: Should anyone be banking their future on a company that’s probably never going to be profitable? Are musicians’ expectations to make a profit from a company that is not profitable the very definition of willful ignorance? Are your favorite songs merely the fuel inside an engine that’s starting to look an awful lot like a pyramid?

The Part About How Not Caring About Getting Invited To The Party Lets You Tell The Truth

One essential part of the argument against bands “selling out” is the fear that the artist will alter what they are or aren’t willing to say in public because they are now an invited guest to The Party and they are terrified of getting kicked out of The Party. People who never joined The Party can harness a powerful voice in service of what they see as the truth, but people who were once an honored guest at The Party but subsequently kicked out are in a unique position as well; maybe even more so. They’ve got nothing left to lose and they saw what the hors d’oeuvres were made out of. That’s a powerful place to stand.

Chris Ott is an ex-Pitchfork writer who now functions as what he describes as a “pop music raconteur.” I’d also describe him as a tremendous pain in Pitchfork’s ass. Ott delivers intense criticisms of the music industry via a series of videos he calls Shallow Rewards, written essays, and tweets— often coming down hard on the reigning champion cool-gatekeepers known as Pitchfork. He strikes me as an unpredictable, temperamental gadfly, and I don’t agree with plenty of what he has to say, but I find his presence interesting and valuable. He screams about the business, but he seems to care most about the value of the music. Recently, he altered his website to simply redirect to (which earned him some strongly-worded language from a lawyer representing the music website). It’s a dick move that’s also kind of hilarious, which is also an apt description for Ott’s modus operandi.

I figured if anyone had any deeply thought out theories on why the concept of “selling out” had reared its head back into a conversation occurring in 2014, it’d be Ott. His reply begins like this:

“Staid brands — brands that are part of the fabric of society, but aren’t sexy— there’s always pressure for them to do more in the marketplace, provided the parent company isn’t giving up on them.”

“Sour Patch Kids are ultimately part of the Mondelez (formerly Kraft) food empire. The marketing director for this brand, Farrah Bezner, has already tried to make Sour Patch Kids hip on Snapchat, and with that odd Method Man ‘World Gone Sour’ piece, which was actually great. She’s hired the NUE Agency to run the Sour House or whatever it’s called, and they’re pretty friendly with Pitchfork and all the awful PR firms ruining music for everyone.”

See what I mean?

“As you’d expect,” Ott tells me, “I find it a vile co-option of the process of making and performing music, and yet another case of people using money to buy influence, by offering this carrot to starving rabbits.”

As evidenced in the previous section of this article, or in the numerous breakdowns of who profits from music piracy, when it comes to music distribution or recommendation, someone’s making heaps of money and it might be an important time to remind the culture that it’s often everyone involved except the artists. One of the most depressing ideas Ott has presented is the idea that the ad revenue generated by a single review page on Pitchfork will outweigh the lifetime record sales of that album by a large margin. When I ask Ott about this idea he takes it further, claiming, “Pitchfork makes more on ads in 6 months than Yo La Tengo has made in its entire career.” This information, for me, doesn’t call for a blanket indictment of Pitchfork (as I feel it does for Ott), but rather provides some much needed perspective on the natural way things shake out when music creation and fandom is sifted through capitalism’s colander.

But still, my initial question remains: Why are publications driven by brand sponsors now suddenly placing the idea of bands “selling out” back on their menu of possible press treatments?

“It’s a safe play. They feel like they have an in to point the finger,” Ott tells me.

Me: “In your opinion, why did the ’90s notion of selling out evaporate over the last 15 years?”

Ott: “It didn’t for me, I don’t know.”

The Part Where David Berman from The Silver Jews Allows Me To Publish Something He Emailed Me In 2009

“What’s interesting here is how the post-sell out era coincided with the explosion of supply. Suddenly marketing your music became more necessary seeming. Got to get out there and manufacture desire for your music. Competition meant you couldn’t afford to have an unattractive bass player anymore. Overweight greats were shut out. Jared from Subway was the Velvet Underground of the post-Y2K music boom. What you get is a mannerist mentality where expertise and skill levels are very high but greatness sort of a ruled out concept.”

Four Things That Aren’t Helping the Argument That Maybe Artists Deserve More

1) Perpetuation of rightfully defunct models where fortunes were made for very little work.

Earlier this year, Van Dyke Parks wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast called “How Artists Are Getting Screwed In The Digital Age” in which he wrote, “Forty years ago, co-writing a song with Ringo Starr would have provided me a house and a pool.” Presenting an anomaly, or what was at best a market bubble, as the good old days when things were “fairer” is a deeply out-of-touch strategy to explain to the public how things could be organized. These arguments need to come from people who want to consistently work hard. Here, Parks sounds like someone who’s trying to argue that the lottery used to be easier to win.

2) Artists who are transparent about their finances in order to demonstrate the difficulty in making a profit, but who do a poor job at creating a realist budget in the first place.

Last week a band called Pomplamoose (whose name I had heard before but was always unsure whether it was a band or some company that makes fleece pullovers) published a comprehensive breakdown of their recent tour’s expenses and earnings, titling it “Pomplamoose 2014 Tour Profits (or Lack Thereof).” Despite multiple qualifiers prefacing how fortunate they feel, the intended point was subsequently swallowed whole by budget numbers revealing poor choices and preferences for tour comforts that should only be entertained by bands who already know they can tour and successfully make a profit. The analysis is done here and here fairly thoroughly. The real horror story to be told comes from successful mid-level bands who do it all themselves, eschew comfort for efficiency, sellout shows and still come home with little to show for it. That story is out there, it exists, and when it arrives there will be no arguing whether the band made frugal choices or not.

3) Millionaire Spokespeople.

In October, Jimmy Buffet made headlines when he publicly asked Spotify for a raise. “Do you see any time in the future where we might see a raise directly from you,” the “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer directed at Spotify founder Daniel Ek while both were in attendance at something called the “Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit.” If I had been in the room, I would’ve tried to get the crowd to start chanting “Millionaire Fist Fight! Millionaire Fist Fight!” The headline-grabbing spokespeople making the case for artists simply cannot come from artists who have already made millions. That’s like sending the drunkest member of your party up to the bar to inform the bartender that the drinks are being poured a little light.

4) Accusations of artists selling out via wildly successful ad-driven media outlets, presented without context or nuance.

No one’s happier that the sell out conversation is back than me. I think it represents one of the healthier instincts in our complex relationship with music and commercialism. However, the argument simply can’t be taken seriously if it’s brought to us by profitable media outlets whose every word is flanked by banner ads for brands. It’s a hypocrisy this specific conversation cannot bear the weight of without collapsing. Likewise, I’d argue it makes very little sense to trash individual musical acts for whatever crime that author finds them guilty of. Instead, we need to be having a larger conversation about the issue. If we offer up bands like Deer Tick as guilty by candy-association, it’s a witch hunt. If we discuss it in an all encompassing, open, nuanced way, it’s progress.

The Part About The Devil

This article presents a lot of anecdotes and asks a lot of questions, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you were wondering what the intended take-away might be. The point of view I hope that’s contained here is one that’s in defense of creating ideal conditions for giant, ambitious acts of creativity to become realities. This is a pro-masterpiece tirade. The truth is, there is no known ideal structure for how to support musicians yet because we simply do not have enough data. No single model of the recorded music industry has ever been sustained for more than a few decades, and the entire history happens in the span of the last 100 years. The only constant has been that it keeps transforming and shifting. When people speak about things being fairer during this time or that model, they are merely propping up brief anomalies that momentarily seemed ideal.

If there is a consistent idea that has existed during this history from the listener’s perspective, it’s that music clearly holds some kind of hard to describe power— it makes people feel their emotions more deeply, it gives them hope and solace, and inspires them to rise above a mundane view of their lives. This is an incredibly potent energy to behold, so it should never come as a surprise that it will always be of interest to people interested in making money. The question is: how much involvement with commerce can it sustain before we experience diminishing returns?

That question will likely be in flux forever, but the conversation, I’d argue, must keep happening. If the general thrust of progress always keeps an eye on increased transparency and truth, there will be increasingly fewer losers, more winners, and more music we couldn’t imagine living without.

Before the concept of selling out became the measuring stick of an artist’s integrity, there was another popular concept of selling out that prevailed, and that meme had a much more specific idea of who was on the other end of the transaction. A musician goes down to the crossroads, awaits the devil, and a deal is struck that bestows the musician with incredible talents.

Just as I don’t believe in the devil, I don’t believe that the modern version of that myth (“it was a foggy November night, and an ‘indie’ band goes down to The Brooklyn Patch”) signifies the demise of artistic purity either. We know enough to understand that the world doesn’t function with the simple black and white cause and effect rules that fables would have us believe. There are many ways to get off track, to chase dollars instead of ideas, or to censor thoughts in fear of being an outcast. But let’s make that judgment the only way it makes sense to do so: by the fruits of one’s efforts. If an artist does an ad for jeans but then cranks out a weirdo rock epic that still moves us, do you care who paid their rent that month?

There is no devil, but there is awful music made by people who could have made great music— and that is certainly descriptive of a transaction wherein you’re selling something precious to somebody or something that doesn’t have your best interests in mind, funny enough. What to do? Get weird. Protect ya neck. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.