If you were putting together a sparky panel on the interplay of music and technology, roping in Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating and Imogen Heap would be a mightily-fine start: three artists at the forefront of DIY strategies and tech experimentation.
Then throw in Will.I.Am, who may soon be as much of a digital/tech entrepreneur as he is an artist and producer. Add Trevor Skeet, aka Yung Skeeter, a DJ, producer and director who’s also part of Spotify’s artist relations team. And just to spice up the brew, add Ian Hogarth of live-music startup Songkick, Nic Jones, SVP international from music videos service Vevo, and Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun.
That’s a panel. And it came together tonight – albeit with several participants beaming in via Google+ Hangout – for an event in London called Virgin Disruptors. Organised by Virgin, it’s part of a planned series of debates on digital disruption.
Music Ally was supposed to be in London to cover the event live, but transport issues following today’s UK storms put paid to that. Instead, we watched the livestream and covered the salient points from the discussion. DJ and TV presenter Colin Murray was the moderator.
First to speak: Imogen Heap, on the old days. “The playing field was much simpler. We released a CD, and the people that bought it, we’d know roughly where they were in the world and we’d go and tour it. But now it’s very different! So much has changed even in the last four years: so many different platforms, so many different ways to reach my fans, and so many unknowns…”
Over to Will.I.Am, who talked about smaller artists’ challenges and opportunities in the new world. “If there was a time in the whole world of music and connectivity, whether it’s radio or television or now this new platform – not so new any more – the internet – right now is the best time for new artists to find who their audience is, connect one to many, and how you make money is up to your imagination. Yesterday’s system was yesterday’s system, and that was because of one company that owned the majority of the platform: hardware and software, and that was RCA. Now we live in a different world,” he said.
He also talked about “the power of the cluster” – instead of looking for a guitarist and a bass player to create a band, it’s more likely to be “a singer incorporating a coder”.
Next up was Scooter Braun: is he a little wary of the technology that made Bieber such a star? “Am I wary? I think anyone’s wary of a 19 year-old in general, let alone one who’s living in a world where probably no one in humanity has ever grown up in an age being that famous aroudn the world, when we have camera phones and Instagram and.. everything he does is being watched. But that is his reality,” he said.
“Because of technology he’s been given a platform where he can break the entire world faster than anyone ever before… That being said, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. You can sit around and feel sorry for him in that he goes to he bathroom and it’s front-page news, or you can say ‘y’know what, this is the reason you’re living the best life that you’re living… Artists 20 years ago would have dreamed of that reality.”
Next: Amanda Palmer gave her views about technology and music. “I think musicians have probably had mixed feelings about the intersection of music and whatever the technology of the day was since the dawn of time,” she said. “It’s never that making music and delivering it to people has been simple or easy… There’s been a tech industry since there was music: these different formats and different delivery systems… and musicians have just been ‘this is the shit I need to work with!’.”
She also talked about how a lot of her energy is now spent “communicating” rather than simply making music, although she doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “25 year olds now don’t even have a conception of what pre-internet life was like, and what it was like to be totally fucking bored in your bedroom with nothing to do, so you wrote songs… That had a lot of pros and cons, it made us very crazy and imaginative.”
Vevo’s Jones talked next about the blurring of lines between different genres of music, and how technology facilitates it through discovery. “The idea that I can listen to or watch one piece of music or artform, and be drawn to another one that I might not have seen… it’s incredibly hard now to differentiate between different styles of music and put them in boxes. That’s where we are now.” And he suggested that far from inhibiting music, technology is fuelling it.
Keating next: “An artist like me couldn’t exist without technology: I can just record music in my basement and release it on the internet. And it’s levelled the playing field: an obscure artist like myself who makes instrumental cello music can just get it all out there,” she said. “And we can use technology to nurture our fanbase… But this is not just an excuse for services to replicate the payment landscapes of the past. It’s not an excuse to take advantage of those without power… Corporations do have a responsibility not just to their shareholders but to the world at large, and to artists.”
So, streaming services and artists. Over to Skeet, who was asked about recent criticisms from Thom Yorke and David Byrne. “While some of those claims could be lending themselves towards some truth, I think they may be off centre,” he said, citing the likes of Eagles, Metallica and Pink Floyd as proof that artists are seeing a positive side to Spotify.
Keating talked about piracy, and said she’s never seen it as a threat. “Half of my income is from sales, but I don’t feel like streaming is the evil enemy. I think it’s a good positive thing to get music out there. All I’m asking is make a direct deal with me, let me choose my terms. Let me decide if windowing is good or bad, on my own terms. Work directly with me… The idea of how does a service like Spotify interact with a bazillion artists? That’s an administrative problem that technology could solve… And I’d like them to think more about are there any mutual services in the middle that can help the listeners connect with me to go to the concert.”
Palmer chipped in with a problem she sees, that doesn’t get addressed enough: “As bad and clunky as the major label system was, you still had a constant influx of capital back from those giant, sometimes soul-sucking systems, back into content creation. One weird thing is that iTunes, Apple, Spotify, Google, whatever… all of the people who are profiting off the artists from the small level to the huge levels aren’t really feeding very much back into the creation of new content. And that’s actually one of the largest problems. Even though my views aren’t nearly as extreme as David Byrne’s, but he does bring up the giant question of where is the capital going to come from to make art? Wouldn’t it seem that the place that’s making the lion’s share of the profit should also be putting money back into the creation of content to have a healthy ecosystem?”
Braun talked about getting information from streaming services. “What everyone’s saying here is that tech has always been here, this is what we’re dealing with today. The music industry will continue because people will always need music. The question we need to ask ourselves is what industry are we in today? It’s killing the jobs of people who’ve been in the music industry for the last 30 years, and have been doing it wrong for the last 10… I’m going to defend Spotify a little bit. Here’s the deal: we can say we want things to be better, we want things to change, and we’ll get there. But we have to realise that the consumer and the listener dictates what happens… We listen to radio every single day, and we hear something fo free. And we go to YouTube and listen for free… But we freak out if we don’t get paid enough by Spotify… This debate will not be here in 10 years.”
And he continued: “At the end of the day, all of this comes down to two simple things: the music that’s made, and how artists deliver it and interact with their fanbase.”
Will.I.Am got another chance to speak at this point. Do artists need to know who’s listening, where they’re listening and get the data? “The music industry is based on contracts. How it’s monetised is based on what they’re selling, and what relationships they have to monetise the art we make in the studios,” he said. “Our contract is all based on old technology. An album is 12 songs, because that’s how much information fit on a record… If you’re complaining about this music industry, let’s go back down to the contract,” he said.
“We went from gramophones to iPhones. From listening to music on a gramophone. If you’re going to complain about streaming or buying things from iTunes, people are listening to it from their phones… You’re asking people to buy things on the same device or stream them for free. What intelligent person is going to buy something for 99 cents when I can search for something on Google… That’s why it’s important to have that coder next to you as a group. I Gotta Feeling is still the number one downloaded song of all time in iTunes, but I made more money from the equity I own in Beats. That tells you hardware is the place… If you’re going to complain about somebody else’s system, you need to sit down with somebody who can create your own system. It’s not hard to create systems nowadays… I’m hanging out with the freaking scientists!”
Heap was asked for her views on whether technology frees artists creatively, and she talked about her excitement about creating “generative” music which “never stops”, taking in the sounds around her. “I can be a musician in a completely different way… so I do write these songs and sing these lyrics in a very old fashioned way… but I’m really excited about: imagine going into a piece of music, into a physical space where you play with these virtual sounds, where you can shape them. It’s like going into a virtual holodeck or something… I like the idea that music is your identity, but it can exist also as a computer program, but you’ve driven it.”
Murray wondered if there’s a generational thing happening here: are older artists struggling to adapt to new technology and new models? Vevo’s Jones said that “it is now an environment where the user chooses how they wanna interact, and where they wanna get it from… the reality is if there is a really popular band right now, the reality of the world is that more people want to watch their video than anybody else right now. But ever was it so. But the long tail is there, and much more accessible than it was… you had to go to a special record store to find what you wanted, but right now, everything is available, and that’s a good thing I think.”
Will.I.Am chipped back in, taking the conversation back to contracts. “The music industry has always been tech,” he said, talking about the way brands and advertising have always funded free-to-air television, and how the internet collapsed that model. “The people that were running the record companies forgot we were technology,” he said. “iTunes don’t purchase your music, it’s a licence. But every artist gets their money like it was a physical purchase. That’s kinda whack. And the reason most of us don’t see that is most of us don’t understand the deal structure we’re working around… So what’s more important, your 99-cent downloads from iTunes or wherever you’re buying from, or your 250 million, 300 million views on Vevo?”
Braun next: what does Justin Bieber think is more important? “We gotta change the conversation a little bit. Artists care about their views. Most artists look at it as ‘what do I get on iTunes?’ and they know it’s the quickest route to a royalty cheque… What Amanda said about who is going to put money back into art… that’s a question we need to answer. We need to look at how we change the system, which is a very tough thing to do. But it’s not as hard as we think… You get what you negotiate, and the only way you have innovation in the industry is if you demand it.”
He also suggested that many managers aren’t thinking long-term enough, because they’re scared of “being fired” for not getting their artists the biggest short-term earnings. “You gotta ask what each person is asking, and realise we’re not talking about how we can fix what is already there. That is dead. We need to address what is coming and we need drastic change… And how do we let the artists have a voice at the table. The last time things changed dramatically, which was iTunes, the labels had a voice at the table and the artists did not… As Spotify comes out and Beats comes out, iTunes Radio and all those things, the most important thing is that all artists have a voice. To young managers I say you’ve got to fucking demand a voice.”
Heap said she’d love more transparency in the music/tech world. “Already I know that Songkick are speaking to Spotify and there’s ways that if people are on Spotify and listening to this music, they can find out when that band is playing. I think Songkick is brilliant,” she said. “Things like that are hugely changing the way that we can connect with our fanbase. And Shazam as well, but if Shazam connected to Spotify, connected to Songkick… if they all connected to each other and then could give artists that information… then we could really be empowered and choose how we navigate through this brave new world.”
Talking of Songkick, Hogarth got his say again, reminding the audience that 1,000 years ago, music was all about live connections, and he said that for him, the biggest technological change was the invention of the amplifier: taking music from small circles of listeners to large crowds. “The internet should be the next extension of the amplifier for concertgoing… Right now a ticket over the last 40 years hasn’t really changed: a way of figuring out if someone should be allowed into a building, and a way to add additional fees… a ticket should be an expression of what it’s like to be in that room. It’s a connection: an economic connection between you as a fan and the artist that you love. That’s what we’re trying to do with Songkick and Detour… Let’s look at the first principles of this industry and try to reset them all.”
There was an interesting argument about Vevo, when Heap addressed Nic Jones directly. “It’s very disheartening to go onto my Vevo channel and find some awful advert I have to sit through,” she said. “I don’t know exactly the deal that you have with the label that I license to, Sony, but I would like to. But it’s not easy to get that information.”
Will.I.Am jumped in. “Say I was on CSI, I was a main actor on CSI, and CSI was distributed on HBO. The actors at CSI are not paying for CSI to exist. So when you think of Vevo and a billion views a month of independent artists or artists signed to a label, we have to pay for our videos to be on that platform… At what point in time does Vevo pay for the content that gives you the ability to put commercials that we don’t want before our content? And if we did want it, can we choose what brands come before or after our content when I’m the one paying for the video?! It’s a very very very very touchy subject which is not being talked about… The power has to go back to the artists. Somebody’s monetising it… Somebody’s making a lot of fucking money!”
Jones replied: “The reality is we run an ad every three videos. I would love to put the ads that Will wants next to his music, or Imogen wants next to hers. So how do I do that? I tell my sales people…” Will.I.Am interrupted: “I know how to do it! I know how to get that done. I can point you to the right motherfuckers!”
But Keating chipped back in: she’d also like to be able to control what ads aren’t shown next to her music on Vevo: Doritos being one of her bugbears. “I realise there are business issues, but… whatever.”
Braun dived in: “You can’t expect to get anywhere with an artist unless you’re willing to let them have a voice,” he said. “If they’re not in the know, they’re going to kick your ass… The problem that all the technology companies are having is not having the respect to go to the artists and say to them ‘we need to have a conversation’.” And he noted that Vevo hadn’t contacted him before it launched, or some of the big artists he worked with. “That was disrespectful to the people who knew how to get views before Vevo ever launched,” he said. “If you want to fix things, start a conversation.”
The debate ended with some final thoughts from each speaker: “Just include us,” agreed Keating. “I’d like to work with music services to try to make the ecosystem of the future, so call me up!”
Hogarth: “To artists, I’d say it goes both ways. The more accessible you can be to us as technology companies, the better… It’s actually a lot harder to contact an artist than you might think… Just make yourself more accessible to us, and the technologists that are artist-centric will come and find you.”
Jones agreed. “We want to be what the artists want. But the ultimate aim is: we’re trying to monetise a business and trying to do that the best way we can. If there are other ways and new ways of doing that, we want to find them.”
Heap would love to continue the conversation: “Get us all together, tech companies, app companies, labels, whoever. Internet service providers, get everyone online and really talk about it. Blog about the ideas and get people involved… And yeah, the transparency angle, trying to make sure companies when they come onto the market are transparent in a certain way.”
And to finish off, Amanda Palmer, who hadn’t got much of a say in the debate up to this point. “The theme that I’ve kind of picked up on here: artists definitely wanna have more of a choice and a voice. But one of the things that is difficult… there are a lot of artists out there that don’t wanna be technological warriors… they don’t wanna create a whole new fucking platform. They just wanna make music,” she said. “For the many many many artists who don’t necessarily want to delve into the tech business and engage in this way, my question is what about them? Are we going to lose an entire generation of musicians and artmakers and creators? Whose responsibility is it: is it going to be this Darwinian thing where they just disappear because they aren’t willing to go on Twitter?”