Moby

(Photo credit: Uncensored Interview)

With a number of artists busily squaring up to both Spotify and the labels about their streaming payments, Moby argues they are focusing too heavily on the short-term issues and becoming beholden to the idea of digital services as immovable monoliths that replaced the cumbersome major label system.

He talks about using BitTorrent as a distribution partner, why railing against piracy is like yelling at the weather, why technology’s state of flux is a good thing and why algorithms can’t replace the arbitrary and surprise nature of human-led discovery.

You have done a deal with BitTorrent. What did it involve?

I wouldn’t call it a deal, per se. I gave them all the stems from my most recent album, Innocents. I made them available to anyone who wants to download them and do their own mixes and remixes. I met with the guys from BitTorrent last spring and [saw that] a lot of musicians use BitTorrent as a way of disseminating pre-existing things like videos, single or b-sides. I thought it would be interesting to put something out there where anyone who downloaded it would be able to do their own remixes and change the songs as much as they wanted to.

What’s the reaction been?

The response has been great. The quality of remixing software – whether it is Ableton, Reason or Logic – is pretty remarkable. In 1995, we had a remix contest for an album I put out. Some of the remixes were good but at that point doing a remix was a lot more complicated. Whereas now anyone with a laptop can do really good remixes. The quality is great.

Many parts of the industry regard BitTorrent as synonymous with piracy. Were you concerned about working with them?

On the one hand, and maybe this is not an elegant thing to say, the fact there is a degree of controversy surrounding BitTorrent is one of the things that actually made me a lot more interested in it.

When I met with them and they explained to me what their platform is, it just seemed in line with the ethos I have with regards to the distribution of different types of digital media. My feeling about piracy and the way in which music exists online is probably a lot different to the way most major labels think about it.

So what is your stance on piracy?

It is a tricky thing to talk about as I have to parse my words. If I were to be completely honest I’d probably end up alienating more people than I already have alienated. On a very basic level, I make music because I love making music.

One of the things that is really exciting about being a musician is taking the music that you made and putting it out to the world and seeing what happens with it. It’s really a remarkable art form in that it’s one of the few forms of creative expression that people can experience while they are doing something else. You can’t really look at paintings when you are driving to work.

I have absolutely no idea how they [fans] will listen to my music or where they listen to it. Or if they are going to listen to it in its existing form or if they are going to remix it. Or if they will listen to 10 seconds of the song or to an entire album. I refer to that as democratic chaos. Or egalitarian anarchy. I love that aspect of it. It seems that it has, for quite a while now, been completely out of anyone’s control.

Regardless of our feelings about the way digital music exists in the world, I almost feel that having an opinion about digital music is like having an opinion about the weather. You can have super-strong opinions but the weather isn’t paying attention. When people get all worked up about piracy, I just don’t see that it’s all that effective.

For the past 15 years or so, the major labels have been incredibly bent out of shape about piracy and they haven’t accomplished anything. For the most interesting music companies and musicians it seems like their focus is making music that they really love and then they put it out to the world and see what happens.

A major label’s criteria for evaluating things are certainly a lot different from mine. I don’t want to criticise or judge too harshly their perspective, but at some point there has to be an empirical look at the effectiveness of their approach. What the major labels hopefully learned a while ago is that punishing listeners is not the way to go.

Spotify argued that the way to kill piracy was to make a legal service that was better – but its payments have come under fire recently. Where do you stand on this?

There are hundreds of millions of pieces of music floating around in the world online. For any person to make the effort to listen to something that I have done is so flattering. It’s such a compliment. So I can’t really be worked up about how they are listening to it. For me the focus is on the music itself and the relationship that the listener might have to the music.

If every musician, label and manager really focused on making the best possible music that they could and doing whatever they could to really focus on and enhance the relationship with the listener, the rest would probably take care of itself.

That might be a very Pollyanna-ish and naïve perspective, but I think too many companies almost go under because they think too much about trying to monetise and miss the bigger picture which is – whether it’s Spotify or Pandora or the original Napster or some digital platform that might be invented tomorrow – that platforms come and go.

Bandwidth increases and different types of piracy emerge. All that is in a state of flux; but one thing that is not in a state of flux is that if a musician makes a beautiful piece of music, someone will want to listen to it. Over time an audience will develop who might have stolen the first couple of songs or first couple of albums but they might be willing to, down the road, buy merchandise, buy access to live concerts or go to live concerts.

I feel like the music business hasn’t benefitted from taking a fairly shortsighted view to piracy in the here and now compared to a much happier and rosier long-term picture. I understand that a lot of these companies are beholden to shareholders and quarterly results but I feel there has to be a better and more effective way to see things in the boarder long term rather than in the narrower short term.

David Byrne and Thom Yorke feel the money Spotify pays is not enough and that new artists are getting a rough deal

What I hope is that, if for some reason, it dissuades artists from making music if the only reason they wants to make music is if they get paid for it instead of wanting to be heard, then by all means that is a good thing. I am all in favour of mercenary artists going on and starting app companies or become marketing directors for muffler companies.

My approach is exactly the opposite. I believe artists deserve the right to make money from what they do but I think the clever musician in 2013 can find lots of ways to make a living. They can write music for movies or video games, they can do remixes, they can DJ, they can write songs for other people, they can develop apps. There are so many interesting and challenging ways for a musician to make a good living in 2013 that to just focus on this [streaming] seems very odd and short sighted.

The other thing I find really funny – and sort of sadly ironic – is that, at the end of the day, you have music coming out of speakers but so many people are getting worked up about the delivery mechanism that brings the music to those speakers. I don’t hear anyone getting up in arms about radio payments. It’s the same song being played on the same speakers.

If it’s coming off the radio, they get very excited; but if it’s coming off Spotify they get all worked up. From my perspective it’s the same song being listened to by the same people on the same speakers. How can you malign one delivery vehicle and applaud another delivery vehicle?

What is your advice to new acts who don’t have the luxury of being signed and built up by a label in the pre-digital age?

For kids who are starting out as musicians, it’s so exciting as they don’t have to wait around for a major label to notice them. They don’t have to wait around for any big media institutions to pay attention to them. They don’t have to wait for NME, Spin or Rolling Stone to notice them. They don’t have to wait for MTV to notice them. They can almost create their own luck.

These media institutions are really questioning their relevancy when they see that so many young musicians just don’t feel the need to sign with a major label or to pander to old media institutions that are so accustomed to be being pandered to. As a young musician, you have to do everything. Become the most well rounded musician on the planet and you’ll have a great career; you’ll be incredibly adaptable and you won’t have to deal with monolithic companies who only do one thing.

The music business for decades was incredibly compartmentalised and just existed as a series of companies that only did one thing – like record labels or publishers. In the digital future, in order to make a living, people just need to be incredibly flexible and adaptive. The days of specialising have come to an end. People need to learn to do everything. We are living in a strange quantum world where you have to be incredibly flexible.

The new centres of power are now Apple, Google and Amazon. Are they on the artists’ side?

The artists are really lucky as they can choose to be involved or they can bypass the system. An artist that has been rejected by every monolithic organisation can still take his guitar and go play on a street corner and develop a fan base. In a strange way, how the system works now is that it really benefits artists most of all because artists have the ability to be as involved in the music institutions as they want to be.

For artists, there are very conventional and unconventional ways of making music, disseminating music, marketing music, playing music. It’s a remarkable time for the artists themselves if they are willing to adapt and embrace the way things currently are.

Everyone assumes that technology is static. If you look at the last 20 years, technology is incredibly unstatic. A lot of the companies that used to seem monolithic don’t even exist any more. If we were having this conversation 15 years ago, we’d be talking about CompuServe, AOL and Netscape. It doesn’t benefit anyone to get too attached to the status quo because the status quo is, literally, always changing.

How has social media changed your relationship with your fans?

Social media is great as you can communicate directly with people and it’s more dialectic where, if you say something, people respond. The old way was that the musician would emerge from their ivory tower once every 18 months, do a few interviews and send out missives from on high. Their audience would read these and then wait 18 months for more communication.

Now Thom Yorke might have a pumpkin spice latte and tweet a picture of it. Dave Grohl can send an Instagram of the beer he just drank. It’s sort of an interesting and, at times, mundane dialectic.

One thing I would say to a lot of musicians is that just because you are doing it doesn’t mean it’s special. Some people tweet once a month and what they forget about is their followers are following hundreds of people so a tweet literally shows up on a screen for about 10 seconds – like an old-time stock ticker.

Sometimes people are very disappointed that they don’t get more of a reaction from a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram update – and that’s because it’s only showing up on someone’s screen for a minute. That is why I think a lot of musicians who are used to the old way of doing things are having a really hard time adapting to almost every aspect of the digital future because they want things to go back to the way they were.

There were some really nice things about the way things were if you were U2 or Radiohead. Most musicians 10, 20 or 30 years ago were neglected by major labels, neglected by major media and couldn’t find an audience. For the smaller artists, I think they are generally benefitting quite a lot at this point.

How do you consume and discover music?

For me, I really like portability and convenience so I still buy almost all of my music on iTunes. I bring my iPod everywhere. I love Spotify. I love Pandora. I listen to music on YouTube. I buy music on Beatport. I have spent more money on music in the last 10 years than I did in the 10 years prior to that.

As far as discovering new music, the blogs can sometimes be interesting. One of the things that really make cultural life in LA great is college radio. It seems like a huge part of discovering music is trusting someone else’s curatorial abilities. There is so much music out there that you want 10 trusted voices like college radio DJs or journalists.

Do you prefer human discovery rather than using algorithms?

When I was first shown Pandora and those early algorithms, I was pretty impressed by it. Generally I trust people, but with some of these algorithms it is pretty disconcerting as they are making recommendations that are surprisingly relevant. I read a lot of books on Kindle, but the Kindle recommendation algorithm is so damn ass-backwards. For example, if you read a book by Lee Childs the Kindle algorithm recommends a book by Lee Childs.

Some music algorithms are surprisingly accurate and relevant, but at the end of the day what they don’t have is the arbitrary and surprise element that humans have. If I am listening to my favourite college radio station, the DJ might play a Black Flag song followed by a Bon Iver song followed by a Frank Sinatra song followed by some obscure minimalist techno.

The fantastic arbitrary aspect of it is the one thing that none of the streaming algorithms can do. As much as I love Hank Williams, sometimes it’s really nice to have a Hank Williams song followed by a Pantera song.