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Posts from the The Unquestioned Answer Category

A number of people have written to me over the last two weeks, asking why** I’d wade into a ridiculous debate like “Is classical music dead/dying?”

It’s not complicated. It’s because the ideas they promote do real harm. These dumbass articles make my job harder, and for no good reason. Commissions don’t get sponsored. Recordings don’t get made. Events don’t get coverage. Broadcasts don’t happen. Organs don’t get mended. Concerts don’t get booked. Startups don’t get funded. Music doesn’t get made.

It might seem like talking in dramatic terms about the challenges facing our industry would be the way to get people to take them seriously. In truth, though, the people who need to take these issues seriously are already doing it. Proclaiming “the end is nigh” just makes it harder for us to get anything done.

It’s really that simple. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pitched a viable and profitable project to somebody with the means to make a substantial long-term investment in the arts, only to hear a response along the lines of “Yes, but everybody knows classical music is a dying art form”.

I can sometimes talk these people around, but it isn’t easy, especially if I’m the first person they’ve ever heard challenge something they thought they’d always known.

That’s why it’s important that this prejudice doesn’t go unchallenged – not just by me, but by anybody who has the opportunity. If we can give people within the classical music community the ammunition to do this, then so much the better. I can’t tell this to every powerful person you’re going to meet, but you can. You can tell them it’s something millions of people do and you can tell them that reports of its death have been exaggerated for centuries.

If you want to do something to help interesting projects happen in the arts, then challenge ignorance about the state of classical music wherever you see it.

A colleague at iTunes began every presentation to potential partners with a series of slides showing just how big the company had become. He called these “The Fuck You Stats”. I suggest we do the same. I’ve listed a few below.

1) Classical record sales are going as well or better than sales of other genres.

Classical sales have fallen because music sales have fallen. In the US, classical marketshare was 2.8% in 2013, up from 2.4% in 2012, which is exactly what it was in  2005. In the UK, the picture is pretty much the same.

2) Classical music is popular.

In the UK, around 17% of adults attend classical music performances, compared to 15% who go to church at least once a month. Classical music is more popular than our national religion. In the US, 8.8% of adults attend classical performances, whereas only 6% of US adults attend NFL football games. Looked at another way, the UK’s concert audience is about the size of Austria, and the US concert audience is about the size of Syria (or sixteen whole American states.)

3) Classical audiences are stable or growing.

In the UK, the percentage of adults attending concerts has increased over the last decade. In the US, the percentage has dropped because of population growth, but the actual audience size has held steady for at least 30 years.

4) Classical radio is very popular.

The single largest commercial radio station in the UK is ClassicFM. In the US, classical music has grown to dominate public radio, with 406 out of 1,247 stations broadcasting a classical-based format and accounting for 29.1% of all listening. 30 million people listen to public radio in the US, so these are not trivial figures – the US classical (public) radio audience is about the size of Sweden. ClassicFM’s weekly audience is the same size as the population of Norway.

5) Classical music is resilient.

People have been predicting the demise of classical music for a very long time. It hasn’t happened yet.

6) Classical music is big business.

The Metropolitan Opera made $93m in ticket sales last year, selling 79% of a total of 800,000 available seats. If the Met was an NFL team with these figures, it would have had the #2 attendance for the 2011 season, behind the Dallas Cowboys at #1 and above the NY Giants at #3. Incidentally, while the Met took very slightly more at the box office than either of these teams did at the gate, but the mean ticket price is almost identical.

Then again, maybe the NFL isn’t the best example of success. After all, if everything was going well in the world of professional football, they wouldn’t need to draft in an opera singer to convince people to watch the Super Bowl, would they?

*May not be true

**Speculation on this point has included “because it is easy” (like I have nothing better to do) and “I’m angry because I’m secretly worried it might all be true” (as if, perhaps, my whole career were a figment of my imagination).

Your Slate article “Requiem: Classical music in America is dead” is poorly-researched, badly argued, and, well, wrong. There’s so much crap in it, the only way I can think to deal with it is line-by-line, so here we go:

When it comes to classical music and American culture, the fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.

From the outset you’re not saying it’s dying. You’re saying its done. Finished. We’re two sentences in and I can tell you, you’re not going to win this thing. (more…)

Anybody who has ever tried to take confectionary away from my children can tell you that “like taking candy from a baby” is a bad simile for something easy. They’re small, but those boys will take you down.

In the hunt for easy ways to add content to my blog, though, I see that “like making fun of people trying to find easy ways to add content to their blog/website/newspaper of record” is a winner.

We begin with Friday’s Times, where Danielle De Niese gives an interview which might have started off about her performance in La Calisto at the Bayerische Saatsoper, but certainly ended up as an excuse to print a picture of her in a leopard print leotard, talking about wearing a leopard print leotard. Top marks to Jack Malvern for understanding the job of the modern arts correspondent.

(more…)

Q. Am I really wrong?

Yes

Q. Are you sure?

Absolutely

Q. Can you prove that I’m wrong?

Yes, but, you’ll have to agree in advance what proof looks like, otherwise you could just move the goalposts after the game.

Q. How come I have so much evidence that I’m right?

That’s confirmation bias. Your brain carefully files away all the reasons you might be right, and disregards all the reasons you might be wrong.

Q. How come so many people agree with me?

They’re wrong too.

Q. They can’t all be wrong, can they?

Most people are wrong about most things most of the time. If there’s one remarkable discovery to be made in the study of science, religion and philosophy, it’s that being wrong about almost everything does people so little harm. The fact that every scientific discovery since the stone age has only doubled our life expectancy is a cutting indictment of the futility of knowledge in the face of ignorance.

Q. What about the evidence that I should be right?

Those are mostly just reasons why it’s embarrassing that you’re wrong.

Q. What about the mathematical proof that I’m probably right?

That just means we should have been momentarily surprised that you were wrong. Total denial is not called for.

Q. Why has nobody told me this before?

Given the way you’re acting now, it’s hard to imagine anybody feeling like you might be anything but completely receptive to information relating to your wrongness.

Q. So what? I’m supposed to completely rethink everything I thought I knew?

Well, bumbling blindly got you this far, and we wouldn’t be exploring all our options unless we at least considered elective ignorance. Eternal darkness loses some of its lustre once you embark upon it willingly, though, so perhaps you should take comfort in the knowledge that you’re probably wrong about all sorts of other things, too.

Dear Aaron Dunn (founder of Musopen),

My gripe is pretty simple:

You have a website dedicated to giving away music that is in the public domain. Some of the music on your website is not in the public domain. It belongs to people, who should be getting paid when it is downloaded. You have made almost no effort to prevent this, and you hide behind an absurd interpretation of a law you don’t understand in order to justify your continued inaction.

Let’s start with the public domain. Authors are entitled to copyright protection for a period of time, after which their work becomes free for anybody to reproduce. Copyright terms are a bit confusing, but if you want to know if something is free in the major markets, it works like this:

Public Domain

(more…)

The Times Higher Education Supplement and the Independent reported yesterday that the Royal Academy of Music enjoy’s the UK’s highest graduate employment rate at 100%.

There’s a small chance somebody might make a fairly important career decision (or at least spend £36,000) on the basis of this 100% figure (or perhaps on the basis of the Independent’s unambiguous advice “If you want to be employed after uni, study music”), and as these two respectable publications were apparently too busy to find out what it actually means, I thought I’d do it. It took 15 minutes. Here we go: (more…)

I must run out and buy a copy of the Radio Times. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has an interview in the latest edition containing revelations so explosive that they have been reported in all the broadsheets. I’m sure they all did this spontaneously, and unaided by a PR company.

What’s extraordinary, though, is that each newspaper has used the same set of quotes to construct an entirely different story:

According to the Telegraph, she doesn’t think the X Factor qualifies for conservatoire status, and is concerned for young singers who feel under pressure to diet unhealthily.

That sounds perfectly sensible, but then the folks at the Telegraph missed the real story, spotted by the Guardian: Dame Kiri questions the value of TV talent shows. While promoting the BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year. Yup. You read that right.

Perhaps the pinkos at the Guardian can’t see past their lefty bias, but luckily the Independent* is on the case, adding the subtitle “Why do all female classical musicians have to be thin and sexy?” as if it’s a quote and not a rhetorical question. The piece is somewhat unhelpfully illustrated with a picture of Anna Netrebko looking quite lovely but no less beefy than Dame Kiri.

Opera stars need beef

The Times uses the word “bemoaned,” which is almost, but not quite, enough to get me seriously wondering what other delights are hiding behind their paywall. Luckily, The Australian has syndicated the whole thing, closing with the bizarre revelation that some of the “less fleshy young opera singers” include Renee Fleming (54) and Natalie Dessay (48).

Less fleshy

I can only assume the Daily Mail** couldn’t find any pictures of Dame Kiri in a bikini on her Facebook page, but they still manage to achieve an astonishingly sexist tone. The headline and collection of bullet points (helpfully provided for the benefit of anybody too lazy to read the story) give the general idea:

Curvaceous

Yup. She admitted to eating.

I’d say “you couldn’t make it up” but, apparently, you could, and they all did.

Save yourself the trouble of reading any of this crap, and let Google News summarise the situation for you:

not hugely big

* “It is important to us that we get things right”

** Not a broadsheet. Or even, really, a newspaper.

I’ve done a several interviews in the last few weeks where journalists have asked about the value of music, as if this is a major cause for concern.

I’ve never really worried about this, and here’s why:

We just got our water bill. Water is clearly valuable – we would die without it – but it isn’t always expensive. In the last six months, we used 66,000 litres of tap water, at a price of just over £162 (including standing charges).

Water is fairly readily available where I live. It falls out of the sky. Indeed, an average of 736,000 litres of water land on my house and garden each year.*

There’s also a stream at the end of the street which must carry far more than that, and I live walking distance from the sea. Let’s forget about these sources though: the hundreds of millions of people around the world struggling to survive without clean drinking water wouldn’t appreciate it if we confuse this with the stuff coming out the tap.**

Still. In the park at the end of the street, there’s a drinking fountain. There’s also a cafe where you can get a plastic cup of water, free of charge. If these are closed, the reservoir is at the top of the hill. With some inconvenience and fewer baths, I could get free water if I wanted.

The water supplied to my house costs about 0.1 pence per litre. It’s metered, although some people are still on the “all you can drink” subscription. Whichever tariff you’re on, you’re allowed to put the water in a mobile device or “bottle” and take it out with you.

The bottled water we buy from the supermarket is 8.5p a litre***. I’m fairly sure this is tap water, marked up to more than 80 times the price, but it still seems hilariously cheap when you can pay ten or twenty times this amount for a glass bottle of fancy water, still or sparkling.

The cafe in the park offers bottled water at £3 a litre. This is 3,000 times the price of tap water, and it’s offered right next to the big jug of free stuff. Still, business is good. People buy the bottles. If you’re willing to leave the Shire, you can pay a lot more.

What I find really interesting about all this is that most of the bottled water brands (or at least the companies that currently own them) entered the market when cheap, good-quality tap water was already available to almost**** everybody in the country, apparently unfazed by this massive pricing disparity.*****

I’m surprised, then, when people tell me streaming music is somehow unsustainable, will completely replace downloads or is devaluing music. I don’t have to pay anything to listen to the radio. People give me free CDs. I can listen to most things on Spotify when I’m at my computer. I still buy music, both as downloads and occasionally as physical products in almost every imaginable format. I buy them with the money I make from selling recordings, and while I fully expect to have to keep looking for new ways to do it, I have no plans to change career.

With apologies to Information is Beautiful.

infographic

Footnotes

* You can figure this out yourself: multiply the length of your property by the width (in meters) and multiply this by the annual rainfall in mm. Then check the order of magnitude about six times because it seems like A LOT of water. I live in one of the least-rainy parts of the UK.

** With a big tank and a filter we could be self-sufficient, but this over-simplifies the clean water problem. To live off the grid, we’d also have to disconnect the sewer. That’s where things get problematic, especially if any of the neighbours were planning to use the water from the stream at the end of the street.

*** Including delivery.

**** The near ubiquitous availability of bottled water makes us less inclined to install drinking fountains in public places, which may not be a good thing.

***** My local water company announced a profit of £79.9m last year, up 147.7% on 2011. The global bottled water industry is doing fine.

227547892_2b2f2b9a2b_b

There’s an article on Digital Music News from yesterday entitled “Happy F%*@ing Birthday, iTunes…” and, as it illustrates so many of the reasons I avoid reading anything on Digital Music News, I thought I’d take a look at it here on my blog.

It opens with a personal attack on Steve Jobs who, if he hadn’t been dead for fifteen months, would surely have been humbled into changing his ways by the brilliant rhetorical device of calling him an asshole on the Internet*. It then launches into what seems to be the central assertion of the piece: that iTunes is “one of the greatest piracy-enabling vehicles the music industry has ever witnessed”.

This surprised me. The occasion for this piece is the 10th anniversary of the iTunes store, which sells music. I worked on the iTunes Store for more than half of the last ten years, and it never seemed like enabling piracy was a high priority for my department. If you’re going to make a claim like this then, naturally, you’re going to have some evidence for it, but we’ll come back to that, because there’s more.

The line “its legacy is a complicated one” dangles the possibility that we might get some meaningful analysis here.

One easy way to make headway through all this complexity would be to look at the winners and losers. The iTunes store made some people very rich, while others did less well. Whole companies sprang up to support the digital supply chain, while some businesses began a steady decline. In some instances the cause-and-effect relationship is quite obvious. One might even choose to divide the music business into “artists”, “audience”, and “people who take their money” and examine what ten years of the iTunes store has done for each of these.

Instead, we get a restatement of the famously positive things about iTunes, along with one other criticism: “the rise of iTunes also meant a fall in control for content owners.  Jobs demanded 99-cents a track, for every track, for years, and refused to entertain bundling tomfoolery like album-only downloads.”

The music business has its fair share of bad deals, but nobody is forced to sign them at gunpoint. To suggest that anybody is compelled to hand over control of their artistic output to a massive corporation (label or retailer), or that they are driven by anything but greed to accept a huge advance in return for their music is to fundamentally misconceive the way the world works.**

After this brief detour into moral outrage on behalf of the poor, defenceless label execs, we’re back to the piracy thing:

“…only a certain percentage of people were actually purchasing paid downloads.  Indeed, the IFPI routinely estimated that 19 out of 20 MP3s were pirated, ie, not purchased from the iTunes Store.  Yet, all of those downloads — free, paid, whatever — were feeding an iPod frenzy, with only limited restrictions on either side of the iTunes+iPod equation.  The source of the content didn’t matter; the consumer experience was everything.”

So there you have it. The iTunes store (which never sold MP3s***) is a bad thing because a different division of the same company sold hardware to people who may have also stolen music****. I sometimes wonder how we sleep at night. But wait. There’s more:

“Because if the iPod could comfortably hold 20,000 songs, the next question was where fans were getting these 20,000 songs.  CD-ripping, sure, but also ol’ favorites like Limewire and BitTorrent.  On the most basic level, no one was paying $20,000 for a digital collection.”

This is just innuendo, and it’s misplaced. I must have been off sick from work the day they called us all into Town Hall and said “So you guys, don’t worry about trying to get people to buy more music. It turns out we’d rather they stole it.” because I  don’t remember that happening. Still, I won’t ask you to take my word for it. Instead, let’s consider for a moment just how foolish this whole “iTunes only exists to sell iPods” argument really is.

The iTunes store looks like it will sell about $5bn worth of music alone this year. That’s a Fortune 500 company, all by itself, and around 4% of Apple’s turnover. Even a 5% profit margin yields a quarter of a billion dollars. I count 129 Fortune 500 companies that didn’t make that much profit last year. When you consider that iTunes had massive growth to finance out of its slim margins, articles about its break-even origins seem rather daft.

But I digress. Digital Music News still has one absurd paragraph left:

“Fast-forward to the present, and Apple is still getting away with mass murder.  Because iCloud and iTunes Match not only ports entire, multi-thousand collections in the sky, it’s also giving every pirated collection a pardon.  And $24.95 a year is all it takes to absolve your sins.”

This is a bit vague but it sounds serious. If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking iCloud and iTunes Match made it easy to share your music, and that using iTunes Match would protect your from prosecution for music piracy.

Neither of these things are true. Access restrictions make it difficult to share music with others using iCloud, and iTunes Match will not protect you from prosecution for piracy*****. I don’t know where this rumour came from, but it’s widespread and very much mistaken: it’s the act of piracy that is illegal, not the possession of pirated music. It might not feel this way to users, but that’s an issue that could have been addressed in a bit of intelligent analysis.

I struggle to understand what the point of this whole article was. An enterprise as wildly successful as iTunes would surely have left some people worse off, but after reading this, I’m no wiser as to who those people might be.

If there’s a decision we might make differently after reading it, I can’t imagine what that could be either. If it was intended to inform, then it fails by containing almost no information – mostly just a bunch of bloviating. Indeed since it is, in places, misleading, you could end up knowing less after reading it.

I don’t read much news at all******, but I certainly don’t read Digital Music News any more. It joins the Daily Mail and Norman Lebrecht on the list of sources who seem, consistently, to place page-views above accuracy, creating content for the benefit of advertisers or personal vanity rather than for the benefit of the reader.

There’s space for both daily industry news and sensible analysis in the digital music space. If this is what you’re looking for, though, you’d do well to look somewhere else.*******

Footnotes

* This is the only thing in the whole article to get a citation, to another Digital Music News article about how Steve Jobs was an asshole.

** It’s reasonable to ask who wins and loses under such a deal, but to behave as if they didn’t have a choice is to absolve one party to the deal of responsibility for the outcome. The artists made their choice when they signed away their albums to a label, and the labels made their choice when they signed the deal with iTunes and accepted the billions of dollars they were paid in return. If you want to control how your music gets sold, you can sell it yourself. If you want to control how your catalog is priced, you can start your own shop. Occasionally markets need regulating to prevent monopolies from exploiting people, and it’s reasonable to point out when this needs to happen. Everything else is whining.

*** At least 100% of MP3s were not purchased from the iTunes store. If anybody had bothered to cite a source for this “estimate” we might get a clearer idea of what was being talked about. The closest I can find is this, where the estimate is based upon total downloads, without reference to (1) what percentage of these downloads are substitutes for a purchase or (2) how many, if any, of the illegal downloads are made by iTunes users.

**** The iPod could be filled up with stolen music, in much the same way that a suitcase can be filled with stolen money. We don’t condemn people for making suitcases. This would be dangerously close to the “guns don’t kill people, Americans do” argument, except that killing people (or transporting stolen music) was never the intended function of the iPod, and Apple made common-sense attempts to make piracy difficult. Unlike almost all other popular MP3 players, the iPod made it genuinely difficult for you to copy music off it onto a friend’s computer. It’s closely integrated with the best legal download store ever created and even came with a sticker on the screen that said “don’t steal music”. That’s not to say that no pirated music ended up on them, but I’d be interested to read what other reasonable steps Apple could have done to prevent this without completely hobbling the product.

***** It’s in the terms and conditions. “You hereby agree to use iTunes Match only for lawfully acquired content. Any use for illegitimate content infringes the rights of others and may subject you to civil and criminal penalties, including possible monetary damages, for copyright infringement.”

****** This article in the Guardian covers many of the reasons why I tend to avoid news coverage. I found the article when a friend shared it on Twitter – one several people I know who read it, evidently thought it worth sharing, and then went back to reading and sharing a steady stream of pseudo-news every day.

******* Not here though. Adrian Covert? You’re next.

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