Your snappily titled Salon article, “It’s not just David Byrne and Radiohead: Spotify, Pandora and how streaming music kills jazz and classical” is very misleading.

I have reproduced the entire article here (in italics) with my comments (not in italics). Let’s take it from the top.

After years in which tech-company hype has drowned out most other voices, the frustration of musicians with the digital music world has begun to get a hearing. We know now that many rockers don’t like it. Less discussed so far is the trouble jazz and classical musicians — and their fans — have with music streaming, which is being hailed as the “savior” of the music business.

The entire premise is a straw man. There are lots of articles about how streaming is bad, and lots about how it is good. There are also many articles about how classical and jazz are losing out to changing music market. Let’s not pretend that we’re treading new ground here. You’re not questioning conventional wisdom, but rather trotting out a series of tired clichés and weaving them into a simplistic narrative that bears little relationship to the truth and serves no useful purpose except possibly to generate page views.

But between low royalties, opaque payout rates, declining record sales and suspicion that the major labels have cut deals with the streamers that leave musicians out of the equation, anger from the music business’s artier edges is slowing growing.

This article could have been really interesting if you had investigated any of these things instead of asking people to speculate.

It’s further proof of the lie of the “long tail.”

No it isn’t.

The shift to digital is also helping to isolate these already marginalized genres: It has a decisive effect on what listeners can find, and on whether or not an artist can earn a living from his work.

If it was announced tomorrow that, in future, all music could only be purchased by mail-order or by going in person to a physical store where a single individual had chosen a limited range of products to make available, then the classical and jazz world would collectively lose their shit. The Internet is where most music is sold. If you’re going to blame the Internet for destroying classical and jazz, you’d better make an impressive argument.

(Music streaming, in all genres, is up 42 percent for the first half of this year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, against the first half of 2013. Over the same period, CD sales fell 19.6 percent, and downloads, the industry’s previous savior, were down 11.6 percent.)

If there’s a lesson to learn from these figures, it is probably not “make bold pronouncements about the future on the basis of short-term sales trends.”

Only a very few classical artists have been outspoken on the issue so far:

I’m sorry to interrupt you mid-sentence, but had you considered the possibility that this might be because they’re not all extremely unhappy with the situation?

San-Francisco-based Zoe Keating — a tech-savvy, DIY, Amanda Palmer of the cello — has blown the whistle on the tiny amounts the streaming services pay musicians. Though she’s exactly the kind of artist who should be cashing in on streaming, since she releases her own music, tours relentlessly, and has developed a strong following since her days with rock band Rasputina, only 8 percent of  her last year’s earnings from recorded music came from streaming.

You might also argue that Zoe Keating is exactly the kind of artist you would expect to cash in on downloads, because she communicates effectively with a large and loyal audience. Rather than speculate here, perhaps it’s best if we don’t pretend that a very unusual artist as typical of the broader classical music market.

The iTunes store, which pays out in small amounts since most purchases are for 99 cent songs, paid her about six times what she earned from streaming. (More than 400,000 Spotify streams earned her $1,764; almost 2 million YouTube views generated

So a Spotify stream pays seven times as much as a YouTube stream, and she chooses to put her music on both platforms. Perhaps you should have asked her why she does that. It would be nice if this anecdote crystallised into a coherent argument at some point.

For jazz and classical players without Keating’s entrepreneurial energy or larger cult following, the numbers are even bleaker. “It feels awful,” says Christina Courtin, a Julliard-trained violinist who plays in classical groups and has put out albums on the Nonesuch and Hundred Pockets labels. “I don’t count on that as a way to make money — I don’t see how it makes sense for a musician. It’s pretty dark — no one’s selling as much as they were even five years ago.”

Some people are selling more music than they were five years ago. Some people were not selling any music five years ago. Let’s not question this assertion, though, because it fits with the overall picture you’re painting.

Some artists remember a very different world. “I used to sell CDs of my music,” says Richard Danielpour, a celebrated American composer who has written an opera with Toni Morrison and once had an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. “And now we get nothing.”

Literally nothing? Well, that sucks for Richard, but it isn’t happening to everyone.

It’s not just streaming, but the larger digital era that’s burying record stores, radio and recordings – and it’s hitting jazz and classical musicians especially hard.

Classical radio is doing fine. You haven’t tried to make the statistical case that it’s not, and you would find it very difficult.

Record stores are only getting buried if you only count the types of record stores that were around twenty years ago. If you apply this logic to people (only people born before 1996 are people), you can show the world’s population is falling. You might also like to do some actual research on the number of new recordings getting made. You seem to be assuming that we’ll all agree that the number of new recordings is going down. I’m not convinced that is true.

The skeptical reader might note that I have not produced any data in support of this argument. This is partly because I’ve addressed these assertions before (and regular readers have suffered enough), but also because you’re the one trying to prove your case, and you’ve thrown these things out there like they’re obviously true. Let’s just call it the prejudice that it is and move on.

For some young musicians launching their careers, the “exposure” they get on Pandora or YouTube brings them employment or a fan base somewhere down the line. But many wait in vain.

No musicians languished in obscurity before the Internet?

And like their counterparts in the pop world, musicians typically cannot opt out of streaming and the rest of the new world.

This is not true. Most musicians are not with record labels, so most musicians get to decide this, directly, for themselves. If the modern world scares you, then by all means opt out. If you want a deal with a label, they normally get to make commercial decisions about how the music is sold. This is capitalism. It has real flaws. We don’t need to make up new ones.

“One of the big reasons musicians kept control of their publishing was for the possibility that at least we would be paid when those songs were played in media outlets,” says jazz pianist Jason Moran, currently the jazz advisor for the Kennedy Center. “Back in the day, Fats Waller, and tons of other artists were robbed of their publishing. This is the new version of it, but on a much more wider scale.”

I would genuinely be fascinated to know the context in which this quote was gained, and what Jason was actually referring to when he said “this” because the “this” you’ve provided is a whole of things, and that matters when we’re talking about people getting robbed.

In some ways, the trouble in these genres resembles the problems experienced by any non-superstar musicians. Royalties on steaming services, for instance, are notoriously low. “All of my colleagues — composers and arrangers — are seeing huge cuts in their earnings,” says Paul Chihara, a veteran composer who until recently headed UCLA’s film-music program. “In effect, we’re not getting royalties. It’s almost amusing some of the royalty checks I get.” One of the last checks he got was for $29. “And it bounced.”

This is perversely vague. The mechanism for paying composers is quite different to the mechanism for paying performers. Unions, statutory rates, resellers and agents all play very different roles which you have left completely unexamined. You have also ignored the extent to which composers are now commissioned on a work-for-hire basis. Lots of factors, lots of changes. This man says his royalties are bad. You’re the one blaming the internet.

The pain is especially acute for indie musicians. While some jazz and classical labels are owned by one of the three majors — Blue Note and Deutsche Grammophon, for example, are now part of the Universal Music Group — the vast majority of musicians record for independent labels. And the indies have been largely left out of the sweet deals struck with the streamers. Most of those deals are opaque; the informed speculation says that these arrangement are not good for musicians, especially those not on the few remaining majors.

Where did you get your informed speculation from? Is it somebody who actually worked at a label in the last five years? If not, it might not be terribly informed. You’re not telling us, so let’s call this hearsay and move on.

“Musicians in niche categories need to be fearful of the agreements that labels are signing with streaming services,” says music historian Ted Gioia, who has also recorded as a jazz pianist. Some of these deals, he suspects, allow the steamers to pay nothing at all to some artists, including most who record jazz and classical music

This is definitely speculation. There are thousands of artists with thousands of contracts and you couldn’t get a single one to talk to you about this? Then you don’t get to use the claim.

“The record labels could make a case that they don’t need to share royalties with artists whose sales don’t cross a certain threshold. If you’re Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, you have no problem. But otherwise, you would get no royalties. The nature of these deals are that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

The nature of these completely imaginary deals? Completely imaginary deals that artists are forced to sign at gun point?

Labels that own substantial back catalog — old Pink Floyd and Eagles albums, and earlier music that no longer require royalty payments to musicians — have likely cut much better deals than labels that primarily put out new music, especially those in non-pop genres. Says Gioia: “I suspect we’d find agreements where the labels say, [to the streamers], ‘You can have our whole catalog for $5 million, plus you pay us a fraction of a penny for any song that streams more than a million times.’” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think this way: The major labels have a number of weaselly little tricks like this one, sometimes called a “digital breakage,” in which musicians get nothing.

This, again, is speculation, but this time about the contents of specific documents that actually exist, and you could report usefully on them if you actually had copies of them. You don’t have copies of them, you haven’t seen them it it looks a lot like you haven’t talked to anybody who has.

Moran compares the appearance of Spotify on the scene to the arrival of Wal-Mart to an American small-town: The new model undercuts the existing ones, and helps put smaller, independent stores out of business.

Mostly, though, independent record stores were put out of business by large chain record stores, and this all happened decades ago.

Indie labels are equally vulnerable. Pi Recordings is a jazz label that puts out recordings by the cream of the avant-garde, including Henry Threadgill, Marc Ribot and Rudresh Mahanthappa. It’s been described as one of the rare success stories in a dark time. But Yulun Wang, who co-runs the label, is not sure how they can stand up against the streaming onslaught.

Apparently everybody is either equally or especially vulnerable.

“You have the guy who buys 20 jazz records a year — $300 a year,” Wang says. “He might buy one or two of our albums. If I convert that guy to Spotify – he’s now getting all-you-can-eat for $120. And the proportion that comes to me is literally pennies. That’s when it over. That’s will force labels like ours to either change the way we do things significantly.”

If a typical customer* buys 2 of your CDs out of 20, he’s spending 10% of $300 with you, and unless you sell direct to consumers, as a label you’re lucky if you see a third of that ($10) of which perhaps half is eaten up by costs specific to CDs: manufacturing, shipping, breakages, returns, overstock and mechanical copyrights that streaming services  would pay for you. That leaves $5. If that same customer spends 10% of his streaming time on your products, you get 10% of $120, and you get to keep maybe half of it ($6). You could have looked into this.

A related popular argument against streaming goes as follows: a stream pays less than 100th of a download, but purchasers almost never listen to a download 100 times therefore streaming generates far less revenue. This would make sense if people only streamed tracks they would have otherwise purchased.

So long as you’re making records people actually want to listen to, you should be fine.

The digital enthusiasts say that labels need to “adjust” to the new world – by taking a piece of musicians’ touring, or cutting “360 deals” in which they get part of every strand of an artist’s revenue stream. But for jazz artists, touring outside New York and a few other cities does not yield much. “If I take 15 percent of someone making $30,000, it’s just less money in their pocket.” At a certain point, the artist can no longer pay the rent. “That’s when it’s game over.”

By “digital enthusiasts” do you mean “people who are made entirely out of straw?” There are real professionals making this market work. You just didn’t talk to any of them.

But it’s not just a problem of scale. There are distinctive qualities to jazz and classical music that make it a difficult fit to the digital world as it now exists, and that punish musicians and curious fans alike.

Not having everything made exactly the way you want it is not a punishment.

To Jean Cook, a new-music violinist, onetime Mekon, and director of programs for the Future Musical Coalition, it further marginalizes these already peripheral styles, creating what she calls “invisible genres.”

Invisible genres which make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from digital platforms, and where entire companies exist only selling their music through digital platforms.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, or Beats Music, she says. “Any music service that’s serving pop and classical music will not serve classical music well.”

For balance, it might be sensible to point out here that there are specialist download, streaming and home delivery services, and while some of them are growing (and others aren’t), the majority of sales and streams come from precisely the kind of mainstream retailers Jean is talking about here. They’re not perfect, but clearly it is possible to buy music from them.

The problem is the nature of classical music, and jazz as well, and the way they differ from pop music. They all make different use of metadata – a term most people associate with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, but which have a profound importance to streaming services.

Most people? Did you just decide that?

Put most simply: Classical music and jazz are such a mismatch for existing streaming services, it’s almost impossible to find stuff.

When people make this complaint about classical and jazz on the web, I do wonder what the hell they’re comparing it to? When was there a magical period in the past in which physical record stores were successfully cross-referenced? I remember physical stores. They were worse.

Cook realized this when she got a recommendation from a music lover, and found herself falling down an online labyrinth trying to find it.

“…without even getting out of her chair” is the part that’s missing from this woeful tale of injustice and hardship.

Here’s a good place to start: Say you’re looking for a bedrock recording, the Beethoven Piano Concertos, with titan Maurizio Pollini on piano. Who is the “artist” for this one? Is it the Berlin Philharmonic, or Claudio Abbado, who conducts them? Is it Pollini? Or is it Beethoven himself? If you can see the entire record jacket, you can see who the recording includes. Otherwise, you could find yourself guessing.

They’re all listed. Did you actually look at iTunes or Spotify before you wrote this?

Spotify Screen Shot

iTunes Screen Shot

You are whining about an imaginary problem.

Or, if you want music written the Russian late romantic, do you want Rachmaninoff, or Rachmaninoff? Chances are, your service will have one but not the other.

If only there was a way to suggest alternative spellings and transliterations.

Spotify Screen Shot Rachmaninov

And what do you call the movements of a symphony or chamber piece? By their Roman numeral? Or by names like andante or scherzo?

If only somebody had thought of carefully listing all this information.

Screen Shot 2014-07-21 at 22.17.18

“These services are built to serve the largest segments of the marketplace — pop, country and hip hop,” says Cook. None of these have this kind of complicated structure.

Really? Hip Hop doesn’t involve lots of guest artists? Pop music doesn’t require the creative input of producers who go completely uncredited in digital stores? World music wouldn’t be easier to explore if databases supported some sort of geographical taxonomy? New Age music doesn’t feature specific and very different subcategories? Lots of genres face specific challenges. Spotify and iTunes are great places to explore and discover classical music, and if you’d tried them, you’d know that.

Jazz offers similar difficulties, she says. Say you want to find recordings by pianist Bill Evans. You can find a bunch of them — but nothing linking him to “Kind of Blue,” perhaps the most important (and, in vinyl and CD form, certainly the bestselling) recording he was ever a part of. Evans shaped that album profoundly. You won’t find John Coltrane — another key voice on that session — there either, since it’s a Miles Davis record.

Oh shit. If only you were sitting in front of a computer that was connected to the Internet.

“Listing sidemen is something that is just not built into the architecture,” says Cook. It’s not a small problem. “I can’t think of a single example of a jazz musician who was not a sideman at one point in their career. We’re talking about a significant portion of jazz history that can’t get out.”

Jean is making a perfectly sensible point, but did you stop for a moment to consider the extent to which this is either (a) crippling or (b) new. Build a website that cross-references this stuff and use affiliate links to generate revenue from download stores and streaming services. Or don’t, because Wikipedia exists and people know how to use Google and this is really not that big of a problem, but either way, please stop whining about it.

It also makes you wonder — what are the chances that sidemen, or their heirs, get paid when things are streamed? And what do potential music consumers do when they can’t find what they’re looking for?

The labels pay them. The labels know who they have to pay. If the labels don’t pay them, it’s a matter between them and the labels. It has always worked this way, and the technology behind getting the music to the customer is entirely irrelevant. It is not responsible to just make up things for people to worry about.

There used to be a solution to this. “Go back to the days of record stores,” says Gioia, “and customers could learn a lot from browsing the racks, or asking the serious music fans who worked there.”

Your argument seems to be trying to reductio itself ad absurdum.

(Classical record stores, then and now, tended to have their recordings organized by composer rather than group.)

…and this worked for Mahler cycles, but it was hopeless if you were shopping for repertoire that only came on mixed recital discs, or if you wanted a short work by a famous composer who, in a big store, had hundreds of discs for you to trawl through, track at a time. Plus, did I mention that you’d have to get out of your chair? In the end, classical and jazz alienated people who didn’t like hanging out in record shops, and these people in turn find themselves alienated by websites. This does not mean the entire genre is dying.

The algorithms for specialized genres — classical, reggae, acoustic blues, Brazilian music —are hopeless, he says.

I will pay you $100 of my own money if you go back to Ted Gioia and get him to explain to us what an algorithm is.

“These days, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for. If you want something by Beyonce or Miley Cyrus, it’s not hard. If you’re interested in niche music, you can be in the position of not knowing what’s out there. I still find myself missing important releases by musicians I care about. Streaming provides access to millions of hours of music, but it’s easy to get lost in it.”

These days you can listen to music before you buy it, and you can buy it without using your legs. If people are not buying your records, it is not because it is too difficult.

If dedicated fans like Cook and Gioia have these problems, what will happen to the casual or new fans that every genre needs in order to stay alive? They’ll simply drift away to the stuff that’s being beamed at them by advertisers around the clock.

You’re dangerously close to exploring an alternative cause for some of the problems you list here, Tim. Better back quietly away and leave it completely unexplored.

Even some of those frightened and demoralized by the digital transition think things can be improved for jazz and classical music.

That’s just as well, since they’re the only people you talked to for this article.

So far, Wang’s solution has been to drop out. It’s nearly impossible for artists to withdraw, but as a label head, he can pull all of Pi’s music off Spotify. After three or four months on the service, two years back, he received a royalty statement of about $25 for all of it, and decided it just wasn’t worth it.

That is a thing he is entitled to do – something you might have mentioned earlier.

“What we found when we got out of Spotify — after these dire warnings — was that our sales went up; they absolutely jumped.”

People notice that vitamins cure autism, which is why we don’t make important decisions on the basis of a sample size of one.

He’s very familiar with the pressure to give art away. “We were always told you need to get as many audiences as possible … With the exposure argument, you’re told, ‘You could become the next Lady Gaga!’ It’s like playing Lotto — buy dollar tickets, and you could hit it big. In jazz, keep buying dollar tickets so you can win a dollar fifty.”

Jazz isn’t well-paid? What a surprise.

Cook sees the poor fit of these genres to streaming services as part of a larger phenomenon: Their radio playlists don’t show up in Billboard, their ticket receipts and album sales are often not reported to SoundScan and PollStar, and their awards on the Grammys are rarely televised. “This affects the visibility of jazz and classical music, and the way they are viewed by the rest of the industry.”

…and we should try to make the case that something be done about many of these things, but “our art form is dying” wouldn’t be the way to make that case if it was even true, which it isn’t.

Part of a solution involves getting the data straight. “There is no database that tells you who played on what recording, and who wrote each song. ASCAP has one piece of the puzzle; iTunes has another. If you’ve got a music service, you need this, because you need to know who to pay. You need to tell listeners who they’re listening too. And if it’s not consistent, it’s not searchable.”

The labels clear the publishing and pay the artists. That is part of their job. Search engines are remarkably good at searching inconsistent data.

She wonders how it happens, though, even with open-source software that makes it easier. “The classical community needs to say, ‘This is a good index, instead of the crap the record labels are sending you. It requires a coordinated effort by a lot of different parties.”

So does world peace, which is why we don’t have it.

Composer Danielpour says that classical people should not give up on recording work and trying to get on the radio. “Even though radio is a mid-20th century medium, for classical music it’s still a powerful source of revenue,” especially in Europe, where royalties are typically better. He recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. “For European and Russian audiences, classical music is religion. For us in America, it’s entertainment.”

The poor guy probably had to fly economy and everything.

Gioia, a former businessman, is pragmatic and forward looking. “My view is that the only solution for this, that is equitable for everyone, is for the music labels, in partnership with the artists, to control their own streaming,” says Gioia. “They need to bypass Silicon Valley.

Yes. Grab your pitchforks. Let’s go to the mill and burn it down.

“They need to work together with a new model, to control distribution and not rely on Apple, Amazon and everyone else. The music industry has always hated technology — they hated radio when it came out — and have always dragged their feet. They need to embrace technology and do it better.”

Finally. The uplifting finish which restores our hope for the future by suggesting what exactly? That the workers take control of the means of production? Good plan. Somebody should try that sometime.

There is not one single piece of practical advice anywhere in this article. There is not one piece of useful information that a musician, a label or a retailer could use to do their jobs better, there is not one single prediction or revelation which will help a consumer to gain better access to the music they want and there is no useful information for the investor keen to see this change.

You have to wonder what it was for.



An earlier version of this story said:

“If a guy buys 2 of your CDs out of 20, he’s spending 10% of $300 with you, and unless you sell direct to consumers, as a label you’re lucky if you see a third of that ($5). If he spends 10% of his streaming time on your products, you get 10% of $120, and you get to keep more than half of it ($6).”

This is misleading. Streaming services generally don’t share out the revenue from individual users according to their individual listening. Rather, they distribute the label share of the subscriber revenue according to the total amount of listening. I’ve revised the text above slightly to be clearer about this point: if that’s what the typical user does, then that’s what the label will get. The more people listen to your music, the more you get paid, regardless of how large a percentage of an individual’s listening is accounted for by your music.



Post a comment
  1. DN494a #
    July 23, 2014

    “This is capitalism. It has real flaws. We don’t need to make up new ones.” I particularly enjoyed this widening of the argument.

  2. July 23, 2014

    I’m still confused about the maths in that label/streaming/$300 section. Isn’t a third of 10% of $300… $10?

    I know you say “you’d be lucky to see a third of that”, but if your point is that streaming gives you more, then… seem a bit off.

    • July 23, 2014

      You’re right. Crikey. I really did mangle this paragraph. The end result is correct, but in an attempt to simplify the working, I’d not mentioned the costs specific to CDs which don’t apply to streaming. I’ve corrected that in the text.

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