Posts from the Bullshit Police Category

I saw this Qobuz ad on Facebook this morning. It has some issues.

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  1. By all means test it for yourself. Your magical bat ears may hear the difference, but unless it’s a blind test, the placebo effect will distort the result. They could easily build a blind test, but they don’t. You should wonder why that is.
  2. Qobuz is not the only music service to stay true to the music. What does that even mean? There are other lossless/hi-res stores. I like the Hyperion one.
  3. No recording sounds exactly like the music that was played, but to the extent that any recording does, any two digital copies of a given bit depth and sample rate will be identical, regardless of where you bought them.
  4. These pictures do not show the difference between the formats named below them. The bar graphs show different sample rates, which aren’t mentioned at all. This is really misleading.
  5. MP3 covers a wide range of encoding qualities, and bunching them all together allows for really unfair comparisons. At its upper end, lossy compression is getting very good indeed.
  6. “Second to none” means “nothing is better” not “better than anything else”. You could say the same thing for the CDs they sell at Poundland.* This is not a great endorsement.

Bullshit with nice pictures and a semicolon is still bullshit. There might be good reasons to prefer Qobuz as a source of music, but this advert isn’t offering any of them.

Factcheck this advert, and what true statements are you left with? That they have “30 millions tracks”?


* Don’t like classical crossover? Get your daily fix of schadenfreude by seeing who ends up in Poundland’s classical selection.


Only a few of the subjects of my “I’ve got a bone to pick with you” posts have ever got in touch. One wrote to apologise (which was unnecessary of course, but we had tea, and it was nice), another to ask me to take the article down (which I did because it was unfair) and Norman Lebrecht told me I don’t have any balls.*

Yesterday I wrote about Anil Prasad’s attack on streaming services. Today he got in touch. He has deleted most of his tweets now, so I’ve arranged the screenshots below in the order that makes most sense of the conversation:


That last one was a witheringly sarcastic put-down that will keep me awake at night, but the good news is that he has written a new piece. Here it is. I’m less inclined to take this one apart line-by-line because (1) I have work to do and (2) it doesn’t propose anything that might actually happen.

It does not address any of the flaws in his argument against streaming, but builds on this non-existent foundation to propose a business that charges significantly more for access to a smaller collection of music under an exclusive agreement that is the very definition of price fixing.

“Price fixing and bid rigging are among the group of antitrust offenses that are considered per se unreasonable restraints of trade. The courts have reasoned that these practices, which invariably have the effect of raising prices to consumers, have no legitimate justification and lack any redeeming competitive purpose and should, therefore, be considered unlawful without any further analysis of their reasonableness, economic justification, or other factors.”

US Department of Justice Antitrust Resource Manual

You can charge more for your music. You cannot get together with a group of other suppliers and agree to only sell at a certain price, even if you do not say out loud that this is what you are doing, and even if you believe you are doing it for the right reasons. It is a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison.

As he says: Good luck.


* Or possibly either that balls do not exist or that I should send him a picture of some – there were no verbs in his email, which rendered its meaning somewhat ambiguous. I have yet to work out what part of my behaviour would give him the idea that I’m afraid of him, so maybe he did want a pic. I’ll let you make up your own mind. The Internet is weird.
Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 10.49.21

Your article about streaming is misleading, contains factual inaccuracies, and gives bad advice.

I just wrote an article for NewMusicBox about streaming (it has cat pictures and everything). My goal was to provide some practical advice about what to do, because this is a thing that’s happening, and arguing about how good or bad it is doesn’t change the fact that some of us run labels, our jobs are changing, and we need to know what to do.

I see that you take the opposite stance. When you’re trying to get people to do something, the burden of proof is on you. You have not made a good case. Let’s address some specifics from your article:

1) “With virtually no consultation, musicians and independent labels are being led down the path of the streaming music construct controlled largely by technology companies.”

No music company was forced to agree to anything. Let’s be clear about that. They do it because they think it is a good deal. There is a chance they have more information at their disposal than you do.

2) “Streaming royalties for these services remain mired in mystery. Nobody is privy to how royalties are calculated or assigned to different players in the streaming ecosystem.”

Spotify explain how it works on their website. You could have Googled that.

3) “In what other industry would suppliers offer their goods to distributors without being told precisely how much they’ll receive for their inventory?”

The CD industry. Deals with CD distributors often work on a percentage, with final pricing at least partially at the discretion of the distributor. This is what I meant when I said “There is a chance they have more information than you do”. I’d encourage readers to make up their own minds, but it looks to me like you have no idea what you’re talking about.

4) “It’s clear Apple’s hand was forced and it had to enter into the streaming world, just to maintain credibility and market momentum for its device ecosystem.”

The download market was worth $3.5bn last year (2014) and streaming was worth $2.2bn. Might I humbly suggest that an alternative explanation is that (a) Apple customers would like to use a streaming service and (b) Apple see this as a way to make a lot of money?

5) “‘Streaming makes it very difficult for cult bands who sell 1,000 copies of each release,’ the noted British guitarist and composer Matt Stevens told me. ‘If 1,000 people stream an album 10 times, we probably make a few pennies versus 1,000 download sales which create a model that will pay for modest recording expenses.'”

If everybody who might at some point in the future stream a song from your album is also willing to buy the whole album right now, then you are in a very unusual position indeed and you might be well-advised to avoid streaming services. Such an extreme example of inelastic pricing, though, is in my experience unusual.

6) “Musicians and independent labels jumped along for the ride when Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and the rest of the streaming companies essentially constructed services with payouts so low, the end result isn’t much different than piracy. That, however, doesn’t hold true for the core investors in these services, which include the old major label guard. For instance, Spotify’s key backers include Warner, Sony and Universal.”

You expect us to believe that these companies – that’s right – these ones – have conspired to depress the price of music? Ok. By “key backers” you mean “minority shareholders”.

7) “…as the services scale, the streaming royalties actually shrink. Only ad and subscription revenue grow for the services, not royalty payouts.”

This is misleading. I refer you to this graph, which you can find in context here:


If the per-stream royalty has fallen, it can only because subscribers are, on average, listening to more music. Would you rather they didn’t?

8) “The grand irony of all of this is that no streaming service is yet profitable.”

This is simply not true. I have worked on profitable streaming services. You just don’t know about them. If the big ones aren’t profitable, it’s because they are doing something called “investment” which I have explained before here.

9) “Because of the incredible complexities of licensing and the ponzi-inspired nature of these organizations, money is rolling in.”

Also because people like them and they pay a lot of money to use them. Most of the money gets paid to labels. What happens next is between them and the artists. Just like with all other music sales.

10) “In Spotify’s case, they are looking at a giant monetization event in the form of an IPO or acquisition. If either occurs, everyone — including the major label backers — will cash out, and all that will be left is a feeble shell that will eventually collapse.”

Or, possibly, to build a long-term sustainable business that generates a profit for its shareholders while satisfying its customers and paying a fair price to its suppliers. One of the two. Unless your doomsday scenario has no expiry date, there’s an easy way to find out which.

11) “It’s obvious virtually all the insiders of the streaming companies see this model as a short-term, unsustainable play.”

No it isn’t. You see that there? I made that case with the exact same amount of evidence as you produced in your argument to the contrary.

12) “My advice is for musicians and labels to opt out of the commercial streaming services…”

Why the hell would anybody follow your advice? It is founded on falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations.

13) “…and seek out other options available to them, such as Bandcamp and PledgeMusic, which appear to remain relatively honorable territory.”

Is this an aesthetic argument? They seem like nice indie guys? Is this what you’ve got?

14) “The big question musicians and independent labels need to ask themselves is why allow these companies to determine the value of your music?”

To reach a big audience. That’s it. Do it, don’t do it, it’s up to you. It’s the same dilemma you’d have doing a deal with a supermarket chain or a big box retailer: your products reach more people, all music is priced the same and that price is lower. Cut all the crap about conspiracies, and this is a straightforward business decision about pricing.

15) “You can send people interested in what you do anywhere to access your music.”

True, but people who have never heard of you won’t go looking for something they don’t know about in a place they don’t go. There’s a balance to be struck here, and not all records are expensive to make.

16) “The inevitability is musicians and labels are eventually going to be on their own again as the streaming services begin to collapse one by one across the coming years.”

If this is going to happen anyway, what are you so worried about?

17) “It’s time to plan for that future by establishing your own model now, apart from these companies.”

Better advice would be to seriously consider what part, if any, these companies play in your strategy.

18) “Reclaim your independence and ensure your music benefits the people that really believe in it, not soulless streaming companies seeking to take you for everything you’ve got.”

By all means retain (or reclaim) your independence. It matters, and it’s my job to help people do this. Part of that means not making business decisions on the basis of the unsubstantiated ramblings of some blowhard with a blog and the rhetorical flair of a low-budget Glenn Beck. These soulless companies pay out 70% of their revenue to rightsholders, they’re playing a long game, they know what they’re doing and labels participate because they see it is a logicial step towards more sustainable revenues. If you don’t accept this then prove me wrong.

If major labels are screwing people (which would hardly come as a massive surprise), then investigate that. Talk to some artists, collect some evidence, make a case, show people which specific clauses in the contracts are causing the problems. Find somebody who found a way round this and share what they did. That would actually be a useful thing that resulted in tangible action. Produce some evidence or shut up, because right now you have nothing but clickbait bullshit and it is not helping anybody.

A client (a major orchestra) recently asked me about a post by Norman Lebrecht about classical charts. The orchestra in question was concerned about what appeared to be a precipitous decline in sales, and wondered if it was sensible to embark on a recording project under these circumstances. I had to spend an evening undoing the damage that Norman’s idiotic bullshit had done.

Unlike Norman, I run a successful record company, so I generally have better things to do with my time than correct his ill-informed musings (if you want to see his ethical and epistemological failings catalogued in relentless detail, I suggest you follow @fakenlebrecht). Still, I’ve had to write this now, and I might as well share it.

Each week, Nielsen in the US and the Official Charts Company in the UK circulate charts showing the top selling new titles in each genre. They don’t publish the sales figures because it’s commercially sensitive information. “Giving it to inept egobloggers” is not on the list of the things you’re allowed to do with it. Despite this, the spreadsheets are circulated fairly widely, and Norman gets hold of them from time to time. Reading his commentary, you could be forgiven for thinking that a continuing trend of declining classical music sales had reached a new low.

Indeed, it’s hard to read it any other way. That’s because it is based on the most idiotic interpretation of the data I can imagine.

To come up with this interpretation from the actual figures, you’d have to ignore a significant amount of publicly available evidence to the contrary, you’d have to have almost no access to real record sales data, you’d have to be unfamiliar with the way charts work, make barely any effort to find out how they work and, crucially, to have no regular access to them.

Here’s how it works: charts include only a subset of recordings, count only a subset of sales, the sales of the #1 title vary hugely both seasonally and from week to week and are an extremely poor indicator of the health of the general business.

Every week, the official charts company emails me the UK’s specialist classical chart, which lists sales of albums less than 12 months old comprised of more than 60% classical repertoire (by length) as reported by participating retailers.*

Here’s a graph showing the sales of the #1 and #20 album on this chart, each week for a year. You could combine this with the charts themselves to get sales figures for all the best-selling albums of the last year, so the OCC asked me not to label the Y axis. That’s reasonable, since we don’t need it to understand the point. I can tell you that several of the #1s on this chart are records I’ve worked on, and one of those sold almost 1,000 units in a week. The US charts look similar, but the numbers are bigger.

Uk Classical Chart 2014-2015

There are easily more than 100k classical albums available to customers in the US and UK**. If you wanted to know how they, collectively, were selling, you could look at figures published by Nielsen and the BPI, which consistently show that while the entire record business has halved in size over the last fifteen years, classical sales are basically stable and not currently in the midst of a precipitous collapse.

If you insisted on using the sales of a single album in a single week as a proxy for the success of the business, the smart money would be on picking any album except #1. It’s literally the worst way of doing this.****



* That is to say, if a record is more than a year old, was only sold by a retailer that didn’t report sales to the OCC, or wasn’t deemed classical enough, it could sell a million units and not appear on this chart. I don’t know of anybody shifting a million units a week through museum gift shops and CD signings, but I’ve also arranged to sign up a retailer to the OCC’s reporting panel because we once missed out on having the #1 classical album on the busiest week of the year because we sold hundreds of units in the wrong shop.

** Citation needed? Ok. On their website, claims to have more than 120,000 recordings available in the US. I called Chris O’Reilly*** at Presto Classical in the UK. He told me he thinks they have almost everything available, with 78,000 core classical titles on CD and DVD, and another 40,000 digital-only audio products. My experience tends to suggest that Chris is basically right about core classical repertoire in the UK. If you count compilations, crossover albums, and little labels without distributors, there are probably a few more than this. The total is perhaps as many as 300,000 individual titles on sale at any one time, from thousands of labels around the world, and a subset of maybe 150,000 available in major markets like the UK and US.

*** You can just call people who know things and ask them stuff, and then check that against another source to see if it’s likely to be true. This seemed infinitely simpler (and plainly more reliable) than whatever journalistic technique resulted in the following story, every word of which is untrue:

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 12.16.39**** If you care about the truth, that is. If you’re totally cool with wilfully deceiving your readers and undermining the factual basis upon which they make business decisions, you will find constructing false narratives around isolated statistics to be the gift that keeps on giving. Which might be why it keeps happening.


Last week, a client received an email from a fan who expressed surprise that my client’s new record was only available as a compressed download from iTunes.

The prevailing level of misunderstanding over the sound quality possible from a store like iTunes is perhaps best-encapsulated by this excerpt of a review of Cameron Carpenter’s latest album by Mark Swed, of the LA Times:

“…the real deal requires the real deal. The touring organ is a digital instrument, and on it Carpenter does his wowing best in the best digital sound, which isn’t bad on the CD (and is bad on restricted mp3 downloads on Amazon and iTunes or streaming sites). On studio master download from sites that handle high definition, though, the touring organ becomes a conveyor of psychedelic electronic music in a class of its own.”

Amazon does sell MP3 files, but iTunes uses the AAC codec instead. As a consumer, the exact distinction between these isn’t terribly important, but if you’re the music critic for the LA Times and you’ve taken it upon yourself to weigh in on audio quality, it’s something you really ought to understand. Streaming sites also employ a variety of types and degrees of compression. Beats uses MP3 and AAC. Spotify uses Ogg at a variety of bitrates.

Lumping all these formats together (and dismissing them) just because they’re “compressed” makes about as much sense as equating the sound of 78s and LPs just because they’re both round. It’s really exactly that stupid, and yet here’s a respected music critic doing just that (and not for the first time).

I’m all for good audio quality, but the obsession with “lossless” is a distraction which has almost completely obfuscated any sensible discussion of useful improvements to the way normal people hear music.

It’s a common misconception to measure expected audio quality in terms of bitrate. Intuitively, it seems as if more data will mean higher quality, but this isn’t always the case. The trouble with lossless codecs is that they’re very inefficient – even a compressed lossless format like FLAC or ALAC is generally encoding things that humans simply cannot hear.

It helps to consider the bitrate not as a measure of the merits of an encoding system, but as a measure of its cost. We’re commonly encouraged to treat bitrate as a proxy for quality, but really this is like measuring the performance of a car by looking at it’s fuel consumption. True, fast cars use a lot of petrol, but so do bad ones.

We might consider the amount of data required to transmit a page of text. As a text file, it might take up a few kilobytes. If we take a high resolution photograph of the page, it might yield a thousand times as much data, but when it is read aloud, it will sound exactly the same. We could use a microscope to photograph every fibre on the surface of the page, but if what we want to do is read the text, there’s a lot of data there we simply don’t need.

People don’t seem to have a problem with this when it comes to pictures. Nobody says “I won’t look at a website unless all the images are TIFF files”, because that’s plainly ridiculous. We’ve all seen badly compressed images on the Internet, and we’ve all seen beautiful ones too. We understand that “what it looks like” is the reliable measure of, well, what it looks like.

Eyes work differently to ears, though. Eyes are much harder to bamboozle with plausible-sounding pseudoscience. This is why there is no market for super-high-end TVs which reproduce infra-red and ultraviolet light. We all just accept that these are parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we cannot see, and we leave it at that.

One of the (many) things my company does is to help broadcasters to encode audio for delivery to consumers. When they look into it, they almost always settle on AAC – and not because they’re too cheap to store something bigger.

The fact is that AAC is efficient. Bit for bit, it achieves higher audio quality than just about any other method of storing digital audio. AAC works at a variety of bitrates. It would theoretically be possible to use something like AAC at 1411kbps. If you did that, you’d achieve far higher quality than a CD can store.

Why isn’t this done? Well, AAC is a perceptual codec, which means that its success at reproducing a sound is measured by examining what users hear. When figuring out which bits of the sound to keep, the focus on the bits that are audible. In rigorous double-blind tests published in peer-reviewed journals, nobody could find any point in encoding AAC at a higher bitrate than 256kbps. Without preconceptions to guide them, under test conditions, people simply couldn’t tell the difference between 256kbps Vbr AAC and the highest quality studio masters. Consistently.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all AAC files sound great. To make a 16-bit CD from a 24-bit studio master, you normally add a small amount of noise in a process called dithering, to improve the dynamic range.

This noise is unnecessary in AAC encoding. By skipping this step, and by avoiding the very loudest signals than can cause distortion on decoding, it is possible to create an AAC from a studio master which more accurately reflects the audible portions of the original than is possible with a CD or uncompressed PCM WAV file.

This is how Mastered for iTunes works. Although not marketed very effectively, it’s really rather clever. Instead of saddling the user’s storage and bandwidth with inefficiently stored data and sounds they cannot hear, Apple has pushed the work back onto the producers. We do some extra work to make a more efficient master, and the consumer gets better sound with less than a fifth of the data.

There are circumstances where it makes sense to record audio at a higher degree of fidelity than is perceptible to the human ear, but once a record is finished, there’s no harm in throwing out the parts nobody can hear. When you buy a Mastered for iTunes AAC, you’re getting less data, but you’re still getting all of the music.*

*Unless you’re a dog. If you’re a dog, SACD or 96kbps downloads will sound noticeably better than CDs**. Don’t buy anything over 192khz, though. People who sell 384khz downloads to dogs are ripping them off. That stuff is for bats. They are most discerning customers.

** Perhaps Mark Swed is getting his dog to write his reviews for him. It certainly is an alternative explanation. If I had a literate dog, “music critic” would not be the way I exploited it for financial gain.

In February of last year, I wrote a rather alarming post about one of my offspring. Regular readers may recall his weight was increasing by 24% each month. At this rate, I predicted, he would be heavier than me by the time he was 19 months old, and would consume the entire planet by his mid-30s.

At the time, I was surprised the story didn’t get wider coverage, in spite of my bulletproof analysis. Still, Fox News will be underwater before they stop treating climate change as an unproven theory, so I guess they were just waiting for the giant toddler to eat somebody.

My blog has a small but loyal following, and I know some of you will be preparing for the inevitable showdown. Why do you think Elon Musk is building a spaceship? He knows good analysis when he sees it. This makes what I’m about to say a little awkward.

Initially, it really did seem like he was going to destroy us all, but as the days went by, his growth became less and less alarming, possibly thanks to all the blueberries he eats. 19 months has now passed, and he’s a perfectly normal size*. I’m a bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, I’m relieved that I haven’t spawned the force that will destroy us all**. On the other hand, it does mean that I need to issue a correction, and probably an apology. That shelter you built in the garden? You might not need it now. My bad.

I worry about the best way to get the word out.

Typically, newspapers hide their corrections away like dirty laundry, which doesn’t seem like a proportionate good-faith effort to fix all the damage you did. Somewhere at the bottom of page 22 there’s a little box that says “CLARIFICATION: Last Thursday’s front page headline strongly implied doom for all mankind. It now turns out the risk is mainly to blueberries and anything resembling lemon curd yoghurt”.

This isn’t the way to behave if you want to be a trusted source of accurate information. A publication that routinely refuses to clearly acknowledge its errors is a publication that knowingly leaves its readers misinformed.

The convention for corrections on blogs seems to be to update the article and note the changes at the bottom. This is fine for anybody who reads a story twice, but what about all those people who only saw the wrong version and went on to make terrible decisions about blueberry futures?

We rarely put the same effort and ingenuity into propagating a correction as we did into spreading the falsehood in the first place. Since many readers are subscribers who may never visit the website, I thought the news that you are not*** doomed was at least worth a post of its own.

Also, while I have your attention, I made a mistake about Spotify royalty rates in a post earlier this week. If you’re using what I write about this to inform your opinions, please go back and check the revised version.


* for a toddler, not for a 30-something strategy consultant
** yet
*** necessarily

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.

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…)