Posts from the Bullshit Police Category

Yesterday, you posted a story about James Oestreich’s departure from the New York Times.

Lebrecht vs Oestreich 1

This article reflects poorly on you in a number of ways:

1) You are dismissive of his contribution to the New York Times without offering a single example of something he’s supposed to have done wrong. This is weak: it’s pretty easy to identify specific flaws in bad writing. I’m about to demonstrate this, but I suspect you’re familiar with the method. I imagine you probably read this review in the New York Times, in which your book Why Mahler is systematically torn to shreds by a critic called James Oestreich*. Journalism is subject to the principle of falsifiability: you only need to show that somebody got something wrong once to establish that it can’t be relied upon.

2) You offer the barely-meaningful commentary that “his departure will unblock a function that has ossified and gone rancid in recent years”. This may be a slightly pedantic point, but whatever the “function” is, it has either ossified (ceased to develop in any direction) or gone rancid (actively decayed). Either way, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that your low opinion of his work is not universal.

3) A cynic might suggest that this vagueness is deliberate ploy: you’ve tried making specific accusations before, and seen one of your books pulped as a result. This, too, was covered by the New York Times – I’m speculating here, but I imagine with the approval of the classical music editor, James Oestreich. The lesson most people would learn from the whole libel/pulped book experience is to avoid attacking somebody’s professional reputation unless you know what you’re talking about. To instead switch from specifics to innuendo is a particularly repulsive and cowardly form of bullying.

4) Ossified, rancid, or both, what you’ve done here is a casual slur, something you’d know all about, since you complained about such sloppy, misinformed writing here, in an article written last July in which you take issue with a story in the New York Times written by a critic called James Oestreich.

5) Aside from a non-specific disdain for his body of work, your story is short on verifiable statements. I count just three: he’s leaving immediately, he’s retiring, his departure is a consequence of Jon Landman’s resignation. You offer no source for these assertions, which leaves the reader to trust that you are both (a) an honest and neutral observer and (b) a knowledgable insider (as your tagline “the inside track on classical music and related cultures” might imply).

6) You illustrated the story with a picture of somebody who is not (and does not particularly resemble) James Oestreich. This rather undermines the notion that you have specific, accurate inside knowledge of this matter. You might have simply grabbed the image from this blog post without bothering to check a second source. I suppose “this is what Jim Oestreich looks like” might be considered a fourth verifiable statement, and in this case, it’s false.

7) You later added what you assert to be his farewell email to staff (as an “Update” and not as a correction), but you did not acknowledge that, while it is silent on one of them, this email contradicts two of the three assertions above: he says he is not leaving immediately and has no plans to retire. That means 75% of this story has already been shown to be untrue, with the veracity of the remaining 25% (the reason for his departure) as yet unaccounted for.

Lebrecht vs Oestreich 3

8) You eventually found a picture of the right person, but again made the correction quietly. It is not good practice to make corrections without acknowledgement, and here’s why: you might fool some people into thinking you never make mistakes, but you leave anybody who is paying attention with the impression that, if what they’re reading subsequently turned out to be untrue, you’d make no effort to tell them. I can’t think why you’d do this unless you were totally indifferent to the truth and thought your readers dumb enough not to notice.

So, to recap: in this instance at least, you don’t have much to say. That which you do say is largely untrue, and when you find out  it’s not true, you don’t bother to tell anybody – either because you don’t care or because you actively wish to hide it.**

This is why I very rarely look at your blog: it’s like the factual equivalent of antimatter. I can feel myself getting dumber and less well-informed as I absorb one misleading headline after another. It’s simply too much work to go back and check each of your assertions, and they’re wrong far too often for me to assume they’re not. There are more than 4,000 posts on your blog. Who knows how many mistakes are in there? You’ve given us no reason to suppose that you’d tell us (or even change it) if you found one.

When I accidentally start reading something you’ve written, I now make an effort to check every verifiable statement in it so I don’t walk away with a head full of half-truths and distortions.

In the end I came to the conclusion that I’d have a more accurate picture of what’s going on in the music industry if I just ignored your work all together.

Now that I’ve finished this post, that’s what I’m going to do.

* If I’m going to call you out for attacking somebody who gave you an unfavourable review, I should probably say that while several of my projects has received favourable coverage in the New York Times, I’m not aware of anything James Oestreich has written about me, and as far as I know the only things you’ve written about my work are here and here. Both are laughably bad bits of reporting, but I have never lost any sleep over them.

** The difference between these two is eloquently and concisely described in Harry Frankfurt’s excellent On Bullshit. I suspect, Norman, that you’re more of a bullshitter than a liar, but that’s just speculation on my part.


EDIT: I’ve disabled comments on this post because it attracts a vary large number of spam comments. If you’ve got a real comment, please do get in touch and I can turn them back on for you.

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Digital Music News. I’m really pleased somebody is trying to do it, but they keep posting stuff that makes me angry.

They do these little bullet-point roundups of what’s going on, often linking to original sources. That’s really useful.

They also do analysis, and it’s often really stupid.

Two themes keep cropping up:

1) Somebody in a suit says something stupid, and they treat it like it’s important

2) Some third-hand speck of data surfaces, and they construct around it an absurdly speculative narrative

The two surface together quite prominently in this story from last year, in which Lyor Cohen is quoted saying that vinyl will outlast CDs at about the same time as the news came out that vinyl sales had gone up and CD sales had gone down.

Let me explain why this is daft.

It makes me want to get a t-shirt that says “There’s no way of knowing. Why the hell are we even talking about this?”

That was a year ago. So what am I whining about now?

Well. Yesterday, they published a story entitled “I took one look at this graph and suddenly lost hope for streaming music” and it contains some even odder fun with statistics.

The graph in question looks like this:


(Original source here)

So Pandora and Spotify have got to the point where they’ve convinced customers to give them about a quarter of a billion dollars a year, but neither are profitable, and their losses have got bigger.

Now, if you had no idea how companies work, you might think this was because Pandora and Spotify were not able to work.

The relationship it’s easiest to see in this graph is that, particularly for Spotify, bigger sales means bigger losses. It’s like they can never win.

Except that’s not the important relationship, which is why people running companies don’t often look at graphs like this.

Companies are rarely profitable from the outset. A few are, and they fund their own growth while turning a profit for their shareholders. This is how my company works, because I didn’t have any expensive set-up costs, and my only marketing expense was some admittedly horrifyingly expensive business cards.

Generally, you need to spend some money to get the company to the point where it turns a profit. This is called “investment”. Digital Music News knows about investment: they keep publishing updates on how it’s up or down. They can count it, but they don’t seem to know what it’s for.

If you wanted to look at a graph that told you how you were doing in a company’s early phases of growth, you’d want to isolate the setup costs from the running costs to see if what you were doing was sustainable.

From the outside, that’s difficult, but if all you have is revenue and profit to go on, you can do something far more useful than looking at the graph above. You can look at the ratio between revenue and profit/loss. This is the profit margin and it will tell you if the company is heading towards profitability. You want it to be above zero.

Put like this, the situation seems to be getting better, rather than worse.

Of course, either of these companies might know exactly where they could shave off $20m-$50m in costs and make themselves profitable tomorrow, and they might be sensibly investing in further growth before they sit back and let the cash roll in. Alternatively, they might be as close to profitable as they’ll ever be.

We just don’t know, and there’s no point in talking about it.

Daft analysis like this isn’t just pointless, though. It’s misleading because it sells the lie that the answer will come if you stare at the runes for long enough.

In this graph, total prices are based on a quick survey of items for sale. I haven’t included units or exact figures because different stores, labels and territories offer slightly different deals, and the goal here is to give you an idea of the general picture, not to give the illusion of an exact or universal formula. The splits are based on my experience* of typical indie classical deals, where a digital retailer gets to keep 30% of the retail price, and a digital distributor takes 10%-20% of what’s left. Labels generally set minimum wholesale prices and maximum markups which, in real terms, means they also control the retail price. There’s a lot of variation in both the distribution and retail markup for physical CDs, so I’ve gone for something typical of a medium-sized classical indie dealing with a big distributor and a big retailer, since this is where the majority of sales happen. The slice of revenue passed on to artists is entirely dependent on their deal with the label, and since this varies from “all of it” to “none of it” I haven’t tried to include it on this graph. It is, in any case, almost entirely irrelevant to the question of the relative pricing of the various digital formats.

Ok. That’s the disclaimers out the way. Now consider this:

Since the introduction of iTunes Plus, labels deliver the same files to iTunes and to the lossless download stores**. Mastered for iTunes requires the same deliverables as a hi-res download store. For the label, the fixed costs for all three are basically the same, and the variable costs are either the same or only increase if the label ups the wholesale price.

If lossless downloads cost more than CDs, it is because the labels want it that way.***

I can’t tell the difference anyway, but if I could, as a consumer, I’d probably buy CDs.


* I’m using myself as a primary source here, so you should at least consider that I may be lying or mistaken. This would, though, be easy for you to check.

** iTunes compresses the files before delivering them to customers. Lossless stores don’t.

*** If this was an article in Digital Music News, that probably would’ve been in the headline, and nobody would have read the two important but boring paragraphs explaining what this doesn’t tell you and which assumptions were made along the way.

It has been almost two months since Max Feldman wrote this amazingly pompous review of Hilary Hahn and Hauschka’s recent album Silfra.

I resisted the temptation to comment on how bad it is. Who expects Popmatters to come up with anything better?

In the end, though, this feels like a depressingly circular argument. We shouldn’t expect any more of it because it is bad? It’s a miserably pessimistic way to approach music criticism. If a publication has readers, why shouldn’t we expect its writers to do their jobs properly? I realise this line of reasoning puts Lebrecht in the firing line, but we can deal with him later. For now, Feldman, it’s your turn.

Anybody who doesn’t enjoy my posts criticising the work of journalists good and mediocre might want to give this a miss. The review is so riddled with bollocks that the only way to address it is line by line. Feldman’s words are in bold italics. Mine aren’t.

Here’s how it starts:

You know what’s dead serious? German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon, that’s what.

Did I mention it’s German? The clue is in the name. It’s tempting to go after the loaded language of “dead serious” but if I pick on what I think is being said as well as what is actually being said, this will be a very long post indeed.

It was founded in 1898, meaning that it’s one of the oldest record labels still in existence, and it has spent the last century-and-a-bit pushing, yes, super-serious classical music.

 …and Bryn Terfel’s Welsh Album. “Super-serious” is not, perhaps, the most helpful way to describe what DG does. A lot has changed since 1898. Modernism was actually modern back then. Verdi and Mahler were still alive. Stockhausen and John Cage hadn’t been born. Over the years, DG has evolved with the music. They record plenty of music that doesn’t pre-date the label, and remember Sting’s lute album? That was DG.

In fact, it’s totally ingrained in the production and the reception of classical music. It’s so ingrained that internal advertisements on the BBC’s dedicated classical music zone, Radio 3, go so far as to proudly announce that they play Deutsche Grammophon records on the station. It’s so very ingrained that the banner at the top of the label’s website reads “Deutsche Grammophon is classical music”.

A lot of words so far. Not many facts. Nothing about the record at all.

Silfra is Hauschka’s first outing for Deutsche Grammophon.

It’s also Hilary Hahn’s ninth album for Deutsche Grammophon.

And it’s the second time he’s worked with Grammy-winning classical violinist Hilary Hahn, who appeared on “Girls” from 2011’s Salon Des Amateurs. This prompts us to ask some vital questions: does Silfra represent a key moment in the trajectory of Hauschka’s career?

 If we don’t ignore Hilary Hahn’s eight other albums for Deutsche Grammophon, this question seems rather silly.

 Is it a turning point that marks his moving from making “post-classical” music with avant-garde winks and electronic nudges to making conventional (i.e. “proper”) classical music?

Even if we do ignore Hilary’s eight other albums for DG, these questions still seem rather silly. What actually happened is he made a particularly unbleepy record with a collaborator who isn’t known for bleepy music at all, and put it out on her label. Nothing bad would’ve happened if that had been what you said, although it might have prompted the response that bleepiness is hardly a defining characteristic of his work to date.

Some non-silly questions might include: Is it competently executed? Does it sound nice? Who would like this record? Will this music be a surprise to fans of any of its contributors, and in what way? If this record represents a meeting of musical cultures, do they each get an equal voice, and do they create a coherent whole? Is this something we’ve heard before?

The very fact of Silfra‘s release on Deutsche Grammophon would seem to suggest so, and it all seems to be trying very hard to convince us of its own aesthetic authenticity.

 Above all, let me be very clear: it is an album. Recorded sound. It is not trying to do anything at all. It is certainly not trying to convince us of its own aesthetic authenticity, whatever that is.

Silfra is a series of totally and utterly improvised tracks that the duo recorded together in the well-famous Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavík in Iceland.

 Totally and utterly improvised? Did you get this from the episode of Charlie and Lola where Lotta makes a conceptual album with Lola’s imaginary friend Soren Lorensen, and Lola gets so very extremely angry that she pens a lengthy neo-Hegelian polemic on the misuse of irony in post-constructionist tonal structures before going to her room to do stickers and beads?

They completely ignored all the stuff they had been preparing together since 2009, and set about recording an entirely new set of pieces….

Really? Your last sentence left me in such doubt about the extent to which the material was improvised.

 …– and, yes, these are definitely pieces rather than mere songs.

 You’re talking about a completely instrumental album. Is this distinction meaningful anywhere outside your own head, and, if it is, does it matter?

 But that pervasive notion of aesthetic authenticity presents us with two related problems that are quite difficult to solve.

 Again with the aesthetic authenticity.

 The first problem is that Silfra lives in the past.

 I think the words “It sounds to me as if” are missing from this sentence.

 This doesn’t mean that it’s a conservative record per se.

Damn straight. It doesn’t mean anything at all.

It does, however, mean that it soundtracks a world that can never be anything but imaginary, and its conviction of its own aesthetic authenticity is purely notional – it can only ever be an idea.

 The process here seems to be (1) listen to the album (2) imagine what it all “means” (3) argue with that imaginary meaning.

This deep self-seriousness makes Silfra rather frustrating.

 Unlike this review, which is a great example of relaxed, unselfconscious clarity.

After all, there are tracks here with titles like “Adash” (a word from Old Testament Hebrew meaning “to tread” or “to trample on”) and “Godot” (which, yes, culture vultures, is clearly a Beckett reference), which goes on for an entire 12 minutes.

 People who live in glass houses shouldn’t come this close to calling an album pretentious.

 Ultimately, Silfra is conflicted by the constant threat that the dead weight of intellectualist classical music tradition will topple any real sense of emotional resonance it might have.

The album is not conflicted by this. The reviewer might be, but that’s a whole different thing. If what you’re trying to say is “My preconceptions of classical music make it hard for me to like this” then say that.

 The second problem is that Silfra is naïve.

 Either it’s always a problem for music to be naïve, or you’re going to have to explain why it’s a problem here.

 There’s something quite pretty about this sort of nostalgia, but nostalgia seems to be so inscribed into the music that nobody (not Hauschka, not Hahn, and certainly not the listener) is able to claw their way out of it.

 Again, what this actually means isn’t readily apparent.

 Here, nostalgia comes not in spite of the real world, but at its expense.

 I have no idea what this means.

 Indeed, Silfra is the soundtrack to a world completely unaffected by the clattering hysteria of our contemporary cultural crises, of mass communication and mass consumption.

 Well, they did record it in Iceland which, as I understand it, is a good place to go to get away from all those things.

 As we know, the buzzing, whirring imperfections of the prepared piano always conflict with classical sensibilities, but Silfra doesn’t ever challenge those sensibilities enough.

 Ah yes. Prepared piano. That shockingly modern sound, conflicting with classical sensibilities for 200 years.

This is particularly evident on the forlorn “North Atlantic” and the quiet, lilting “Krakow”. But they’re just symptomatic of where Silfra doesn’t ever get it quite right – it’s not broad, bold, or bustling enough to authentically capture what it tries so hard to get at.

There’s some validity to approaching a review as an assessment of whether the artists achieved what they set out to do in creating an album. This only works if you ask the question “does this sound like they wanted it to” and not “does this successfully convey the extramusical message I imagine its creators intended to convey”. That’s a straw man. Go knock it down if you want, but you look pretty crazy, standing in the middle of the street, fighting with a mannequin.

Labels often create series of recordings. Occasionally, these form part of a coherent project that means something to the customer. Most of the time, though, the connection between the recordings is only important to the record label*, and the real reason for having a series is because it saves time when you’re trying to convince retailers to stock them.

How, though, is the customer supposed to make sense of this?

Don’t fret. I’m looking out for you. Here’s a helpful glossary of the most common catalog(ue) marketing terms. It’s all you need to know:

Original = Old

Legend = Old

Classic = Old

Great = Old

Master = Old

Gold = Old

Platinum = Very old

Pleasure = Cheap

Ultimate = Cheap

Best = Cheap

Most = Cheap

Supreme = Very cheap

Masterpieces = Cheapest

Complete = Big

Essential = Too big

Greatest = Old and cheap

Edition = Same record, different cover.

Collection = Too old, too big, and not nearly cheap enough.

Library = Run for the hills. Do it while there’s still time.

* Are these all recordings on which the artists are no longer due royalties? Are they 1960s vinyl releases having a last shot at incremental revenue before they enter the public domain? Have artists active on the label recorded the same repertoire, triggering a price drop on the old records? Are these better than the new recordings but not nearly as easy to market? Who cares. The covers are crap, but they’re cheaper now.

This scene is literally being played out in my house right now.

I read with interest Philip Hensher’s article in Friday’s Independent, entitled “Will nobody mourn the death of classical music“. Having just started a company that sells classical music, I was a bit worried I might have made a terrible mistake.

Luckily, it’s all bollocks.

We could go over the minutiae of his half-assed argument but this has all been covered before, very well, here and here.

Instead, I’d like to look at why, if everything is fine, we keep coming back to this notion that classical music will cease to exist at some point in the near future.

1) Progress isn’t fair

Progress has winners and losers. We like to think growth occurs evenly and to the benefit of all, but that isn’t how it works. Just ask the dinosaurs, the staff of Edison Records, or any of these companies.

Here’s a graph music industry death-watchers might be familiar with. It shows album sales over time.

There’s an interesting discussion of the accuracy of these stats here, but this point concerns the growth, not the decline.

At the height of the CD boom, life really sucked for tape manufacturers. At the height of the tape boom, vinyl pressing seemed like a bad business to be in. In 1978, when LP and tape had both lost their novelty but CDs hadn’t come along yet, there wasn’t a lot of good news for anybody in the manufacturing sector, but it was great for Van Halen and Dire Straits, who released their debut albums in that year.

Just because it sucks for you right now, doesn’t mean it sucks for everybody, and even when things are going well, they’re still going badly for somebody.

This applies to consumers as well as producers. You remember all the vinyl snobs whining when CD came along? The death of quality sound heralded the biggest boom in recorded music history.

I’m not trying to make this personal, but it does tend to be older people who complain about this stuff, at least partly because the longer your memory is, the more likely you are to see the decline of something you’re used to.

Polyphony didn’t kill plainchant. Instruments didn’t destroy church music. Style galant didn’t spell the end of counterpoint. Romanticism didn’t obliterate formal structures from the surface of the Earth. Modernism didn’t eliminate harmony or melody, and Katherine Jenkins, the Internet and reality TV will not spell the end of an entire art form.

2) It is never our fault when things go badly

Here’s a graph of my income, from the day I left college until last week, when I quit my job on the board of a multinational record company. It’s not very accurate, and not to scale, but it’ll do. I’ve added comments to show how, at the time, I explained the various changes to myself:

As you can see, every time my income goes up, this is because of how brilliant I am, and every time it goes down, this was caused by some external factor entirely beyond my control. It’s an example of self-serving attribution bias.

I truth, of course, in the years I didn’t get a raise and inflation ate away at my income, it’s at least partly because I hadn’t done enough to get a raise, while in the years my income increased, I had also been in the right place at the right time.

Still, if I believed in the decline of classical music, I’d have an excuse I could use all year round. If something went well, it would only make my achievement all the more significant: I beat the trend.

Decline is an attractive notion. It’s a one-stop narrative to explain everything we don’t like.

It is, though, a destructive notion. It’s not just the wrong answer. Even if it were true, it would still be the answer to the wrong question. It doesn’t tell us anything useful. It’s just an excuse to have a good old whine.

It only matters how everybody else is doing if you’re planning to do the same thing as everybody else – and if that’s all you plan to do, you’re in trouble anyway.

I deleted this post because, in retrospect, it could easily be construed as an attack on Eleanor Careless, which was unfair.

My intent was for it to serve as a caution to PR/marketing professionals who might consider promoting their artist by denigrating the rest of the field. It was not intended as a warning to journalists that a band of angry pedants awaits anybody who tries to write something nice about a violinist. That doesn’t do anybody any good at all, and “older guy shouts down young woman for voicing an opinion on the Internet” is, I think we can all agree, not a great look, regardless of the motivation.

Of course we need to be able to talk about what is and isn’t true, but being enthusiastically rude about it is a rhetorical device best saved for the people who are really asking for it.

If you find yourself looking for freely available data on music and entertainment sales and popularity, I recommend:

BPI Awards Search – Look up gold and platinum albums/singles in the UK.

RIAA Database – Look up gold and platinum albums in the US

IFPI – Publishes data on global recorded music sales

Nielsen Soundscan – Publishes a useful annual and mid-year report on US record sales

Billboard – US charts based on a mixture of sales and airplay

OCC – UK charts

Grammy Winners Search – Look up an artist or album to see what they’ve won

Wikipedia’s top-selling lists are a good starting point, because they reference a large number of sources for reliable sales data.

Box Office Mojo – US cinema box office receipts – Broadway receipts

If you can read this, then the world didn’t end at the weekend. Either that, or they’ve got Internet in heaven (or, perhaps more likely, a Boingo hotspot in hell).

Let’s take a moment to remember that prophecies of doom have been a favourite of self-aggrandising charlatans, charismatic phonies and eloquent bullshitters for centuries. They can sound pretty smart, right up until their prediction gets tested. When the apocalypse fails to materialise on schedule, what’s the usual defence? “I was right about everything but the date.”

Assuming we all agree that nothing lasts forever, the key component of a prophecy of doom is its timescale. Get that wrong, and you’ve got nothing right at all. Keep adjusting it, and you’re crying “Wolf!” again and again.

Next time somebody tells you that an industry or art form is doomed, ask them when we should expect the inevitable.

If they won’t commit, they’ve got nothing to say. If they give you a date, don’t be afraid of holding them to it. It’s the only real test of their soothsaying abilities and, so far, they’ve all got it wrong. That doesn’t mean there will be no end. It just means there are better things for us to do than to sit around trying to predict it.

This has to be one of my all-time favourite comments about something I’ve written on this blog.

There was certainly something slightly hypocritical about that last post. It is itself formulaic. Regular readers probably noticed that it’s basically an article that I’ve written before. I might have added:

11) Criticise everybody else

Identify some common threads in current reporting. Describe each one in terms of the similarities between articles, ignoring their many differences. Act like this is all there is to it.

Still. This doesn’t really undermine the central proposition that a lot of arts reporting (and a lot of other reporting) is extremely formulaic. (more…)