Hello, today’s the fourth of July in the United States, so I’m switching up from my usual newsletter format. Instead of a full essay, I’m making a few recommendations of media to check out in the space of music business and technology. I’ve mentioned a few of these items before, but hopefully, I unpacked a bit more here of why I’d encourage any reader to check them out.
Two other quick notes: 1. I don’t mention it enough but an archive of my newsletter can be found here in case you’d like to catch up on previous weeks. 2. If you enjoy the newsletter recommend to a colleague, friend, or even advocate through social media if you feel so inclined. Otherwise, Americans enjoy the holiday and I’ll be back next week.
3 Links 2 Read
On its surface, this is just a story about how Twitter is full of bots and fake accounts that may potentially steal people’s digital identities. Personally, I found the identity theft part to be a red herring for simply a story about how a decade's obsession with likes, shares, RTs, etc is mostly a sham. A lie that we all implicitly know but explicitly never address head-on.
Various industries are examined in how they've adopted social media currencies without considering the possibilities their new metric might just be bullshit. The piece’s subtext places a lens on all parts of post-social media society to point out once there is a metric or system to be gamed, people will go to great lengths to do exactly that. The music industry is not immune to such number obsession, but this piece nailed just how we’re still in the earliest days of contextualizing how these platforms morphed our world.
The new outlets for music consumption and fandom-- YouTube, Pandora, Worldstar, DatPiff, Twitter-- aren't just faulty barometers because of how inherently gameable they are, but because they're all free to users. Their numbers measure attention, not investment. Views and plays and followers won't tell us how many of an artists' impressions came from curious visitors who hated the song and immediately closed the window. Or, alternately, how many came from hyper-loyal fans who will play a song a hundred times on repeat and unknowingly turn a niche cult artist into a YouTube sensation.
This is a large piece to quote from Andrew Nosnitsky’s 2012 Pitchfork column, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to constantly paraphrasing this exact thought many times writing this newsletter. Earlier this year I wrote about just how ridiculous it is that streaming numbers are contextualized to equate to album sales even though the two do not relate to each other in any meaningful way. Nosnitsky captures how attempts to find new ways to quantify success continue to feel further disconnected from the actual creators of the music.
That can even be seen this week with Drake’s Scorpion effectively receiving the biggest collective streaming push by any album ever. The numbers are impressive, but as Nosnitsky points out in his piece what exactly do they signify? Is it Drake's fandom or Spotify's own marketing powers? The unanswered question from Nosnitsky is what are the best ways to measure fan engagement? Is it record sales, ticket sales, number of views? Perhaps a combo of all of the above, but I guess it’s my job to ask and observe what follows next.
I’d be remiss not mentioning this amazing piece by Liz Pelly last year that rebuked Spotifian vision of music consumption. Pelly’s critiques are put at Spotify’s feet, but I'd compliment the piece and say much of this could’ve been written about radio in the 1930s, which was a similar inflection point in the music industry. The article’s strength is not only unpacking the ideas behind this business model but constantly asking how is the one benefits from a post-ownership music model. Much of tech writing often can ignore those affected at the bottom, but Pelly’s work on music streaming always starts with creators, not those signing the checks.
3 Podcasts 2 Read
Everyone month on Hit Parade, Chris Molphany, a personal long-time favorite writer, picks a song and weave and uses the Billboard charts to reveal the song's history and lasting influence on popular music. Every episode is worth a listen, but I’ll highlight ‘The Great War on the Single’ episode because it takes a slightly more meta approach to that formula.
Molphany’s history in this case is far more business-oriented than musically focused, as he points out the way through the decades the single was used to push album sales. Then suddenly it wasn't, which lead to radio-only singles to push album sales, until the internet entirely broke that model. That’s why I constantly go back to this podcast, because it shows the various methods the music industry used to reinvented itself to sell the same old product until that door closed. Especially for anyone who is under the age of 30 and could use a fun parallel history of the music business this podcast is a treat.
I know some of y’all are fans of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog, so this recommendation of his podcast won’t be anything too new. However, if you don’t read Stratechery or get his newsletter, then I’d highly recommend this newsletter and podcast. The audio show often is a supplement to his free weekly blog and often rambles in way that his written word thankfully doesn’t. Still it’s hard to not find something of value each week about his big observations of the tech world and the decisions these hundreds of billion-dollar businesses are making.
Normally I’d say I’m not a huge fan of country music, but Tyler Mahan Coe endless deep-diving into country music tall tales is impossible to pass up. Typically I bristle against ideas of singular genius and origin story myths, which Coe does rely on throughout various podcast episodes. Yet what holds my attention is that is the amount of research Coe clearly does to ground each character and moment in time. This allows for listeners to not just understand the music better, but also its social milieu. An episode of Cocaine and Rhinestones might begin with a fifteen-minute journey through 18th century Canada, but when it arrives in 20th-century country it's hard to believe that one could’ve gotten there without each step.
3 Books 2 Read
There was a solid month last winter where I couldn’t stop talking about Fredric Dannen’s Hit Men Power Brokers of the Music Industry. Just in case one wants to read about payola, mob connections, and just how much expense accounts went towards drugs back in the day this is a great book. Still, if that isn’t of interest it’s a great exercise in following the money and just how much, or how little, money following in the music industry got in artists' pockets.
There can be great value in only writing about what came before without any knowledge about what’s about to come around the corner. The Gold in Tin Pan Alley by Hazel Meyer is a concise history of the music industry’s first half of existence in the 20th century. The phrase “music industry” rather than “record industry” isn’t misplaced, because much of this book covers music well before the popularization of recorded music. What’s notably absent in the book is the concept of rock music or rock n roll. In a contemporaneous New York Times review the lack of insight into this burgeoning new trend was seen as a negative. However, sixty years later that omission is wonderful. Endless books are distorted by the rock cliches, narratives, and tropes, so Meyer’s account of the music business before anyone even heard of the Beatles is a remarkable time capsule.
I’ll be frank in that I find Martínez’s tone throughout the book a bit grating. The same can be said for his increasingly ever-present tech commentary in light of all the controversy around Facebook and tech platforms. He holds a There’s a condescending, I’m the smartest dude—yes a dude—air to his prose that is mildly frustrating. Still, I’d say for anyone to read this book because Martínez helped establish Facebook’s ad platform, which is kind of a big deal. Lately, I’ve become a bit obsessed with taking the steps back to figure out people and companies actually make money and Chaos Monkeys between the relationship drama, bro-fighting, and monetary excess really dive into just how these companies were able to monetize over a billion users. Even if he’s kind of annoying that’s pretty impressive.