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The Live Music Industry’s Long Summer
The pandemic-inspired turn to live streaming happened in response to a sudden shattering of the live music industry. So I first want to take a look at the current state of the concert business. The divergent trajectories of Covid-19 amongst various countries made it more difficult to present a comprehensive view of live music. There are certainly no expectations for a return of global touring for the remainder of 2020. Germany put on a socially-distanced concert of less than a thousand people and is even trying a 4,000 person concert to study the potential spread of the virus. The United Kingdom said that socially-distanced concerts could start back up on August 1st, but similar to headlines about Japan allowing 5,000 seat venues to open, should be properly contextualized to say that just because the government gives the green light doesn’t immediately translate to shows being performed. Instead, there continue to be one-off, reduced capacity shows being announced, but like Live Nation’s failed attempt at a British drive-in concert series, there isn’t one big button to press in order to revive the live music industry.
Southeast Asia appears to be fairing a bit better but is still in a touch-and-go mode with caution being taken as virus cases continue to emerge in places where it was previously contained. And well, the United States, beyond a few one-off illegal shows and overhyped socially-distanced concerts, certainly isn’t looking like it’ll see any touring or even robust local performances for months to come. The EDM duo, The Chainsmokers, held a 3,000 person concert in the Hamptons, New York this past weekend, which received the ire of the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and sparked an investigation by the New York State and Health Department. These one-off shows offer a distraction from the reality that a vast majority of music venues aren’t opening anytime soon and, even in a reduced capacity, it wouldn’t be sustainable for businesses. This is why various entertainment industries across the world are pleading for government assistance when early reports on the industry’s economic strength look dire. Despite the headlines insisting that live music is back if you want it, what about its digital substitute?
Live Streaming Finds a Purpose
Now, what was the state of music live streaming before Covid-19? Let’s look at some Google Trends.
Interest in live streaming music held fairly flat over the last few years until March’s sudden spike for good reason. Over the last five years, the biggest story in music was the industry comeback off the strength of music streaming platforms. Rent collection from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify is how the industry has seen its revenues increase year-over-year, whereas live streaming barely finds a mention in that narrative. Drake caused a stir when he appeared on Ninja’s stream back in early 2018 and then there was the Marshmello x Fortnite collaboration, which grabbed many headlines. However, beyond industry stalwarts like Boiler Room and certain music festivals turning on the camera, the live streaming space has been fairly static over the last decade with series and ideas coming and going but nothing that’s entered at the scale of Spotify.
The story of the record industry in 2020 was supposed to be centered on TikTok and continued streaming growth. Instead, with the onset of this pandemic, a new assumption was made: People want, no must, see live streams of their favorite artists. Several artists performed virtual shows simply to engage with their fans or perhaps to raise a little money for charity but, rather quickly, brands and startups identified an opportunity to capitalize. New live streaming startups are popping up like mushrooms. Rolling Stone even reported on a few virtual reality startups that are trying to break into this market. (Wave, a virtual concert startup, received $30 million from the likes of Scooter Braun and other entertainment big names.) In a way, this is becoming a story that not only helps start-ups looking for money but also the record industry, which can now point towards another sector ripe for potential investment. If missed out on Spotify, don’t worry there’s another paradigm shift happening is the tone of coverage.
The endless reporting on Travis Scott’s Fortnite event or even Logic’s seven-figure Twitch deal just adds wood to fire that this is an opportunity for growth in an industry that was on the upswing. Why miss out on that? The model used in Logic’s deal is much closer to the deeply uninteresting work that YouTube has done over the years with its own original programming than a new path forward for musicians would be. Travis Scott’s digital moment was again an exercise in hype that’s only scalable to a few high-profile acts, not a coherent vision of entertainment’s future. The appeal of digital goods and subscriptions in place of the expense of live touring might appeal to a company’s bottom line, yet this is certainly not a choice that’s being driven by fans nor musicians. This is where my skepticism holds in what looks like another example of the music industry’s acceleration of trends and ideas that only benefit those famous enough to host a Versuz event or popular enough to partner with international brands.
Musician or a Twitch Host?
Coverage of live streaming, and in many respects the events themselves, cannot indicate whether this should be a potential replacement or supplemental add-on onto the live concert experience. This tension was central to a New York Times overview on the various configurations; free or for-pay, charity or for-profit; Twitch vs. Instagram; professional vs. bedroom recording quality, offered to fans and musicians alike. There is a tangible willingness of all involved to experiment but conducting a live experiment, during a pandemic (!), isn’t an ideal situation to completely shake up a large sector of an industry.
This tension got me to pick back up Nancy Baym’s Playing to the Crowd, which provides one of the better analyses of how, throughout the years, musicians have negotiated compensation in their increasingly online lives. While the monetary viability of live streaming is still up for debate, the strain placed on artists can already be seen. The rapper Murs, in speaking with the Times, expressed that it was a “grind” to be working six days a week on Twitch while simultaneously trying to hold a solid presence across various other platforms.
What is most notable to me about this story, and many like it, is that there is so little concern for the mental, or even physical health of musicians placed in this new paradigm. Even less consideration is placed on what it means for someone’s entire career to be upheaved during a pandemic, especially in the United States, where over 140,000 people have died and tens of thousands of new cases are being reported every day. The industry’s default response to keep working in spite of the chaos makes for a bizarre tone. That’s why what Baym wrote on musicians’ relationship to social media struck a louder chord with me: “Without participatory limits over who can interact with whom and when or rituals for guiding behaviors, musicians can’t count on social media platforms to maintain relational boundaries. Whatever relational boundaries they want, whether close or distant, they must create themselves, platform by platform, and turn by turn.”
Conversations around live streaming will likely continue over the coming year as concerts remain health hazards and especially as national and international touring remains off the table. But I’d just like to ask: who is really benefiting from such conversations? Millions of dollars are flowing towards startups while artists and music workers will likely still not see their work return for many more months. While streaming platforms, from Pandora, to Tidal, and even to Apple Music’s partnership with Verzus, show there are available resources ready to be thrown into this new form if artists are ready to contort themselves.
Yet, that’s why I returned to Baym’s work: little of this appears to center around musicians or really any workers within the live music space. Instead, there’s a rather explicit rush towards digital productions with a goal of lowering production costs and placing further career responsibility on artists, not labels. When record label A&Rs are mouthing off to Billboard about how they’re more “essential” than ever, as they push gas on the pedal to keep their artists churning out music, it feels more important than ever to refocus on workers, rather than bottom lines, especially in this moment of crisis.
An industry that puts on blinders and grinds through a moment of global crisis with a single goal of sustaining previously-increasing profits is likely only going to increase the burnout and mental exhaustion endemic to creative fields. The sudden spotlight on live streaming could provide an opportunity to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t within this industry. Instead, the media is centering on slapdash concerts, one-off live streams, and any new startup whose press release includes the phrase “live stream”. Perhaps as the rest of 2020 marches on they’ll be more energy towards ideas and plans that are looking to uplift the entire industry, not a few folks riding on the zeitgeist.
Last week, a number of United States senators introduced the “Save Our Stages Act”, which would provide relief for music venues as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. The National Independent Venue Association, only a few months into its existence, spoke in support of the bill along with the RESTART Act, another piece of legislation introduced to help the entertainment industry.
Additionally, the music industry’s response to the George Floyd protest continues. The Warner Music / Family Blavatnik Social Justice Fund announced its board and a $100 million dollar fund. It was already reported that the Foundation will hold final say of where that money will go, rather than any of the thousands of music workers who work for WMG, thus it can’t be shocking that the board is represented by record label execs, private equity, and professional corporate image messages. Every day is looking more and more like my initial critique of #TheShowMustBePaused being one way for black elites to carve out further space within corporate hierarchies is still on the mark. Last small note: Bandcamp, for the rest of 2020, will continue to wave its cuts on music sales on the first Friday of the month. Good on them!
A Note of Financialization
Kevin Erickson, of the Future of Music Coalition, emailed me to point out that the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) released comments on the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission and their ongoing review of vertical merger guidelines, and cited Tencent’s problematic investments across the record industry. The DOJ/FTC released their updated guidelines in late June, which were a bit more skeptical of such activities, but we’ll likely need to wait for a democratic administration to see such changes in action.
Shamrock Capital (what a great name) announced that it has raised $400 million to continue investing in entertainment rights, which previously included the pop producers Stargate. However, what caught my attention was where this large sum of cash came from. Music Business Worldwide placed the source as: “pension funds, sovereign wealth, endowments and foundations, family offices and financial institutions.” Whose pension funds? What Sovereign wealth funds?? Please name those financial institutions!!
6 Links 2 Read
3 reasons why it might make sense… for Apple to buy TikTok - Music Business Worldwide
There’s no universe where Apple buying TikTok wouldn’t just set back any hopes of escaping the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) grip upon entertainment and technology. So, let’s not actualize such a bleak outcome.
The Future of Music Coalition tweeted that this is only making the legalized payola on Spotify even worse by giving even more priority to major labels. All true, all terrible. This is one of the many reasons why the record label oligopoly can shift with new market conditions; they hold more sway over any firm that could break into the business.
Whenever a new platform arrives with viral hits, inevitably reporters will ask how or when that platform will be able to create a new crop of sustainable hitmakers. The same was said of MySpace, Vine, YouTube, and even Musical.ly. This story astutely observes that the inability to establish a career is the role, and task, of record labels, not the platforms. Viral hits aren’t proven to launch pads for sustained success, instead of label position themselves to siphon the profits from these moments of increasingly planned novelty and blame the platform, in this case, TikTok, if that plan doesn’t succeed.
The headline says it all. I’m just including it here so I won’t forget it whenever I return back to the topic of music and financialization. An almost comically perfect cultural example of this broader economic shift.
A nice little story about a number of bands getting fake songs put on their profiles and the struggle to address it. Cherie Hu is interviewed in the piece and correctly identifies this as a distributor, not a streaming platform, issue. Yet, when artists often see this fraud occurring on Spotify, it’s understandable why the first finger of blame is pointed in its direction. Certainly, the company’s not always held the best record of what kinds of “artists” populate its popular playlists.
Last year, I wrote about user-centric streaming in a rather critical tone. I’ll admit my thinking shifted a bit since then and this Napster initiative gives an indication as to why. Streaming’s current model is so uniformly broken that I still want to fight for stronger alternatives. However, the fact that former presidential candidate Andrew Yang felt compelled to tweet about how streaming payouts aren’t working for musicians, illustrates that this issue isn’t limited to music professionals. The user-centric model that allows artists to be directly compensated for how much someone listened to their catalog is an imperfect but reasonable step forward. Napster’s charity opportunity shows that once this model is shifted, there can be space for a lot more to be put on the table.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). You can support via Patreon or by following on Twitter. If curious, here is the newsletter’s budget sheet. The artwork is produced by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel, and copy edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. A list of my favorite 2020 albums, books, and mixes can be found here. My current job is Emerging Creator Lead at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.