Are music startups killing online music fandom?

Turntable.fm dubstep room

It’s the end of the year and time for one of my favorite annual book purchases, the DeCapo Best Music Writing series. It’s a great time to catch up with all the music writing I have generally ignored for the past year. (Not on purpose!)  It’s also an excellent opportunity to go back in time and discover some of the releases that may have slipped under my radar in the past 10 or so months.

But I haven’t been ignoring music, it’s just that my attention has been more focused on music streaming platforms like Spotify and Rdio to get my music, or (very) occasionally poking my head into Turntable.fm. The popularity of music discovery startups has been one of the hotter tech stories of the past year , with Spotify’s celebrated arrival in the U.S. and controversial integration with Facebook, not to mention this summer’s love affair with Turntable.fm among music bloggers and social media folks.

But even with the popularity of these services, I can’t honestly say that I discovered more new music this year, or made more informed music buying choices because of them. Honestly, I think I discovered more new music when MySpace was the only game in town for burgeoning bands to share tunes. Thanks to Facebook, I know how little most of my social circle and I have in common when it comes to music preference. More broadly, I think the music startup explosion hasn’t really done much to promote new music discovery at all, but mostly encourages an echo chamber of musical tastes where friends and acquaintances share the same small pool of artists, bands, and songs with each other.

My other big problem with algorithmic-based music discovery platforms like Pandora is that musical taste (like food, and romance/dating) is often too complicated for an algorithm. Music communities are a huge arbiter of  musical tastes; the shared, collective sense of identity, emotion and memory that comes from music fandom is just as important as musical, style, production, and genre when determining listening preferences.

A couple of music startups do address this. Turntable.fm opens up that closed network of music sharing a bit more, with its real time, chat-room like element that allows for moments of serendipity, and more importantly, real time conversation and opinion sharing. One of the elements that stands out about Soundcloud’s approach (I SWEAR I don’t work for Soundcloud, even though I talk about it all the time) is the company’s use of community managers to act as music/sound curators while also encouraging in-person and local community building in the form of meetups.

And of course, music blogs remain a major player in online music fandom. I’ve written about my take on the future of music criticism before.  Music blogs like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan don’t appear to have the same level of  cultural authority  as tastemakers that they did several years ago but still remain well-read. And it seems odd in the age of social everything, that Pitchfork still doesn’t allow reader comments. But do blogs compare with the ability to sample, rate and share music almost instantly? Will music blogging and long-form writing be disrupted by music startups the way food/restaurant criticism was disrupted by Yelp?

I can’t see Rdio or Soundcloud ever replacing the experience of music fandom or reading writing music criticism for me personally, but I have seen it impact how I consume music on a daily basis. I’m curious to hear from other music junkies:  has Spotify/Pandora/Rdio/Soundcloud replaced music blogging or personal recs for you in finding new music?

The Dark Side of Hallyu (Korean Wave)?

Today, the BBC posted an article entitled The Dark Side of Korean Pop Music. Interestingly, this is only a couple of months after the Guardian had an article on K-pop: how South Korea turned round its music scene (subtitled: Strict anti-piracy laws, pop production houses and clever marketing have helped this struggling market thrive once more).

So what is one of the most important negative (or positive, depending on the article!) aspects of Korean pop music? The highly manufactured aspect of K-pop. Aspiring performers are taken on by labels, as trainees, where over time, they hope to be added to a group.

K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.

Companies such as SM Entertainment and Play Cube Entertainment tapped into the 360 degree model way before the major labels – being independent record labels, talent agencies and publishers with their own academies where they groom young teenagers to be pop stars.

Or as Mark Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, puts it:

A big company like SM Entertainment (or JYP or whoever) will likely have 50 or 70 kids in training at any one time. That’s a lot of ramyeon noodles and dance instructors and real estate to pay for. The big companies especially need a steady revenue stream to pay for all of that. So it is no surprise the kids are treated like commodities, like links in the supply chain. After all, the supply of young hopefuls is endless. The number of successes available is very small.

But how is this really different than the manufactured pop anywhere else — with the exception that the timeframe for training before performance is extended? And this is pop taken to its most pop-py — as shown in these videos from SNSD/Girls Generation, Super Junior (yes, there were thirteen members of the group), SHINee, 2ne1, and 4 Minute (mentioned in the BBC article performing in malls).

One of the major differences between Kpop and music elsewhere is how much sales are dependent on appearances on music shows, similar to Top of the Pops and the former MTV live performance shows. The general lifespan for Kpop groups is not long, and there have even been stories about former Kpop singers going to law school in the states. Oddly enough, even in this highly manufactured world, there are more groups that have recognition than are found in U.S. music that seems to be only focused on A-list music. Can anyone honestly say that groups like Baroness, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Genghis Tron have even the chances for mainstream success that, bleh, nu metal had?

On the other hand, even within the music factory town of Korean pop, there are those that can find success. Most notably, in rap/hiphop, such as Drunken Tiger (and … his crew):

Hip hop is good example, as groups and performers like Epik High, Tasha (Yoon Mi-rye), and Drunken Tiger have escaped the management system and had great success on their own while (most importantly) making better music. With iTunes, Soundcloud and other online music portals, no band needs to be controlled by managers/labels anymore, like they were in the age of terrestrial TV dominance and record stores.

That isn’t to say there aren’t potential issues with Kpop, such as the pay for performers. Or how hard they are pushed by their labels to perform (as was recently questioned by many fans of Girls Generation during the recent Japanese tour and Paris concert). But many of the problems with the Korean music industry are true for the worldwide music industry, where audiences want new music, but not too different, and don’t want to pay (too much) to purchase it. But that is something that Korean pop — with its strong fanclubs — has an advantage, by supporting both live performances and tons and tons of merch.

I Read A Book: Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola’s Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling

Kembrew McLeod & PeterDiCola’s recent book, Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling is a truly excellent overview of the complicated aspects of sampling.

They manage to meld together discussions from multiple perspectives — from cultural, technological, musical, legal, and economic perspectives — in a highly readable format. There are few books (if any) that I would equally recommend to law students, musicians, artists, writers, and grad students to understand an issue, and while there are likely not many that will read this book cover-to-cover, these are some of the highlights:

  • the historical and musical history of sampling;
  • the legal issues of sampling, including detailed discussions of Bridgeport;
  • the sampling marketplace;
  • the viewpoints of artists — both those that sample and those that have been sampled;
  • and suggestions for changing the present system — not limited to changing copyright law.

Some of these issues have been covered in other sources — including ye average hipster party where that guy expounds on the importance of Paul’s Boutique and Fear of a Black Planet. But this book includes charts detailing the estimated costs of those album’s samples, including how the artists, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, would have lost money on every album sold if those samples had all been cleared. And that is the real value of this book, the ability to contextualize the complexity of the issues surrounding sampling in a way that helps the reader to understand the real world implications for musicians.

I especially want to commend the authors for the time and energy to conduct the qualitative scholarship to interview the large number of recording artists, lawyers, recording industry representatives, academics, and journalists. Without this first-person insight, this book could have been like many books and articles that discuss a subcultural phenomenon without having direct knowledge. Instead, the authors provide an easily understandable academic argument where those-in-the-know are sampled for their insight. (Not mentioned by the authors is the strange dichotomy where quotations, such as those used in this book, are accepted, but sampling of a musical equivalent by those quoted artists requires permissions — or the potentiality of being sued).

Also strongly recommended is the quasi-companion documentary, Copyright Criminals, that has just been re-released with lots of extras. The entire documentary is available to watch on Hulu (for those in the U.S.). And there is a companion DJ sample mix!

As a long aside, I also think it is interesting that in categorizing this book, the Library of Congress placed this book within the subject of “plagiarism in music” — this misses the point of showing the creativity of much of sampling — and confuses the issue of copyright with the academic/societal issue of plagiarism. (And there is a more relevant subject heading: “quotation in music“).

The book was released with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-ShareAlike license.

Disclosure statement: TLF is a career acquaintance of both authors, but has not discussed this review with either before posting.

Today in WTF: Grammys combine Hard Rock/Metal Awards

Among music fans/geeks, the news circulated quickly (mostly on Twitter)`that the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences –  the folks that run the Grammys – plan to eliminate 30 of its categories , mostly to avoid redundancies among categories. Fair enough, right? Best Hawaiian Zydeco Instrumental Duo will probably only have one  nominee every year, correct?

But as a metal fan, I’m both amused/slightly annoyed at the news that the best Hard Rock and Metal performance categories would be combined.With this new change, bands like Velvet Revolver, Buckcherry and Nickelback will be considered as the same genre of bands like Slayer, Iron Maiden, Mastodon and Dragonforce. According to the Grammy’s, attempting to distinguish bands between the two genres was “splitting hairs.” To that I say, sure it’s splitting hairs if you only listen to metal from the 1980’s.

The hard rock/metal category was always rife with controversy from the very first  award in 1989, when the Grammy’s infamously snubbed Metallica in favor of Jethro Tull. Actually, it’s fair to say the Grammy’s never understood anything about metal considering they only just awarded Iron Maiden this year. But I have long hoped that the existence of a metal category meant at some point when the old industry vets finally retire, the award could actually mean something for the genre, in a small way,  that the best metal releases of the year would MAYBE be nominated, and MAYBE win and MAYBE turn on new fans in the process. Silly thought, I know, but a girl can dream.

Instead, I anticipate a lot of  Kings of  Leon and Daughtry to take up space in that category in the coming years. In the meantime, there’s definitely room for metal publications/blogs like Decibel or MetalSucks or even *sigh* Revolver to play the role of tastemaker while reflecting the scene more accurately.

Music Criticism in a Social Media World

One of my go-to book purchases at the end of the year is the DeCapo Best Music Writing anthology. There’s no way for me to keep up with all the excellent music writing out there – in print and online – and I trust the editors of this anthology to clue me in on what I may have missed.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more of the selections for the book have come from blogs – not just webzine-style blogs, either, but personal blogs. It’s a nice nod to all the underemployed professional music writers who continue to write on their own and also to fans and non-professional music writers who have a strong writing voice. One of the things I enjoy about the series is that it doesn’t privilege professional writers just because they have an official byline from a print publication behind their name, all are lauded for the strength of their writing, regardless of the publishing format.

But these days, even blogging seems a bit old-school and slow moving in an environment where music news routinely breaks and occurs on Twitter. (Of course, there are dangers to the format, as proven by the misinformation merry-go-round that surrounded R&B singer Teena Marie’s death in December.)

This past December, the Village Voice awarded the title of Music Critic of the Year to @discographies, an anonymous Twitter account that sums up the music careers of an artist within Twitter’s 140 characters of less format. Some traditionalists balked, but the recognition is valid. @discographies manages to sum up in 140 characters of less what some music writers can’t manage in a book, while staying witty and opinionated.

I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet finished all of DeCapo’s Best Music Writing 2010, yet I read @discographies daily, in addition to other music twitter feeds and blogs. As much as I respect and enjoy the craft of long form music writing, the quickly digestable online nuggets of music criticism are what I gravitate to more often these days. I don’t think that the rise of short-form music writing has to come at the expense of traditional music writing, in fact, I think there’s an opportunity for broader discussion and sharing among music fans and critics. The voice behind @discographies agrees, saying:

Music criticism is part of the lifeblood of Twitter: every second of every day, people are out there psychoanalyzing Kanye or raving about Cee-Lo or going to a show and tweeting “jeez, Malkmus looks bored tonight.”  I  think Twitter is a new kind of vessel for delivering content; maybe even a transformative one. And one of the nice things about it is its neutrality: it’s as well suited to music criticism as it is to sharing recipes or storytelling or the (allegedly) funny remarks that were (supposedly) uttered by someone’s dad.

The concept of crowd-sourced  music criticism/journalism really appeals to me. I’ve been on Twitter while some of my friends and acquaintances have been at the same concert. To follow their passionate, sometimes contradictory reports [“Amazing Baby is rocking the house tonight!”/”I hate everything about Amazing Baby] gives me the kind of “fan’s eye view” that a review from Greg Kot can’t re-create.  Twitter music criticism isn’t taking the place of print, but extending the life of that criticism farther and faster than previously imagined.

Nine Inch Nails fan video project rebrands as pan-fandom collective

Interesting news for both fans of NIN and followers of fan culture, fan-works and ownership. The grassroots fan organized video production collective This One is On Us made some waves for their organization and dedication to documenting Nine Inch Nails last tour with high-quality video and audio recording. As mentioned in a TLF post from last year, this was done with the  approval of Trent Reznor, who loosened venue taping policies so that fans could participate. And as we presented at MIT, Nine Inch Nails has been highly supportive of fan remix/reuse.

With NIN on an indefinite hiatus, the TOIOU  fan community has announced a “rebranding” of the collective, now with  a broader, pan-fandom focus. The organization will no longer be NIN specific, based on the collective’s early draft of a mission statement, that states:

We aim to restore live music as a shared, passionate entity, and work with those who embrace new media and the realities of the Internet to build on their relationship with fans through collaboration and to create unique documents of their live events. Providing organizational, technical and financial support, we encourage fan communities to plan and execute first-rate film and audio recordings, and turn the resulting content into professional quality releases.

In addition, the organizers intend to formally establish TOIOU as a non-profit organization.

Interesting news, and worth watching. TOIOU was able to exist and succeed based in part because of the unusually collaborative and open relationship between Reznor and his fans. If TOIOU is to take this model and attempt to replicate it in other music fandoms, particularly for mainstream, big-ticket musical artists with particularly devoted live fanbases,  but a more restrictive approach to fan relations. I expect challenges for the group in future.

Metallica and their historically tight rein on fan-produced live recordings comes to mind because the band has been charging members for high-quality recordings of live performances for years now (yet they have also previously made money from fan recordings). Will TOIOU become a sort of fan advocacy organization? One that assists  fan-producers with the infrastructure support to pull of what the NIN fandom did? The current draft of the mission statement seems to imply this, but it is, admittedly, a work in progress.

YouTube has become a sort of live music library where fans (including myself) may share and upload videos of their favorite musician’s latest performances. For live music junkies there’s opportunity in this.  For record labels and big-ticket live music  promoters, there is a perceived threat. TOIOU has a lot of work cut our for it, but I am excited to see where it goes next.

Guide for the Perplexed: Heavy Metal 101

Last week I (Keidra) participated in Heavy Metal 101,   part of a monthly series organized by Chicago creative collectives Homeroom and You, Me Them, Everybody. Thanks to Fred Sasaki for the invitation, Nell Taylor for the introduction, and co-presenters Michael Robbins and Bryan Wendorf for a great conversation. It was a blast.

Inspired by the interest we’ve had and the success of that event, we at The Learned Fangirl decided to start a new series of posts on varied aspects of fandom for beginners. We are calling them “Guide for the Perplexed” and my (tequila fueled) Heavy Metal 101 PowerPoint presentation will kick it off.

Some readers may already know that I have a long and passionate history of metal fandom, most notably recounted in an essay I wrote for Bitch Magazine a few years ago. Since that essay was published, my metal fandom re-emerged stronger than ever, and I hope to explore some aspects of metal fan culture a bit further in subsequent blog posts.