Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound

Shhhh . . . you know who!
I have for a long time been interested in silent records. I wrote an article on the subject for the New Statesman in 2012 and more recently completed a chapter for Samantha Bennett and Eliot Bates’ collection Critical Approaches to the Production of Music and Sound (Bloomsbury, 2018).
            In this book I enumerate six types of musical silence: notated silence (which is dominated by John Cage’s 4’33”); phonographic Cageian silence (which pays homage to Cage’s work but regularly misunderstands his intentions); political silence (where muteness signifies oppression); memorial silence (paying homage to the dead); technical silence (which highlights the ‘silence’ of different types of recording formats); and economic silence (where silent songs illustrate issues of authorship, ownership and recompense).
            I’m sure there are more types of silence, though, and there must be silent records that I have overlooked in the chapter.
            Do let me know.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Live and Let Live

Why is it that supporters of live music cannot do unto recorded music as they would have done to themselves? Last month saw the publication of the UK Live Music Census, which offers an excellent examination of live music in Britain. This campaigning document has a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, it wants politicians to listen. Therefore, it makes a case for the great economic value of live music. The sector is described as ‘one of the real success stories of the past decade’. Seeking to confirm this, the census focuses on three towns, calculating the millions of pounds that their live music scenes contribute to the UK economy as well as the thousands of jobs that they provide. On the other hand, the report is concerned about an industry under threat. It is particularly focused on small venues and the ‘“perfect storm” of issues at present which is affecting their long-term viability and sustainability’. And it wants to campaign for remedies.
            The activism in this sector has been worthwhile. The introduction of ‘agent of change’ legislation is a case in point. One factor that has affected British venues in recent years has been a rise in noise complaints, particularly from the occupiers of new buildings that have been erected in town and city centres. Live music activists have encouraged the British government to introduce this new legislation. The principal of ‘agent of change’ is that ‘the person or business responsible for the change is responsible for managing the impact of the change’. In respect of live music, this means that property developers have to bear the soundproofing costs if they construct new apartments near existing venues. Conversely, if a new venue opens in a residential area, it would have to pay for any soundproofing required. The UK Live Music Census adds weight to this cause by undertaking a comprehensive, detailed and thought-provoking survey. In addition, its data and feedback prompt further recommendations for the government and local authorities: business rates should be addressed so that small venues do not face crippling and disproportionate increases; licensing laws should be amended so that younger audiences are able to attend gigs at these venues; parking restrictions should be liberated to ensure that bands can load and unload their gear; venues should be funded to help preserve the Britain’s live music traditions.
            I agree with all of this. What I find more problematic, however, is that live music is promoted by putting recorded music down. This point is argued in respect of the music’s social worth. The report states:
Many of the respondents commented on the difference between the live music and the recorded music experience, often to say that the former is somehow ‘better’ than the latter. For some, this is because of the uniqueness of the experience, because unlike with recorded music, the performance is different each time. The uniqueness of the performance also means that in an increasingly mediated world, the experience is authentic; it cannot be repeated. Part of the reason for this sense of unrepeatable authenticity is because the performer-audience interaction is a fundamental part of the experience. The live music event allows audiences to inhabit the same physical space as the artist, sometimes even to meet them in person.
But is the gig going experience really always good for society? The unique ‘aura’ of the live event and the adoration of stars could be considered unhealthy. It places art on a pedestal and encourages a divide between creators and their followers. Walter Benjamin famously welcomed the liberation provided by recorded media, noting its ability to democratise artistic practice by making the work more accessible in space and time. (For my own take on this, see ‘The Aura Restorer’.)
            In addition to its social bias, the UK Live Music Census is partisan when it comes to music’s economic worth. It proclaims the victories of live music at the expense of the record industry. The report notes that ‘Live music revenue overtook recorded music revenue in the UK in 2008’, referencing a PRS for Music report by Will Page and Chris Carey, and adds that ‘since 2014 UK Music has published figures in its now annual Measuring Music report that appear to suggest that live music is now consistently the largest generator of revenue in the UK’s music industries’.
            Live music income has definitely grown in this century and the fortunes of recorded music have declined. Nevertheless, as I have written elsewhere ('Sympathy for the Mechanical' and 'Measuring the Measuring'), the economic comparisons that have been drawn between the two sectors are problematic. The PRS for Music reports do not compare like with like. Their recorded music figures are restricted to business-to-consumer ‘payments for physical music products, downloads-to-own and subscriptions’. Their live music totals are more expansive. As well as documenting the income from ticket sales by agents and venues, they include secondary ticketing and ancillary spend. The UK Music figures can be questioned too. Although their recorded music totals do include business-to-business income, they are still narrow in comparison to the live music figures, which feature the ‘total spend’ at gigs and festivals (including food and beverage sales, merchandise, parking costs, camping fees, etc.) as well as total ticket sales and the sponsorship of events. These live music figures also include the income of music promoters, music agents, production services and ticketing agents, whereas the income for retailers and distributors is discounted from the recorded music figures. Moreover, UK Music does not, in fact, posit the live sector as generating the most income. This accolade goes instead to ‘musicians, composers, songwriters and lyricists’.
            How are these artists getting paid? The UK Live Music Census adds some distortions of its own. Its authors argue that ‘live music is now more economically significant than recorded music for musicians’. The results from their questionnaire show that professional musicians earn, on average, 49% of their income from performing, 3% from recording, and 4% from composing; semi-professionals earn 23% from performing, 2% from recording, and 1% from composing; and that amateurs earn 23% from performing, 2% from recording, and nothing from composing. It is wrong, however, to suggest that these figures are indicative of musicians as a whole. The census took place at live music venues. What would the answers have been if it had been compiled at recording studios or at songwriters’ bootcamps?
            In a similar manner, the authors argue that ‘the census data suggests that spend on tickets for live music events now forms a greater proportion of consumer spend on music than recorded music’. Their figures demonstrate that 47% of respondents spent more than £20 on tickets for concerts or festivals each month and that only 25% spend the same amount on recorded music. But the authors were asking people at gigs. It is doubtful that the figures would have been the same if they had been compiled in record shops, or even if they were solicited from people in the comfort of their homes.
            Moreover, while these comparisons are unfair on recorded music, they also say little about live music’s economic dilemma: how to account for the discrepancy between the economic riches of the live music sector and the economic woes of many of those working in the field? Although the report is centred on small venues, it has room for concern about promoters, 50% of whom complain that ‘the cost of paying bands had an extreme, strong or moderate negative impact on their events in the past 12 months’. However, these musicians also have monetary troubles. Although the census report maintains that live music income is more important for musicians than their advances and royalties, the findings also demonstrate that 68% of musicians have encountered ‘stagnating pay’ for their gigs and find it difficult to bring in a viable income. On top of this, two-thirds of musicians have performed for no fee in the past 12 months, while 16% have been asked to pay to play.
The report pays less attention to those who are prospering from live music. Moreover, it does not suggest that they should help fund the venues, promoters and musicians who are suffering from low rates of pay. Instead it asks for ‘the wider music industries (including recording and publishing, possibly via the UK Music network) to support musicians and smaller venues beyond current support; for example, by subsidising emerging artist fees and/or providing venue infrastructure’. And so recorded music has its uses after all.
The suggestion is not unwarranted. Record companies probably should provide support for live music. The fortunes of the two fields should not be contrasted; they should instead be viewed as intertwined. Live music continues to drive the sales and use of recordings, just as recorded music continues to drive ticket sales for gigs. This should not however absolve the live music industry from its own responsibilities. As the census notes, ‘the largest entertainment company in the world, Live Nation Entertainment, owns both the largest live music promoter in the world, Live Nation Concerts, and the biggest ticketing company in the world, Ticketmaster’. Its CEO Michael Rapino is number one in Billboard’s notorious power 100 for 2018, marking him as the leading figure in the music industries. Maybe it’s time to phone him up and ask him for some wealth distribution.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Measuring the Measuring

In late 2017, UK Music published their latest Measuring Music report. UK Music is a lobbying group for the ‘collective interests of the recorded, published and live arms of the British music industry’. Measuring Music is one of their campaigning documents and it therefore contains headline-grabbing statistics. One of the most eye-catching is that live music is worth £1bn to the UK economy, while recorded music is only worth £640m.
            This phenomenon has been reported in turn by media institutions, such as the BBC and the Financial Times, and by industry players, such the Music Publishers Association, Ticketing Business News and Billboard. It is also noted in the recent UK Live Music Census.
            What these news reports miss out, however, is that that the live music statistics and recorded music statistics are not directly comparable. UK Music admit as much in their separate ‘methodology’ document, albeit only in terms of their calculation of the Gross Value Added (GVA) Contribution, the figures that illustrate the contribution of each music industry sector to the British economy. UK Music state that GVA ‘is most simply understood as the value of sales minus the cost of bought in goods and services used up in the production process’, but also admit that calculating GVA is not straightforward at all. As a result, ‘This means that it is likely that the ratio of GVA to Gross Output that we apply may vary between the different elements of the core music industry. It is bespoke to the core as a whole, not to the component parts of the core’.
            GVA is nevertheless only one of the factors that help to make any direct comparisons between live and recorded music questionable. In fact, the figures are more profoundly skewed by other elements of the methodology, notably decisions about what makes up the ‘core music industry’ and what makes up the ‘wider music industry’; about what to include within each sector of the music industries; and about what to exclude from these sectors. Recorded music suffers in comparison to live music in each of these methodological respects.
            ‘Core music industry’ occupations are counted towards the trade figures; ‘wider music industry’ occupations are not. The core includes live industry revenue from ‘ticketing agents’ and ‘concert venues and arenas’, but it does not include recording industry income from ‘music retail (shops)’, ‘music retail (digital)’ or ‘other music-based digital services for consumers’.
            This discrepancy becomes more apparent when we look at what is included within the ‘recorded music’ sector and what is included within ‘live music’. Recorded music is restricted to the wholesale income of sales of physical formats and downloads, as well as the money that record companies make from streaming (of both the ad-supported and subscription varieties). It does not include the money that the retailers and streaming companies make from selling these goods. The Live music figures, meanwhile, include ‘Total ticket sales for all kinds of live music events’. In contrast to recorded music, they feature the share of income that goes to the retailers of the tickets: ticketing Agents are included. This makes a significant difference. If the retail income from recorded music were included, its totals would rise by at least 30% in the case of the streaming and downloading trade and by around 40% in respect of physical sales. Conversely, ticket agents earn about 10% of the income from ticket sales. On top of this, the live music figures include ‘food and beverage sales’, ‘merchandise’ and ‘venue parking’, as well as ‘camping fees’ for music festivals. It could be argued that recorded music generates similar ‘ancillary’ income (record shops generate merchandise sales and many also now sell food and drink), but these are not included in the figures. The list of trades included under live music is also more expansive. The figures incorporate music festival organisers, music promoters, music agents and production services. Recorded music does include ‘design and production of physical product and packaging’ alongside those employed by record labels themselves. Nevertheless, it does not include the money generated by ‘music producers, recording studios and staff’. These could be considered intimately connected to recorded music, but they are given a separate section within the Measuring Music report.
            There is a more significant omission, however. The live and recorded music figures are concentrated upon those who make a living because of the work of musicians and composers: the record companies, manufacturers, ticket agents and venue workers. The income of the musicians and singers is not included under the headings of recording or live. The policy, instead, is to subtract artist income from these totals and to place it in the combined field of ‘musicians, composers, songwriters & lyricists’. This makes a difference in three respects. In the first instance, it enables the Measuring Music report to argue that artists are the biggest income generators of all. Their total GVA contribution is calculated at £2b. This is double the live income figure and more than three times the amount calculated for recorded music. Secondly, because the figures for composers and performers are combined, we do not get a picture of how much money they are each deriving from recording and how much from live music. This is significant, as we need these figures to get a more accurate picture of the money that is being generated in these two fields. A third factor results from the fact that Measuring Music does not drill down into its figures. We do not get to see how much record companies are earning from recorded music in comparison to recording artists and composers, and nor can we assess the distribution of income in the live music field.
What can be assumed, however, is that the majority of income reported under ‘recorded music’ will result in related income for musicians and composers. They will receive royalties from each sale, download, stream, radio play, public performance or licensing deal. Moreover, while there are variations in the amounts that artists will receive, these are within parameters: approximately 15%-20% of the income from sales and streams will go the recording artists, 8.5% will go the songwriters and their publishers; performing rights relating to the sound recording will be divided 50/50 between record company and musicians, while songwriters will receive at least 50% of the performing rights income for the composition.
            In contrast, there are several income streams reported under ‘live music’ that will not result in corresponding income for performers or composers. In the majority of cases this will include the sales of food and beverages at gigs, the parking income and camping fees, and also the money that venues charge to put on events. Other income figures for live music can be widely variable, including the shares that artists receive from ticket sales and the money that they make from merchandise. The general tendency, however, is that the gap between the rich and poor is wider in live music than it is in recorded music. Live music income is oriented towards star performers and heritage acts, as well as to artists who perform cover versions of these performers songs. Performers down the lower end of the scale may earn nothing from live music or even operate at a loss. Recorded music, in contrast, has a more equal basis. The stars here obviously do make more money than the obscurities, but they do so from generating multiple sales and streams, rather than by charging higher prices than their competitors or by demanding higher fees.
            In one respect UK Music’s decision to separate the income of composers and performers into a category of its own is justified. Although these artists have different income streams for their recorded and live work, the profits and losses in these areas are intertwined. The report depicts a sequential process whereby it is songwriting that enables the creation of successful records, and successful records that prompt successes within live performance. This sequence moves in various directions when it comes to revenue, however. Live performance drives the sale and usage of recordings, and recordings drive the sales of tickets for gigs. Beyond this, as Measuring Music argues, the most successful artists are not just selling their music; they are selling themselves ‘as a brand, reputation or image’.
            At the same time, the categorisations employed by UK Music are of tactical use. As stated above, Measuring Music is a campaigning report. It seeks to gain the government’s support for the UK music industry as a whole. In doing so, it has a dual task. One objective is to point out the value of music. Therefore, the report documents the vast amounts of money that are being accumulated and the large numbers of people who are being employed. At the same time, the report calls for aid. It wants the government to intervene so that yet more money can be made and so that jobs in each sector can be secured.
            UK Music is a coalition between record labels, publishers, artists, managers, songwriters, collection societies and the live music industry. It aims to promote a unified front. It does not want to identify injustices amongst these industry sectors. Therefore, despite the widespread criticism of streaming royalty rates for musicians and songwriters, this report will not show you whether record companies and publishers are profiting at their artists’ expense. Similarly, while prices for tickets have risen sharply in recent years, Measuring Music provides no clues as to whether the live music industry could be more altruistic towards smaller venues or to nascent performers.
Instead, it locates responsibility for low rates of pay outside of the core music industry. As with virtually all industry documents from last year, its main beef is with the ‘value gap’: if there is unfairness in music it is due to YouTube and Facebook and their pesky ‘safe harbours’. Michael Dugher, the CEO of UK Music, stresses that ‘these platforms offer little adequate reward to the investors and creators of the “content”. As a result, their safe harbours must be removed.
The report also suggests that the closure of this value gap within the recording industry will help all parts of the music economy. In doing so, it absolves the live music sector from any responsibility for the distribution of its riches. Dugher notes:
Live music did have another great year as millions of people poured into festivals, stadiums and venues to see and hear their favourite acts. And live music is a fantastic driver for growth. But future talent will never get the chance to shine if we continue to see cuts in music in schools and closures in venues where artists need to learn their craft in the first place. To reach the big stage you need to have a hit record and you need to be able to pay the bills. That means that those who create music and invest in it must be properly rewarded. That’s why we must urgently address the ‘value gap’, particularly on the new and exciting platforms that many people now use to listen to music.
This would appear to indicate that, despite the headline figures about live music’s dominance, when it comes to artists’ recompense it is recorded music that is primary.