The Revolution Will Be Streaming

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the-exquisite-death-of-saxon-shore.jpgThis is my 1,000th post on Tech Digest. My first was about Robopong, and I have no idea what my last will be about, but this one’s about the economics of free music, which is a subject that I’ve touched on many times while writing here. It’s about how a free download turned me into a massive fan of a band.

Yesterday, personalized streaming radio site Last.fm announced on Twitter, that its free downloads page was back. It’s a page, which can be found here, that lists a bunch of tracks that bands have decided to give away, for promotional purposes. According to the old thinking prevalent among record companies, a download = a lost sale. In this case, a download led me to a whole lot more than that.

The download in question is a song called, wonderfully, “The Revolution Will Be Streaming“, a nod to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 classic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised“. It’s by an American post-rock band that I hadn’t previously heard of called Saxon Shore.

My eye was caught by the title, and I downloaded it on the off-chance I’d like it. I did like it, a lot, and after a few listens, I headed over to Amazon. The band’s got a few tracks available on the download store, but the album featuring “The Revolution Will Be Streaming”, “The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore” wasn’t. So I bought the CD instead. On import.

Because the album has to be sent over from the States, I’m looking at a couple of weeks before I can listen to the damn thing. So I checked Spotify. The band isn’t there, sadly. I realized that when it does arrive, however, all I’m going to do is rip it to high-bitrate MP3 and put in on my Zune, so my next step was to head right over to the Pirate Bay and see if I could find it.

Turns out that the site doesn’t (at the time of searching, anyway). Luckily I’ve got other sources, so I grabbed it from another tracker and this morning on the bus on the way into the office, a bizarre and unexpected diversion around the back roads of King’s Cross was made considerably more lovely by Saxon Shore’s wonderful album.

The band doesn’t seem to be touring at the moment, but when they show up in London, I’ll definitely be there and I’m fully intending to drag down as many of my post-rock-friendly friends as I can. I might well buy a t-shirt and if I’m still loving this album when I’ve fully digested it, then there’s a good chance I’ll buy some of the older ones.

Now, I’m not pretending that there’s millions of people doing what I did above. Nor am I pretending that this would work just as well if every band in the world started giving away tracks. But if Saxon Shore hadn’t given away that song, then they wouldn’t have gained me as a fan. That’s why free music works, why music blogs are the best way to find new bands, and why free music isn’t the devaluing of art that some claim it is.

I welcome your comments and thoughts on the above, but before you do, go listen to the track in question. You can stream it from Last.fm here. The revolution will indeed be streaming, it would appear.

Duncan Geere

4 comments

  • You paid for the CD before checking illegal services. Good. Many (most?) wouldn’t.

    I do think that giving away a track or two from an album is a good way to promote a band, though. People don’t want to sit and listen to a stream and then make a decision, they want to take something away, listen to it when they want to, live with it and (maybe) learn to love it.

    The record industry does recognise this, too. Many releases from artists big and small are pre-empted by a free download track. Quite a few singles get given away as a free download as well as being sold, which is kind of bizarre but works.

    What you’re talking about, in a round about way is word of mouth. Word of mouth has always been a good thing and always will be. And the internet allows word of mouth to move in ways it never has before. You bought this band’s album because you heard a free download. Maybe I’ll buy it on your recommendation. Maybe this whole thing will multiply and the band will sell hundreds of records. The question is, would they have sold more or less if the internet didn’t exist? Do the albums they sell because of word of mouth meet or exceed the sales they lost because the album is available from illegal sources.

    I’m not saying a download equals a lost sale, because it doesn’t. Everyone knows that. But downloads (plural) do equal lost sales. What we need to find is the revenue stream that replaces those losses. The revenue stream that means all recorded music can be free. I don’t necessarily think that it’s gig tickets and merchandise. These things are not new sources of revenue, and it’s questionable if it’s possible to increase the income from them enough to stick everything on Spotify and forget about it.

    And if that does happen, who funds recordings? Through services like Spotify they will still bring in some money, but not enough to sustain an entire industry. The obvious answer is to bring everything together in 360 deals. You could argue that some in the independent music sector have been doing this for years (usually more out of necessity than anything else), and Live Nation have of course signed those deals with Jay-Z, Shakira, Nickelback and Madonna – all of which are yet to actually come into effect.

    It all sounds simple, but even then problems arise. There’s resistance from all over the music industry, from record labels, managers, live music companies, all of whom what to hold on to their piece of the pie. And then there’s the question about whether it’s a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket. And even if the path is cleared for 360 deals to become the norm, will those handing out the deals be willing to take a hit and view recordings as a promotional tool, rather than a major source of cash flow.

    I realise this has taken a quite simple idea and turned it into a complex question, but therein lies the problem. This is a massive question. It’s not as easy as saying that all music should be free. If music is going to be an industry, it has to act like one. Sure, we can all say it’s about the art, but it’s not. It’s about the cash. There is a separation between music as art and music as product. I like to think that I’m more interested in the former, but I still want the musicians I like to be able to eat and pay their rent while creating their art (and so do they).

    So, in the spirit of this response, I’ll end with another question. Brian Eno recently talked about the studio as a musical instrument, which allows musicians to do things that they couldn’t do anywhere else. If recorded music ceases to have value, what happens to this? And what happens to all the artists who only exist in the recording studio?

    • Interesting (and epic comment length!). I think the one thing you’re not considering there is that the music industry of the future doesn’t have to look anything like the industry does today. It’s no secret that the current industry is rather bloated. A leaner, fitter industry could put out just as much quality content with fewer costs.

      As long as the numbers balance out, then everything’s okay, right? Lower traditional revenue streams can be balanced out by increased investment in artists by non-music companies (which we’re seeing already, Starbucks, Bacardi, Intel, etc), a bigger live sector, and revenues from various innovative digital services.

      I think the crucial bit is where you talk about the difference between music as art and music as product. In the past, the latter has been able to sustain the former. In the future, it won’t be able to, because I suspect the latter will be far harder hit by piracy. So what happens to music as art? Well, I think most people making music as art won’t let something as trivial as money stop them from doing that.

      • Yeah, it was quite epic. I meant to just say something quick!

        I’m not saying that the music industry should stay the same. Far from it. I think the music industry needs to change, but there are many complex reasons why it isn’t doing so fast enough. It’s true that in the past the problem was that it was completely resistant to change, but now it’s more that there are a lot of options and no one’s quite sure which direction is best to go in.

        The problem with relying on investment from non-music companies is that their interest is not in music, only in promotion of their services. They’re not in it for the long haul, they’re in it until there’s something better, or they just don’t feel its in their interests. For example, Starbucks pulled out of their record label idea very suddenly last year and Carling also dropped all its music connections. And is there ever going to be enough sponsorship money to finance the entire music industry? (The answer you’re looking for it no). Basically, you can’t bank on this money being there.

        Next, is the live industry getting bigger? And can it be made big enough to prop up the parts of the industry that are gone or shrinking? To the same end, how much money will these innovative digital services bring in? Considerably less than needed.

        I don’t think you’re thinking radically enough. All these things are still within the bounds of the existing industry. Bands already make their money from a combination of the different revenue streams you’ve mentioned. And, yes, if one goes, another needs to be found or one of the others needs to be increased. Or people need to get used to having less money.

        And again, I ask what happens to musicians who don’t perform live? I have friends who make amazing music in the studio, but bringing it to a live setting isn’t a viable option – it would simply cost too much money to get it to work in order to play to 5 people in a toilet venue.

        On the music as art subject. Yes, musicians will always make music. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to earn money from it. There are people who will suffer living in poverty to do what they love, but for most real life ends up getting in the way.

        Oh god, I’m written another long response. I’m going to stop now.

  • exactly! very well said. mike and i did the same thing with god is an astronaut: we ended up at one of their london gigs buying every album and if we’d never have heard them via an illegal download they probably wouldn’t have us as fans.

    saxon shore are ace, by the way!

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