Coming With the Insights!

A letter written in response to a student paper. The student was not my own, but that of a professor here at NEiA, where I’m the librarian.


Nice work on the literature review! It was an easy read (which, when it comes to academic writing, is really saying something) and you covered the territory well. I agree with Hugo in that you don’t let yourself draw from empirical sources as much as you could, though Macklemore and Lewis (just watched the video, uproarious) as the opening example is good.


I have a few thoughts. Looking at this now, maybe better to print this out…


First, on page 3 you state that “major players in the music industry have always balked at technological advancements”, while “smaller labels embraced these technological advances more quickly”. I am pretty  sure this is true in re: share-able digital files. My question is, was this also true for CDs and cassettes? I don’t know the facts, but perhaps some investigation to do there?


From what I understand, the majors unwittingly sowed the seeds of their own destruction in developing the digital file formats they housed on CDs, and were then adapted to the web-share-able MP3 format. But between the advent of CDs and the emergence of MP3s and file-sharing sites, I had thought that the major labels basically got a license to mint money throughout most of the 90s. This would indicate an enthusiastic embrace of that new form of technology right? Wonder if the same was true for cassettes, wherein they gave consumers a reason to replace a chunk of their extant music collections?


I would also be interested in smaller labels’ feelings about the advent of new physical formats, esp the CD. Was this format as easily accessible and sale-able for indie labels? Were CDs more expensive to manufacture? Were indie music fans as open to buying CDs initially? Did smaller labels have to wait until prices on players and discs dipped into range of the less-affluent consumer before it was cost-effective to take their product to market on the new format (as labels carrying many colloquial genres, folk and rural music, did in the 20s)?


Same for cassettes — smaller, independent companies must have had feelings about shifting their product’s holding vessel from one format to another, and I wonder how expensive the barrier to entry into that market was.


Another consideration — tho this is a bit further afield into culture, not markets — is indie fidelity to analog formats which complicates the market-based rationale to go whole-hog for digital. Seems like there’s a bit of an emotional attachment, maybe only in certain genres but certainly a lot of them, to vinyl, no? Something along the logic of “vinyl = analog = more gritty = more ‘real’ = less corporate = more indie”. Hip hop, tho utterly transformed by digital formats and distribution, holds a fierce loyalty to vinyl that’s entirely cultural (as opposed to practical).


Punk has a lot of that as well, possibly based on a similar high status accorded to “real-ness”. And of course many, many audiophiles will tell you vinyl carries superior sound, which covers your classical and jazz cohort. And plenty of mainstream groups bundle digital files with the vinyl editions of the records they release (Jack White’s Third Man Records, for instance, has gone deep into collectible vinyl editions), but this does seem to apply in genres where the artists are either trying for a status as somehow “serious” (Radiohead, Coldplay) or in which the recordings will be played by a DJ (hip hop, dance music, reggae). Maybe something to look at there? But again, that’s probably pretty wide of the main topic of your paper.


On page 4 you say “pre-digital technology helped maintain the distance between musical artists and their fans”. This is true to some extent, but it seems worth mentioning that the mass media forms used by record labels (not just manufacturing and distributing tons of records but increasing artist exposure via radio, print, film, and television) helped create larger music fan communities than any previously known. Without those technologies to form a bridge to listeners, all artists would essentially remain merely local acts.


I think that’s where you might consider looking more at live performance as a pre-cursor to what we’re seeing now with ease of use and broadcast that’s native to digital files. It’s distant, but I think it’s direct. As you point out, the material expense and hardware involved in recording, pressing, and distributing music was so high, artists could not reasonably make and sell their own recordings in profitable quantities. Unable to connect through recordings alone, they had to rely on label promotion to reach fans.


But touring enabled artists to not only to make more money than most were likely to on record sales alone, but to make that direct connection with their audience at the same time. The example of James Brown and his war of attrition with King Records in the ‘60s is a good one (Peter Guralnick’s excellent Sweet Soul Music<> would be a good source for this, and much else), tho it could also be another illustration of James Brown being a bad-ass force of nature the like of which we shan’t see again.


But live performance, seen as a marketing activity (little as we might like to call it that) made possible by mass media technology (print and radio advertising, even electric amplification) was one way artists could establish direct fan contact which their labels overcame by other, more efficient means. So Web 2.0 is perhaps worth looking at in light of that (again, radically less efficient) model of fan connection.


In my own academic work I looked at hip hop sampling a lot, and that genre seems worth a look, too, because digital creation and distribution has made it so much easier to get a hold of samples to use but also to find (by, for instance, ASCAP and the like, seeking infringing uses of their content) and contact their users. Sampling also complicates the issue of artist control over the copyright to their work — some of those self-made DIY artists can get killed on fees to rights-holders if their work gains success and they haven’t done their homework on sample clearance.


Also seems that online mixtapes and the sites that distribute them need a mention somewhere too. Also Youtube (Lana Del Ray, Owl City, maybe OK Go?).


Lastly, I might look at some of the folks who have offered refutations of Anderson’s Long Tail model. I also relied heavily on The Long Tail, so it was great to go back and look at it again in your paper, but I believe some have claimed that it works less comprehensively than Anderson proposes. I might look at the book’s blog<> for more, or the academic journals you’ve already been looking at.


And interestingly, if indie labels (in the popular narrative) served as a counter-force to a soul-less, sold-out, impersonal corporate regime focused on maximizing profits from lowest-common-denominator music, and aided by media monopolies which pushed its every product, the digital music revolution has wrought a similarly cold arbiter of what we hear.


Music recommendation algorithms are the new soul-less, impersonal force which often (and increasingly) decides what we hear next, at least on streaming music services like Pandora and We’re supposed to believe that these algorithms select music impartially (how could a math formula “sell out”?), but who really knows? Or, if they are impartial, how could we know how long they’ll remain so?


About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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