And no that’s not an Onion headline. I’m for real here, I’m listening to their music on Spotify as I’m writing this. Proggers’ prayers have finally been answered and Robert Fripp finally has caught up with the times and realised that online streaming platforms are where the music listeners are, just in time for their 50th anniversary tour. Since they’re one of the biggest classic rock names that have been a streaming holdout for the longest time, I’ll give my take on the situation.
As you may know, I like prog rock, but one of the few bands I’ve had trouble getting into is King Crimson. Not because I don’t like their music. What I’ve heard from them is good. The problem for me is access. For most of my classic rock loving life I’ve been a student and that means I didn’t have that much money to be buying music that I wasn’t sure if I was going to like on vinyl. Like a lot of people, I like to try before I buy. That’s why we’ve had things like the radio, MTV, and why bands release singles. It’s to give you a taster and to sell you the album. Radio and MTV isn’t a gift and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We live in a capitalist society and everything is all about consumption and buying.
To unpack the issue of streaming and why bands were sceptical of it, I’m going to talk about the issues like art being devalued, physical versus digital, and piracy. I think all of these issues go hand in hand and given the economic situation, I can see why the music industry has changed.
Devaluing of Music
The problem is that over the years, music (and other art forms) have been devalued, thanks to everything going from physical copies to digital. In this interview with James Kennedy, he talks about how music has been devalued, here’s a quote from him:
“Nobody realised until digital came along that music in itself had never really been worth anything – people were paying for the plastic it was played on”
Why pay for something that you can’t touch or hold? At least there’s some value in holding the record or CD and displaying it on a shelf and there’s the experience of playing that music on the turntable, as it was the music was enjoyed at the time of release. I love hearing the sound of the needle dropping and hitting that circular, groove-covered piece of plastic.
You don’t only see the devaluation in the price tag of music, but also in the labour side of things. You know that expression, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”? Yeah, that describes the arts. It’s a hard knock life working in a creative field.
A land of extremes where you’re either swimming in cash or struggling to survive. I think all the time about all these talented people whose work will never achieve wide critical acclaim because they haven’t been discovered. Artists, including musicians are some of the hardest working people and smartest people I know. People may turn up their noses at arts degrees thinking they’re easy because STEM is seen as so much more prestigious, but it’s hard work getting an arts degree. It’s just a different kind of work.
People will complain about the cost of an album or a concert ticket, but have no problem paying for a cup of coffee or a movie ticket. Musicians put in so many hours of work, more than a typical 9-5 office worker, perfecting their craft and setting up the show or recording the album.
There are no office hours for a musician or a creative. Work is always on your mind and there’s no clocking out. Don’t underestimate the hard work. Without the money they get from album sales and gigs, a smaller musician can’t create more music, so they may have to leave the industry and get a job that pays the bills. Many musicians already still work day jobs.
Looking at internships for students and recent graduates, you’ll have a difficult time finding opportunities that pay. Looking at the stories of classic rockers, it seems that it was a possible route to upward mobility for working class kids, but today? Not anymore. Creative industries have so much nepotism and in music, record labels don’t want to take chances.
Back to the industry side of things, I think a major reason for the devaluation of music and art is the move to digital, which I’ll go into in the next section.
Physical vs Digital
What separates the 20th and 21st centuries? I think one way that you can separate and distinguish between the two is the move to digital and the technological advancements.
I’m almost 25, making me part of the last generation to really know about going to buy physical copies of music and that being the only viable option. I remember my dad showing me his vinyl collection and I grew up with a cassette player in the car and my dad constantly making mixtapes from his records to bring with him everywhere.
The iPod wasn’t always accessible. There was a time when it was $400-500 and only had a capacity of 5 or 10 gigabytes. Maybe enough space for just a couple prog rock songs. So lots of people just stuck with CDs and cassettes in the early 2000s, even if it was bulkier.
Sure, there’s been a resurgence of popularity of vinyl, and even cassette, but it’s not the same as it used to be because there’s the option of the internet. The resurgence of vinyl isn’t a bad thing. I like that it’s more accessible and if you don’t care about first pressings or originals, you can more easily get vinyl copies of older and rarer albums.
I’m not a luddite, technology isn’t evil. Technology has made it easier to discover music that you may not have otherwise known about and it’s convenient to not have to carry a whole zipper binder of CDs (remember those?). Digital music came at the right time. At the time of the recession, digital music was widely available, cheaper than physical copies, and internet speeds were fast enough that people could download music. Imagine trying to watch YouTube or streaming music with dial-up.
Music streaming sites aren’t just about libraries, but they’re also getting smarter and using algorithms to find out stuff that you might be interested in, like with Spotify’s radio stations. Music streaming is also becoming social with people creating playlists and sharing them with the whole world, not just their circle of friends like in the good old days. These playlists have no limits, unlike a CD or a tape.
To stay relevant, it’s important to change and adapt with the times. You see this everywhere in entertainment and in business. Because Blockbuster and Borders didn’t embrace the internet, they bit the dust during the recession. Musicians need to put their music where younger generations will discover it. That’s marketing and part of that approach is social media. Even charts have changed and adapted to streaming because that’s a big part of how people consume music.
In the next section, we’ll look at piracy and how it relates to digital and the devaluation of music.
*Disclaimer: I do not advocate piracy on this blog. Please support the musicians by streaming their music legally, buying physical copies, going to their concerts, or buying official merch.*
People pirate music and movies for a bunch of reasons: to save money, especially during the recession; because they don’t think the price is worth it; they think the musicians have enough money already; and because it’s not easily available and accessible.
Piracy was huge for a good part of the 21st century and it still is because streaming services aren’t available everywhere. Arguably, the exposure has helped musicians and it’s free advertising playing short clips of copyrighted songs on YouTube or the song even becoming a meme. Record labels spend so much money and time on marketing and advertising, isn’t it time for them to embrace licensing music for online streaming?
Piracy comes with risks: getting in trouble with the law and computer viruses. Why take those risks when you can spend the price of one takeaway/fast food meal a month for peace of mind when streaming movies or music? Are Netflix and Spotify reducing piracy? It’s debatable. Of course, you can’t win with everyone when the services cost something.
Musicians take different approaches to piracy. Some release their music for free and others have made their music available on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube so it’s free or cheap for the listeners and they still get a bit of money too. Why should music be an expensive luxury? Isn’t that out of touch and tone deaf in this economy where we have a shrinking middle class and stagnant wages?
How it relates to King Crimson
The thing is, this is King Crimson we’re talking about. They’ve already made a lot of money over the years. They’re not starving artists. Keeping their music off these streaming sites isn’t helping them win new fans.
Older fans already know about them and if they want their music to be remembered, it’s important to get it in the hands of young fans. If you want people to listen to your music legally, make it available to listen to legally. This will reduce piracy.
Some people don’t buy CDs or records anymore because they like minimalism and buying stuff creates waste. By not offering the music for streaming, you’re excluding a lot of people.
It’s about time they’ve embraced streaming sites. They’ll get paid, albeit not as much as they would make with album sales, merch sales, or concert tickets, but it’s still something.
More people will discover their music, and hey, maybe they’ll buy In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Red, or Discipline on vinyl or they’ll buy a t-shirt. If you believe in your music, let it speak for itself, people will gravitate towards it, and will see the value in it.
Streaming sites like Spotify are far from perfect and I wish they paid musicians more fairly, but overall, I like the service and I’m happy to pay for it. Ad free access to millions of songs and I can download songs to listen to offline? That’s worth it.
Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick.
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