Things I Hate Hearing About The Music Business [Ethan Kaplan]

1In this article, Ethan Kaplan takes on what he feels are some of the main misconceptions regarding the current state of the music industry, with specific regard to Apple Music, the dismissal of EDM, and the importance of music and music discovery in people's day to day lives.


Guest Post by Ethan Kaplan on Medium

The running list of things that I hate hearing about the music business

I recently ventured to SF Music Tech, and ran into a familiar cast of characters, which lead me to compile a running list of things I was sick of talking/hearing about. Here below are some of them.

Apple Music sucks.

No it doesn’t. This is a two part issue though.

First: Apple is not perfect but markets its own perfection. That is problematic. They like to present themselves as the accessible but still distant perfect chrome sphere. An object of desire that is still within reach which makes their customer feel clever and exclusive through marketing humanized computing. They somehow make the user feel smarter for using things with fewer features. Amazing.

But it is at the end of the day a consumer technology company. Think of your engineering department you are in or work with. Look at your backlog, massive tech debt, the fighting. Bugs and regression issues (even with test driven development). QA issues galore.

Now magnify that by a few hundred million (in terms of risk exposed revenue).

Apple’s 1.0 releases expose the pits and dents in that sphere more than any. Always have, but every time it occurs people treat it like the first time because of the very 1.0 nature of the occurrence and the fact that Apple rarely actually makes new things. Facebook and Google promote “build and fail fast” as a means of being perpetually 1.0 and getting people used to imperfection. It works wonders. There is no “gate” about the fact that Facebook is right now showing 404’s for avatars, or the fact that its app doesn’t use native iOS share sheets for posts.

Second: Apple Music isn’t competing with Spotify so much as competing with people’s unwillingness to give a shit about music. Their target is not the collector but rather the person who normally listens to Top 40 but may just wonder if they can hear that one song just one more time. Or that U2 record that was popular the summer they went to college. Something Baby? I don’t know. It had that pretty song on it, “One Love”?

Music discovery is the key

You often hear this at conferences, like I just did. There is just too much great music out there and isn’t it a shame that people only hear the current 40 songs The Man has decided that we need to hear? There was that one time I found this one band because this one friend tweeted it. We need to get back to that! Music is data so if I distill its metadata into dimensions of data, the same algorithms that recommend products on Amazon can find the next hit!

Music discovery is the salve for the oldest problem in music:people have shitty taste and don’t really like music all that much anyway.

Take a look at the Song of the Summer phenomenon. It’s a marketing-hook-as-explainer for why you are hearing the same songs so often. They are designed for it. Inoffensive, often throwbacks, sound good at moderate volume as well as loud. No longer than 3:10.

They are designed for making you say “remember that summer? When that shitty song was popular?”

People are smart. They see through this. Tech people know there is a better way. There are more than 30m songs in a basic world-wide recorded music catalog. Buried in there and added to weekly is much better music, if only it could be discovered!

The problem here is that you have two machines competing, only one of which matters to most and only one of which has historically survived.

There are two forms of intelligence that will help you find music: machine and human. Music discovery companies target the type of music listener who’s heuristics will always yield better results from the machine. They bring enough probabilism to bear to ensure good outcomes from collaborative filtering.

This is not most people. Most people won’t have inputs such as “post punk from Boston between 1980 and 1984 who toured along side but not with R.E.M.”

Most people have inputs like “something inoffensive that won’t bother me and that my kids won’t fight about.” For most people the music discovery engine that matters still has an actual name. It always did. It may be Keith McPhee or Kevin Weatherly or Bob Pittman.

It isn’t and never will be the name of that latest startup.

People actually give a shit about music

One of the biggest issues in music is the assumption that people care about music. We assume that music is important to everyone universally. It is the backbone of a civilized society. It has existed since people banged stones together.

“You can divide the world into music lovers, music fans and then those people who are just very casual about their music, it’s wallpaper to them, it’s elevator music, it’s just the thing that’s playing in the background that helps them through their day.” — Michael Stipe

The fact is, music is wall paper for most people. It is a thing in the background, but not the one thing they are passionate about. They like “that song” but other than a few “that songs” through the course of the year, they don’t really care all that much. Five records a year, that’s about it.

Music, after all, takes work. It takes work to find, to pay attention to, to enjoy. To really invest yourself in music is not something to participate in idly, and the fact is, most people have more than enough to fill their time with.

I’m a case example. I am 36 years old and the father of two kids (aged 6 and 2). I work an hour from my house, I go to the gym daily for an hour. I try to sleep at least 6 hours a night. I don’t have time to seek out new music, mostly because I don’t have the mental capacity anymore to properly process the incoming data. And I used to run a fan site for a band! For eighteen years!

Now I revert back to music I know I like, and when I adventure into unknown territories I get either frustrated or bored, but sometimes enjoy it. That enjoyment however isn’t enough to offset the time cost needed to find that one thing I may enjoy. The only time I really immerse myself into discovery is if I am forced to by circumstance (at a festival or SXSW for instance).

I give a shit about music. I love it. It is the backbone of my entire life’s work and my livelihood, and yet I don’t give a shit about it relative to the context of my life as a whole. It just takes too much work.

Most people are like me, but didn’t run a fan site for 18 years. Most people enjoy music insomuch as its an easy way to distract or otherwise fill the space in an existing circumstance. Very few people let music take up a majority of their attention in any meaningful way.

Adele proves that music still matters

You know how the new West Elm catalog comes out and suddenly the ceramic deer head on page 30 starts appearing everywhere you turn? Staged ads for condo complexes, your friends apartment? Then suddenly it is at your mom’s house in Walnut Creek and you realize that Target sells a version of it for half the cost and calls it a “wall accent.” Suddenly 3.2 million people own decorative stag heads.

Something cheap, easy and it makes you look at least somewhat cultured when its on your wall.

In the end though, once you peel back the commodification of an objet d’art, you end up with something kind of boring under the artifice of “culture.” What could have once been regarded as something approaching high design and maybe art, is now a beige table cloth. Artful, inoffensive and somewhat decorative but ultimately pretty boring.

That is Adele. This year’s ceramic deer head. A remarkably talented beige table cloth.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

EDM isn’t music

I most often hear this from a generation that was raised believing that punk and later college rock were the saviors of music. Their argument is that people like the Replacements or Talking Heads were “real musicians” because they played “real instruments” and didn’t just press buttons.

The thing is, musical movements as they were embodied much more than the methods used to create the music. It is disingenuous to think of EDM or the like (techno, electronica, whatever) as just the product created. It is much more about the movement/scene embodied, and in that way, it can stand along side punk, new wave, post-punk as a cultural movement/scene deserving of respect and tolerance, if not enjoyment.

True, I can barely stand most of it. I find it tacky for the most part. I also find the commodification of the scene by the promoters a bit unseemly and cynical. It is also very easy to sit back, put on a Replacements record and feel superior because while EDC might have sex and drugs down, the Replacements had that plus some rock and roll.

Then I put on music I listened to when I was 18 and quickly am brought down to earth.

Patti Smith said recently when asked about if she felt connected to this generations music (like EDM): “Each generation has to translate the time they are in for themselves.”

Let them have it. Its just the perpetuation of fun in the present at the expense of future embarrassment.

The music industry is over

Great, let me know when they start selling the furniture as I really miss my old desk.

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1 Comment

  1. ” Very few people let music take up a majority of their attention in any meaningful way.”
    Or anything for that matter. The reality is we are becoming more and more distracted by an array of Mobil devices that take us out of the moment and capture our attention. I know this to be true because I fight it myself constantly and I don’t want to be a slave to my gadgets.
    It is a very serious problem and no one seems to have a solution. People talk about being connected, when in fact the opposite is true.

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