Music For the People

Photo: Tallie Roinson/ Unsplash

Let’s compare the names of the musicians we currently listen to. Here are some of the recent names on my list: Approaching Nirvana (USA), Frode Fjellheim (Norway), Front 242 (Belgium), Front Line Assembly (Canada), The KLF (England), Lebanon Hanover (Germany & England), Madis (Poland), Melodicka Bros (Italy), Molchat Doma (Belarus), PettyRock (Thailand), Rockmina (Romania), Spetsnaz (Sweden), Violet Orlandi (Brazil), VNV Nation (Ireland), Zahara (South Africa) and Zodiac (Latvia).

If you have any noteworthy alternative musicians that you enjoy, please comment on them.

Mainstream media does not offer much choice in music. It is no longer music for the people. Almost everything is commercial, provided by a music industry, where each company has a vested interest in promoting its particular – to use their word – artists. Why not musicians? While this situation have been the case since mid-twentieth century, the situation today is compounded by corporate consolidation. Rick Beato (1962 – ) refers to this decrease in availability as the Y2k Curse. He attributes this to the American Telecommunications Act of 1996, that consolidated American media. In 1983, 90% of American media was owned by 50 companies. By 2011, this had been reduced to 6 companies. This significantly reduced the number of music gatekeepers. These consolidated their playlists, so that the American public (and beyond) were exposed to a narrower band of musical products.

To avoid music gatekeepers and consolidated playlists, one could use online services that have developed since the start of the millennium. This weblogger has experienced Bandcamp, Chosic, Discogs, Jamendo, Last.fm, MySpace, SoundCloud and Spotify but to varying degrees and in different time periods. He has not experienced WiMP or Tidal directly, and has no intention to do so, but comments on them as well.

Discogs is the oldest, but smallest social networking platform discussed in this weblog post. Discogs (short for discographies) is a website and crowdsourced database of information about audio recordings. Located in Portland, Oregon, it was started in 2000. Its initial goal was to become the largest online database in the electronic music genre. Currently, rock music is the dominant genre. According to Wikipedia as of 2019-08-28 “Discogs contained over 11.6 million releases, by over 6 million artists, across over 1.3 million labels, contributed from over 456,000 contributor user accounts”. In addition to its main database, there were six specialty databases, all of which have closed down except Vinylhub, which provided information on record stores, and has been integrated into the main database. The others were Filmogs, Gearogs, Bookogs, Comicogs and Posterogs, which provided marketplaces for products associated with the database name. Discogs data is contributed by registered users. For people with a special interest in music, either as producers or consumers, this is an important information source.

Audioscrobbler was started by Richard Jones as a computer science project in 2002. He defined the term scrobbling as the finding, processing, and distribution of information involving people, music and other data. Audioscrobbler was a music recommender system that used plugins, and an application program interface (API) to keep track of songs its users played on a registered computer. This allowed charting and collaborative filtering.

Last.fm was also founded in 2002, by German and Austrian enthusiasts, as an an Internet radio station and music community site, using similar music profiles to generate dynamic playlists. In 2003, Audioscrobbler and Last.fm started to merge, by co-locating their offices in Whitechapel, London. Later, Last.fm was fully integrated with Audioscrobbler profiles, so that input could come through an Audioscrobbler plugin or a Last.fm station. The two organizations were fully merged on 2003-08-09.

Started in 2003, MySpace, is an American social networking site with a focus on music. It was, from 2005 to 2008, the largest in the world, reaching more than 100 million users per month. MySpace served as an inexpensive distribution hub for Black musical artists. Yet, in many respects MySpace was second-rate. Users experienced their products and features as slow and bug prone, often due to testing issues. Gradually, users drifted away from MySpace to other platforms such as Facebook. On 2019-03-18, Ars Technica revealed that MySpace in 2015 had botched server migration. This resulted in a permanent loss of over 50 million songs and 12 years’ of user content. In 2019-04, the Internet Archive recovered 490 000 MP3s or 1.3 TB. The songs, uploaded between 2008 and 2010, are known as the MySpace Dragon Hoard.

Spotify AB, the Swedish audio streaming service was started in 2003. It offers about 60 million recordings/ tracks for consumers to choose from. Listeners can either listen for free, and be subjected to advertisements, or pay a monthly fee, to avoid these. There are about 345 million monthly active users, including 155 million paying subscribers. Users can create, edit and share playlists. Currently, there are about 3 billion playlists available. Unbelievably, this amounts to 8.7 playlists per active user.

A Follow tab lets users follow friends to see what they are listening to. A Discover tab provides users with new releases, music, reviews and concert recommendations based on listening history. Tracks can be added to a Collection section of the app as well as to specific user-generated playlists.

Of particular interest was Spotify’s 2017 acquisition of Niland, a French artificial intelligence (AI) technology company, started in 2013. It offers high performance music search & recommendation engines, accessible by an API that allows music catalog owners and music providers (such as Spotify) to build intelligent music applications. Spotify has used this to improve user personalisation and recommendation features. As with many other aspects of AI, its internal workings are undoubtedly non-trivial and opaque. This means that users face uncertainty as to why specific recommendations are made.

Jamendo is a Luxembourg-based music website that has been a subsidiary of Belgian company Audio Valley and Independent Management Entity (IME) since 2019. It started as a music platform using Creative Commons licenses. From 2015-10, Jamendo described itself as a free streaming service for personal use. In addition it provides opportunities for artists to earn money through its licensing services to commercial clients.

Another similar site is the Berlin, Germany based SoundCloud, that was also started in Sweden in 2007. It has 175 million monthly users worldwide. In particular, it is noted for influencing the music industry through artists who have used the service to launch/ advance careers.

Bandcamp is yet another Internet-based music company, founded 2008-09-16 in Oakland, California by Ethan Diamond, Shawn Grunberger, Joe Holt and Neal Tucker. Artists/ labels upload music for free, set prices, but with an option for consumers to pay more. They can also sell merchandise. Music can be streamed once for free. Purchasers can download music or stream it unlimited times, if they retain their purchase voucher. There are options to purchase music for a gift, view lyrics, and save individual songs/ albums to a wish list. Bandcamp initially takes a 15% cut of sales along with payment processing fees. This drops to 10% after an artist’s sales surpass $5,000. Downloads are available in various formats, including CD and vinyl physical media.

Aspiro was founded in 1998 by Swedes Jörgen Adolfsson, Christer Månsson and Klas Hallqvist, who had working together at Europolitan, a Swedish mobile phone operator. When Adolfsson and Månsson moved to Oslo, to work for Telenor Mobil they realized that changes in the Wireless Application Protocol could have significant implications for mobile communications. They contacted Hallqvist, who had remained in Sweden at Europolitan, and founded Aspiro. Between 2000 and 2008, Aspiro acquired 13 communications related companies. In 2009 they developed their a music streaming service that became their core business.

WiMP was a music streaming service developed by Aspiro AS and the Norwegian music store chain Platekompaniet AS and was first launched in Norway 2010-02. It was available on mobiles, tablets, network players and computers and provided a music library of some 25 million tracks. As WiMP expanded into new countries, local editors were engaged to present the local and international music, in-app magazines and some music videos. Last.fm was integrated into it. On 2015-01-30 it was announced that Aspiro had been acquired by Project Panther Bidco Ltd, a company controlled by Shawn Corey Carter (1969 – ), better known by his stage name Jay-Z.

In 2014, Tidal emerged from WiMP as a subscription-based music, podcast and video streaming service that combines lossless audio and high-definition music videos with exclusive content and special features on music. While the company claims to be owned by a number of high profile artists seeking to be independent of the commercial recorded music industry, it is still controlled by Shawn Corey Carter. In a digital forensics report, Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Center for Cyber and Information Security concludes: “We have through advanced statistical analysis determined that there has in fact been a manipulation of the data at particular times. The manipulation appears targeted towards a very specific set of track IDs, related to two distinct albums.” These are Beyoncé’s (1981 – ) Lemonade (2016) and Kanye West’s (1977 – ) The Life of Pablo (2016). Jem Aswad, writing in Variety, presented information from the Norwegian business newspaper, Dagens Næringsliv, that claimed that: “listener numbers on Tidal have been manipulated to the tune of several hundred million false plays… which has generated massive royalty payouts at the expense of other artists.” Note that Beyoncé is married to Tidal’s majority owner, Shawn Corey Carter. Tidal denies this manipulation.

It has been difficult to find out much about Chosic. It offers Arabic and English as site languages, and provides a number of tools that aid in the discovery of new music. One of these is a playlist generator. Their Facebook page refers to itself as All Chosen Music, which indicates that there is some degree of censorship. Their site motto is, Listening is a Skill.

Andrei Cerbu’s Garage

At The Smokin’ Dudes Records inside Adrei Cerbu’s garage, Strada Aurora 21, Iași, 700474 Romania. Clockwise from left to right, videographer Teodor Cusnir, public relations specialist Bader Maria, audio engineer and guitarist Andrei Cerbu and videographer Robert Ciubotaru. Here is how they describe themselves. “The Smokin’ Dudes is a group of talented young people, which besides the fact that they are passionate about music, they want to bring to the attention of the public also other talented young people. So they formed their own recording and filming studio, where they work passionately with young artists willing to show their talent.” Photo: The Smokin’ Dudes.

Yes, Andrei Cerbu will be presented as a solution, but first the problem …

For many years, I listened to modern classical music, with Henryk Górecki (1933 – 2010) being a favourite, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958). Most of this was purchased as Naxos CDs, at monthly intervals. My last CD was purchased in 2008. As I approached 60, something strange happened. I reduced my listening to classical music and started listening to other genres. This included a renewed interest in electronic music and synthesizers, exemplified by Brian Eno (1948 – ), Here Come the Warm Jets (1973). More surprisingly, I started listening to industrial music and its offshoot electronic body music (EBM), electronic dance music (EDM) as well as some more metallic and harder rock.

One of the difficulties with rock/ metal is that so many of the musicians/ artists/ performers promote values that are an antithesis to mine. Thus, I have no interest in financially supporting groups promoting drugs and/ or violence, such as Guns N’ Roses. Even the name of their debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987), is an antithesis to my belief system.

Copyright

Some of the earliest music to which I am attracted was released in the 1960s but more of it came from the 1970s, or later. Take the United Kingdom, where Eno originates. Under their 1988 Copyright Act, copyright in a sound recording expires after 50 years. However, on 2013-11-01, the UK copyright on sound recordings, not yet in the public domain, was extended from 50 to 70 years. Somewhat simplified, this means that recordings made in 1962 or earlier are in the public domain. Those made in 1963 will first come into the public domain on 2034-01-01. Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, released in 1973, will not enter the public domain on 2024-01-01 as Eno could have expect when he made the track, but on 2044-01-01. A similar situation applies in other jurisdictions, including member states of the European Union.

Note: Further details about copyright law, are provided in the last paragraph of this weblog post, after The Smokin’ Dudes Records logo.

Canada extended its copyright for recorded music to 70 years on 2015-06-23. Ottawa law professor Michael Geist criticised the copyright term extension in a weblog post: “Experience elsewhere suggests that the extension is a windfall for record companies, with little benefit to artists or the public. In fact, many countries that have implemented the extension have been forced to do so through trade or political agreements, while signalling their opposition along the way. Canada will extend term without any public discussion or consultation, yet other studies have found that retroactive extension does not lead to increased creation and that the optimal term length should enable performers and record labels to recoup their investment, not extend into near-unlimited terms to the detriment of the public. For Canadian consumers, the extension could cost millions of dollars as works that were scheduled to come into the public domain will now remain locked down for decades.”

Solutions

With twenty years of windfall profits to look forward to, the music industry has little or no incentive to invest in younger musicians. What should younger musicians do?

Andrei Cerbu (2002 – ) has found a solution to this challenge. Despite his young age, he has been a guitarist since he was seven, coming third in a Romanian national music competition at the age of eleven. Now, he has a website that promotes young, Romanian musicians. His garage at Strada Aurora 21, in Iasi, Romania functions as a recording studio, featuring The Smokin’ Dudes Records, The Smokin’ Dudes TV, two bands: Andrei Cerbu and the Rockin’ Groove, and The Iron Cross, as well as several soloists. Music is freely available, but he also provides many ways for people to support him, and other musicians, financially. These include merchandise sales, and donations through Patreon and PayPal. His YouTube channel has over 400 tracks, that are freely available for everyone to enjoy.

I sent a link to a cover of Deep Purple’s Highway Star (1972) by Cerbu’s band, The Iron Cross, to my young (under 40) nephew. He replied, “I’m not familiar with the original, but I don’t think it could be better than this version.”

Copyright details. In the United Kingdom there were relevant copyright acts in 1911, 1956 and 1988. According to this last iteration, copyright in a sound recording expires after 50 years.either (a) 50 years after the recording is made, or (b) if the recording is published during that period then 50 years from the publication, or (c) if during the initial 50 years the recording is played in public or communicated to the public then 50 years from that communication or playing to the public, provided the author of the broadcast is an European economic area (EEA) citizen. Copyright is supposed to balance the rights of creators with the rights of users/ consumers. Thus, creators are given a monopoly to profit from their recording for a specified period of time. Under this arrangement, all of the music made in Britain in the 1960s would be freely available as of 2021-01-01. As stated previously, above, on 2013-11-01, the UK copyright on sound recordings, not yet in the public domain, was extended from 50 to 70 years. This means that only recordings made in 1962 or earlier are currently in the public domain. Those made in 1963 will first come into the public domain on 2034-01-01; those made in 1973, on 2044-01-01.