After years in which tech-company hype has drowned out most other voices, the frustration of musicians with the digital music world has begun to get a hearing. We know now that many rockers don’t like it. Less discussed so far is the trouble jazz and classical musicians — and their fans — have with music streaming, which is being hailed as the “savior” of the music business.
But between low royalties, opaque payout rates, declining record sales and suspicion that the major labels have cut deals with the streamers that leave musicians out of the equation, anger from the music business’s artier edges is slowing growing. It’s further proof of the lie of the “long tail.” The shift to digital is also helping to isolate these already marginalized genres: It has a decisive effect on what listeners can find, and on whether or not an artist can earn a living from his work. (Music streaming, in all genres, is up 42 percent for the first half of this year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, against the first half of 2013. Over the same period, CD sales fell 19.6 percent, and downloads, the industry’s previous savior, were down 11.6 percent.)
Only a very few classical artists have been outspoken on the issue so far: San-Francisco-based Zoe Keating — a tech-savvy, DIY, Amanda Palmer of the cello — has blown the whistle on the tiny amounts the streaming services pay musicians. Though she’s exactly the kind of artist who should be cashing in on streaming, since she releases her own music, tours relentlessly, and has developed a strong following since her days with rock band Rasputina, only 8 percent of her last year’s earnings from recorded music came from streaming. The iTunes store, which pays out in small amounts since most purchases are for 99 cent songs, paid her about six times what she earned from streaming. (More than 400,000 Spotify streams earned her $1,764; almost 2 million YouTube views generated $1,248.)
For jazz and classical players without Keating’s entrepreneurial energy or larger cult following, the numbers are even bleaker. “It feels awful,” says Christina Courtin, a Julliard-trained violinist who plays in classical groups and has put out albums on the Nonesuch and Hundred Pockets labels. “I don’t count on that as a way to make money — I don’t see how it makes sense for a musician. It’s pretty dark — no one’s selling as much as they were even five years ago.”
Some artists remember a very different world. “I used to sell CDs of my music,” says Richard Danielpour, a celebrated American composer who has written an opera with Toni Morrison and once had an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. “And now we get nothing.”
It’s not just streaming, but the larger digital era that’s burying record stores, radio and recordings – and it’s hitting jazz and classical musicians especially hard. For some young musicians launching their careers, the “exposure” they get on Pandora or YouTube brings them employment or a fan base somewhere down the line. But many wait in vain. And like their counterparts in the pop world, musicians typically cannot opt out of streaming and the rest of the new world.
“One of the big reasons musicians kept control of their publishing was for the possibility that at least we would be paid when those songs were played in media outlets,” says jazz pianist Jason Moran, currently the jazz advisor for the Kennedy Center. “Back in the day, Fats Waller, and tons of other artists were robbed of their publishing. This is the new version of it, but on a much more wider scale.”
In some ways, the trouble in these genres resembles the problems experienced by any non-superstar musicians. Royalties on steaming services, for instance, are notoriously low. “All of my colleagues — composers and arrangers — are seeing huge cuts in their earnings,” says Paul Chihara, a veteran composer who until recently headed UCLA’s film-music program. “In effect, we’re not getting royalties. It’s almost amusing some of the royalty checks I get.” One of the last checks he got was for $29. “And it bounced.”
The pain is especially acute for indie musicians. While some jazz and classical labels are owned by one of the three majors — Blue Note and Deutsche Grammophon, for example, are now part of the Universal Music Group — the vast majority of musicians record for independent labels. And the indies have been largely left out of the sweet deals struck with the streamers. Most of those deals are opaque; the informed speculation says that these arrangement are not good for musicians, especially those not on the few remaining majors.
“Musicians in niche categories need to be fearful of the agreements that labels are signing with streaming services,” says music historian Ted Gioia, who has also recorded as a jazz pianist. Some of these deals, he suspects, allow the steamers to pay nothing at all to some artists, including most who record jazz and classical music. “The record labels could make a case that they don’t need to share royalties with artists whose sales don’t cross a certain threshold. If you’re Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, you have no problem. But otherwise, you would get no royalties. The nature of these deals are that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Labels that own substantial back catalog — old Pink Floyd and Eagles albums, and earlier music that no longer require royalty payments to musicians — have likely cut much better deals than labels that primarily put out new music, especially those in non-pop genres. Says Gioia: “I suspect we’d find agreements where the labels say, [to the streamers], ‘You can have our whole catalog for $5 million, plus you pay us a fraction of a penny for any song that streams more than a million times.’” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to think this way: The major labels have a number of weaselly little tricks like this one, sometimes called a “digital breakage,” in which musicians get nothing.
Moran compares the appearance of Spotify on the scene to the arrival of Wal-Mart to an American small-town: The new model undercuts the existing ones, and helps put smaller, independent stores out of business.
Indie labels are equally vulnerable. Pi Recordings is a jazz label that puts out recordings by the cream of the avant-garde, including Henry Threadgill, Marc Ribot and Rudresh Mahanthappa. It’s been described as one of the rare success stories in a dark time. But Yulun Wang, who co-runs the label, is not sure how they can stand up against the streaming onslaught.
“You have the guy who buys 20 jazz records a year — $300 a year,” Wang says. “He might buy one or two of our albums. If I convert that guy to Spotify – he’s now getting all-you-can-eat for $120. And the proportion that comes to me is literally pennies. That’s when it over. That’s will force labels like ours to either change the way we do things significantly.”
The digital enthusiasts say that labels need to “adjust” to the new world – by taking a piece of musicians’ touring, or cutting “360 deals” in which they get part of every strand of an artist’s revenue stream. But for jazz artists, touring outside New York and a few other cities does not yield much. “If I take 15 percent of someone making $30,000, it’s just less money in their pocket.” At a certain point, the artist can no longer pay the rent. “That’s when it’s game over.”
But it’s not just a problem of scale. There are distinctive qualities to jazz and classical music that make it a difficult fit to the digital world as it now exists, and that punish musicians and curious fans alike. To Jean Cook, a new-music violinist, onetime Mekon, and director of programs for the Future Musical Coalition, it further marginalizes these already peripheral styles, creating what she calls “invisible genres.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, or Beats Music, she says. “Any music service that’s serving pop and classical music will not serve classical music well.” The problem is the nature of classical music, and jazz as well, and the way they differ from pop music. They all make different use of metadata – a term most people associate with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, but which have a profound importance to streaming services. Put most simply: Classical music and jazz are such a mismatch for existing streaming services, it’s almost impossible to find stuff. Cook realized this when she got a recommendation from a music lover, and found herself falling down an online labyrinth trying to find it.
Here’s a good place to start: Say you’re looking for a bedrock recording, the Beethoven Piano Concertos, with titan Maurizio Pollini on piano. Who is the “artist” for this one? Is it the Berlin Philharmonic, or Claudio Abbado, who conducts them? Is it Pollini? Or is it Beethoven himself? If you can see the entire record jacket, you can see who the recording includes. Otherwise, you could find yourself guessing.
Or, if you want music written the Russian late romantic, do you want Rachmaninoff, or Rachmaninoff? Chances are, your service will have one but not the other. And what do you call the movements of a symphony or chamber piece? By their Roman numeral? Or by names like andante or scherzo?
“These services are built to serve the largest segments of the marketplace — pop, country and hip hop,” says Cook. None of these have this kind of complicated structure.
Jazz offers similar difficulties, she says. Say you want to find recordings by pianist Bill Evans. You can find a bunch of them — but nothing linking him to “Kind of Blue,” perhaps the most important (and, in vinyl and CD form, certainly the bestselling) recording he was ever a part of. Evans shaped that album profoundly. You won’t find John Coltrane — another key voice on that session — there either, since it’s a Miles Davis record.
“Listing sidemen is something that is just not built into the architecture,” says Cook. It’s not a small problem. “I can’t think of a single example of a jazz musician who was not a sideman at one point in their career. We’re talking about a significant portion of jazz history that can’t get out.” It also makes you wonder — what are the chances that sidemen, or their heirs, get paid when things are streamed? And what do potential music consumers do when they can’t find what they’re looking for?
There used to be a solution to this. “Go back to the days of record stores,” says Gioia, “and customers could learn a lot from browsing the racks, or asking the serious music fans who worked there.” (Classical record stores, then and now, tended to have their recordings organized by composer rather than group.) The algorithms for specialized genres — classical, reggae, acoustic blues, Brazilian music —are hopeless, he says.
“These days, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for. If you want something by Beyonce or Miley Cyrus, it’s not hard. If you’re interested in niche music, you can be in the position of not knowing what’s out there. I still find myself missing important releases by musicians I care about. Streaming provides access to millions of hours of music, but it’s easy to get lost in it.”
If dedicated fans like Cook and Gioia have these problems, what will happen to the casual or new fans that every genre needs in order to stay alive? They’ll simply drift away to the stuff that’s being beamed at them by advertisers around the clock.
Even some of those frightened and demoralized by the digital transition think things can be improved for jazz and classical music.
So far, Wang’s solution has been to drop out. It’s nearly impossible for artists to withdraw, but as a label head, he can pull all of Pi’s music off Spotify. After three or four months on the service, two years back, he received a royalty statement of about $25 for all of it, and decided it just wasn’t worth it.
“What we found when we got out of Spotify — after these dire warnings — was that our sales went up; they absolutely jumped.”
He’s very familiar with the pressure to give art away. “We were always told you need to get as many audiences as possible … With the exposure argument, you’re told, ‘You could become the next Lady Gaga!’ It’s like playing Lotto — buy dollar tickets, and you could hit it big. In jazz, keep buying dollar tickets so you can win a dollar fifty.”
Cook sees the poor fit of these genres to streaming services as part of a larger phenomenon: Their radio playlists don’t show up in Billboard, their ticket receipts and album sales are often not reported to SoundScan and PollStar, and their awards on the Grammys are rarely televised. “This affects the visibility of jazz and classical music, and the way they are viewed by the rest of the industry.”
Part of a solution involves getting the data straight. “There is no database that tells you who played on what recording, and who wrote each song. ASCAP has one piece of the puzzle; iTunes has another. If you’ve got a music service, you need this, because you need to know who to pay. You need to tell listeners who they’re listening too. And if it’s not consistent, it’s not searchable.”
She wonders how it happens, though, even with open-source software that makes it easier. “The classical community needs to say, ‘This is a good index, instead of the crap the record labels are sending you. It requires a coordinated effort by a lot of different parties.”
Composer Danielpour says that classical people should not give up on recording work and trying to get on the radio. “Even though radio is a mid-20th century medium, for classical music it’s still a powerful source of revenue,” especially in Europe, where royalties are typically better. He recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. “For European and Russian audiences, classical music is religion. For us in America, it’s entertainment.”
Gioia, a former businessman, is pragmatic and forward looking. “My view is that the only solution for this, that is equitable for everyone, is for the music labels, in partnership with the artists, to control their own streaming,” says Gioia. “They need to bypass Silicon Valley.
“They need to work together with a new model, to control distribution and not rely on Apple, Amazon and everyone else. The music industry has always hated technology — they hated radio when it came out — and have always dragged their feet. They need to embrace technology and do it better.”
Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. His book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class” comes out in January. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMisreadCity