Money for Nothing

The music business has changed. Or so we’re often told.

Gone are the days of helplessly dangling oneself out on the stage of a dive-bar, waiting for a God-sent label executive to pull you to one side at the fire-escape and change your life forever.

These days, we can take our destiny in our hands and self-publish music, available for the world to stream at the touch of a button. An undeniable democratisation of the entire process that it’s impossible not to feel grateful for. No need to struggle through doomed auditions, or beg publishers and production companies to read a manuscript like other creatives have to.

Write, record and release and before you know it your songs are real, tangible objects of art, thrust into the digital gallery of human expression.

NN Taleb, in his seminal ‘The Black Swan’, advances the argument that unlimited, exponentially scaleable availability creates a world in which the Pareto Principle operates on steroids. The Pareto Principle dictates that 80% of consequence are the result of 20% of causes. We see it everywhere.

As the principle took its name and began to be explored in the late 1980s examples just kept arising. The United Nations noted in 1992 the way that 80% of global GDP was generated and enjoyed by the richest 20% of the world’s population. The video rental industry called it the ‘Gone With the Wind Effect when they realised that about 20% of their highest performing video-tapes accounted for 80% of their rentals.

In the music industry in 2022, much like in TV, the advent of online streaming and unlimited access to ‘content’ (shudder) has amplified this distribution beyond even the Pareto Principle’s generous 80/20 ratio.

In a world of limited musical availability - the 1890s, for example - if someone wanted to hear an opera they would have little choice but to find a local performance, given by a local opera singer, and buy a ticket. They would, in return, have access to an inferior, though acceptable, version of the product (assuming their local opera singer wasn’t quite as good as the international stars who only appeared in Paris and Vienna) but their local opera singer would be able to make a living.

This began changing as early as the gramophone when, if you had enough money, you could listen to Puccini as often as you liked from the comfort of your own drawing room. The radio, the compact disc, MTV, the MP3 - all of these technologies have exacerbated the situation.

To give you a brief overview, if you’re unfamiliar, the currency of today’s music industry is streams. The world’s biggest streaming platform is Spotify. It contains over 80 million tracks available for users to stream immediately, 24 hours a day.

Unlike the radio, the former gatekeeper of the audio world, it makes the history of music available at the touch of a button, meaning that your track doesn’t just need to stand out against the current crop of chart-invaders that would formerly have been wrestling for ears and airtime; it also needs to be able to drag listeners away from Bohemian Rhapsody, Don’t Look Back in Anger, Sweet Caroline and Beethoven’s Fifth.

Now, on Spotify, around 80% of artists have 50 monthly listeners or less because the platform is completely dominated by the household names of the past and present. As of 2020, the top 1.4% of artists streamable on Spotify accounted for around 90% of its streams.

These cold, unforgiving statistics have given birth to a parasite industry of those promising to help you take your fledgling career in independent music to the mythical ‘next level’; to help you cut through the noise and finally realise the admiration and attention ‘your music truly deserves’.

Barely an hour goes by, now that my music exists, that I don’t encounter a sponsored post from an aggressive digital-salesman, every pause chopped out of their pitch by the YouTube editing style-du-jour, telling me that I’m wasting my time unless I don’t consider their offer to parachute my songs into their Spotify playlist for the very reasonable fee of $300.

The problem is that streams are no reflection of actual fans, like you (presumably, unless you’re just really into irrelevant blog-posts). They simply record the number of times your song has been played, be it to nobody in a coffee shop, a disinterested victim of the algorithm on their afternoon jog, or, worst of all, the automated software they have set up to ensure that digital bots stream the song constantly in order to justify the promises of their offering.

This may all feel a little like a first-world problem as you read, and it undoubtedly is. I’d write songs for free (which is lucky, because that is precisely what I am doing) just for the knowledge that people get a kick out of them; that they might even mean something to somebody, the way A Rainy Night in Soho or Bridge Over Troubled Water mean something to me.

And if a lifetime of being buried in the graveyard tail of the Spotify streaming service is the result, then there are far worse ways to spend a lifetime in my opinion.

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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