Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?

May 24, 2016

Chuck Klosterman NYTimes.com 5/23/16

The most important musical form of the 20th century will
be nearly forgotten one day. People will probably learn
about the genre through one figure — so who might that be?
Classifying anyone as the “most successful” at anything tends to reflect more on the source than the subject. So keep that in mind when I make the following statement: John Philip Sousa is the most successful American musician of all time.

Marching music is a maddeningly durable genre, recognizable to pretty much everyone who has lived in the United States for any period. It works as a sonic shorthand for any filmmaker hoping to evoke the late 19th century and serves as the auditory backdrop for national holidays, the circus and college football. It’s not “popular” music, but it’s entrenched within the popular experience. It will be no less fashionable tomorrow than it is today.

And this entire musical idiom is now encapsulated in one person: John Philip Sousa. Even the most cursory two-sentence description of marching music inevitably cites him by name. I have no data on this, but I would assert that if we were to ask the entire population of the United States to name every composer of marching music they could think of, 98 percent of the populace would name either one person (Sousa) or no one at all. There’s just no separation between the awareness of this person and the awareness of this music, and it’s hard to believe that will ever change.

Now, the reason this happened — or at least the explanation we’ve decided to accept — is that Sousa was simply the best at this art. He composed 136 marches over a span of six decades and is regularly described as the most famous musician of his era. The story of his life and career has been shoehorned into the U.S. education curriculum at a fundamental level. (I first learned of Sousa in fourth grade, a year before we memorized the state capitals.) And this, it seems, is how mainstream musical memory works. As the timeline moves forward, tangential artists in any field fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person become interchangeable. Sometimes this is easy to predict: I have zero doubt that the worldwide memory of Bob Marley will eventually have the same tenacity and familiarity as the worldwide memory of reggae itself.

But envisioning this process with rock music is harder. Almost anything can be labeled “rock”: Metallica, ABBA, Mannheim Steamroller, a haircut, a muffler. If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a “rock-star C.P.A.” when describing your business to less-hip neighbors. The defining music of the first half of the 20th century was jazz; the defining music of the second half of the 20th century was rock, but with an ideology and saturation far more pervasive. Only television surpasses its influence.

And pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying. The critic Richard Meltzer supposedly claimed that rock was already dead in 1968. And he was wrong to the same degree that he was right. Meltzer’s wrongness is obvious and does not require explanation, unless you honestly think “Purple Rain” is awful. But his rightness is more complicated: Rock is dead, in the sense that its “aliveness” is a subjective assertion based on whatever criteria the listener happens to care about.

This is why the essential significance of rock remains a plausible thing to debate, as does the relative value of major figures within that system (the Doors, R.E.M., Radiohead). It still projects the illusion of a universe containing multitudes. But it won’t seem that way in 300 years.

The symbolic value of rock is conflict-based: It emerged as a byproduct of the post-World War II invention of the teenager, soundtracking a 25-year period when the gap between generations was utterly real and uncommonly vast. That dissonance gave rock music a distinctive, nonmusical importance for a long time. But that period is over. Rock — or at least the anthemic, metaphoric, Hard Rock Cafe version of big rock — has become more socially accessible but less socially essential, synchronously shackled by its own formal limitations. Its cultural recession is intertwined with its cultural absorption. As a result, what we’re left with is a youth-oriented music genre that a) isn’t symbolically important; b) lacks creative potential; and c) has no specific tie to young people. It has completed its historical trajectory. Which means, eventually, it will exist primarily as an academic pursuit. It will exist as something people have to be taught to feel and understand.

I imagine a college classroom in 300 years, in which a hip instructor is leading a tutorial filled with students. These students relate to rock music with no more fluency than they do the music of Mesopotamia: It’s a style they’ve learned to recognize, but just barely (and only because they’ve taken this specific class). Nobody in the room can name more than two rock songs, except the professor. He explains the sonic structure of rock, its origins, the way it served as cultural currency and how it shaped and defined three generations of a global superpower. He shows the class a photo, or perhaps a hologram, of an artist who has been intentionally selected to epitomize the entire concept. For these future students, that singular image defines what rock was.

So what’s the image?

Certainly, there’s one response to this hypothetical that feels immediate and sensible: the Beatles. All logic points to their dominance. They were the most popular band in the world during the period they were active and are only slightly less popular now, five decades later. The Beatles defined the concept of what a “rock group” was supposed to be, and all subsequent rock groups are (consciously or unconsciously) modeled upon the template they naturally embodied. Their 1964 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” is so regularly cited as the genesis for other bands that they arguably invented the culture of the 1970s, a decade when they were no longer together. The Beatles arguably invented everything, including the very notion of a band’s breaking up. There are still things about the Beatles that can’t be explained, almost to the point of the supernatural: the way their music resonates with toddlers, for example, or the way it resonated with Charles Manson. It’s impossible to imagine another rock group where half its members faced unrelated assassination attempts. In any reasonable world, the Beatles are the answer to the question “Who will be the Sousa of rock?”

But our world is not reasonable. And the way this question will be asked tomorrow is (probably) not the same way we would ask it today.

In Western culture, virtually everything is understood through the process of storytelling, often to the detriment of reality. When we recount history, we tend to use the life experience of one person — the “journey” of a particular “hero,” in the lingo of the mythologist Joseph Campbell — as a prism for understanding everything else. That inclination works to the Beatles’ communal detriment. But it buoys two other figures: Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Beatles are the most meaningful group, but Elvis and Dylan are the towering individuals, so eminent that I wouldn’t necessarily need to use Elvis’s last name or Dylan’s first.

Still, neither is an ideal manifestation of rock as a concept.

It has been said that Presley invented rock and roll, but he actually staged a form of primordial “prerock” that barely resembles the post-“Rubber Soul” aesthetics that came to define what this music is. He also exited rock culture relatively early; he was pretty much out of the game by 1973. Conversely, Dylan’s career spans the entirety of rock. Yet he never made an album that “rocked” in any conventional way (the live album “Hard Rain” probably comes closest). Still, these people are rock people. Both are integral to the core of the enterprise and influenced everything we have come to understand about the form (including the Beatles themselves, a group that would not have existed without Elvis and would not have pursued introspection without Dylan)

Pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock insisted it was dying.
In 300 years, the idea of “rock music” being represented by a two‑pronged combination of Elvis and Dylan would be equitable and oddly accurate. But the passage of time makes this progressively more difficult. It’s always easier for a culture to retain one story instead of two, and the stories of Presley and Dylan barely intersect (they supposedly met only once, in a Las Vegas hotel room). As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar, perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible one of them will be dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.

If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remembered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the centrality of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters it. Rock becomes a performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona — his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger‑than‑life charisma — become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists.

But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything; rock is somehow calcified as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven‑decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of autonomous states eventually became a place called “America.”

These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.

There is, of course, another way to consider how these things might unspool, and it might be closer to the way histories are actually built. I’m creating a binary reality where Elvis and Dylan start the race to posterity as equals, only to have one runner fall and disappear. The one who remains “wins” by default (and maybe that happens). But it might work in reverse. A more plausible situation is that future people will haphazardly decide how they want to remember rock, and whatever they decide will dictate who is declared its architect. If the constructed memory is a caricature of big‑hair arena rock, the answer is probably Elvis; if it’s a buoyant, unrealistic apparition of punk hagiography, the answer is probably Dylan. But both conclusions direct us back to the same recalcitrant question: What makes us remember the things we remember?

In 2014, the jazz historian Ted Gioia published a short essay about music criticism that outraged a class of perpetually outraged music critics. Gioia’s assertion was that 21st‑century music writing has devolved into a form of lifestyle journalism that willfully ignores the technical details of the music itself. Many critics took this attack personally and accused Gioia of devaluing their vocation. Which is odd, considering the colossal degree of power Gioia ascribes to record reviewers: He believes specialists are the people who galvanize history. Critics have almost no impact on what music is popular at any given time, but they’re extraordinarily well positioned to dictate what music is reintroduced after its popularity has
The greatest sacrilege was when the Beach Boys used the melody of “Sweet Little Sixteen” for “Surfin’ USA” and had a No 1 hit with it. …

“Over time, critics and historians will play a larger role in deciding whose fame endures,” Gioia wrote me in an email. “Commercial factors will have less impact. I don’t see why rock and pop will follow any different trajectory from jazz and blues.” He rattled off several illustrative examples: Ben Selvin outsold Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. In 1956, Nelson Riddle and Les Baxter outsold “almost every rock ’n’ roll star not named Elvis,” but they’ve been virtually erased from the public record. A year after that, the closeted gay crooner Tab Hunter was bigger than Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino, “but critics and music historians hate sentimental love songs. They’ve constructed a perspective that emphasizes the rise of rock and pushes everything else into the background. Transgressive rockers, in contrast, enjoy lasting fame.” He points to a contemporary version of that phenomenon: “Right now, electronic dance music probably outsells hip‑hop. This is identical to the punk‑versus‑disco trade‑off of the 1970s. My prediction: edgy hip‑hop music will win the fame game in the long run, while E.D.M. will be seen as another mindless dance craze.”

Gioia is touching on a variety of volatile ideas here, particularly the outsize memory of transgressive art. His example is the adversarial divide between punk and disco: In 1977, the disco soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” and the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” were both released. The soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever” has sold more than 15 million copies; it took “Never Mind the Bollocks” 15 years to go platinum. Yet virtually all pop historiographers elevate the importance of the Pistols above that of the Bee Gees. The same year the Sex Pistols finally sold the millionth copy of their debut, SPIN magazine placed them on a list of the seven greatest bands of all time. “Never Mind the Bollocks” is part of the White House record library, supposedly inserted by Amy Carter just before her dad lost to Ronald Reagan. The album’s reputation improves by simply existing: In 1985, the British publication NME classified it as the 13th‑greatest album of all time; in 1993, NME made a new list and decided it now deserved to be ranked third. This has as much to do with its transgressive identity as its musical integrity. The album is overtly transgressive (and therefore memorable), while “Saturday Night Fever” has been framed as a prefab totem of a facile culture (and thus forgettable). For more than three decades, that has been the overwhelming consensus.

But I’ve noticed — just in the last four or five years — that this consensus is shifting. Why? Because the definition of “transgressive” is shifting. It’s no longer appropriate to dismiss disco as superficial. More and more, we recognize how disco latently pushed gay, urban culture into white suburbia, which is a more meaningful transgression than going on a British TV talk show and swearing at the host. So is it possible that the punk‑disco polarity will eventually flip? Yes. It’s possible everyone could decide to reverse how we remember 1977. But there’s still another stage here, beyond that hypothetical inversion: the stage in which everybody who was around for punk and disco is dead and buried, and no one is left to contradict how that moment felt. When that happens, the debate over transgressions freezes and all that is left is the music. Which means the Sex Pistols could win again or maybe they lose bigger, depending on the judge.

“There is a justice-driven part of my brain that believes — or needs to believe — that the cream rises to the top, and the best work endures by virtue of its goodness,” argues the music writer Amanda Petrusich, author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price,” a dive into the obsessive world of 78 r.p.m. record collectors. “That music becomes emblematic because it’s the most effective. When I think of rock and who might survive, I immediately think of the Rolling Stones. They’re a band that sounds like what we’ve all decided rock ’n’ roll should sound like: loose and wild. Their story reflects that ethos and sound: loose and wild. And also, they’re good.”

This is true. The Rolling Stones are good, even when they release records like “Bridges to Babylon.” They’ve outlived every band that ever competed against them, with career album sales exceeding the present population of Brazil. From a credibility standpoint, the Rolling Stones are beyond reproach, regardless of how they choose to promote themselves: They’ve performed at the Super Bowl, in a Kellogg’s commercial and on an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The name of the biggest magazine covering rock music was partly inspired by their sheer existence. The group members have faced arrest on multiple continents, headlined the most disastrous concert in California history and classified themselves (with surprisingly little argument) as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” since 1969. Working from the premise that the collective memory of rock should dovetail with the artist who most accurately represents what rock music actually was, the Rolling Stones are a strong answer.

But not the final answer.

NASA sent the unmanned craft Voyager I into deep space in 1977. It’s still out there, forever fleeing Earth’s pull. No man‑made object has ever traveled farther; it crossed the orbit of Pluto in 1989 and currently tumbles through the interstellar wasteland. The hope was that this vessel would eventually be discovered by intelligent extraterrestrials, so NASA included a compilation album made of gold, along with a rudimentary sketch of how to play it with a stylus. A team led by Carl Sagan curated the album’s contents. The record, if played by the aliens, is supposed to reflect the diversity and brilliance of earthling life. This, obviously, presupposes a lot of insane hopes: that the craft will somehow be found, that the craft will somehow be intact, that the aliens who find it will be vaguely human, that these vaguely human aliens will absorb stimuli both visually and sonically and that these aliens will not still be listening to eight‑tracks.

But it did guarantee that one rock song will exist even if the earth is spontaneously swallowed by the sun: “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry. The song was championed by Ann Druyan (who later become Sagan’s wife) and Timothy Ferris, a science writer and friend of Sagan’s who contributed to Rolling Stone magazine. According to Ferris, who was the album’s de facto producer, the folklorist Alan Lomax was against the selection of Berry, based on the argument that rock music was too childish to represent the highest achievements of the planet. (I’m assuming Lomax wasn’t too heavily engaged with the debate over the Sex Pistols and “Saturday Night Fever” either.) “Johnny B. Goode” is the only rock song on the Voyager disc, although a few other tunes were considered. “Here Comes the Sun” was a candidate, and all four Beatles wanted it to be included, but none of them owned the song’s copyright, so it was killed for legal reasons.

The fact that this happened in 1977 was also relevant to the song’s selection. “Johnny B. Goode” was 19 years old that year, which made it seem distinguished, almost prehistoric, at the time. I suspect the main reason “Johnny B. Goode” was chosen is that it just seemed like a reasonable track to select. But it was more than reasonable. It was, either deliberately or accidentally, the best possible artist for NASA to select. Chuck Berry may very well become the artist society selects when rock music is retroactively reconsidered by the grandchildren of your grandchildren.

Let’s assume all the individual components of rock shatter and dissolve, leaving behind a hazy residue that categorizes rock ’n’ roll as a collection of memorable tropes. If this transpires, historians will reconstitute the genre like a puzzle. They will look at those tropes as a suit and try to decide who fits that suit best. And that theoretical suit was tailored for Chuck Berry’s body.

Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis.
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.

Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” John Lennon famously said, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” That quote is as close as we come to a full‑on Sousa scenario, where the person and the thing are ideologically interchangeable. Chuck Berry’s persona is the purest distillation of what we understand rock music to be. The songs he made are essential, but secondary to who he was and why he made them. He is the idea itself.

Chuck Klosterman is a writer and journalist.

Record labels are far from the evil suits Prince made them out to be – they’re redistributive business models

April 27, 2016

When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them

Ben Chu http://www.independent.co.uk 4/26/16

When pop stars go to war with their record companies which side do you get behind? The creative artists or the money-grubbing, talentless, suits? Surely a no-brainer. And yet reading about Prince’s epic battle against Warner Music in the 1990s I can’t help but feel sympathy for the suits.

Prince was signed as a precocious 18-year-old by Warner in 1977. He produced an album every year between 1978 and 1981. None of them were commercially successful but Warner kept on funding him as a promising prospect. Then the breakthrough came with the hit single “1999” and Prince was suddenly pop royalty.

The dispute apparently came when the prolific Prince wanted to release a studio-load of new material all at once. Warner said no, arguing that oversupplying the market was not the way to maximise revenues. They wanted the best possible return on their investment by restraining the supply of Prince. This would avoid swamping demand and also enable them to maximise the sense of occasion around each new release.

Warner got their way because they owned the rights to Prince’s music. Prince was royally annoyed though. He eventually likened his relationship with Warner to “slavery” and, later, advised all new artists not to sign contracts with record companies.

This was – and probably still is – terrible advice. Around a decade ago there was lots of optimistic chatter about how the internet would enable new artists and bands to reach audiences directly. They could, we were told, make the commercial big time without having to tap the promotional resources of record companies. The web would enable the talented to cut out the greedy middle man. But it hasn’t worked out like that. Vanishingly few artists have made it big without serious support from record companies somewhere along the line.

But don’t record companies milk top artists like Prince unfairly? Not really. Think about the model from the point of view of the record company. You sign a host of promising new acts. You pay for them to record. You promote their work. But only a tiny number will prove successful. The money the record company has spent on the unsuccessful acts is gone for good. The company makes all its money from the ones that do make it. That’s why it takes such a large share of the proceeds from a minority of successes.

The big acts simply see the large sums of money made by the company from their work and they resent it. But they often fail to grasp that these funds are what enable the record companies to invest in new acts and keep the machine running. Globally, record companies spent $4.5bn (£3bn) on marketing and investment in 2014, representing a quarter of their total revenues.

Small acts might be tempted to think established artists are looking out for their interests when the big guns attack the rapacious record company model. And there has been a lot of purple prose in recent days talking about how Prince valiantly stood up for all musicians with his various battles with record labels. But it’s nonsense. When big acts attack the funding model of record companies what they are doing, whether they know it or not, is pulling up the ladder behind them.

This isn’t to defend the taste of the record companies and the acts they select to sponsor. And there are signs that they do not stick with new artists as long as they should. It’s unlikely that an artist today would get funding for four years without any major hits, as Prince did. They would probably be cast aside much earlier. Nor is this to argue that record companies are saintly. It’s merely to point out that the underlying business model is a redistributive one in a way that the top artists generally fail to acknowledge.

Prince certainly didn’t acknowledge it. Yet he was remarkably quick to capitalise on another trend in popular music economics. He released his Planet Earth album free with the Mail on Sunday (of all publications) in 2007. People said he was crazy for giving away his product. They said he was devaluing it. That’s certainly what his (new) record company felt. They hadn’t been told and were forced to scrap plans to sell the album in UK shops. But Prince himself still made a commercial killing from a back-to-back run of 21 live British shows in the wake of the stunt. What Prince discovered – and many have discovered since – is that the big money in music is now in the live “experience”, not the recorded product.

Of course Prince was a quixotic character – and not just creatively but commercially. He spent a lot of time in the years following that Mail on Sunday give-away trying in vain to stop his music being distributed for free online. In that sense Prince actually had something in common with the record companies, who wasted vast sums fighting an unwinnable battle with the unlicensed distribution of music online.

Record labels are starting to be more sensible now. They seem to have grasped that there is money to be made from working with the internet rather than fighting it; from advertising revenues from music videos on YouTube, from legal downloads on iTunes and from royalties from streaming sites. Global industry revenues in 2015 rose for the first time in two decades.

But the digital world is still in flux. Online music consumption is increasingly shifting from downloads to streaming. And the lion’s share of revenues could in future flow to the streaming companies – cutting out artists and maybe even record companies in the end.

In response the big players of the artistic world including Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyoncé and Arcade Fire have established their own streaming service: Tidal. This week Beyoncé released her new album, Lemonade. It will exclusively stream on Tidal. The dominant streaming players, such as Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, have been cut out (although it is available to buy on iTunes). This is an attempt by group of successful artists to monetise musical content once again, not just experiences. This will be the biggest test yet of their model. If an artist with the reach of Beyoncé can’t make it work, it may be a dead end.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. That’s the reference in the title of Beyonce’s new album. It’s what Prince, generally, did. It’s what the record companies seem to be, finally, doing. The Tidal crew are trying it. The question as far as fans are concerned, though, remains the same as ever: is the music sweet or not?


Music sales growing at fastest rate since 1998

April 13, 2016
   Robert Cookson FT.com 4/12/16

Record companies have reported their fastest revenue growth in nearly two decades, as the rise of subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music offset declines in CD and download sales.

Total industry revenues grew 3.2 per cent to $15bn in 2015, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, an organisation that represents recording companies. This is the highest rate of sales growth in the sector since 1998.

Frances Moore, IFPI chief executive, said: “After two decades of almost uninterrupted decline, 2015 witnessed key milestones for recorded music: measurable revenue growth globally; consumption of music exploding everywhere; and digital revenues overtaking income from physical formats for the first time.”

British singers Adele and Ed Sheeran were the top selling recording artists of the year, followed by Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and One Direction.

However, Ms Moore argued that the industry’s revenues should be much higher, claiming that certain streaming services such as Google’s YouTube were paying too little to record labels for the use of their songs.

Overall, recording companies’ streaming revenues increased by 45 per cent to $2.9bn last year, IFPI reported. Of that total, $2bn came from about 68m people who pay for subscription streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

By contrast, only $634m was from YouTube and other “user upload” streaming services in 2015, even though these services streamed songs to almost 1bn listeners, IFPI noted.

“We’re operating in a market that’s skewed,” Ms Moore said.

IFPI argues that YouTube has been able to avoid paying a “fair” rate to copyright holders by taking advantage of legislation that protects internet hosting companies from being liable for copyright infringement by their users. This has allowed users to upload unlicensed content on YouTube — and left it to the recording companies to request its removal. IFPI is now lobbying European and US regulators to amend the legislation.

Chart: Recorded music industry sales

YouTube, however, says it has paid out more than $3bn to the music industry to date and points out that it provides a tool, called Content ID, that gives record labels strong control over their copyrights. It makes the bulk of its revenues from advertising but recently launched a subscription offering.

While music streaming was surging, revenues from physical formats continued to decline in 2015 — albeit at about half the rate of decline in the previous two years. Sales from physical recordings, mainly CDs, were worth $5.9bn, a drop of 4.5 per cent.

These sales were boosted, in part, by the success of Adele’s latest album, which was withheld from streaming services, as well as a rebound in Japan, the world’s second biggest music market, where CDs are still the main medium for music consumption.

Revenues from performance rights — the use of recorded music by broadcasters and public venues — increased 4.4 per cent to $2.1bn.

However, download revenues fell 10.5 per cent to $3bn — a bigger decline than in 2014.

Will Page, director of economics at Spotify, said the growth of the Swedish streaming service alone more than offset the global decline in downloads in 2015, “which makes this streaming-based recovery feel increasingly sustainable”.

Recovering music biz still can’t cash in on YouTube

April 12, 2016

By Claire Atkinson NYpost.com 4/11/16

The music business has finally hit bottom and is beginning to bounce back.

After years of falling album sales and piracy woes, the global recording business notched its first significant revenue uptick in almost two decades last year, according to a new industry report set to be released on Tuesday.

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s 2015 digital music report will show that revenue rose more than 3 percent, topping $15 billion, in 2015. That’s the first significant jump since 1998, when global revenue rose 4.8 percent.

While the long-awaited gain should have the industry singing an upbeat tune, the big record labels are far from happy with the state of music streaming.

Most of last year’s revenue growth came from paid subscription services, a category that includes Apple Music, and Spotify’s premium tier. That’s a business the labels would like to keep growing.

But the industry is less than pleased with the revenue artists and others collect from ad-supported services such as YouTube, where users flock to stream music and watch videos for free.

The IFPI report is expected to throw more shade on the Google-owned video platform, which is facing licensing negotiations with the big three record labels.

YouTube’s deals with Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music have either expired or will this year, the Financial Times reported on Sunday.

Last month, the Recording Industry Association of America slammed YouTube in a separate report, saying it doesn’t pay its fair share of royalties despite surging usage. That report revealed the music labels derived more revenue from vinyl than all the ad-supported YouTube consumption created in advertising revenue.

The IFPI report is expected to add to the noise surrounding ad-supported services by showing that just 4 percent of global revenue, or around $600 million, is derived from ad-supported platforms, of which YouTube is by far the biggest.

By comparison, paid subscription services generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue in 2015.

Total paid-music subscribers grew to 68 million in 2015, up from 41 million the previous year, the IFPI report will show. But that’s dwarfed by YouTube’s 900 million users.

“The main concern is the fact that ad revenue is not climbing in line with views,” said a top industry source. “The value of a stream is dropping and we want to make sure there’s a floor in the per stream rate.”

YouTube’s chief business officer, Robert Kyncl, has been making the industry rounds to explain how the music business can better monetize its advertising on its platform. Kyncl’s has been preaching that “free is the future, ad supported is the future,” one source said.

“To date, Google has paid out over $3 billion to the music industry — and that number is growing significantly year on year,” YouTube said in a statement to The Post.

“Only about 20 percent of people are historically willing to pay for music. YouTube is helping artists and labels monetize the remaining 80 percent that were not previously monetized.”

Here’s why the music labels are furious at YouTube. Again.

April 12, 2016

Peter Kafka recode.net  4/11/16

You’ve heard this song before: The music industry is mad at YouTube.

In the old days, the music business used to complain that YouTube took their music and didn’t pay them. Now the complaint has changed: Now the music guys say YouTube doesn’t pay them enough.

The music labels have been grousing about YouTube for a while now, but they have recently turned up the volume.

Last month, the RIAA, the labels’ American trade group, lobbed a volley at Google’s video service, arguing that YouTube doesn’t pay a fair price for all the music it gives its users for free. The IFPI, the label’s global trade group, should have a report out shortly which repeats the same charge.

The complaints come as the big three music labels — Universal Music Group, Sony and Warner Music Group — are set to renegotiate contracts with YouTube.

It would seem like the best way to get more money from YouTube would be to get a better deal this time around. But the labels say their bargaining power is reduced by the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which gives broad protection to YouTube and other services that rely on content that users upload.

I asked RIAA head Cary Sherman to explain his industry’s beef with both the DMCA and with YouTube. Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation. There’s also a response of sorts from YouTube at the end.

Peter Kafka: I don’t understand why the industry is complaining about YouTube and its use of the DMCA again. Viacom spent years on this in court, and got soundly defeated. Hasn’t everyone learned to accept this by now?

Cary Sherman: We accept the inevitability of death. It doesn’t mean we have to like it. There is now under way a study of whether the DMCA is actually effective and fulfilling its intended purpose, being conducted by the Copyright Office, and it has given us an opportunity for the community to collect our thoughts about just how dysfunctional the DMCA actually is. And to actually tell the government about it.

A lot of people would argue that the DMCA allowed Silicon Valley to build really big, really amazing and wonderful things. And that on the whole it’s a net plus for the U.S. and the world.

That assumes that only with the DMCA, as it was written in 1998, would that have been possible. We feel like the 1998 Internet is not the Internet of 2016. It’s a dramatically different Internet, and it’s time to take a fresh look at whether the balance that was struck in 1998 is effective in 2016.

And the answer is clearly “no.”

Just look at Silicon Valley. They’ve done an extraordinary job, and their market cap is worth gazillions of dollars. Look at the creative industries — not just the music industry, but all of them. All of them have suffered. We’re half the size we were. And we’re flat, and we haven’t been growing. And that’s true of all of the creative industries.

For the music industry, 70 percent of revenues now come from digital. We’ve licensed every different kind of model, but the revenues just aren’t coming in.

One of the problems is piracy, which continues to be a problem. The other is under-monetization, and that’s because of things like the DMCA, where some companies get the benefit of being able to distribute our content, without taking fair market value kind of licenses.

When you compare what we get when we get to freely negotiate, with a company like Spotify, vs. what we get when we are under the burden of an expansively interpreted “safe harbor,” when you’re negotiating with somebody like YouTube, you can see that you’re not getting the value across the platforms that you should.

What’s the single biggest change in the DMCA that you’d like to see?

Notice and stay down, instead of notice and take down. There are 100 copies of a song. We can’t just say to YouTube “we didn’t license this Pharrell song, take it down.” They will not just take down all 100 copies. They’ll take down only the one file that we’ve identified. We have to find every one of them, and notice them, and then they’re taken down, and then immediately put right back up. You can never get all the songs off the system.

If we had a system where once a song was taken down, you had a filtering system that prevented it from going back up, we wouldn’t have to be sending hundreds of millions of notices on the same content over and over again.

Maybe then we’d begin to make a difference with all the pirated copies on all of the websites. But as long as there isn’t a stay down, we can’t deal with that. It’s just not possible.

The labels do have deals with YouTube. If they don’t like those deals, why not negotiate better ones or walk away? All of them expire this year.

The way the negotiation goes is something like this: “Look. This is all we can afford to pay you,” YouTube says. “We hope that you’ll find that reasonable. But that’s the best we can do. And if you don’t want to give us a license, okay. You know that your music is still going to be up on the service anyway. So send us notices, and we’ll take ’em down as fast we can, and we know they’ll keep coming back up. We’ll do what we can. It’s your decision as to whether you want to take our deal, or whether you just want to keep sending us takedown notices.”

That’s not a real negotiation. That’s like saying, “That’s a real nice song you got there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”

So you’re saying the labels aren’t really free to walk away from YouTube — that their music stays up there whether they want it to or not.

We have experience with this. Because Warner Music, a few years ago, decided that they didn’t want their music on YouTube, because it was hurting all the rest of their deals. So they didn’t do a license with YouTube. A year later, they threw in the towel. What was that year like? They spent a fortune trying to take down their music. They could never even keep up with all the counter-notifications that were constantly being filed, so the music was going right back up anyway. And they were earning no revenues at all. So finally they threw in the towel, and accepted the licenses.

That’s what it’s like to negotiate, when somebody can claim the benefit of an expansive safe harbor. They’re taking the benefit of a safe harbor that was intended for people who were passive, neutral intermediaries. People like Verizon, where the content is just passing through their system. They’re not making money off of distributing content. YouTube does.

Katy Perry, among other people, is lobbying on behalf of the music business. It seems like getting rich musicians to press your case won’t help you change the laws. Do you think there’s a practical chance that will happen?

Two different questions. First: Katy Perry. The petition she filed makes clear that she’s worried about the next generation of songwriters and artists that are coming up. She isn’t complaining that she isn’t making enough money.

She made that money in the era that you’re complaining about. She made that money as a YouTube star.

Yeah. Well, the reality is that the industry is more stratified than ever. There are some people who have done really well. But it’s harder and harder for more musicians to make a living. Because the revenue that they’re getting from streaming isn’t keeping pace with the revenue that they used to be able to earn. We’re trying to get to a point where the streaming ecosystem works for everybody.

In terms of whether Congress will do something about it? We don’t know. It’s hard to get anything through Congress. But Congress has been taking a look at the copyright law for 3 years now. We want them to understand that one of the most important things affecting the value and ability of copyright to survive, is to take a fresh look at the DMCA

It’s complicated, right? The labels used to be investors in YouTube, right before it sold to Google. Two of the labels are partners with YouTube in Vevo. It doesn’t look like they’re in real opposition. It looks like they’re partners who don’t like terms of a deal they did.

I think the record companies would like to be partners with YouTube. But it’s a little hard to call it a partnership when it’s so one-sided in terms of the negotiating leverage.

Some of the loudest voices against YouTube used to be the video companies – movie studios, TV companies. Viacom was the one who sued them. They’re not vocal in the way that the music labels are now. Why aren’t they joining you?

Maybe it’s because YouTube is not the place where you go for your pirated movies. But it certainly is the place you go for your pirated… I shouldn’t call it pirated. It’s “user-uploaded.” They’re putting up an entire album, and a picture of the artist, and therefore YouTube has become the largest on-demand music service in the world.


I offered YouTube executives the chance to rebut Sherman’s argument via a separate Q&A, but they declined. The company did point me to the response they offered when the RIAA criticized them last month:

“To date, Google has paid out over $3 billion to the music industry – and that number is growing year on year. This revenue is generated despite the fact that YouTube goes way beyond music to include popular categories such as news, gaming, how-to, sports and entertainment. And with the recent launch of the YouTube Music app, we recently launched a new, dedicated music experience with the goal to deliver even more revenue to both artists and the music industry more broadly. Past comparisons to other audio-only, subscription music services are apples to oranges.”

YouTube and Google have also responded in more depth, via the comments they’ve filed to US Copyright Office as part of the study Sherman mentioned. Here’s a passage that deals with many of the RIAA’s complaints:

Some in the recording industry have suggested that the safe harbors somehow diminish the value of sound recordings, pointing to YouTube and blaming the DMCA for creating a so-called “value grab.” This claim is not supported by the facts. As an initial matter, it is important to understand that YouTube has had license agreements in place with both major and independent record labels for many years; it is simply incorrect to say that YouTube relies on the DMCA instead of licensing works. Those pressing the “value grab” argument also assert that the royalty rates in these licenses are too low, allegedly because the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process makes it too difficult for record labels to withdraw their works from YouTube in the face of users re-uploading those works. This claim, however, ignores Content ID, which has been in existence since 2008 and which record labels (and many other copyright owners) use every day to monetize their works on YouTube. Thanks to Content ID, record labels do not have to rely solely on the DMCA’s notice-and-takedown process on YouTube—they can remove any or all user-uploads of their works from the platform on an automated and ongoing basis. Indeed, since January 2014, over 98% of all YouTube copyright removal claims have come through Content ID. Although business partners can be expected to disagree from time to time about the price of a license, any claim that the DMCA safe harbors are responsible for a “value gap” for music on YouTube is simply false.

The revival and hidden treasure of Aretha Franklin.

April 12, 2016

By David Remnick  http://www.newyorker.com  4/04/16

Late on a winter night, Aretha Franklin sat in the dressing room of Caesars Windsor Hotel and Casino, in Ontario. She did not wear the expression of someone who has just brought boundless joy to a few thousand souls.

“What was with the sound?” she said, in a tone somewhere between perplexity and irritation. Feedback had pierced a verse of “My Funny Valentine,” and before she sat down at the piano to play “Inseparable,” a tribute to the late Natalie Cole, she narrowed her gaze and called on a “Mr. Lowery” to fix the levels once and for all. Miss Franklin, as nearly everyone in her circle tends to call her, was distinctly, if politely, displeased. “For a time up there, I just couldn’t hear myself right,” she said.

On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano. “It’s the era she grew up in—she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” a close friend, the television host and author Tavis Smiley, told me. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”

Franklin has won eighteen Grammy awards, sold tens of millions of records, and is generally acknowledged to be the greatest singer in the history of postwar popular music. James Brown, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ray Charles: even they cannot match her power, her range from gospel to jazz, R. & B., and pop. At the 1998 Grammys, Luciano Pavarotti called in sick with a sore throat and Aretha, with twenty minutes’ notice, sang “Nessun dorma” for him. What distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument; it’s her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. “Respect” is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase.

“There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love,” Ralph Ellison wrote in a 1958 essay on Mahalia Jackson. “Indeed, we feel that if the idea of aristocracy is more than mere class conceit, then these surely are our natural queens.” In 1967, at the Regal Theatre, in Chicago, the d.j. Pervis Spann presided over a coronation in which he placed a crown on Franklin’s head and pronounced her the Queen of Soul.
The Queen does not rehearse the band—not for a casino gig in Windsor, Ontario. She leaves it to her longtime musical director, a seventy-nine-year-old former child actor and doo-wop singer named H. B. Barnum, to assemble her usual rhythm section and backup singers and pair them with some local union horn and string players, and run them through a three-hour scan of anything Franklin might choose to sing: the hits from the late sixties and early seventies—“Chain of Fools,” “Spirit in the Dark,” “Think”—along with more recent recordings. Sometimes, Franklin will switch things up and pull out a jazz tune—“Cherokee” or “Skylark”—but that is rare. Her greatest concern is husbanding her voice and her energies. When she wears a fur coat onstage, it’s partly to keep warm and prevent her voice from closing up. But it’s also because that’s what the old I’ve-earned-it-now-I’m-gonna-wear-it gospel stars often did: they wore the mink. Midway through her set, she makes what she calls a “false exit,” and slips backstage and lets the band noodle while she rests. “It’s a fifteen-round fight, and so she paces herself,” Barnum says. “Aretha is not thirty years old.” She is seventy-four.

Franklin doesn’t get around much anymore. For the past thirty-four years, she has refused to fly, which means that she hasn’t been able to perform in favorite haunts from the late sixties, like the Olympia, in Paris, or the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam. When she does travel, it’s by bus. Not a Greyhound, exactly, but, still, it’s exhausting. A trip not long ago from her house, outside Detroit, to Los Angeles proved too much to contemplate again. “That one just wore me out,” she said. “It’s a nice bus, but it took days! ” She has attended anxious-flyer classes and said that she’s determined to get on a plane again soon. “I’m thinking about making the flight from Detroit to Chicago,” she said. “Baby steps.”

Even if the concert in Windsor was a shadow of her stage work a generation ago, there were intermittent moments of sublimity. Naturally, she has lost range and stamina, but she is miles better than Sinatra at a similar age. And she has survived longer than nearly any contemporary. In Windsor, she lagged for a while and then ripped up the B. B. King twelve-bar blues “Sweet Sixteen.” Performing “Chain of Fools,” a replica of the Reverend Elijah Fair’s gospel tune “Pains of Life,” she managed to make it just as greasy as when she recorded it, in 1968.

Before the show, I was talking with people in the aisles. More than a few said they hadn’t seen Franklin or paid much attention to her recordings for years. It was an older crowd, but they hadn’t come to see an oldies show. What reawakened them, they said, was precisely what had reawakened me: a video, gone viral, of Franklin singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at last December’s Kennedy Center Honors. Watch it if you haven’t: in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of forty-seven per cent.

Aretha comes out onstage looking like the fanciest church lady in Christendom: fierce red lipstick, floor-length mink, a brocaded pink-and-gold dress that Bessie Smith would have worn if she’d sold tens of millions of records. Aretha sits down at the piano. She adjusts the mike. Then she proceeds to punch out a series of gospel chords in 12/8 time, and, if you have an ounce of sap left in you, you are overcome. A huge orchestra wells up beneath her, and four crack backup singers sliver their perfectly timed accents (“Ah-hoo!”) in front of her lines. Aretha is singing with a power that rivals her own self of three or four decades ago.

Up in the first tier, sitting next to the Obamas, Carole King is about to fall over the rail. She is an honoree, and wrote “A Natural Woman” with her first husband, Gerry Goffin. From the moment Franklin starts the first verse—“Looking out on the morning rain, / I used to feel . . . so uninspired”—King is rolling her eyes back in her head and waving on the music as if in a kind of ecstatic possession. She soon spots Obama wiping a tear from his cheek. (“The cool cat wept!” King told me later. “I loved that.”)

King hadn’t seen Franklin in a long time, and when she had Franklin was not performing at this level of intensity. “Seeing her sit down to play the piano put me rungs higher on the levels of joy,” King says. And when Franklin gets up from the piano bench to finish off the song—“That’s a piece of theatre, and she’s a diva in the best sense, so, of course, she had to do that at the perfect moment”—the joy deepens.

King recalls how the song came about. It was 1967, and she and Goffin were in Manhattan, walking along Broadway, and Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records, pulled up beside them in a limousine, rolled down the window, and said, “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman.’ ” He rolled up the window and the car drove off. King and Goffin went home to Jersey. That night, after tucking their kids into bed, they sat down and wrote the music and the lyrics. By the next morning, they had a hit.

“I hear these things in my head, where they might go, how they might sound,” King says. “But I don’t have the chops to do it myself. So it was like witnessing a dream realized.”

Beyond the music itself, the moment everyone talked about after Franklin’s performance at the Kennedy Center was the way, just before the final chorus, as she was reaching the all-out crescendo, she stripped off her mink and let it fall to the floor. Whoosh! Dropping the fur—it’s an old gospel move, a gesture of emotional abandon, of letting loose. At Mahalia Jackson’s wake, Clara Ward, one of Aretha’s greatest influences, threw her mink stole at the open casket after she sang “Beams of Heaven.” The fur is part of the drama, the royal persona. When Franklin went to see Diahann Carroll in a production of “Sunset Boulevard,” in Toronto, she had two seats: one for her, one for the mink.

Backstage in Windsor, I asked Franklin about that night in D.C. Her mood brightened. “One of the three or four greatest nights of my life,” she said.

The cool cat wept, King had marvelled. When I e-mailed President Obama about Aretha Franklin and that night, he wasn’t reticent in his reply. “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” he wrote back, through his press secretary. “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears—the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed—because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”

So much of this history—the transformation of hardship and sorrow, the spiritual uplift after boundless pain, gospel after blues—is a particular inheritance of the black church. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W. E. B. Du Bois writes that, “despite caricature and defilement,” the music of the black church “remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.” From the days of slavery, the black church was a refuge, a safe house of community, worship, and speech, and as the decades passed the music of Sunday morning became increasingly associated with the music of the night before. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of modern gospel, was a whorehouse piano player and the musical director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, in Chicago. His songs were sung at rent parties, and at the funeral of Dr. King. His gospel and his barrelhouse blues—“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “It’s Tight Like That,” “Peace in the Valley” and “Big Fat Mama”—possess, in his words, “the same feeling, a grasping of the heart.”

Aretha’s father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was the most famous black preacher of his day, and by far the most profound influence on the course of her life. He was born in 1915 and grew up in Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta. This was the same landscape that bred Robert Johnson, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Fannie Lou Hamer. B. B. King, another Delta neighbor, described in his memoirs that common ground: the Klan and the cross burnings; the fury suppressed in every child who encountered a lynching—the “strange fruit” hanging from a tree near the courthouse. “I feel disgust and disgrace and rage and every emotion that makes me cry without tears and scream without sound,” King wrote.

When C. L. Franklin was around fifteen, he experienced a vision: he saw a single plank on the wall of his house engulfed in flames. “A voice spoke to me from behind the plank,” he told the ethnomusicologist Jeff Todd Titon, “and said something like ‘Go and preach the gospel to all the nations.’ ” By the time he was eighteen, he was a circuit rider, an itinerant preacher hitchhiking from church to church.

Eventually, he landed a pulpit in Memphis, where he attracted notice as “the king of the young whoopers,” a style of preaching that begins with a relatively measured exposition of a passage from Scripture and then crescendos into an ecstatic, musical flight, with the kind of call-and-response that became embedded in the music of James Brown.

Franklin left Memphis in 1944 and, after a two-year residence at a church in Buffalo, settled in Detroit, at the New Bethel Baptist Church. There he established a reputation, acquiring one nickname after another—the Black Prince, the Jitterbug Preacher, the Preacher with the Golden Voice.

In those days, New Bethel was on Hastings Street, the spine of Paradise Valley, which was the center of the black community. Detroit had swelled with black migrants from the South, and Hastings Street was dense with churches and black-run beauty salons, barbershops, funeral homes; around the corner from New Bethel was the Flame Show Bar and Lee’s Sensation. Franklin was, in the phrase of one of his congregants, “stinky sharp.” He drove a Cadillac and took to wearing slick suits and alligator shoes.

Franklin, his wife, Barbara Siggers, and their four children—Erma, Cecil, Carolyn, and Aretha—lived in a parsonage house on East Boston Boulevard, among black professionals and businesspeople. There were six bedrooms and a living room with silk curtains and a grand piano. Yet, while Franklin lived large, he preached a kind of black liberation theology—Baptist, but inflected at times with the more convulsive accents of the Pentecostal, or “sanctified,” church. As his scrupulous biographer Nick Salvatore writes, he was “unique among his fellow ministers in that he welcomed all of the residents of Hastings Street—prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps as well as the businessmen, professionals, and the devout working classes.”

Franklin gained national fame by recording his sermons. The albums sold in the hundreds of thousands. On Sunday nights, he could be heard on WLAC, a Nashville-based station that covered half the country. John Lewis, a leader of SNCC and a congressman since 1987, recalls listening to Franklin on the radio when he was growing up, in Pike County, Alabama. “He was a master at building his sermon, pacing it, layering it, lifting it level by level to a climax and then finally bringing it home,” Lewis wrote in his memoir “Walking with the Wind.” “No one could bring it home like the Reverend Franklin.”

As a girl, Aretha took it all in: Sunday mornings and the nights before. She was thoroughly absorbed in the church life of New Bethel and in the cultural life of her living room, which, at times, seemed to represent the epicenter and genealogy of African-American music. Sitting on the stairs, she watched Art Tatum and Nat Cole play the piano. Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Della Reese, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, and Lionel Hampton came to visit. Dinah Washington coached the girls on their singing. The Reverend James Cleveland, a pillar of the gospel world, showed Aretha how to play gospel chords. The kids nearby included Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and the roster of what became Motown.

As C. L. Franklin’s fame grew, Salvatore writes, so did his penchant for drinking, womanizing, and worse. In 1940, he had fathered a child with a twelve-year-old girl, and he remained unrepentant. He could also be abusive to the women in his life. In 1948, when Aretha was six, her mother left Detroit to live in Buffalo. The children saw her occasionally, but there was always a looming and powerful sadness in the house. As Mahalia Jackson, a close friend of the Franklins, put it, “The whole family wanted for love.” C. L. Franklin’s mother helped care for the children, as did a string of friends, secretaries, and lovers, including Clara Ward, of the Ward Singers, one of the great gospel vocalists of her time. Barbara Siggers died in 1952.

In the mid-fifties, Franklin started the C. L. Franklin Gospel Caravan and toured the country for weeks at a time, preaching his greatest hits: “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” “Dry Bones in the Valley,” “The Man at the Pool.” Little Sammy Bryant, a dwarf who was a preternaturally talented singer, often opened the show and appeared alongside gospel stars like the Dixie Hummingbirds, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke. Aretha was in his entourage, playing piano and singing. The voice—ringing, powerful, soulful—and the musical guile were there from the start. She could riff, bending notes as if high on the neck of a guitar; she had fantastic range and command of every effect, from melisma to circling the beat. These techniques came into play in her career in R. & B., soul, and pop, but “all that was echt gospel,” according to the scholar Anthony Heilbut.

When Franklin was fifteen, she recorded several gospel songs, among them “Never Grow Old” and “While the Blood Runs Warm.” She also saw a great deal of life, including the libertine atmosphere surrounding the gospel-music scene. By the time she recorded those first songs, she was pregnant with her second child. She left school and went on the road for, more or less, the rest of her life.

Aretha did not inherit a purely religious and musical legacy. The Franklin house was also political. She was, by the standards of Paradise Valley, a young woman of status and privilege, but she suffered the same humiliations as any black woman travelling through the South or venturing into the white precincts of Detroit. By the time of the murder of Emmett Till, in 1955, C. L. Franklin had opened New Bethel up to the movement, and, from his pulpit, he denounced segregation and white supremacy. When Dr. King came to Detroit, he stayed with the Franklins.

Aretha, too, joined the movement. At the same time, she yearned for larger stages. She saw how Sam Cooke had crossed over into R. & B. as if it were the most natural of passages. In 1960, when she was eighteen, she moved to New York and signed with Columbia Records. This marked the start of an extended apprenticeship under John Hammond, who had been behind the careers of Billie Holiday and Count Basie. Hammond had it in his mind that Aretha should be the next great jazz singer, even though the form was no longer ascendant. It wasn’t until 1966, when Franklin went to work with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, at Atlantic Records, that she really made her hits in R. & B. But at Columbia, even singing standards like “Skylark” and “How Deep Is the Ocean,” she broke into the secular world. Franklin had her father’s support and the example of Cooke, but she felt compelled to publish a column, in 1961, in the Amsterdam News, saying, “I don’t think that in any matter I did the Lord a disservice when I made up my mind two years ago to switch over.” She went on, “After all, the blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people.”

On June 23, 1963, C. L. Franklin helped Dr. King organize the Walk to Freedom, a march of more than a hundred thousand people through downtown Detroit. At Cobo Hall, King, acknowledging “my good friend” C. L. Franklin, delivered a speech filled with passages that he recycled, two months later, at the March on Washington. “This afternoon I have a dream,” he told the crowd. “I have a dream,” that “little white children and little Negro children” will be “judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”

King later confided to C. L. Franklin, “Frank, I will never live to see forty.” At Dr. King’s funeral, in April, 1968, Aretha was asked to sing Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.” She was now a central voice in both the black community, eclipsing her father, and in the musical world. She had crossed over.

The songs on her first records for Atlantic—“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools”—were the resolution of her apprenticeship. Leaving behind the American Songbook for a while and finding just the right blend of the church and the blues, she was now celebrated as the greatest voice in popular music. “Respect” and “Think” became anthems of feminism and black power and stand alongside “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Busted,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “Daddy had been preaching black pride for decades,” she told the writer David Ritz, “and we as a people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’ ”

At the same time, Franklin found that the strains of life as a star, as a mother, as a daughter to her tempestuous father were at times unbearable. Ted White, her first husband—they married in 1961 and divorced eight years later—was a jumped-up street hustler who abused her. In 1969, when her father let a radical organization called the Republic of New Africa use the sanctuary at New Bethel, the night ended in a bloody gun battle between the group and the Detroit police. The next year, she came out onstage, in St. Louis, and started singing “Respect” but then walked off, unable to continue. The promoter announced that Franklin had suffered “a nervous breakdown from extreme personal problems.” She soon recovered enough to perform, but she rarely seemed unburdened, except in the studio and onstage.

“I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,” Wexler wrote in his memoirs. “Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”

Franklin’s vulnerability has brought with it an intense desire for control that often leads to still more anguish. When it came time to do an autobiography, she enlisted Ritz, a skilled biographer and ghostwriter who had produced fascinating books with Ray Charles, Etta James, Bettye LaVette, and Smokey Robinson. He found her a singularly resistant subject. She insisted on stripping the book of nearly anything gritty or dark. Published in 1999, it reads like an extended press release. “Denial is her strategy for emotional survival,” Ritz told me. It was only at the microphone, in her music, he concluded, that Franklin felt in command. There are reports that she has, in recent years, been struggling with cancer, but her friends say she’d never admit to such a thing, “not even on her deathbed.”

Fifteen years after the autobiography was published, and flopped, Ritz published an unauthorized biography, filled with material that he had accumulated over time from intimate personal and professional sources. The woman who emerges is a musical genius and a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the black freedom movement; she is also someone who has suffered countless losses, been mistreated in many ways, and at times has reactions that try the patience of her associates, creditors, family, and friends. Franklin denounced the book: “Lies and more lies!” But none of the sources, including those closet to her, have backed away.

Even Beyoncé has had the experience of displeasing Franklin. The occasion was the 2008 Grammy Awards. Beyoncé, working from lines on a Teleprompter that were likely not of her own devising, introduced Tina Turner to the audience as “the Queen.” With due respect to Tina Turner, this is Aretha’s title, as surely as it is Elizabeth II’s, and Franklin, who is easily wounded, issued a scathing proclamation. It was a “cheap shot,” she said.

A larger consequence of Franklin’s craving for control is that her audience has been denied one of her greatest treasures. Not long ago, Ahmir Khalib Thompson, the drummer and bandleader better known as Questlove, posted this on his Instagram feed: “Of all the ‘inside industry’ stuff I’ve been privy to learn about NOTHING has tortured my soul more than knowing one of the GREATEST recorded moments in gospel history was just gonna sit on the shelf and collect dust.”

Questlove was referring to the holy grail of Aretha Studies—a filmed version, never seen in public, of “Amazing Grace,” two gospel concerts that Franklin gave in January, 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in south-central Los Angeles. Pop music has long tantalized its completist fans with rumors of “rare footage”: there was “Eat the Document,” featuring a scene in which a stoned John Lennon teases an even more stoned Bob Dylan (“Do you suffer from sore eyes, groovy forehead, or curly hair?”); and there was “Cocksucker Blues,” Robert Frank’s collaboration with the Rolling Stones, featuring Mick Jagger snorting coke. Both films are now pretty easy to find—and neither is essential.

The film of “Amazing Grace” is another matter. Atlantic issued a recording from the concerts as a double LP, in 1972, and it has sold two million copies, double platinum, making it the best-selling gospel record of all time. It is perhaps her most shattering and indispensable recording. As Franklin has said repeatedly, “I never left the church.” The black church was, and is, in everything she sings, from a faltering “My Country, Tis of Thee” at Obama’s first inaugural to a knockout rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” two years ago, on the Letterman show.

By 1971, Franklin was at her peak, with a string of hits and Grammys, but she was also preparing for a return to gospel. In March, she played the Fillmore West, in San Francisco, the ultimate hippie venue. The film of that date is on YouTube, and you can hear her singing her hits, fronting King Curtis’s astonishing band, the Kingpins. She wins over a crowd more accustomed to the Mixolydian jams of the Grateful Dead. And her surprise duet with Ray Charles on “Spirit in the Dark” is far from the highlight.

A few songs into the set, Franklin plays on a Fender Rhodes the opening chords of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” weaving hypnotic gospel phrases between her backup singers (“Still waters run deep . . .”) and the B-3 organ lines of Billy Preston, a huge figure in gospel but recognized by the white audience as the “fifth Beatle,” for his playing on the “Let It Be” album. Just as Otis Redding quit singing “Respect” after hearing Aretha’s version (“From now on, it belongs to her”), Simon and Art Garfunkel forever had to compete with the memory of this performance. Simon, who wrote the song a year before, was inspired by a gospel song, Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones’ version of “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Jeter included an improvised line—“I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name”—and Simon was so clearly taken with it that he eventually gave Jeter a check. Daphne Brooks, who teaches African-American studies at Yale, aptly describes the Fillmore West performance as a “bridge” to the “Amazing Grace” concerts that were just a few months away.

Franklin enlisted her Detroit mentor, the Reverend James Cleveland, to sing and play piano, and the pastor Alexander Hamilton to conduct the Southern California Community Choir. The gospel concert in Los Angeles opens with “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” a spiritual based on Biblical narratives of liberation and resurrection, and recorded, in 1915, by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It is possibly the most wrenching music on the album. Countless performers have recorded the song—the Soul Stirrers, Inez Andrews, Burl Ives, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen—but Franklin, who was never in better voice, seems possessed by it. She delivers a pulsing, haunted version, taking flights of lyrical improvisation, note after note soaring over single syllables. In her reading, the blues always resides in gospel, and somehow this is her version of grace.

Chuck Rainey, her bass player in the early seventies, told me that Aretha’s voice was so emotionally powerful that at times she would throw the band out of the groove. “Aretha came to me once and held my hand and she said to me, ‘Chuck, don’t listen to me too intensely. I know what I do to people. I need for the bass to be where it is so I can sing.’ ” Bernard (Pretty) Purdie, the drummer on the “Amazing Grace” sessions, told me that Franklin, having sung for so long with the Reverend Cleveland at New Bethel and in her living room, was absolutely sure of herself. “She didn’t have to worry about what to think about or sing,” he said. “She knew what she was doing from jump street.”

There’s no arguing with that. Aretha sang songs in Los Angeles that she first sang and recorded as a girl, including “Never Grow Old” and “Precious Lord.” There is a ten-minute-long “Amazing Grace,” part song, part sermon, that could come only from someone steeped in the tradition of her father’s Delta whooping.

The record is an enduring achievement, but the event, like Woodstock, was something that also deserved to be seen. Sydney Pollack, who had directed Jane Fonda in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” and had been nominated for an Academy Award, wanted to make that happen. Pollack and his crew filmed both nights. The sixteen-millimetre color footage was shot in the most straightforward way, but there was a problem: Pollack was not an experienced documentarian, and he and his crew failed to use clapper boards to synchronize the sound with the images. After a months-long effort to fix the problem, Warner Bros. shelved the project. Pollack went on to direct “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor,” and “Out of Africa.” He lost interest in “Amazing Grace.” The film stayed in a vault for forty years.

In 2007, Alan Elliott, a record producer, approached Pollack about the film. Pollack had cancer, and Warner Bros. sold Elliott the rights to the film. Pollack agreed to work on it with him, but he died the next year.

Elliott succeeded in getting the film synchronized, but he has not yet won over the subject and star of the film. For years, he and Franklin have tussled over permissions, rights, and contracts. The Telluride Film Festival was scheduled to show “Amazing Grace” last September, but Franklin’s lawyers filed suit. Judge John Kane, of the U.S. District Court in Colorado, held a slapped-together seventy-one-minute hearing the afternoon before the screening. Franklin testified by telephone.

“For them to show that film” and for Elliott “to just completely and totally and blatantly ignore me where my name and reputation, my concern, it would be terrible,” she said. “This is my fifty-fifth year in the business, and he is all but fearless.”

Elliott was proposing only to show the film to a couple of hundred people at Telluride, where the goal was to find a distributor. He told me that he has offered to pay her far more—a million dollars and half the proceeds—than she was originally promised. As they negotiated, Elliott and his representatives also encountered a quality of chaos that often surrounds Franklin’s business affairs. Lawyers and agents came and went. Franklin, who is the wariest of personalities, deflected and delayed, even as some of her closest friends encouraged her to settle the deal and enjoy the inevitable attention that would come with “Amazing Grace.”

“Aretha gets offended when she thinks you think you’re getting over on her,” Tavis Smiley told me. “It’s hard to know why that line gets blurred from time to time, between making people respect you and self-sabotage. But don’t ever underestimate the power of the personal. ‘Respect’ is not just a song to Aretha. It’s the mantra for her life.

“Aretha authorizes her own reality, and sometimes it’s hard to juxtapose that reality to the reality,” he went on. “We’re all guilty of that at times, but Aretha does that to a greater extent, and it can be dangerous. Sometimes, in life, we can unwittingly self-sabotage when we want ultimate control.”

In Denver, Judge Kane was protective of Franklin, issuing the injunction against the screening in Telluride for that evening. In his ruling, he quoted “Othello”: “He that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” Elliott and Franklin have meanwhile inched toward a settlement. When the hope arose that “Amazing Grace” was a possibility for the Tribeca Film Festival, coming next month, Robert De Niro called Franklin and implored her to make it happen. That is unlikely to occur.

Watching Aretha Franklin sing from the pulpit and at the piano somehow intensifies everything heard on the record. It’s almost too much to absorb in one or two viewings. I’ve watched it a half-dozen times, and it never fails to leave me in tears. The most touching moment in the film comes when James Cleveland gestures to C. L. Franklin, who is sitting up front, next to Clara Ward. The Reverend cannot resist a prideful star turn at the pulpit.
“It took me all the way back to the living room at home when she was six and seven years of age, it took me back to about eleven, when she started travelling with me on the road, singing gospel,” he says. “I saw you crying and I saw you responding, but I was just about to bust wide open. You talk about being moved, not only because Aretha is my daughter. . . . Aretha is just a stone singer.”

Then Aretha sits at the piano and leans hard into “Never Grow Old.” As she sweats under the lights, her father approaches her at the piano and tenderly mops her forehead with a handkerchief.

“You can hear Aretha’s influence across the landscape of American music, no matter the genre,” Obama wrote me. “What other artist had that kind of impact? Dylan. Maybe Stevie, Ray Charles. The Beatles and the Stones—but, of course, they’re imports. The jazz giants like Armstrong. But it’s a short list. And if I’m stranded on a desert island, and have ten records to take, I know she’s in the collection. For she’ll remind me of my humanity. What’s essential in all of us. And she just sounds so damn good. Here’s a tip: when you’re deejaying a party, open with ‘Rock Steady.’ ”

With the breadth of Aretha’s influence comes the regularity of musical homage. The titans of hip-hop adore her. Mos Def sampled “One Step Ahead,” on “Ms. Fat Booty.” Kanye West sampled “Spirit in the Dark,” on “School Spirit.” Alicia Keys sampled “A Natural Woman,” and Dr. Dre and Outkast, in accordance with the sage advice of their Commander-in-Chief, sampled “Rock Steady.” The Fugees, Public Enemy, Slum Village—Aretha is everywhere. There is no “Formation” without “Respect.” One queen follows another.

Beyoncé may have overstepped on one occasion, but she knew the score. A singer like her, who is steeped in both the sacred and the profane, who can provide flawless versions of both “Precious Lord” and “Bootylicious,” understands the variousness of her roots and the specificity of her debts. “The soulfulness comes from the gospel,” she once said. “It comes from Aretha, who listened to all of that, who sang in the church.”

The morning after the Windsor concert, I went to Sunday services at the Franklins’ old church, New Bethel Baptist. Arriving half an hour early, I met C. L. Franklin’s successor, Pastor Robert Smith, Jr., a stout gray-haired man in a dark three-piece suit.

Pastor Smith led me to “the history room,” which was filled with photographs and souvenirs of the Franklins. The sanctuary can hold a couple of thousand worshippers, but the stream of people arriving was modest. The days of vitality, of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, are long gone. The workers for Ford and General Motors went South. There are few middle-class parishioners left at New Bethel. “My appeal is largely to the broken,” Pastor Smith said. “People coming from prison, drugs. My style of preaching doesn’t appeal to the professionals. A lot of them are going off to the mega-churches.”

It’s been a long time since New Bethel echoed with “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest.” Early one morning in 1979, six burglars broke into C. L. Franklin’s house. Franklin kept a gun in his room and fired two errant shots. One of the burglars fired back, hitting him once in the knee and once in the groin, rupturing his femoral artery. He spent five years in a coma and died. His funeral was among the largest in the history of Detroit.

Like others, Pastor Smith has had his rocky moments with Aretha Franklin over the years, and is careful not to offend her. Aretha is supportive of New Bethel—sending money and food packages, organizing the occasional gospel concert—and their relations, he says, “are better now than they’ve been, but it’s a day-to-day thing.” The importance of Aretha Franklin, he made clear, is the “sense of higher things” that her music inspires.

The rest is dross. Her genius, her central place in American music and spirit, is undeniable.

“I don’t care what they say about Aretha,” Billy Preston, who died in 2006, once said. “She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.” ♦


‘Ramones’: The Story Behind a Debut Album From Punk Pioneers

March 27, 2016

By BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 3/18/16

The Ramones’ self-titled first album came out in April 1976, and by sales standards alone it was a flop, reaching only No. 111 on the Billboard chart.

But with its raw sound and extremely bare songwriting style, “Ramones” became a founding document of punk rock. For its 40th anniversary, the album is being celebrated with an expanded reissue due this summer from Rhino Records and an exhibition, “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk,” opening at the Queens Museum on April 10.

None of the original band members — Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone — survive, but some of the people involved in making the first album recently recalled the early days of the band and its rushed but calculated time in the studio. Here are edited excerpts from their comments.

The Band

Formed in 1974 in Forest Hills, Queens, the Ramones — named for a pseudonym once used by Paul McCartney (Paul Ramon) — dressed in leather jackets and ripped jeans, and began to make a name for their chaotic, lightning-fast shows at CBGB.

SEYMOUR STEIN (co-founder, Sire Records) They had a special gig for me, but I had the flu. So the next day, I rented a rehearsal studio for an hour. In 20 minutes, they had gone through about 20 songs. I fell in love with them.

CRAIG LEON (producer) Until we made the record, they literally hadn’t rehearsed how to end songs.

STEIN Joey was so sweet; the songs he wrote were so tender. Dee Dee was Dee Dee. Tommy was the brains. Johnny was the Paul McCartney of the group; he was the one who held the band together.

MICKEY LEIGH (brother of Joey Ramone; uncredited backup vocals) John was dominant. My brother was easily intimidated, as John knew, but he had his talent.
Continue reading the main story

DANNY FIELDS (co-manager) They loved the Bay City Rollers. Dee Dee’s favorite band was Abba. They were trying to be Abba. They were hoping to have an album that would sell six million copies so they could retire for life.

The Sessions

In February 1976, shortly after being signed to Sire, the band spent less than a week in Plaza Sound Studios, a cavernous space above Radio City Music Hall where Arturo Toscanini had once rehearsed the NBC Symphony and where the Rockettes still practiced.

LEON I got us four days in the studio and a long weekend to mix the record. My budget was $6,400.

FIELDS Relative to the amount of time, money and effort that went into a standard album in the mid-70s, it was so short as to be mythically concise.

LEON I’m glad it sounded raw at first listen, but it was calculated to be that way. We used the best equipment we possibly could. Every kind of mike we used on the Ramones, I later used at Abbey Road on the London Symphony Orchestra.

There was a lot of studio trickery. There are several songs where there is much more than one guitar. There is a triangle on “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” We overdubbed a bomb sound on “Havana Affair.” It’s a tom-tom drum tuned very low and held under a piano, with someone holding the sustain pedal down so that it would ring when something hit it.

LEON Artificial tape delay was a technique perfected by the Beatles to slightly change the pitch so that it sounds like two people singing along on the same part: If you listen to “It happened once before …,” and then “Hey, little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend,” it’s the same effect.

LEIGH Tommy wanted to have a fidelity that would be competitive with what was coming out in that period. John didn’t want it to be slick.

FREEMAN When you asked them what key they’re in or could you tune that up a little bit, they just weren’t interested. If you asked them to play it up an octave, they would just play it exactly the same way.

LEON Tommy played to a modification of what we now have as a click track. It was a little metronome that would click, and a little orange light would go off. He turned off the click sound and put it right in front of the drum kit, with him staring at the light like a robot. He would count off with sticks and then Dee Dee would go, “One, two, three, four!,” and they’d start.

A Lyric Controversy

During the sessions, Mr. Stein objected to the lines “I’m a Nazi, baby” in the song “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World.” The band changed the line (but kept another Nazi reference), though today those involved disagree about exactly what happened.

STEIN It was shocking to me, I’m sorry. I’m a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

LEIGH Seymour got them to change the words. It was almost a deal breaker. I was not offended by it. I thought it was kind of a perfect way to portray the mind-set of a Nazi youth. It was funny.

STEIN The strongest language I could have used was “Wait a minute,” something like that. It’s greatly exaggerated.

The Legacy

It took 38 years for “Ramones” to go gold, but the album’s influence has been incalculable. “Hey, ho! Let’s go!” from “Blitzkrieg Bop,” for example, has become a sports stadium chant around the world. Mr. Leon, who later built an extensive career in classical music, once shared the Ramones’ music with another famous artist he worked with: Luciano Pavarotti.

STEIN I got hate mail. The manager of two of my bands threatened to sue me if I didn’t drop the Ramones.

FIELDS When you’re in the middle of it, you can’t see that you’re making the revolution. You go to Kansas City, and there are kids saying, “You changed my life.” That’s gratifying. It will not make you rich overnight, but the influence was immense.

LEIGH That didn’t happen until decades later, when bands like Soundgarden and Green Day started alluding to them as being their inspiration.

LEON Sometime around 2000, we were hanging out at Luciano’s house in Pesaro, drinking wine. He started singing football songs from Modena, his hometown, and said he would love to make an album of football songs.

I said, “Let me sing you an American football song by a band I recorded.” I took the guitar and sang “Blitzkrieg Bop”: “They’re forming in a straight line, going through a tight wind.”

He said: “This is great! It’s like football formation.” I taught him the song, and he was singing “Hey, ho! Let’s go!”

In Shift to Streaming, Music Business Has Lost Billions

March 25, 2016

By BEN SISARIO and KARL RUSSELL NYTimes.com 3/24/16

There is plenty of good news in the music industry’s latest sales report released this week. Streaming is up. Vinyl has continued its unlikely renaissance. And did we mention that streaming is up?

But a closer look shows that the big sales numbers that have sustained the recorded music business for years are way down, and it is hard to see how they could ever return to where they were even a decade ago.

Revenue from music sales in the United States has hovered around $7 billion since 2010, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. For 2015, the number was $7.02 billion, up slightly less than 1 percent from 2014.

Within that steady total, however, have been drastic shifts in listener behavior. CDs and downloads have been gradually abandoned as streaming has become the platform of choice.

The result is that the music industry finds itself fighting over pennies while waving goodbye to dollars. For instance, the growing but still specialized market for vinyl records is generating more revenue than the music on YouTube, one of the biggest destinations on the Internet, but that’s because YouTube pays royalties in the tiniest fractions of cents.

Streaming — whether through paid subscriptions to Spotify or Rhapsody; Internet radio from Pandora; or even videos on YouTube — now makes up 34.3 percent of sales, edging out digital downloads as the industry’s biggest source of revenue. In 2015, the year that Apple Music arrived and Tidal was reintroduced by Jay Z, paid subscription services generated $1.2 billion in sales in the United States. After adding in free streaming platforms and Internet radio, the total for streaming is $2.4 billion.
Beyoncé with Jay Z, second from right, who announced his plans for the Tidal streaming music service in March 2015 in Manhattan. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Getting people to subscribe en masse to streaming services has been a priority for record labels and the streaming companies alike, who have often claimed that by building robust subscriber ranks, they would eventually return the industry to its former glory.

But so far streaming has not saved the music business, and deep worries persist about the model. Many artists are suspicious of the deals that their record companies have cut with technology companies, and they want to know how much money is trickling down to them. In a rough analysis of the recording industry association’s numbers, Billboard magazine estimated that the average amount of money generated each time a song is streamed fell last year by about 24 percent, to 0.506 cent. (The fine print: That number, a retail sales figure, covers so-called on-demand streams, excluding Internet radio.)

What gets lost in the battles over fractions of pennies, however, is just how much money has vanished from the music business as consumers have abandoned its most profitable product: the CD.

In 2006 — years after Napster, and well into the iTunes era — record labels still reaped $9.4 billion from CD sales in the United States, more than the total sales revenue of the business today. Last year, CD sales stood at just $1.5 billion, a drop of 84 percent in a decade. And downloads, also once viewed as the industry’s savior, have now been falling for three consecutive years with no sign of recovery.

In a note accompanying the recording industry’s report, Cary Sherman, the group’s chief executive, criticized sites like YouTube — characterized in the report as “on-demand ad-supported” — for what he described as paltry payouts compared to their enormous popularity online. Last year, YouTube and sites like it generated $385 million in royalties. In comparison, vinyl records — a niche if there ever was one — brought in $416 million.

“Reforms are necessary to level the playing field and ensure that the entire music community derives the full and fair value of our work,” Mr. Sherman wrote. (In response, Google, which owns YouTube, objected to its comparison alongside audio-only platforms, referring to it as “apples to oranges.”)

It may be possible for the music industry to wring more money out of YouTube. But it seems doubtful that it will ever earn back what it has lost from the CD.

What The Music Industry Could Learn From 1920’s RCA

February 24, 2016

Ted Gioia thedailybeast.com 2/20/16

During the middle decades of the 20th century, RCA showed how artistry and technology can work hand in hand. Could the RCA strategy fix the problems facing the music business today?

The economic crisis in music has many facets, but the biggest problem can be summed up in simple terms. Tech companies have seized control of music from the record labels. Power has shifted from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, and most of the profits from music-making now enrich the coffers of Apple, Google, Amazon, Spotify, and other tech providers.
You don’t need a degree from Julliard to understand why this is bad for music. The people making the key decisions affecting musicians today have never written a song, produced a record, or played a gig. Their goal is to sell devices or generate clicks or convince consumers to sign up for Amazon Prime. Music, in many cases, is a “loss leader” for them. Apple, Google, and other tech giants would even be willing to give away every song in the universe for free if it helped them gain enough share in their base businesses.
Stop and think about the long-term implications of this shift. What happens when our music ecosystem is controlled by outsiders with no stake in the health of the art form? What happens when artistry is forced to serve technocrats who see creative talents as mere “content providers”? What happens when the dominant business model is built on squeezing profits out of songs and reinvesting them in new gadgets, watches, Google glasses, and the like? Well, that’s pretty obvious, no? You get a decimated music business and software developers earn ten times the wages of a typical musician.
How did we get here? The music industry itself must own most of the blame. The leading entertainment corporations simply sat and watched while tech companies took control of the downstream distribution of music over the last twenty years. Universal, Sony, and the other record labels could easily have developed their own iTunes and streaming tech—that software isn’t very complex—but they refused to do so.
Fast-forward to the present day. Apple generates more revenue from music than any record label in the world and, even worse, controls access to the consumer. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook now has more influence on the future of music than anyone on the planet, with Larry Page of Alphabet running a close second. Musicians now live and die based on decisions made in Silicon Valley boardrooms.
It’s still not too late for the music industry to wake up and wrest control of the business away from engineers and technocrats. They still have one huge advantage—they have a lock on the “content” (what we previously called “artistry” and “creativity”). Apple is hollow at its core without the music. Alphabet won’t get beyond its A, B, and Cs without a supporting soundtrack. The music business can still set the tune…if it takes the right steps.
If curious music moguls want to see how it’s done, they have a great role model—they simply need to look back at the leading entertainment company of the ’20s. The strategy that worked back then is still the right one almost a century later.
A few old-timers might remember RCA, once a dominant brand in both music and consumer technology. RCA was the most glamorous company in the world back in the ’20s. Under the leadership of David Sarnoff, the Steve Jobs of his day, RCA took the first “wireless technology”—what we now call the radio—and brought it into the households of America. Then in the ’30s, RCA developed the market for electronic turntables and laid the foundation for the modern recorded music business. RCA capped the decade by displaying a working television at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
But here’s the most important fact about RCA: The company may have developed pioneering technologies, much like Apple today, but it was a music company at its heart. Through its acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, RCA became the world’s largest seller of recorded music. The greatest musicians in the world were part of the RCA roster—Louis Armstrong, George Gershwin, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Arturo Toscanini, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and many others.

Company executives have a very different attitude towards music when they actually have artists such as Louis Armstrong and Arturo Toscanini under contract. They realize that the corporation’s success is inextricably linked to the creative work of the performer, and they work hand in hand with musicians to enhance the aesthetic experience of music.
RCA’s ribbon microphone, developed in 1931, added new warmth to Louis Armstrong’s vocals. RCA tube amplifiers helped countless musicians achieve a richer, deeper sound—and still fetch a high-price on the resale market today. RCA gave Duke Ellington enormous creative freedom, and this led to a body of work in the late ’30s and early ’40s that, in my opinion, ranks among the most important American music of its era. But many critics fail to recognize how much better the sound mix is on these records than on competitive products on other labels. Again and again, RCA put its technology at the service of the artist, rather than the other way around (the formula practiced by tech companies today).
This strategy of using technology to boost the artist’s success continued into the ’50s and ’60s. RCA invented the 45 rpm single in 1949, and this fueled the careers of the leading stars of the next decade, including Elvis Presley (under RCA contract), the biggest-selling recording artist of the era. In 1954, RCA made its first stereo recordings, featuring the Boston Symphony Orchestra (under RCA contract). Technology empowered the artist, and both the company and musicians benefitted.
But the most revealing chapter in the history of RCA took place in the ’60s, when the company commercialized color television. By this juncture, RCA was a dominant player in television content as owner of NBC, and the corporation realized that they needed exciting color TV shows on its network in order to sell this new consumer electronics innovation. So RCA invested heavily in creative content as the foundation for marketing its “devices.” Color TV took off, and both RCA and performers shared in the success.
In other words, RCA was the mirror image of Apple Computer. It was a company that championed creativity and hired the most impressive roster of artists on the planet during the middle decades of the 20th century … and then built the best technologies to showcase this talent. Apple, in contrast, may want to hire the best software or engineering talent, but it doesn’t want those pesky musicians under contract. The company’s business model is based on squeezing the musician to fund new initiatives in other areas.
From the sound-on-film technology to Technicolor, RCA was always looking for the next innovative platform to feature creative professionals at their best. Not every bet paid off. The 8-track tape developed by RCA lost out to the cassette technology pushed by Phillips. RCA’s quadrophonic sound technology was a flop. RCA tried to enter the computer business, but stumbled badly.
The RCA magic finally wore off when the company started forgetting about the artists. The retirement of David Sarnoff in 1970 could symbolize the end of the golden age of RCA. That same year RCA announced acquisitions of Banquet Foods, a leading supplier of frozen meals, Coronet Industries, a carpet manufacturer, and Cushman & Wakefield, a major real estate company. A few months later, RCA exited the computer business, and acquired two more frozen food companies.
What were they thinking? When Japanese consumer electronics companies ramped up their presence in the US during the ’70s and ’80s, RCA was not prepared to withstand the onslaught. RCA Records also faltered during this period, as its executives lost touch with new trends in music. By the mid ’80s, the company was losing money on its albums. Soon after, RCA was acquired by General Electric, swallowed up by a corporate culture focused on selling hardware—from refrigerators to power generators—not artistry.
But the RCA model is still the right one for the music industry. The major record labels should invest in building their own tech, instead of living off the crumbs from Apple and Google’s table. And they should create technology platforms that are designed with the primary goal of showcasing artistry in the best way possible.
Maybe then consumers wouldn’t have to live with the lousy compressed sound coming out of Silicon Valley devices. Maybe then we could enjoy streaming services that actually told us the names of the musicians and composers. Maybe then we would have albums with liner notes and photographs and all the other extras that have disappeared down the digital rabbit hole. Maybe then we would have a music business controlled by decision-makers who love music and understand what it needs to flourish.
It’s not too late, but it may be soon. Fortunately, the strategy was already laid out back in the ’20s. It’s still there for those who pay attention.

Will Streaming Music Kill Songwriting?

February 9, 2016

John Seabrooke NewYorker.com 2/08/16
For many songwriters, the wake-up call comes when they have their first streaming hit. For Michelle Lewis, an indie-rock singer-songwriter who now writes primarily for other artists, it was the song “Wings,” which she co-wrote for the British girl group Little Mix. Lewis and her writing partner, Kay Hanley, the former lead singer of the band Letters to Cleo, had been busy working on a Disney show (children’s TV relies heavily on alt-rock music), and at first she didn’t realize how popular the song had become.

“We were emerging from this bubble,” she told me, “and I realized, ‘I have this hit. This is going to be good! Nearly three million streams on Spotify!’ And then my check came, and it was for seventeen dollars and seventy-two cents. That’s when I was, like, ‘What the fuck?’ So I called Kay.”

“And I said, ‘What the fuck?’ ” Hanley recalled.

“And then we started reading and talking to our friends and fellow-songwriters,” Lewis said. Eventually, they found their way to Dina LaPolt, a music lawyer in Los Angeles, who specializes in copyright and songwriter issues.

Lewis: “And Dina said to us, ‘Where the fuck have you bitches been?’ ”

Hanley: “She literally said that.”

LaPolt told them that unless streaming rates were changed and the music-licensing system were overhauled for the digital age, the profession of songwriting was on its way to extinction. And they were on their own, she added, because, while everyone loves a songwriter, members of the profession have no actual bargaining power, whether via a union or another powerful institution, and so, when the money in the industry dries up, they’re in serious trouble.

“Our jaws were on the floor at the end of talking to her,” Lewis said. “And then it was, like, ‘We have to tell our friends.’ ”

If streaming is the future of music, songwriters may soon be back to where they started. Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter, was also the first to die broke. His songs, which include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home” (a.k.a. “Swanee River”), “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” made lots of money for other people—music publishers, music-sheet sellers, minstrel-show promoters, concert-hall owners, and star performers. But not very much of that money reached the chronically impecunious Foster, who died, in 1864, in New York City, at the age of thirty-seven, with three pennies in his pocket, some Civil War scrip, and a scrap of paper on which the songwriter had written “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” His best-known melody, “Beautiful Dreamer,” came out only after his death.

Over the next century and a half, American songwriters’ prospects improved dramatically, largely thanks to the Copyright Act of 1909 and subsequent government intervention. Under the regime that emerged in the first half of the twentieth century, composers own the “publishing” rights to their songs—the copyright on the song’s words and melody, as they exist on paper. Most songwriters assign part of these rights to a music publisher in exchange for an advance and for marketing services. If the music publisher succeeds in getting a song recorded, the songwriter then grants the backers of the recording—a record label, generally—what’s known as a “mechanical license.” (The word “mechanical” derives from the days when player-piano rolls were the primary commodity of the nascent record business.) With each copy of the record sold, the owners of the master recording, as the audio copyright is known, pay a mechanical royalty to the owners of the song’s publishing rights. Today, that royalty rate works out to about nine cents per copy.

Songwriters also earn performance royalties when a record is played in a large commercial venue, such as a restaurant or a theater. With the spread of broadcast radio, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, performance royalties became a significant part of a songwriter’s potential income. Generally, when a song plays on the radio, the station pays the publishing-rights holders a fixed rate that represents a percentage of the station’s advertising revenues. The owners of master recordings, on the other hand, don’t make anything from radio play, nor do the performers. The reasoning behind this bizarre arrangement, which apart from the U.S. exists only in Iran, North Korea, and China, is that the promotional value of radio play is recompense enough; the labels and performers can make up the difference with record and ticket sales.

In 1941 the Justice Department issued what’s known as the Consent Decree, which allowed performing-rights organizations (P.R.O.s, or collecting societies) to process the licensing fees for large numbers of songwriters, collectively, for obvious reasons of efficiency. In return for an exemption from what would normally be treated as an antitrust issue—private owners banding together to set prices—the music publishers agreed to let a federal court set the royalty rates, if the parties disagree on them. The Consent Decree also mandated compulsory licensing, requiring songwriters to make their entire catalogues available to whomever pays the licensing fee. Accordingly, songwriting is now the most heavily regulated of the creative arts. Seventy per cent of a songwriter’s income comes from rates set by the government, rather than by the songwriters and publishers, on the free market.

Regulation helped to insure that songwriters avoided Stephen Foster’s fate and were paid fairly for their work. Today, the system supports perhaps a million American songwriters. (The estimate is based on the memberships of the two largest collecting societies, ASCAP and B.M.I., and a guess about the much smaller SESAC, which doesn’t publish its numbers.) It offers a decent living for many in the trade, and the prospect of extraordinary wealth for a few. Indeed, the amount of money that a hit song can earn for its composers is staggering. Court papers in a recent infringement dispute involving Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and the estate of Marvin Gaye have revealed that the song “Blurred Lines” earned almost seventeen million dollars in under two years, mainly from radio play, with Thicke and Williams each getting more than five million dollars. And a long-running suit launched by the family of Randy California, the former front man of the band Spirit, whose 1968 song “Taurus” is alleged to sound a lot like “Stairway to Heaven,” calculated that the Led Zeppelin song, which was released in 1971, had earned half a billion dollars by 2008. Since copyrights last for up to seventy years, depending on when the song was released, the rights to a couple of hit songs can support an entire family for several generations.

The remarkable worldwide popularity of American music is often ascribed, rightly, to the talent and diversity of the country’s artists and musicians. But it also happened because of a system that inspired and allowed songwriters to devote themselves full time to their craft. (Of the top ten most-downloaded songs in the U.S. in 2015, according to Nielsen, only one, Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” was written solely by the artist.) The system not only rewarded proven talents; it also let promising novices secure advances against future earnings, affording them the time to learn their craft gradually, until they too had a hit and could begin nurturing the next generation of talent.

But as the music business began to be slowly and agonizingly stretched across the rack of the digital age, the songwriter’s comfortable spot amid music’s royalty flow started slipping away. The steep decline in album sales—the result of a shift from brick-and-mortar distribution to digital retail, and now to streaming—has dealt a blow to songwriters’ mechanical-royalty income. (In the album era, even a throwaway track on a best-selling LP earned as much for a songwriter as the hits that made people purchase the album in the first place.) And, as Lewis’s experience demonstrates, the performance-royalty rates that songwriters command from streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple Music are in most cases far lower than the ones they get for terrestrial-radio plays—the entire royalty payout, remember. Typically, under terms that the record labels worked out with the streaming services (and somehow persuaded the federal rate courts to sign off on), when a song is streamed, sixty per cent of the income goes to the owners of the sound recording, thirty per cent goes to the service itself, and ten per cent goes to songwriters and publishers. When a song is streamed on an Internet radio site—Pandora is by far the largest—the holders of publishing copyrights receive a thousandth of a cent per stream.

Why are streams worth so much less than radio spins? The standard reason given is because a stream is generally a one-to-one transaction, whereas a spin goes out to thousands or even millions of people at a time. But if millions of people hear your song on YouTube, and you still haven’t received a check, you begin to sense that something is amiss. Also, why is the value of the publishing copyright worth so much less, relative to the sound-recording copyright, in the streaming world? There appears to have been a digital land grab by the record labels, who own most of the master recordings for the U.S. catalogue. Having lost out, historically, on income derived from performance royalties and sound recording for terrestrial radio, they were careful, in the digital era, to guarantee themselves income, and in some cases equity interest, from streaming.

Kara DioGuardi, a longtime songwriter known for her turn as a judge on “American Idol,” told me recently, “I’ll be at a party and I’ll hear a friend’s song, and then I’ll realize it’s being streamed. And I’ll think, ‘Wow, that sucks,’ because I know the songwriters aren’t getting paid what they deserve.” For songwriters, there are both big, sweeping rationales and smaller, more nuanced reasons to hate streaming services. Perhaps the greatest outrage, apart from the primal sense that the services are picking their pockets, is directed at the corporations benefitting most from streaming music—Google, Amazon, Apple. These companies, which are among the wealthiest on earth, use music to draw traffic to their sites and keep people within their ecosystems, but for them, the business end of music is hardly more than a rounding error. In 2015, for example, the global music-copyright industry brought in twenty-five billion dollars, barely more than a tenth of Apple’s revenues for the year. What makes the situation positively Kafkaesque is that under the terms of the Consent Decree, which was created in part to prevent songwriters from monopolizing the market, composers are now often compelled to license their songs to these monopolistic behemoths at absurdly low rates.

As for the more nuanced reasons, some streams are worse than others. Spotify’s free, ad-supported platform has been the source of much complaint, as has YouTube’s. Spotify’s total revenues from its ad-supported tier in the first half of 2015 were a paltry hundred and sixty-two million dollars, sixty million less than the revenues from the sales of vinyl albums and EPs over the same period. Revenues from the company’s paid tier are usually marginally better than from its ad-supported one, but it’s still having issues with publishing royalties there. It appears that while the company was assiduous about getting the licenses for the audio-recording copyrights from the labels, it was less thorough about obtaining all of the necessary mechanical-publishing licenses, partly because the metadata needed to identify the rights holders is missing from many song files. Spotify is holding about seventeen million dollars in royalties in a segregated account until these copyright holders can be identified (publishers say that the number should be closer to twenty-five million), and is in the process of building a database that will make it easier to identify them.

In late 2015, David Lowery, the frontman of Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, and a persistent industry gadfly, filed a class-action lawsuit against Spotify, charging the company with willfully infringing the mechanical rights to a number of his songs, and those of others, and seeking up to a hundred and fifty million dollars in damages. According to TechDirt’s breakdown of the suit, Lowery is arguing that Spotify is failing to obtain the necessary mechanical licenses for many of the compositions in its database, including some of his; the case may hinge, among other issues, on whether the company properly complied with technical requirements for situations in which it didn’t know who the copyright holders were. (A second lawsuit was filed by the singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick in early January.)

Certainly the missing names did not slow co-founder Daniel Ek’s quest to license all the world’s music. However, it’s not entirely clear whether Spotify even needs a mechanical license to stream music. A stream isn’t a copy in the same way that a download is—in many ways, it is more like a performance. The Copyright Act of 1976 is too dated to provide much useful statutory guidance.

Amid all of the anger and uncertainty, last year LaPolt, the copyright lawyer, brought together Lewis, Hanley, and some hundred other songwriters, and inspired them to found an education and advocacy organization, Songwriters of North America (SONA), that seeks major reforms in the song-licensing system, to better suit the digital era. There are already a few legislative initiatives under way, nationally—among them the Songwriter Equity Act, a bill first introduced by Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia, and Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, and then in the Senate by, among others, Orrin Hatch, who is himself a prolific songwriter. (Copyright issues make for strange political bedfellows.) It would amend two sections of the Copyright Act of 1976, to raise the rate songwriters get from streaming services. Another effort, the Fair Pay, Fair Play Act—which would require terrestrial-radio companies to begin paying royalties to audio-recording-rights holders, as well as to songwriters, alongside some reforms to the digital-music industry—was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2015.

In LaPolt’s view, the best hope for real change is a major revision of the Copyright Act of 1976. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican congressman from Virginia and a techie, has made copyright reform a signature issue of his tenure as chairman, for the past two years, of the House Judiciary Committee, holding twenty subcommittee hearings on the issue, and inviting a number of songwriters, including Rosanne Cash and Sheryl Crow, to appear. LaPolt thinks it is unlikely that Goodlatte would leave the chairmanship (in 2017) without at least trying to effect significant reform.

Songwriters have never really had to organize before, but they’re learning, Lewis said. “It’s because we’ve been doing fine. As long as the checks showed up it was, like, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ But about two years ago people started saying, ‘Hey, who moved our cheese?’ ” Even now, she added, some writers are loath to complain, because “the psychology is, ‘I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this at all, and I’d better not rock the boat or they’ll find out about my scam!’ ”

Savan Kotecha, whose “Love Me Like You Do,” was recently nominated for a Grammy, told me that songwriters are increasingly aware of the stakes. “It affects how you plan for the future and whether you invest in new talent, because in the streaming world you won’t necessarily see any return on your investment. For now, terrestrial radio is holding out. But radio could go away, because everyone has phones. And once streaming gets into cars in a big way, it’s over.”

Indeed, music listeners continue to embrace streaming. On-demand streaming-service usage rose ninety-three per cent in 2015, with three hundred and seventeen billion songs streamed, in all. Adding YouTube and other unpaid services pushes the total into the trillions. Meanwhile, album sales, the longtime mainstay of the business, continued their decline, in spite of the record-breaking success of Adele’s “25”, which accounted for three per cent of the entire U.S. album market in 2015, according to Billboard. For a songwriter, taking a stand against streaming can seem like taking a stand against your own future.

Performers are facing many of the same challenges, but they, at least, have the option of going on tour. Without royalties, songwriters will have only dear friends and gentle hearts to support them. That didn’t work out so well for Stephen Foster.


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