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.

Failing brands reveal electronic dance music business outgrowing itself

February 5, 2016

RUSSELL SMITH theGlobeandMail.com 2/03/16

Two news stories from the huge-budget, superglam world of electronic dance music (EDM) this week are not unrelated.

First, the corporation that owns a number of huge EDM brands – SFX Entertainment, which owns the music retail site Beatport, and the TomorrowWorld festival outside Atlanta – has declared bankruptcy. This is almost impossible to imagine, as Beatport must have been the most potentially lucrative music website since iTunes; one cannot begin to fathom how it could have been screwed up (The good news is that Beatport does continue to operate despite its parent company’s woes.)

The second parallel news story is not a failure but a launch: Some clever entrepreneurs have come up with the idea of an EDM awards ceremony. It will take place at a hotel in Los Angeles in April. It is produced by legendary British trance DJ Paul Oakenfold and will be televised on Fox.

But both these stories are about the massive growth of a once-underground genre. The club-music business is so huge that it attracted investors who didn’t know anything about music or clubs or dancing. In the case of SFX, the company that has squandered the vast potential of Beatport, it became big enough to fail massively. And I have a feeling a sequin-studded awards ceremony in L.A., with a red carpet and all, is hardly going to bring back any respectability to the genre. It is going to broadcast the strange notion that this is a conservative genre in which luxury and glamour and fashion and extremely conventional gender roles are the primary values.

Electronic dance music at the beginning of rave in the late 1980s was created in basements for small niches of enthusiasts. The culture that created illegal dance parties had values not unlike those of the flower-power hippies: Rave flyers often had the abbreviation PLUR stamped on them (Peace, Love, Unity, Respect). The taking of ecstasy led not to wild sexual abandon but to an extremely gentle friendliness. The clothing was asexual and androgynous. The spaces were rough. There were no reserved tables – or tables at all. There were no awards because there was a sense that the community itself was creating the music, not a group of stars.

Now the music is not so much created as brokered – by pairing big-voiced pop singers and big-name producer-DJs, to make stadium anthems. The anthems have enormous serotonin-pushing build-ups and climaxes, and those moments are more frequent than ever in musical history; they seem to come every minute or so. Dancing to this is like being told to orgasm repeatedly.

The producer-DJs who play in the big clubs and festivals are millionaires; the cover charges are often more than for live concert tickets. The draw in big clubs is often sex: The atmosphere is youthful, muscular, barely clothed. Girls have long hair; boys have muscles.

Robert Sillerman, the entrepreneur behind SFX, was not someone who emerged from the dance-music scene. The most recent angels trying to prop up his empire are a private Canadian equity firm called Catalyst Capital Group, said to have given SFX a $20-million boost. That’s nice, but I don’t know if I am excited to attend a techno party owned by Catalyst Capital. It doesn’t quite fit the spirit of the thing.

Sillerman has a reputation for screwing things up. The TomorrowWorld festival, last September, was widely described as a fiasco: The logistics were not worked out; shuttle buses did not run; people were stranded in rain without shelter; many slept on the roadside; apologies were made; tickets were refunded.

Record labels whose artists’ work was being sold on Beatport have been complaining for some months that they are not being paid. It’s almost a shame that Beatport became so successful that it attracted his attention. Dance music was more secure when it was not in play among investment firms. When it was weird.

Remember when the phrase “rock ’n’ roll” meant something faintly rough, something loud and possibly drunk? Now it means a museum in Cleveland. A wily punk like John Lydon wisely refuses his induction there: To be associated with rock ’n’ roll is now embarrassing. When EDM has its own Hall of Fame – in Cincinnati or San Diego, as it soon no doubt will – it will be well and truly killed off, and even the suburban youth now eager for its hedonistic flash will turn away from it in boredom, possibly seeking instead dark and inexpensive basements with their friends and their computers, where they will make their own music again.

Music Sales Are Music PR

February 3, 2016

Platinum and Gold certifications now reflect streaming figures, but it’s still very hard to quantify a musician’s commercial success.

Spencer Kornhaber theAtlantic.com 2/2/16

When people talk about commercial success in popular music, they’re often talking about one of three concepts. There’s the reach of a work of music—the number of listeners it gets. There’s perception, or bragging rights. And there’s the money made—arguably the most important metric, almost entirely obscured from public view.

The announcement that the Recording Industry of America will now count on-demand streaming figures when doling out Gold and Platinum certifications for albums means such certifications will better reflect the first aforementioned category: actual listenership. Over the past few years, more and more people have stopped paying to download or physically own albums and started instead consuming music on platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and Apple Music (Pandora, too, but because you don’t get to pick individual songs its data still won’t factor into RIAA certifications). The RIAA’s rule change means those people can push an album to Gold or Platinum status, and that’s a good thing if certification is meant to capture real marketplace interest in a musical work.

But the rule switch-up also makes understanding what exactly Gold or Platinum status means more difficult than ever before. Until now, Gold indicated at least 500,000 copies sold in stores or through platforms like iTunes, while Platinum indicated a million. Now, those numbers are the sum of sales and the equivalent of sales. The formula for equivalency: “1,500 on-demand audio and/or video song streams = 10 track sales = 1 album sale.” The question of whether that’s a “fair” calculation is inherently unanswerable. What’s clear is that certifications will go from being a cut-and-dry benchmark to an approximation.

Should the public mind? Probably not. An album sells what it sells regardless of certification; certificates are only handed out after a record company or musician puts in an application for one. For artists, the incentive to do so is the same incentive to pursue any kind of award: recognition for hard work. For everyone else, Gold and Platinum plaques have always been about that second idea of musical success that I mentioned earlier: appearances. Certificates allow musicians and their record companies to market themselves as successful. They give fans ammo in their online wars against rival fandoms. The RIAA’s own press release makes certifications sound like promotional gimmicks:

Gold & Platinum recognition is often among the most celebrated news in an artist’s social media feed. The RIAA utilizes a myriad of social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flipagram, and a YouTube page – to market and publicize artist award achievements. The RIAA also recently unveiled a new RIAA.com and Gold & Platinum database where fans can more easily search and share the award recognition.

That third version of commercial success, how much money a song or album has made, remains hard to talk about. Remember, RIAA awards are a marker of thresholds—an album can sell anywhere between 1,000,000 and 1,999,999 copies and still be Platinum. The other widely used commercial metric in music, Nielsen Soundscan, does keep precise sales and streaming totals, but much of that is only available to subscribers. The Billboard charts simply use those totals to render success in the relative terms of a ranking. And even when the public does know the full consumption figures for a work of music, that’s far from a full portrait of financial success.

It’s always been the case that the amount an artist makes from an individual sale—as opposed to how much the record company or distributor profits—has been confidential. But today, the picture is even less clear. That’s in part because streaming payouts are famously complicated and mutable. It’s also because in many cases, profitability has been largely decoupled from sales in favor of merchandising, touring, and, of increasing importance, sponsorships.

Take the case of Rihanna’s new album, Anti. On Friday, The New York Times reported that by Nielsen’s count, only 460 copies had been sold. That’s a shockingly low number, but as the reporter Ben Sisario wrote, it’s surely so small only because of quirks of rules and timing. As I wrote the same day, the RIAA certified Anti platinum within 14 hours of it hitting the Internet—apparently because Samsung, with whom Rihanna’s signed a reported $25 million marketing deal, bought up a million album copies that were then gifted to fans who typed in a download code. Nielsen doesn’t count such free promotions in its numbers; the RIAA does, on the theory that they still reflect consumer demand for an album. One measure of counting is certainly better for Rihanna’s publicity machine. Neither tells anyone how much money she’s made.

The Devaluation of Music: It’s Worse Than You Think

January 24, 2016

Starving artists have been affected by more than just piracy and streaming royalties

In their many (justified) laments about the trajectory of their profession in the digital age, songwriters and musicians regularly assert that music has been “devalued.” Over the years they’ve pointed at two outstanding culprits. First, it was music piracy and the futility of “competing with free.” More recently the focus has been on the seemingly miniscule payments songs generate when they’re streamed on services such as Spotify or Apple Music.

These are serious issues, and many agree that the industry and lawmakers have a lot of work to do. But at least there is dialogue and progress being made toward new models for rights and royalties in the new music economy.

Less obvious are a number of other forces and trends that have devalued music in a more pernicious way than the problems of hyper-supply and inter-industry jockeying. And by music I don’t mean the popular song formats that one sees on awards shows and hears on commercial radio. I mean music the sonic art form — imaginative, conceptual composition and improvisation rooted in harmonic and rhythmic ideas. In other words, music as it was defined and regarded four or five decades ago, when art music (incompletely but generally called “classical” and “jazz”) had a seat at the table.

When I hear songwriters of radio hits decry their tiny checks from Spotify, I think of today’s jazz prodigies who won’t have a shot at even a fraction of the old guard’s popular success. They can’t even imagine working in a music environment that might lead them to household name status of the Miles Davis or John Coltrane variety. They are struggling against forces at the very nexus of commerce, culture and education that have conspired to make music less meaningful to the public at large. Here are some of the most problematic issues musicians are facing in the industry’s current landscape.

1. The Death of Context

Digital music ecosystems, starting with Apple’s iTunes, reduced recordings down to a stamp-sized cover image and three data points: Artist, Song Title, Album. As classical music commentators have long argued, these systems do a poor job with composers, conductors, soloists and ensembles. Plus, as I argued at length in a prior essay, they’re devoid of context. While there are capsule biographies of artists and composers in most of the services, historic albums are sold and streamed without the credits or liner notes of the LP and CD era. The constituency of super-fans who read and assimilate this stuff is too small to merit attention from the digital services or labels, but what’s lost is the maven class that infuses the culture with informed enthusiasm. Our information-poor environment of digital is failing to inspire such fandom, and that’s profoundly harmful to our shared idea about the value of music.

2. Commercial Radio

It’s an easy target, but one can’t overstate how profoundly radio changed between the explosion of popular music in the mid 20th century and the corporate model of the last 30 years. An ethos of musicality and discovery has been replaced wholesale by a cynical manipulation of demographics and the blandest common denominator. Playlists are much shorter, with a handful of singles repeated incessantly until focus groups say quit. DJs no longer choose music based on their expertise and no longer weave a narrative around the records. As with liner notes, this makes for more passive listening and shrinks the musical diet of most Americans down to a handful of heavily produced, industrial-scale hits.

3. The Media

In the 1960s, when I was born, mainstream print publications took the arts seriously, covering and promoting exceptional contemporary talents across all styles of music. Thus did Thelonious Monk wind up on the cover of TIME magazine, for example. When I began covering music for a chain newspaper around 2000, stories were prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Art/discovery stories were subordinate to celebrity news at a systemic level. Industry metrics (chart position and concert ticket sales) became a staple of music “news.” In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music.

4. Conflation

A little noticed but corrosive quirk of the digital age is the way our interfaces conflate music with all other media and entertainment choices. iTunes started it by taking software ostensibly for collecting and playing music and morphing it into a platform for TV, film, podcasts, games, apps and so on. This is both a symbol and a cause of the dwindling meaning and import of music in the multi-media onslaught that is our culture. The shiny displays distracting people away from “just” music are already ubiquitous. So why impose them on a music player? I believe that one reason vinyl and phonographs are hot again is that musically oriented people crave something of a shrine for their music — a device that is for music only.

5. Anti-intellectualism

Music has for decades been promoted and explained to us almost exclusively as a talisman of emotion. The overwhelming issue is how it makes you feel. Whereas the art music of the West transcended because of its dazzling dance of emotion and intellect. Art music relates to mathematics, architecture, symbolism and philosophy. And as such topics have been belittled in the general press or cable television, our collective ability to relate to music through a humanities lens has atrophied. Those of us who had music explained and demonstrated to us as a game for the brain as well as the heart had it really lucky. Why so many are satisfied to engage with music at only the level of feeling is a vast, impoverishing mystery.

6. Movies & Games

We as a culture do hear quite a lot of “classical” or composed instrumental music, but it has migrated from the concert hall to the video game and movie score. On one hand, that’s given young composers options to make a living, and some very good music is being imagined for these imaginary landscapes. But there’s a pernicious effect of the ubiquitous media sound track, in that whole galaxies of musical ideas and motifs and moods have been essentially occupied and rendered cliché. How does a young person steeped in the faux-Shostakovich rumbling of a war game soundtrack hear real Shostakovich and think it’s any big deal? This is rarely remarked on, but I believe that thousands of cumulative impressions of background music assigned to “romance” and “grief” and “heroism” have laid down layers of scar tissue on our ability to feel something when tonal symphonic music is made or written in the 21st century.

7. Music in Schools

It all begins — or ends — here. Like any other language, the rules and terms and structure are most readily absorbed by the young. And as music’s been cut from more than half the grade schools in the US in a long, grinding trend, the pushback has been based increasingly on evidence about music education’s ripple effects on overall academic performance — the ‘music makes kids smarter’ argument. This is true and vital, but we tend to lose sight of the case for the value of music in our culture — that music education makes kids more musical. Those who internalize music’s rules and rites early in life will be more likely to attend serious concerts and bring a more astute ear to their pop music choices as adults.

Those who care about the future of the music business ought to spend less time complaining about digital disruptions and expend more energy lifting up the public’s awareness of serious music, because we truly do devalue music when we reduce our most impactful art form to an artifact of celebrity and a lifestyle choice. Complex instrumental music has become marginalized to within an inch of its very existence, and that has a lot to do with industry folk defining “value” in only the way that affects their mailbox money.

Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

January 19, 2016

Now that’s what I call an oral history of Now That’s What I Call Music!

By Lauren Duca avclub.com 1/15/16

Now That’s What I Call Music! feels like a distant memory, a present you got for Christmas when Juicy sweatsuits were a thing. Yet, the series continues to be successfully sold in CD form. It’s remarkable to think that anyone besides Adele might be able to move physical copies, never mind the irrelevance of professional curation in the age of streaming services. But this juggernaut of nostalgia has endured since the days of the teenaged music industry of the early ’80s.

At the time, the U.K.-based record company Virgin was a smaller unknown on the precipice of its golden age. Virgin was using a share of its fledgling library to license tracks to companies like K-tel and Ronco to recoup royalties. The compilations that came out of those negotiations were so cheesy and phoned-in that one of them was actually titled Raiders Of The Pop Charts. As Culture Club launched and The Human League’s third album began taking off, Virgin’s repertoire began expanding. It occurred to the company’s legal representative Stephen Navin and head of marketing Jon Webster that the label might be able to make its own compilations.

Before Now! was introduced in 1983, compilations were seen as tacky. The compression was messy with tracks often being cut off mid-song. Sleeves were simple, if not simply cheap. For the most part, the business was helmed by companies who dealt in TV advertising, sloppily pulling together songs as just another product to be sold. From the start, Virgin—and eventually Virgin in partnership with EMI—understood that the company needed to replicate the visceral joy of purchasing an album using the medium of compilations. Virgin needed to create a brand.

The other challenge was convincing major artists to participate. Along with their managers, big acts were concerned about how being on Now! would affect their reputation or cannibalize sales. But the promise that this was a record company curating the best of the best with care convinced them to take the risk. Well, that and a few personal calls from Richard Branson. Eventually, Now! came to represent the gold standard in compilations, with more No. 1 hits than The Beatles. It became a snapshot of the musical moment, and, at one point, allegedly had Queen and Paul McCartney vying against one another for a track one, side one spot.

The A.V. Club spoke to Webster and Navin; original compiler Ashley Abram, who worked on Now! from 1983 to 2012; the current U.K. heads of the brand, Peter Duckworth and Steven Pritchard, who joined the company in 1991; and U.S. compiler Jeff Moskow, who has been with Now! since the fourth edition of the series was released in the states. Together, the six men told the story of Now!, from the inception of its title—derived from a picture of a pig talking to a rooster—to the establishment of the current family-friendly iteration of the brand, and the way it has defiantly survived in spite of the rise of digital music and streaming services.

Jon Webster: Stephen and I came up with the idea, though we still slightly argue about who it was.

Stephen Navin: It’s one of those classic music industry comments: A flop is just a bastard, but a hit has many fathers.

Webster: In those days, there were three TV merchandising companies doing these compilations. I worked at Virgin and they were constantly telexing us—it was even pre-fax back then. These compilation companies were making us offers for tracks and often competing with each other. Stephen Navin called me and said “Who are we going to license these to? Should we give all to one company or some of them?”

Navin: I was a business-affairs lawyer at the time at Virgin, and one of my tasks was to license all of our tracks to third-party TV advertising companies, names like K-tel and Ronco. It was a lot of bargaining and convincing them to take lesser tracks as well when we needed to recoup royalties.

Ashley Abram: Ronco was barely even a music company when I worked for them on compilations. They had put out products and gadgets with compilation records on the side.

Webster: These companies would write and say, “I want to license six tracks, I will pay you £2,000 and a royalty of 18 percent” or “I want eight tracks and I will give you £3,000 and royalty of 20 percent.” We’d say, “Okay, if you take these few tracks as well.” It just went round and round, until one of us said, “Well couldn’t we do this ourselves?”

After we came up with the idea, we drew up a plan for how we might do this and how much it would cost. Then we just sat there and went, “Wow, this could be fun. This could be really lucrative.”

Navin: The head of the company at the time was Simon Draper. I worked very closely with him in the context of whether we should license tracks or not and whether we should go back and get the artist’s consent or the manager’s consent or whatever, so I went to see him one day. I said, “We’ve just had an incredible run on licensing tracks, but it seems to me that there’s a real commercial opportunity here that we should be grasping, to do the licensing ourselves.”

Webster: We almost had enough tracks on our own to make that first record, because it was one of Virgin’s best-ever years.

Navin: We had such incredible talent on our roster at the time. You could put out a compilation album with just a mass of our tracks. But, of course, that’s not what the Now! series is about. The Now! series is about getting the very best, the actual cream of the cream of what was hot. So, we realized we needed partners.

Webster: EMI was our distributor and they were a big, old-fashioned record company in the U.K. So, we went to have a meeting with them and said, “Why don’t we do this together? You’ve got lots of hits, we’ve got lots of hits.” It’s like a show tune, you know, [Singing.] “Let’s fall in love!”

Navin: Simon said we ought to talk to EMI and perhaps we can talk to one of the other majors to make sure we get a fantastic combination of tracks. And I said we should get Jon in. Jon was the marketing director at the time and I knew he’d be great for it. Then the question became, “Oh, well, what should we call it?”

Webster: We just got an idea of the logo and did it on the back of a cigarette packet.

Navin: I’m afraid I’m a man given to punning, and looking around Simon’s room there was a little framed advertisement for Danish bacon, which is a lovely drawing of a cockerell on the wall and a pig with some musical notation coming out of his beak. And on the ground looking up at it in admiration is a pig and the shout line beneath the pig is saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” My eyes alighted upon the wording and it just seemed to me, “That’s it! Let’s call it that! It says exactly what we want to say.”

Abram: The series took its name from a picture of a pig saying, “Now that’s what I call music!” as he listened to a chicken singing. It’s ridiculous. There was a lot of worry that people wouldn’t know what it meant. I think there was a real concern of “What does that mean?” Or “What on earth is that?” But it’s like any name, once it takes a hold and people get used to it, it’s kind of a different story.

Peter Duckworth: I came on in 1991 and one of the ways I’ve been involved in marketing is with the visual element. The Now! logo has changed quite a bit over the years. There was a strange pig involved in the very early days. I’m not sure who came up with that.

Jeff Moskow: Compilations have always been, to this day, significantly more popular in the U.K. than they have in the U.S. There’s a separate compilation chart in the U.K. Retail is different now, but in the late ’80s and ’90s, you would go into a record store in the U.K. and there would be a compilation wall. There would be a whole separate compilation section. So, it just became more a part of their culture. And, for some reason, here it just wasn’t.

Webster: Before Now!, these three companies had carved out a compilation market for themselves. If you look back in the U.K., we always had a tradition—and I don’t think happened in America—of people doing cover versions of big hits, of putting out cheap albums of cover versions of hits. They were called Top Of The Pops. An album in those days might have cost £2 and an album of cover versions of hits would cost, like, 75 pence.

Navin: Compilations were considered irrelevant by a lot of record companies. The original albums done before Now! were done badly, because the compression was a mess. They’d be cut off randomly in the middle of the song to make them fit, and they didn’t sound very good because the grooves were so tight.

Abram: They weren’t always the best quality and didn’t always have the best artists, but they were fairly popular in the U.K. They were successful and did well in terms of sales.

Webster: Overall, they were seen as tacky. So, lots of big artists decided they didn’t ever want to be on those records, and they did have the kind of controls in terms of having to give permission to stop them happening.

Navin: You would have some fantastic discussions with managers and artists about whether it was a good thing for their career or not deep down to the sales of a single. Did it help? Did it hinder the sales of the album? All of those sort of conversations were had with artists and managers on a regular basis, especially in the beginning.

Steven Pritchard: I think for one of the first Now!s, Richard Branson actually phoned up Mick Jagger and got the Rolling Stones to participate. That was a few years before I came along, but that sort of attitude helped with U.K. artists.

Abram: Richard would say things like, “Oh, should we get The Rolling Stones for Now! 2.” And a lot of people would say, “Oh, no, they’re the past, they’re not really the cutting edge of 1984 pop music.” But I thought, if we could get them, we might be able to get someone else, which is what happened. Then, bit by bit, you walk away with a lot of acts.

Webster: We did have to work quite hard to convince people. Partly what we did was give better royalty rates than the third-party companies were offering. Then, of course, it got so successful, people began to see the cash flow that was coming in and going, “Oh, we like this.”

Navin: When the damn thing took off it just was so successful. It was a phenomenon.

Pritchard: Today, Now! confirms status. People expect to see artists of a certain stature on Now! Artists will share that they are included or tweet about it. It’s become a mark of having arrived.

Webster: Eventually, it got to the point of artists quibbling over being side one, track one. There was one particular battle, I think between Queen and Paul McCartney. They said, “Yeah, we’ll be on the album, but we want to be track one, side one.” Luckily, that was an EMI problem, not a Virgin problem. I think what they did is they put one on track one on disc one and the other on track one, side one on disc two or something like that. I can’t remember; it was some ridiculous compromise.

Abram: The first album I officially compiled was Now! 2. I managed to get superstar acts like Queen, David Bowie, Paul McCartney on the first Now! that I compiled. I think what convinced them is the fact that it was being done by the record companies. So, I managed to get some of these bigger artists on and eventually we got to a stage where a lot of the acts were coming on the album.

Webster: From the start, we separated ourselves from the previous compilations with packaging. They were all basic black-and-white or black-and-red sleeves; there was no class to it. So from the first one, we made sure we put sleeve notes on there; we made sure we put pictures of the albums that they came from.

Abram: One thing that I helped in convincing artists is that Now! was sort of souped-up. It had beautiful packaging, liner notes and all that. It made for a luxurious product that was much more exciting than the original third-party compilations.

Webster: There were also the ad campaigns, which made it so easy to sell to retail. I said, “Look, we’ve got this album coming out. It is full of quality hits and we’re going to spend a quarter of a million pounds TV advertising it.” It was as simple as that. We went out and opened with a 60-second ad, which was unheard of at the time, and it just went mad.

Navin: You also have to remember, that first vinyl was gorgeous. It wasn’t the logo you see today.

Pritchard: But by the time I came one for Now! 19, they were really struggling with an identity. I was concerned that the sleeve was changing on every release. I felt the brand should have a logo and stick with it. So, Now! 20 was the first one where we developed the 3-D logo, that is still used today. It was an attempt at something that looked monumental, almost like 20th Century Fox. It was harder to do that than I realized. It would be easy to do that on a computer, but going back 25 years it was actually stretching the capabilities of 3-D graphic engineering. That first 3-D logo I think it took about a week to render and it was fairly expensive.

Navin: There are two components of sequencing. One is making something that’s listenable. And as important is making something that’s marketable. So, we know that when people look down a track list, they’ll often just scan the first and last tracks to see if there’s consistency. We have to make sure that the tracks toward the top and bottom of the CD are the most successful or the most popular in order to keep the consumer’s attention.

Webster: There is an art to compiling a record. It’s not just all by numbers. You’ve got to get a flow right; you’ve got to get ups and downs. It’s the same way a DJ would do it if you’re out clubbing or whatever. There are also certain tracks that, even though they were massive, they often polarized people. You’ve got to think about that.

Abram: In January 1983, about 10 months before Now! started, I was a young fellow compiling compilation records. The second one I did for Ronco was called Raiders Of The Pop Charts and it managed to get to No. 3 in our combined charts of everything. That got me a bit of attention. Eventually, I got phone call from the man himself, Jon Webster. He said, “If you phone this number, you might learn something to your advantage.”

Webster: After the first Now!, we hired a guy named Ashley Abram to compile the records and also to make sure that no fillers got on. The purpose was for him to be independent. He talked EMI and Virgin into what else they could do with those filler tracks and ensure Now! was the best it could be.

Abram: I phoned the number Webster gave me and didn’t know who I was speaking to. The soft-spoken man on the other end said, “Oh, we’re thinking about getting into this compilation business and I’m told you’re the person to talk to.” And at the end of the conversation he said, “Oh, I run a record company, you probably know me, my name’s Richard, and I work on a houseboat, so come see me and have chat.” Of course, that was Richard Branson.

They were talking to me about getting involved with compiling, but because they had so many of their own tracks, they weren’t licensing tracks from the outside. They needed a third party to look at the thing. And that was hard, because they were just looking to get this album into the marketplace for Christmas in 1983. The album actually came out in November, so it was quite late, but it did make it.

Moskow: I came on in the U.S. for Now! 4. In the beginning, I was involved in creating and compiling the record. That meant identifying what the songs would be, licensing the songs, negotiating for the licensing of those songs and then you compile them. So, there’s the aspect of actually deciding what’s going to be on it, getting the rights to put it on and then the ability to create a compelling story with the repertoire. This part usually makes people’s eyes glaze over, when I tell it, but there’s an art to the sequencing.

Abram: It was just kind of a feel for it that you sort of build up, really. You sometimes try to link the songs in some way.

Moskow: We don’t sequence by power, we sequence by story. I was a club DJ for a number of years in my hometown of Philadelphia. It was very similar really to being a club DJ, because, again, every club DJ will tell you that their job is to take listeners on a journey. You’re playing this and that and you’re playing it in a flow that makes sense. That’s the art. It’s like painting with these beautiful colors that these artists have created, which are the songs, and putting them together in a way that makes sense. I take it very, very, very seriously.

Abram: It’s also easy to look back now and say certain songs are missing from some albums, but you can’t really do that. At the time, not everybody wanted to be on the records.

Moskow: I can give you one example. With Now! 56, we opened with “See You Again” [by Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth] very specifically. We did that because what we’re saying to our fans is, “We’re seeing you again.” It had to be a huge song, but I didn’t have to open with it. But we’re saying, even though the song doesn’t mean that, it lets someone subliminally think “I’m comfortable with this brand again, they’re seeing me again.” It’s a little cheesy, but that’s the example I can think of right now. I can tell you that every song is thought about for hours, if not days.

Abram: A big challenge was keeping things current. We needed to make the album live longer, and that was hard since it took a while to get things to marketplace. I also liked to include upcoming hits. We put Culture Club on one album and had a little blurb on the cover that famously said, “Almost certain to be No. 1 by the time you have this LP.” I think it went to No. 3 or No. 4 or whatever it was. So, that kind of set the precedent.

Moskow: It would really easy to say, “Oh, these are the songs, let’s just put them in random order, it doesn’t really matter. But then, if you do that, you’re not really building the essence of what your brand is, and that is so key to us.

Navin: Now! reached the parts of the record-buying market place that, in some cases, no matter how much marketing money you would spend, it just couldn’t deliver those people from those recesses. We managed to get to those outlying areas of Britain who would never have gone into a record store, or may have, at most, bought one album a year.

Duckworth: From the start, we were selling to our version of middle America. The “middle England” market, as we might describe it, are the people who don’t have their finger on the pulse. They don’t measure their own sense of identity by music, but they are very much into music. So, buying a Now! album was fine for them. It didn’t have any meaning. They didn’t define their personality through music, so they could buy a Now! album and it wasn’t a guilty pleasure like some music can be considered. It was just a way of accessing the charts.

Webster: I’ve always thought that music buyers fall into two groups. There are people who are really into music, who buy a lot of stuff and pride themselves on what they like. And then there are the one-album-a-year buyers. Maybe they buy two or three, but it’s harder to get them into the record store.

I think you go through a sort of life cycle with Now! You grow up with them. Until you’re a young teenager, you’ve got the latest Now! album. Then, suddenly when you become 16 or 17, you think you’re the coolest person on the block and suddenly you wouldn’t be caught dead with a Now! album. Eventually, you might get married and have your first child. You might have a party and you need music, so you go out and buy a Now! album. I think there’s very much a sort of flow that happens in terms of the people who are predisposed to buy these records. I think there’s an age gap where they’re distinctly uncool, which is probably 18 to 30, but then after that they are very welcome and liked and people still buy them.

Pritchard: There are at least two generations of moms and dads, even grandparents now, who are using Now! to keep up with their kids’ music and to share music. But I think it probably took about 10 years for it to really develop into a family brand with a bit of nostalgia and trust. It’s been a fixture. If you look at the consumers of Now!, the end-user profile is strongly preteen and early teen. Then it starts coming back with peaks up in mid ’30s, who are people buying for young families.

Navin: I think the thing about Now! is that it cuts across generations. It’s like Adele, who has obviously has struck an enormous chord. People buy the album partly as a knee-jerk reaction either for their auntie or their daughter. It’s that must-have piece of music across the board.

Pritchard: Children never understand if you try to be nostalgic about a band. They’ll say, “You listened to this? It’s rubbish!” Whereas you can be nostalgic about a Now! album and buy it today and children will love it because it’s still current. To you, it’s a Now! album and to them it’s all the current hits. It does work far better than trying to be nostalgic with your children because not many artists try and transcend.

Moskow: We make statements like, “No one listens to CDs anymore” or we say, “No one has CDs in their car anymore.” And the truth of the matter is that there’s been something like 90 million CDs sold in the U.S. in 2015. I mean, besides what Adele did, which is a whole different story. Are sales down? Of course they’re down. No one is arguing that point. But it’s still a huge business.

Webster: We thought that digital music would be the death of CDs, but it’s not for two reasons. One is that they are a much better deals than buying individual tracks. And two is that when in the U.K. we killed off the CD single, which was just about when digital came in. There are still huge amounts of people in the U.K. who buy CDs. The only way you can buy a track, on a CD, if you don’t want to by the album, is on a Now! album. They just don’t exist anywhere else.

Moskow: There are still lots of people who have CD players in their cars in the U.S. Most do. So, imagine your family is going on a road trip and you have a choice. Your choice is, “I’m going to fumble around, connect my phone and play a playlist that may or may not be clean, where I have to fumble around and skip songs” or, “I can just get a brand that I’ve grown up with, pop it in the CD player and know that it’s clean and that it reflects reasonably recent pop culture.”

Abram: The CD format still lives on and it’s very successful. In the U.K., the CD sales now are largely through supermarket chains. So, in Tesco and Sainsbury’s, especially this time of year, they carry huge volumes of CDs. Digitally, it’s available and it sells, but 10 to 20 percent of the sales are digital, which is still fairly minor. CD is still a massive format.

Pritchard: We do have digital sales, but at the moment we’re about 90 percent CD. Of course, the next struggle is streaming services. When Spotify came along, we were very quickly into Now! in experimental ways, trying to draw more attention to the tracks. Obviously, going forward, we’re trying to devise ways of actually monetizing Now! itself instead of just the individual tracks. The digital download thing was quite easy to spot. We’re trying to look at that behavior within streaming products.

Moskow: CD physical sales are declining, yes, more people are consuming music by streaming or downloading, but there are still a substantial amount of people who buy physical CD or who buy the album via digital download and enjoy it because someone has done the curation for them. We’ve made the playlist for them. They come to us for the Now! brand, and I think they’ll keep coming to us for the Now! brand.

Charlie Puth, Rumson’s Pop Prodigy

January 16, 2016

As a child, Charlie Puth heard music in the air. Now fans are filling the air with his music.

By Joanna Buffum  http://www.NJmonthly.com  01/12/16

Charlie Puth had a really good 2015. First, there was the runaway success of “See You Again,” the 24-year-old Rumson native’s breakout single with rapper Wiz Khalifa. The hip-hop ballad charted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 from April through July. Puth’s EP, Some Type of Love, came out in May. He starred in a Fiat Chrysler commercial and bought a new home in the Hollywood Hills. And in November, when Puth locked lips with pop star Meghan Trainor during their performance of his song “Marvin Gaye” at the American Music Awards, Twitter exploded with speculation about the couple. Puth quickly tamped down the rumors: “Before it begins….we are just friends,” he tweeted. A few weeks later, “See You Again” was nominated for three Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year.

With his ripped skinny jeans, James Dean haircut, effortless confidence at the piano and rare vocal range, Puth has captured the attention of teenyboppers—as well as musicians looking for the next hot producer. His debut album for Atlantic Records, Nine Track Mind, drops on January 29; Puth produced and cowrote all 12 tracks.

Charles Otto Puth is named after his father, a commercial and residential real estate broker. He grew up with his younger brother and sister, twins Stephen and Mikaela, in the family home overlooking the Shrewsbury River. When Puth was two, a friend’s black lab bit his face, leaving him with a scarred, jagged right eyebrow (a frequent topic in interviews).

His mother Debra, a music teacher, made sure to teach all three children to play the piano. Even before Charlie’s lessons began—when he was four—it was clear he was musically gifted. He was fascinated by sounds and loved getting toy instruments as gifts. “He would spend hours in his room, and you would hear noises all the time,” says Debra. (Over the years, Puth has accumulated numerous pianos. At one point, there was a piano or synthesizer in virtually every room of the Puths’ Rumson home.)

“It was obvious from the time he was five that he knew notes [by ear],” she recalls. Walking on the beach, little Charlie seemed to hear a symphony. “‘Mommy! The wind! It’s a B flat, nope, it’s a B,’” he would say. “‘Mommy, do you hear the water? It’s a D, no, a D sharp. Mommy, the wind with the water creates a chord.’”

Puth is a musical prodigy. He has perfect pitch: a rare auditory phenomenon that enables a person to identify and recreate a given musical note without a reference tone. He can play the songs of seagulls and footsteps in the Sea Bright sands, or an entire musical’s worth of tunes, without reading a single sheet.

At 10, Puth started jazz and improv piano lessons with Jim Jocelyn at Fair Haven Music. Jocelyn recorded music on a computer—much to his pupil’s amazement. “I saw him make little drum loops and play on top of those drum loops,” says Puth. “I fell in love with it. I think that’s what made me want to start producing music, watching him do rudimentary drum production on the computer.”

Later that year, Puth tried out for a youth jazz arts program at the Count Basie Theatre. Yvonne Lamb Scudiery, the education director at the Count Basie Performing Arts Academy, remembers the audition. Puth played “All the Things You Are,” a jazz standard with a challenging chord structure. He made it his own. “It was ridiculous what he could do,” recalls Scudiery. “He was the youngest that we auditioned…. He could improvise as a baby…. It blew us away.”

Clem DeRosa, a jazz drummer who was then the director of the program, put Puth in touch with some key figures on the local jazz scene. One was Gary Mazzaroppi, a bass player who has worked with Les Paul and Broadway trumpeter Joe Mosello, and is now an adjunct music professor at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft.

“When Gary came over,” says Puth, “we would just play jazz, and it was the best thing in the world. Afterwards we would all go out to dinner, and that’s like the best time in my life.”

Charlie figured out how to make money playing music at a young age. In sixth grade, he put together a holiday album, Have a Merry Charlie Christmas—complete with album art—and sold it door to door. (He donated his $600 profit to a local church.) “I used to go to country clubs and put out a cup and people would tip me and I would just play the piano impromptu,” he says. Frequently, Puth was the pianist of choice for local school plays and productions. The Count Basie theater hired him to play for a Charlie Brown production, spurring his first official W2 form.

“I’ve been obsessed with making money since I was at Driftwood,” Charlie says, referring to a beach club in Sea Bright where he spent his childhood summers. He’d sell seashells for quarters and trade Pokémon cards for dollars, and come back to his family’s cabana with a hundred bucks.

If he wasn’t making money, Puth was entertaining; ideally, he was doing both. At Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, he was known for beatboxing (making percussive vocal sounds). “When I was a freshman, all these pretty senior girls would come up to me and say, ‘Can you beatbox for me?’” he says. During his sophomore year of high school, the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston offered Puth a full scholarship. While at Berklee, he posted a duet cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” to YouTube with fellow student Emily Luther, leading to a record deal with Ellen DeGeneres, who seeks young talent for her Eleveneleven label.

Just after Puth signed the deal in Los Angeles, his family ran into Max Weinberg (the longtime Bruce Springsteen drummer, who Puth knew from playing piano for a local charity event) in the lobby of the Sheraton Universal Hotel. “He ended up giving me, my mom and my dad the best advice of our lives,” Puth remarks. “He said, ‘Never assume the first thing that you strike upon is going to be the end all; this is just a stepping stone.’ And you know, the Ellen thing didn’t work out. So I went back to school, took his advice, and something even better came of it.”

After graduating from Berklee, Puth moved to Los Angeles to start his music career. On his first day of songwriting on the West Coast, he wrote the R&B-inspired “Marvin Gaye,” which later became the hit duet with Meghan Trainor (the pair toured together this past summer). The lyrics pay homage to the legendary Motown singer/songwriter; the music evokes Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. Most of all it shows Puth hitting the high notes as effortlessly as his soulful inspirations.

On his second day of songwriting, his publicist tipped him off that the Fast & Furious franchise was looking for an original song to play at the end of Furious 7 as a tribute to actor Paul Walker, who died in a November 2013 car accident. That day, he wrote and recorded the chorus and bridge for what would become the hit single “See You Again.” The song was selected from more than 100 submissions, and though other singers auditioned, Puth’s falsetto performance ultimately won over the Furious directors. The ballad—with its catchy verses and refrain from Wiz Khalifa—held number 1 on the Hot 100 for 12 non-consecutive weeks, tying Eminem’s 2002 hit “Lose Yourself” as the longest-running number-one rap hit in the chart’s history. “See You Again” is the first hip-hop music video to reach 1 billion views on YouTube. (The video has since surpassed 1.2 billion views.)

There was never a plan B for Charlie Puth. It was always music. Throughout our phone interview, he identified memories and locations by song: Van Morrison’s “Domino” plays in his head when he thinks of summers at the Shore. When Hurricane Sandy struck, he was at Berklee listening to “So What” by Miles Davis as his mother called from home, screaming, “We’re going to die!” (The Puth family did not evacuate during the hurricane; 12 boats from the Sea Bright marina ended up in their yard.)

Puth hopes Nine Track Mind will encourage young musicians that “they too can make an album in their bedroom.” But working hard can get lonely. His New Year’s resolution is “to get more comfortable in crowds. And maybe be a bit more social.”

So what will 2016 hold for Charlie Puth? “Hopefully writing more music for other artists,” he says. “And maybe try some acting!”

The Story Behind ‘Runaround Sue’

January 13, 2016

Dion DiMucci recalls how a basement party in the Bronx in 1960 inspired ‘Runaround Sue’
By Marc Myers  WSJ.com  1/12/16

Dion DiMucci was there the day the music died—and when it bounced back. He was the fourth headliner on the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (the “Big Bopper”) were killed in a plane crash. He’s also one of only two American rock stars on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album (Bob Dylan is the other).

For the Beatles and many other ’60s artists, Dion was the start of teenage male vulnerability and confusion about love. After Dion released “Runaround Sue” in September 1961, the song became his first and only No. 1 Billboard pop hit. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002.

With his new studio album, “New York Is My Home” (Instant), due on Feb. 16, Dion, 76, recently looked back at “Runaround Sue,” the song’s evolution and subterranean roots. Edited from an interview:

Dion DiMucci: We used to have these parties in the Bronx in the late 1950s and early ’60s. They were held in the basement of an apartment building at 2308 Crotona Ave., where a friend was the superintendent. He turned space near the boiler room into a living room, with couches and chairs. One night in 1960, about 30 guys and girls from the neighborhood got together there to celebrate the birthday of a friend—Ellen.

We had a portable phonograph, but we soon turned it off and began making up our own songs. I was 21 and had recorded a few hits with the Belmonts, like “I Wonder Why” and “A Teenager in Love.” We didn’t have instruments in the basement so we had to improvise. It was a kick singing for friends at parties.

A lot of the people I knew growing up were there—Tony Gariano, Danny D., Jackie Serra, Joe Zinzi, Joe “B.B. Eyes,” Frankie “Yunk-Yunk” as well as Linda, Carol, Susan, Marian, Judy, Ellen and others. That night, I got everyone to lay down a beat on boxes and bottles and to clap hands rhythmically in time.

I then came up with background vocal harmony parts and had everyone sing them over and over. It went like this [Dion sings]: “Hape-hape, bum-da hey-di hey-di hape-hape.” With this going on, I made up a melody and lyrics about Ellen. People were dancing, drinking beer and having fun.

When I left the party that night, I couldn’t let go of that riff and melody. They were firmly ingrained in my head. I didn’t know how to write lyrics too well then. None of us did. But I knew that the melody and rhythmic line everyone sang had something special going on.

The next morning I called my friend Ernie Maresca, who was writing songs then. I told him about Ellen’s party and asked him to meet me at my label—Laurie Records, on 54th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. I wanted to see if we could do something with the music in one of their rooms.

The bones of the song were already in place when Ernie got there. I had the song’s sound and breaks as well as some of the lyrics: “She likes to travel around/ She’ll love you then she’ll put you down./ People let me put you wise/ Sue goes out with other guys.” After Ernie heard where I was going with the song, we went to work on the melody and lyrics. I had my guitar and Ernie was banging on the desk with his palms.
Dion in his home in Boca Raton, Fla., in June. ENLARGE
Dion in his home in Boca Raton, Fla., in June. Photo: Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

I wanted the song to be about a girl we knew from the neighborhood who had broken every guy’s heart. Not Ellen or anyone else at the party. The girl had dated everyone—that sort of thing. What can I tell you, we were kids. But even though the girl had inspired the song, Ernie and I didn’t want to use her real name. Instead, there was this girl named Sue we had admired from a distance at the Harwyn Club in Manhattan. Her name fit the lyric line perfectly.

When we finished, I needed a solid vocal group behind me, since the Belmonts and I had already split up. One night, around this time, I was up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and ran into these five guys singing on the street. They sounded great. I introduced myself and said I wanted to use them on a record. They called themselves the Del-Satins.

When they came down to Laurie Records, I showed them how to sing “Hape-hape, bum-da hey-di hey-di hape-hape.” They thought I was nuts at first, but that’s when “Runaround Sue” really started to rock. As we rehearsed, they got it and gave me this flexible vocal support that let me bounce around on the song and weave in and out.

We didn’t have to rehearse much. The Del-Satins got what I wanted right away. Great doo-woppers were like jazz musicians. You didn’t have to say a word. The Del-Satins sang a lot together and knew how to jump right in behind me.

As we sang, I studied the Del-Satins. I could tell they were the real deal. Their singing wasn’t frantic or forced. It all came naturally. They even picked up on the pronunciations of what I was singing and the attitude of the syllables. They were street—and the best I had heard.

When we had the song in shape, I called in [Laurie’s co-owner] Gene Schwartz, and we ran it down for him. Gene thought the song had something. He liked hooks, since hooks sold records. The “Runaround Sue” recording session was held in the summer of ’61 at Bell Sound on West 54th Street near Eighth Avenue. There, I gave the musicians rough parts. I didn’t know what I was doing musically then, but I knew what felt right.
Dion’s ‘Runaround Sue’

Fortunately, Gene had brought in some of the city’s best studio musicians. We had Teacho Wiltshire on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, Panama Francis on drums, Buddy Lucas on tenor sax, Mickey “Guitar” Baker on lead guitar and Bucky Pizzarelli on rhythm guitar.

After the guys looked over the music, they made suggestions. Bucky said, “Dion, should I play in this position or inverted in the higher register?” which would give him a different sound. I told him to go for it. I let the guys come up with great stuff. There were timpani drums in the corner of the studio covered in canvas. Panama played on top of those, giving the drum a thud factor and primitive vibe. He also put his wallet on the tom-tom so it had a deeper sound.

My grandfather used to take me to see opera as a kid at a theater on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Like those operas, I wanted “Runaround Sue” to start slow and sort of pained. It opened with Baker’s guitar chord and the Del-Satins’ street harmony. Then I started with, “Here’s my story, it’s sad but true.” People listen harder when you tell them you’re gonna tell them a story.

Then Panama took a few sharp shots on the snare and the arrangement became pure street rock ‘n’ roll, like at Ellen’s party, with handclapping by the Del-Satins. The shift from ballad to attitude, with a New Orleans party sound gave the song lift.

Chuck Berry used school and cars as song themes. For me, it was stuff like love and broken hearts. I was an introverted James Dean type who was seeking love and writing about it, almost like a diary. My songs were about the journey to find love and the discovery along the way.

After Gene and I mixed and mastered the record, I listened back and knew we had something. I took a promo copy up to the Bronx and played it for my friends. But when the 45 ended, there was complete silence. Everyone looked at me, and someone said, “Dion, what did you do to it?” They were remembering that night at Ellen’s party and the spontaneity of what we had done.

I never thought I had screwed up the song, but I knew what they meant. I had had those feelings before—a record not quite capturing what I had intended. But with “Runaround Sue,” I knew I had nailed it, even though that didn’t come across for my Bronx friends.

After “Runaround Sue” came out in September ’61 and hit No. 1, I went to the old neighborhood for a party. My friends said, “You know, we couldn’t really hear how good the record was at first, but it sounds good now.” Ellen gave me a hug and said, “Wow, what a birthday gift to watch that song come together.” By then, the song’s attitude had grabbed everyone’s spirit. But you know, as great as that song sounds on the record, it was even better at Ellen’s party. Sad but true.

Discogs Turns Record Collectors’ Obsessions Into Big Business

December 30, 2015

By BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 12/29/15

BEAVERTON, Ore. — In the beginning, Kevin Lewandowski just wanted a way to keep track of his techno records.
Now, 15 years later, the free website he set up for that purpose, Discogs.com, has become a vital resource for record collectors and the music industry, with a sprawling database of more than 6.5 million releases. And with an online marketplace through which nearly $100 million in records will be sold this year, Discogs has carved out a valuable niche in a market dominated by companies like Amazon and eBay.

Borrowing from Wikipedia’s model of user-generated content, Discogs has built one of the most exhaustive collections of discographical information in the world, with historical data cataloged by thousands of volunteer editors in extreme detail. The site’s entry for the Beatles’ White Album, for instance, contains 309 distinct versions of the record, including its original releases in countries like Uruguay, India and Yugoslavia — in mono and stereo configurations — and decades of reissues, from Greek eight-tracks to Japanese CDs.

“Discogs is vital, essential, irreplaceable — a resource I use every day,” said Rob Sevier, a founder of the Numero Group, a Chicago label that specializes in reissuing particularly obscure material.

Discogs’s goal of cataloging the world of recorded music is supported through the site’s marketplace, which lets sellers link to specific versions of each release — that particular Uruguayan White Album, for example — and has endeared Discogs to collectors and record dealers.

“There’s no way an independent record store can stay open without it,” said Stephen Benbrook, the owner of Zion’s Gate Records, a store in Seattle, who said Discogs was his primary outlet online, with about 500 orders a month.

The Discogs marketplace has 24 million items for sale, while eBay’s music section lists almost 11 million. Through October, Discogs processed $79 million in sales, and, with more than 80,000 orders a week, the site is on track to do nearly $100 million in business by the end of the year, said Chad Dahlstrom, its chief operating officer. Discogs takes an 8 percent fee on orders, which Mr. Lewandowski said made the company comfortably profitable.

On a recent Monday morning at the company’s headquarters in an office park just outside Portland, Mr. Lewandowski, 40, described how he was a fan of dance music in the 1990s. He connected with other collectors online, he said, but wanted a detailed reference site for the music along the lines of the Internet Music Database.

“There’s a record-collector gene,” he said. “Some people want to know every little detail about a record.”

Moonlighting from his job as a programmer at Intel, he started a basic, open-source database using about 250 of his own records — the first entry was for a double 12-inch single by the Swedish D.J. the Persuader — and revealed it to fellow collectors in October 2000. Two years later, he took a buyout from Intel and devoted himself to Discogs.

The site, once run from a computer in Mr. Lewandowski’s closet and originally restricted to electronic music, has grown rapidly. It now has 37 employees around the world, 20 million online visitors a month and three million registered users. It eventually opened to all genres of music and has a mission of cataloging every record in existence.

The site’s supporters, including the more than 260,000 people who have contributed content, pursue that mission with zeal, but they still have a long way to go. Competing collector sites, like 45worlds, have plenty of titles that are missing from Discogs, like a 78 r.p.m. acetate of the Beatles’ “Devil in Her Heart” from 1963. And proprietary databases like Gracenote, owned by Tribune Media, claim more titles over all.

Casual users may simply consult Discogs to check the text on old labels or to see whether a record was released in colored-vinyl variations. Those who sign up for accounts can also tag items as being part of their collections, as well as communicate with other users and buy or sell copies. The most dedicated create and edit listings, actions for which there are strict and elaborate guidelines. The first rule: “You must have the exact release in your possession.” A 40,000-word post lays out how to identify run-out information — the obscure codes marked on the inner portion of a record, closest to the label.

“We are trying to approach it from a very factual point of view,” said Nik Kinloch, the first employee hired by Mr. Lewandowski. “You have the music release in front of you. What does it say on it? That is the source of truth for building the discography.”

Like Wikipedia, Discogs has sometimes heard from people or companies that want to remove unflattering information. But with Discogs, those requests tend to be more about D.J.s wanting to update old stage names than about the right to be forgotten.

“The funniest one I’ve heard,” Mr. Lewandowski said, “was from a D.J. in Vancouver, B.C., who said his family was Pentecostal and they don’t allow dancing. ‘Can you remove my name from the site so they don’t find out?’” the D.J. asked.

Out of principle, Mr. Lewandowski said, the site does not remove historical data.

The site’s marketplace business is global: About 60 percent of its customers are in Europe, and a growing portion of its listings are in Japan. (The biggest seller in Japan this year: Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” 45. Seventy copies sold to customers there.) And Discogs’s growth has closely mirrored the explosion of vinyl sales. Those records have far exceeded all other formats on the site; almost 2.8 million vinyl records sold this year, compared with 628,000 CDs.

But as much as it has grown, Discogs still represents a small niche of the overall collectors’ market. EBay has 159 million active buyers, and in the third quarter alone they spent $19.6 billion on transactions through the site — in which music is just one sliver of its offerings — according to company statistics.

Mr. Lewandowski, who is the sole owner of Discogs, said he had no interest in selling the business. He has watched other players enter the field over the last 15 years, including Amazon, which in 2008 introduced SoundUnwound, a Wikipedia-like site for music. But it was quietly shut down four years later. Discogs may have survived because of the innovation of its marketplace, giving collectors an incentive to expand the database with every imaginable detail.

“I want it to go on forever,” Mr. Lewandowski said.

First new vinyl record presses hit the market after a 30-year break

December 9, 2015

By: Catherine Kavanaugh Plasticsnews.com  12/04/1
Detroit — The production capacity for vinyl records is increasing for the first time in about 30 years as a German start-up company and U.S. mold maker and parts supplier get back into the groove of building new presses.

Put the needle down on some Motown or better yet The White Stripes, because eight of the first vinyl presses from the companies are heading to Detroit, where they will contribute to the rebound of a beloved format of the music industry, in a beleaguered hub of the manufacturing industry.

The presses will be installed at Third Man Records — not far from where Grammy award-winning co-founder Jack White played his first gigs with The White Stripes. The retail part of the vinyl record business, which opened Nov. 27, shares space with a 10,000-square-foot production plant that should be pressing discs in spring 2016.

Through a shop window, visitors will be able to watch an extruder spit out a hockey puck-like glob of melted vinyl onto a mold. A machine operator then will place the metal plate in the press, which will squeeze the resin into the shape of a record. The plan is to have a press operation that is a showcase, Ben Blackwell, also a Third Man co-founder, said in a telephone interview.

“That’s one of the real unheralded, intrinsically beautiful parts of this — widening the exposure to the vinyl culture,” Blackwell said. “Because I run a record label and I go to these plants, I can see that, but the general public for the most part does not, outside of a couple places that give small tours. I think watching a record being pressed is very, very hypnotizing.”

The process won’t change with the presses rolling off the assembly line of Newbilt Machinery GmbH & Co. KG in Alsdorf, Germany. Newbilt cloned the design of existing rugged workhorses still out there in operation, but incorporated modern features like an electronic control system and a hydraulic power supply to squeeze the molds made by business partner, Record Products of America (RPA) in Hamden, Conn.

“We haven’t invented anything new. We’re just making old manual pressing machines with new parts,” RPA technical sales manger Dan Hemperly said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very simple, basic system and nothing needs to be qualified as to whether or not it will work. Of course it will work. It’s working everywhere right now.”

The presses just aren’t working in the numbers they did before compact discs came onto the music scene in the 1980s. That lack of press capacity is creating a bottleneck with troubling lead times of 4-6 months for domestic and overseas recording artists riding the vinyl resurgence. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced in September that vinyl record shipments increased 52 percent to $222 million for the first half of 2015.

“While that’s still only 7 percent of the overall market by value, it’s remarkable that a legacy format continues to contribute more to industry revenues than the ad-supported on-demand category, which includes some of the most widely used new services such as YouTube and Vevo,” Joshua Friedlander, senior vice president of RIAA’s strategic data analysis, said in a news release.

Hard pressed

Also remarkable to some, Hemperly said currently there are 21 vinyl record manufacturers in the U.S. depending on a shrinking number of used presses that are as old as 50 years, and need a lot of maintenance. With demand up from top-selling vinyl artists like Beck and the Arctic Monkeys — and with top selling artists Adele and Taylor Swift even topping vinyl chart sales as well — the industry needs some more capacity to reduce the time to get products to market.

“It’s a world wide epidemic. You can’t get a record made quickly,” Hemperly said. “That’s why there’s so much interest in getting vinyl pressing machines.”

It’s a good time to be in the business of making those machines and making vinyl records, he added.

“Anyone who opens a record-pressing facility can look forward to instant gratification — lots of customers — because they can provide quicker delivery,” Hemperly said.

On its website, Newbilt recommends prospective vinyl record producers budget at least $212,500 to start production. The company was incorporated this year by “a group of enthusiastic engineers with a long track record in machine design, [manufacturing], sales and international support for the production of audio, data and video discs,” the website also says.

Hemperly said RPA, which has been in business since 1972, and Newbilt are both small, privately held companies with staff that have a history of business together.

“These are friends we’ve been working with forever in the CD and DVD industry,” Hemperly said. “We made all kinds of cooperative equipment so it was really smart to come out with a vinyl press machine at this point of the evolution. The number of surplus machines is getting fewer and fewer. Some people say they’re as rare as hens’ teeth or they’re very expensive.”

Independent Record Pressing in Bordentown, N.J., reportedly bought six used presses for $1.5 million and paid $5,000 to make and replace an obsolete screw for one broken-down machine.

Hemperly said in an email that Newbilt’s duplex system — two presses and an extruder, hydraulic power supply and trimming machine — plus the record molds, interconnecting cable hoses will come to about $161,250 while a single-press system is about $100,000. A facility will also need a boiler, cooling tower, air compressor and three-phase power, he added.

For the records

At the Newbilt open house in September, guests were speaking Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French in addition to German and English. They went to Alsdorf to see the very first new vinyl presses in almost three decades in operation.

“I can’t tell you exactly where those presses are going because the customers want to keep it confidential until they open their doors. Detroit was hush-hush until now,” Hemperly said.

Newbilt uses historically proven designs and swaps out antiquated parts, like retraction springs, with hydraulic cylinders, according to its website. The company is offering semi-automatic single press and double press systems as it develops a way to automate the machines with robots down the line.

The new presses have been improved to minimize material and energy loss during stand-by times, to optimize color change-over times, and to reduce wear and tear, the website also says.

Customers should find the new presses easier to maintain, too, and new parts as easy to find as checking a catalog, Hemperly said. And, they should be busy from what he has seen filling orders at RPA for molds and all the components needing to keep the left-over fleet of presses running.

“Every company we have helped go online in the last year has no complaints about their business,” Hemperly said. “I spoke with a guy in September and he was very happy to be in production. Two weeks later he told me he no longer was accepting new customers; he was too busy. Cha-ching. I think the five-year plan looks very good for vinyl records. The smart individuals, like Jack White’s group, that are getting involved quickly will be very successful.”


Third Man Records is second in line for Newbilt vinyl presses as far as Blackwell can tell. The Nashville, Tenn.-based company has been using United Record Pressing, also in Nashville, and Archer Record Pressing, which is in Detroit, to make its vinyl records to date.

Blackwell said he doesn’t think Third Man’s new Detroit plant will hurt the two businesses because of the high demand.

“We’re trying to do our best not to just take up press capacity but add to it and make it easier for folks to get something out,” he said. “If it gets harder and harder to press records, you run the risk it becomes a thing that people can’t do that themselves and it gets solely in the hands of people that produce record labels and then it ultimately becomes the establishment and that’s the last thing this ever should be.”

Third Man’s Nashville site houses a record store, novelties lounge and — it claims — the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities. Student groups go there to put their performances on disc. Blackwell polls them about how many have turntables at home. In many groups, its 50 percent, he said.

Blackwell recalled his own affinity for vinyl records going back to being a teen in the ‘90s and how it seemed so unique and so intriguing, like listening for a voicemail message from Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic on the original 7-inch version of Sliver, and just so necessary at times.

“There was so much music not available on CD,” Blackwell said. “If you wanted to hear early Bob Seger it was only on vinyl and it wasn’t even on new vinyl. You had to find it second-hand used. It was almost like a gauntlet you had to run, like how much of a fan are you really.”

Other vinyl record fans talk about the warm sound and the ability to hold an album and look at jacket art.

“It’s too easy to be an old man and say kids have it easy these days,” Blackwell said. “They can just go to Spotify and have the entire recorded history of music at their fingertips. I don’t want to be a grandpa about that. That’s great and I’m happy for them, but I think still to this day music fans will gravitate toward a physicality. The engineering aspect of files or streaming divorces some allure. I think there’s allure to possessing something.”

There’s an allure to manufacturing something, too, and creating jobs — Third Man wants to hire up to 30 people — in a city kicked by The Great Recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

“It’s not raise the flag Detroit is back and everything is back to how it used to be kind of level but doesn’t every little bit help?” Blackwell asked. “There’s no shortage of people with manufacturing experience in this town that no doubt are looking for jobs and we’re actively looking for qualified plastics professionals. Eight presses aren’t going to solve the world’s problems but it’s putting more effort toward a solution than a problem.”

Smaller music companies find it hard in face of offerings from big technology groups

December 4, 2015


Robert Cookson, FT.com 12/13/15

Smaller music companies find it hard in face of offerings from big technology groups

Singers such as Rihanna have embraced streaming services
For record labels, music streaming is big business. They earned $2.2bn from services such as Spotify, Deezer and Pandora last year — a figure that has quintupled in five years. It is also a golden age for music lovers, as listening to songs has never been easier.
But for the streaming services themselves, survival is a struggle. None of the most popular services has ever turned a profit and some people doubt any of them ever will.
Last month, Rdio, a US-based streaming start-up launched in 2010 by Skype founders Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, filed for bankruptcy — owing its creditors more than $210m. Pandora, a larger rival, plans to buy some of Rdio’s assets for $75m.
A month earlier, French streaming service Deezer aborted an attempt to raise €300m in an initial public offering after investors baulked at its touted €1bn valuation.
The future appears bleak for companies whose sole business is music streaming. An increasing number of investors and people in the record industry expect that digital music distribution will be dominated by a few large, cash-rich technology groups — in particular, Apple, Google and Amazon.
“When you have the likes of Apple fighting against you, it becomes very difficult to survive,” says Mark Tluszcz, chief executive of Mangrove, the venture capital firm and one of the original investors in Rdio. It sold its shares several years ago after concluding that no matter how many subscribers the streaming service managed to attract, it would never be able to turn a profit.
“As a streaming platform, your relative value is nil, because you don’t own the content,” he says. “This is not a good business to be in.”
The fundamental challenge for streaming services is that they are largely at the mercy of music copyright holders — including Sony Music Entertainment, Vivendi’s Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. These three record companies alone control about three-quarters of the $15bn-a-year global recorded music market.

To stand a chance of attracting a large number of subscribers, a streaming service must offer a broad catalogue of songs from all three major record companies. That means that streaming services essentially have no choice but to agree the licensing terms demanded by the majors, no matter how onerous.
Even Spotify, the market leader in streaming, is heavily lossmaking. The company has more than 20m subscribers, who pay about $10 a month for on-demand access to a catalogue of more than 30m songs. It also offers a free version of the service, which gives users less control over what songs they hear and includes advertising.
Under the terms of Spotify’s licensing contracts, it must pay out 70 per cent of its revenues in the form of royalties to record labels and music publishers. As a result, while the company’s revenues surged last year to almost €1.1bn, it incurred an operating loss of €165m.
Spotify can absorb its losses for the time being. The company raised more than $500m this year in a funding round that valued the Swedish company at $8.5bn.
But venture capital has all but dried up for smaller streaming companies, and many are disappearing. The number of licensed digital music companies has declined by about 100 in the last three years to about 400, according to IFPI, a record industry body.

Anthony Bay, chief executive of Rdio, whose operating expenses were more than double its monthly revenues of $1.6m, says that “it’s incredibly difficult for an independent company to be successful in streaming, when no one in streaming is profitable”.
Making matters harder for independent operators is that they have to compete against technology groups that subsidise their streaming operations to achieve wider commercial goals. Apple, whose annual revenues exceed $230bn, has long used music as a loss-leader to help it sell devices such as the iPhone, first with the iTunes download store and now with streaming service Apple Music.
“Apple doesn’t care if the margins suck,” says Mr Bay.
Google, Amazon and a number of telecoms companies are also using music streaming to lure internet users into their spheres of influence — and are happy to pay record companies handsomely for the privilege. In the short term, this is boosting revenues for the record industry.
But Mr Bay warns the lack of profits in streaming bodes ill for the sector in the long term.

“There are no healthy industries on this planet where the distribution channels don’t make money,” he says.
Others are also concerned about the way that digital music distribution is evolving.
Lohan Presencer, chief executive of Ministry of Sound, an independent record label, says that “it’s very dangerous relying on companies whose primary business is not music to subsidise the music industry”.
One day, he forecasts, these companies will lose interest in music and they will seek to drive down prices.
Mark Mulligan, analyst at Midia Research, adds that if the record industry is to maximise its revenues from streaming in the future, the market “needs innovation from smaller players”. Allowing the technology groups to dominate, he warns, “locks the digital music market into a very narrow trajectory”.


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