Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Restoring Those Old Liner Notes in Music’s Digital Era

October 4, 2017

By BEN SISARIO 9/29/20017

Two decades into the era of online music, streaming has been hailed as the industry’s savior, but a complaint from the earliest days of digital services persists: What happened to the liner notes?

Much of the material that once accompanied an album has long since been stripped away — not just the lyrics and thank-you lists, but also essays, artwork and even basic details like songwriting credits — leaving listeners with little more on their screens to look at but a song title and a postage-stamp-size cover image.

One company, TunesMap, wants to return much of that lost information, and more, through an interactive display that, when cued by a song playing on a streaming service, will present a feed of videos, photographs and links to related material. After a decade of development, TunesMap is scheduled to make its debut in November as an Apple TV app that will work with Sonos, the connected speaker system

The app is the brainchild of G. Marq Roswell, a Hollywood music supervisor who has worked with David Lynch and Denzel Washington. He bemoans the way early digital players and online music stores like iTunes removed all sense of music coming from a particular place and time.

Working with Nigel Grainge, an influential record executive who died in June; Erik Loyer, an app developer and media artist; and Jon Blaufarb, an industry lawyer, Mr. Roswell in 2007 began to design what he calls an interactive “context engine.” Stream a song on a Sonos speaker and, if TunesMap’s app is also fired up on Apple TV, images and historical information related to the artist or a song’s origins begin to float buy.

For a Bob Dylan song, the app shows vintage photographs of Greenwich Village, news clippings and links to related artists (like Martin Scorsese, who directed the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home”). The goal is to present fans with a web of educational “rabbit holes” to explore.

“We’re going through the prism of music,” Mr. Roswell said, “but it’s film, it’s fashion, it’s art, it’s news, it’s comedy — it’s everything that created that scene.”

The company has deals with publishers like Genesis Publications and Rock’s Backpages, a decades-deep archive of music journalism, as well as rock photographers like Jay Blakesberg; TunesMap receives a cut of any sales made through the app. (TunesMap also shows articles from The New York Times by using the paper’s programming interface.)

During its long gestation, the company secured two patents for its navigation system and raised $4.75 million from entertainment-industry veterans like Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, and Jerry Moss, one of the founders of A&M Records, and from the Visionary Private Equity Group.

“I produced a Hank Williams film with Tom Hiddleston that took 10 years to put together,” Mr. Roswell said, referring to the 2015 biopic “I Saw the Light.” “I wouldn’t know any other way to do it. I just never let the vision die.”

The app is free, and it works when a user plays songs on Sonos from Spotify, Apple Music and other major streaming services. But in many ways, TunesMap runs counter to the trends of digital music consumption, which are moving toward simple mobile displays and programmed playlists.

Equipment costs are another potential barrier. The cheapest Sonos and Apple TV systems cost a total of $350. TunesMap said a minimal mobile version would also be available.

Reimagining liner notes for the digital age is a guiding concept, but Mr. Loyer, TunesMap’s director of user experience, said the company has tried to avoid the nostalgia of “Oh, remember when we had liner notes.”

“The real question,” Mr. Loyer said, “is how do we design the systems in such a way that values


It’s Not Their Pop Idol, but a Bot. Fans Cheer Anyway.

April 4, 2017


In January, Christina Ausset, a 24-year-old Maroon 5 fan in France, spotted an enticing Twitter post from another of the band’s followers: “I just had a conversation with Maroon 5! Awesome!”

The interaction, it turned out, had been conducted on Facebook Messenger with Maroon 5’s chatbot — an automated program designed to respond to basic commands. Not exactly a conversation with Adam Levine, Ms. Ausset noted, but it didn’t matter. She now happily talks to the bot, too.

“Having Maroon 5 on Messenger,” she wrote in an email, “makes you feel really close to your favorite artists!”

For celebrities who already use Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to lend a personal touch to their interactions with fans, the next frontier of social media is a deliberately impersonal one: chatbots, a low-level form of artificial intelligence that can be harnessed to send news updates, push promotional content and even test new material.

In the music world, “bot” is often a dirty word, conjuring up the tools used by high-tech ticket scalpers. Yet 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Snoop Dogg and Kiss have all deputized chatbots as their automatic, ever-alert greeters on Facebook Messenger, handling the flood of inquiries that would overwhelm any human.

When someone connects to Maroon 5 on Messenger, a text bubble pops up: “Hi,” it says, “I’m the Maroon 5 bot. Want to be the first to know when we release new music?” A series of questions with multiple-choice answers follows, leading the fan down a path lined with emojis and video clips; social media links then point other fans back to the bot.

It is a purposely simple interaction, created through technology developed by a start-up named Octane AI. Yet even in their programmed responses, chatbots can convey human personality, said Christina Milian, a singer and actress who has been among the earliest proponents of the technology, and helped found Persona Technologies, an Octane competitor.

“I feel like it’s personal,” Ms. Milian said of her own chatbot. “It’s definitely in my words. It’s how I talk. My fans know how I talk.”

Not all celebrity bots are quite up to the level of verbal verisimilitude, however. Aerosmith’s, for example, responds to virtually every inquiry with “Rock on.”
Matt Schlicht, left, and Ben Parr founded Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot. Credit Drew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

But Ms. Milian said her bot’s intelligence surprised even her. “When I’m communicating with my own chatbot,” she said, “sometimes I see something and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s so me!’”

The chatbots may also offer a glimpse of the music industry’s future, which is already beginning to involve virtual-reality concerts, playlist algorithms and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, said Cortney Harding, a consultant to music technology companies and the author of “How We’ll Listen Next: The Future of Music From Streaming to Virtual Reality.”

“As A.I. develops, everything is going to go into a mixed-reality world,” Ms. Harding said, “where you could dial up a hologram of your favorite pop star and have ‘real conversations’ with the artificially intelligent version of that person.”

Octane AI, founded about a year ago, is one of a handful of technology companies tailoring these programs to the entertainment industry, with clients including Interscope Records, the label behind Maroon 5 and 30 Seconds to Mars. Matt Schlicht, Octane AI’s chief executive, said that with more than a billion users, Messenger — the chat app connected to Facebook — was too large for celebrities to ignore. And once they are paying attention, his company’s bots can help them make efficient use of it.

“Right now people are looking at bots and saying, ‘I don’t know, maybe they’re cool, maybe not,’” Mr. Schlicht said. “But based on the data we’re seeing, it’s not crazy to think that a year from now it’s going to be their No. 1 distribution channel.”

Chatbots have become a common part of online interaction for major consumer companies; Domino’s, for example, lets customers use one to order a pizza. They have quickly spread since April of last year, when Facebook made it possible for developers to build bots on Messenger.

The change made Messenger a more useful channel to broadcast information to numerous recipients, and for many artists and marketers it solved a frustrating problem: As Facebook has grown, its news feeds have become more crowded — not to mention pruned by algorithms — making it harder and harder to reach followers.

Chris Mortimer, the head of digital marketing at Interscope, said Messenger was now a critical way for his artists to reach their fans.

Octane AI’s clients say response rates to its chats are extraordinarily high. According to the company, when its bots send a new notification, 50 to 75 percent of its subscribers open the message and click a link within 10 minutes. Bots have become popular for musicians even though they have been slow to catch on over all; at a conference in September, a Facebook executive called the technology “overhyped,” and said that early examples were unimpressive. Still, Ms. Milian said her Messenger account had attracted two million people since she introduced her bot in October.

Maroon 5 also demonstrated its value for commercial research. In February, a day before the band released its single “Cold,” it sent a 10-second clip of the song to its chatbot followers. Within 24 hours, fans sent 100,000 messages to the bot, and shared the clip widely on social media.

“You can get pretty strong sentiment analysis in a snap,” said Ben Parr, Octane AI’s chief marketing officer.

Chatbots’ high engagement rates may be helped by their novelty. But as they spread, they will have to be reconciled with the sour perception of bots among the general public, which has been building for years because of the use of bots in fake social-media accounts and, especially, ticketing. Bots have become such a scourge in the global scalping market that last year President Barack Obama signed a federal bill outlawing their use in buying event tickets.

“I hate the word bot,” said Josh Bocanegra, Persona’s chief executive, who founded the company with Ms. Milian. “It’s never been associated with anything positive.”

Mr. Bocanegra entered the business last year, after making a Selena Gomez bot to entertain his daughter. Persona creates custom chatbots for clients including Snoop Dogg and one for the “50 Shades Darker” character Christian Grey, which tells fans that if it cannot trust them, “I’ll have no choice but to spank you.” Bocanegra said a basic bot could be ordered for $2,500 plus maintenance charges.

Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot, does not charge for its services. The company is supported by $1.6 million from investors including the venture capital firm General Catalyst, and says it will introduce revenue-generating features soon.

So far, the bots’ ability to create interactions with pop stars — even if those interactions are programmed in computer code — has been enough to intrigue fans.

Sue Winett, a Maroon 5 fan in the Los Angeles area, proudly notes that at age 61 she is far older than the average admirer of the band. But she said that her love of the band had led her to all forms of social media — her Twitter handle is @AdoreAdamLevine, after the band’s lead singer — and that aside from a few kinks in the programming, she was enjoying the band’s chatbot.

“I know it’s a robot,” Ms. Winett said. “Does it creep me out that it’s a robot? No.”

Stem Helps Split Royalties, and Takes Off as Music Distributor

February 7, 2017


When Frank Ocean’s album “Blonde” came out in August, it went straight to No. 1 and became the talk of the music business because it was released completely outside the usual channels of the recording industry. The mystery was how Mr. Ocean and his team did it.
One answer was revealed on Sunday in an online ad promoting “Blonde” as one of the most acclaimed releases of 2016 and noting that it was “powered by Stem.”
That service, which began only a year ago, has quickly become a player in a fast-growing corner of the music industry: online platforms that cater to independent artists by distributing their music to streaming services and organizing the many strands of royalties that accumulate from fans’ clicks.
Stem, founded by three 20-somethings in Los Angeles, has attracted a clientele of young artists who operate independently yet tend to collaborate frequently with other acts, some of them stars. For them, Stem’s attraction is its ability to easily manage the complex “splits” — the divvying up of royalties among multiple parties — that result from such collaborations. Stem Disintermedia, the company behind it, has raised $4.5 million from investors, including Upfront Ventures and Scooter Braun, who is the manager for Kanye West and Justin Bieber.
The indie music sector already has a well-established network of alternative distribution companies like TuneCore and CD Baby, which deliver unsigned artists’ work to online services for what is usually a small fee. But those services have no means to divide the royalties if a song has, say, two producers and five writers, an example of the kind of collaboration that is now common in pop. Instead, the main performer would be responsible for accounting.
Stem eliminates that burden by tracking every collaborator on a song, and requiring all parties to agree on percentage splits. Milana Rabkin, Stem’s chief executive and one of its founders, compared the service to online payment apps that let friends easily split a restaurant tab.
“In a world where Venmo exists,” Ms. Rabkin said in an interview, “why isn’t there a Venmo for Apple and Spotify?”
Stem’s consensus model, however, could also be its Achilles’ heel, since it will not allow any party to be paid until all agree on the splits, a process that gives holdouts bargaining power. Ms. Rabkin said that most projects reached consensus in a few days and that the longest had taken “a couple months.” The service takes a 5 percent cut on royalties.
Representatives of Mr. Ocean declined to comment on exactly how he had used Stem. But aside from the album’s initial appearance on Apple Music — when it was delivered directly to Apple — Stem appears to have been the vehicle used to release “Blonde” to most major services. Stem distributes music to Spotify, Apple, YouTube, Amazon, Tidal, SoundCloud and several other outlets.
While Stem’s model was novel when it first appeared, it now has competition. In December, CD Baby quietly introduced a new distribution service, Soundrop, which, like Stem, tracks royalty splits — although without the consensus requirement — and caters to a generation more likely to post songs on YouTube and think about making money later.
“It’s an opportunity to reach a demographic that wants to create differently,” said Kevin Breuner, the vice president of marketing at CD Baby. “Music distribution is a secondary thought to them.”
Stem, by contrast, is catching on among a class of young professionals who often operate independently but may be involved in the highest creative levels of the business. Its clients include Childish Gambino and the electronic producer Deadmau5. The company says it has distributed 6,000 pieces of content that have been streamed 500 million times.
Dina LaPolt, a lawyer representing Deadmau5, said her client was using Stem to track his music on YouTube, but explained that Stem’s royalty-tracking system was particularly important to artists in managing the otherwise daunting task of tracking royalty splits.
“Music is the only business in the world where the artist is responsible for doing all the paperwork,” Ms. LaPolt said.
Among Stem’s most vocal advocates is Anna Wise, 28, a singer and songwriter who won a Grammy Award for her work with Kendrick Lamar. She was working as a nanny before she began using the service, which she said had provided her with a steady income — “enough to pay Brooklyn rent,” she said — and devote herself fully to making music. Her latest album, “The Feminine: Act II,” released through Stem, comes out on Feb. 17.
The company’s system, she said, allows her and friends to quickly and transparently arrange deals among themselves, maintaining control and minimizing any disruption to creativity.
“It’s essentially like a smart contract,” Ms. Wise said. “It’s easier and simpler, and I love easy and simple.”

December 11, 2016

My Headphones, My Self


You see them on every block: people being propelled through their routines listening to their own individualized soundtracks, with the outside world serving as a stage set.

Headphones are now fashion statements. Status symbols. Fetish objects on par with luxury watches and limited-edition Nikes.

William Crosson, a 28-year-old executive recruiter and part-time D.J., wears V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones, a $270 set that looks like something a cyberhooligan might wear to a Berlin disco.

Alexander Gilkes, a member of Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list and co-founder of the auction site Paddle8, wears $400 headphones made by Master & Dynamic.

Martin Gaynor, a 27-year-old freelance app developer for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, wears Symphonized 2s, a pair of wood-covered, over-the-ear headphones that he bought on Amazon for $53. “The wooden earthy look just seemed to complement the subdued classical look I have on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It just matched.”

Don’t forget the cultural bellwether Beyoncé. In her “Lemonade” video this year, she belts out “Sandcastles,” a ballad of a woman scorned, while wearing $550 Prymas.

Global headphone sales hit a peak of $8.4 billion in 2013, and two years later, that figure rose to $11.2 billion, according to the research firm Futuresource Consulting. The company predicts that sales will rise another $2 billion by 2018, meaning we have yet to reach Peak Headphone.

The combination of the iPhone and headphones in many varieties (in-ear, over-the-ear, shaped-to-your-ear and so on) gives city dwellers the ability to largely avoid an experience that was once arguably the whole point of living in the crowd — interacting with others.

In a fraught public sphere, headphones provide a measure of privacy. Those who fall deeply into a Spotify playlist or the latest installment of an addictive podcast enter a cocoon-like zone all but impenetrable to tourists, beggars and those do-gooders with clipboards.

“Headphones are the front line of urban social defense,” said Julie Klausner, a comedian, actor and writer. “I’m introverted and socially anxious by nature. My worst nightmare is sitting next to someone on a plane or someone who wants to strike up a conversation on an elevator.”

But Ms. Klausner knows she opens herself to experiences she may otherwise miss when she leaves the headphones at home.

“The other morning, I forgot my headphones and was on the 2 train going to physical therapy when I spilled water over my own seat,” she said. “Then this smiling older woman came over to talk. If my headphones had been on, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Alone Together

On a recent Thursday in Midtown Manhattan, Grimaldi Perdomo, 37, an architect, was on his way to work, wearing a Burberry trench coat and listening to the Weeknd’s new album, “Starboy,” on his Parrot Ziks, popular $400 black and titanium headphones designed by Philippe Starck.

A look through Mr. Perdomo’s black Banana Republic bag revealed that he, like other urban warriors, has headphones for all occasions.

Tucked into a small cardboard box was a pair of white Jaybird wireless in-ear headphones for the gym. Should the Jaybirds fail, Mr. Perdomo had a backup: trusty white Apple earbuds, the minimalist sound-delivery system that was all the rage not so long ago but has increasingly been replaced by more garish accessories. At home, Mr. Perdomo said, is an old pair of Beats.

“I like my music,” he said.

All the same, he believes something has gotten lost as many people navigate public spaces under the spell of the private experiences encouraged by digital media.

“Technology has ruined us,” Mr. Perdomo said. “You go to a restaurant and look around, and maybe 80 percent of the people are looking at their phones.”

Please Go Away

The experience of intense private listening in public settings is nothing new. It goes back to teenagers communing with the Shangri-Las via the earpieces connected to transistor radios in the 1950s and ’60s. It recalls the Sony Walkman craze of the ’80s.

But the latest round of headphones popularity may be an expression of our disaffected times, coming during a season when people holding different views on matters political and cultural struggle to open their mouths without triggering an argument.

Some headphones are chrome and accentuate the bass. Others are gold and boost the treble. The companies producing them can go from obscure to white-hot overnight.

Enormous growth has taken place for headphones priced from $99 to $500. But companies like HiFiMan, Audeze and JH Audio have built substantial businesses selling headphones that retail for as much as $3,000.

Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler are collaborating with brands like Beats and Master & Dynamic on limited editions. Canali teamed with Pryma. Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Colette and Opening Ceremony all stock headphones.

There is even a Broadway show, “The Encounter,” by Simon McBurney, experienced through headphones. It opened to rave reviews in September, with its fancy listening devices given, free of charge, by the German headphones brand Sennheiser. The irony of “The Encounter” is that it relies on state-of-the-art technology to deliver a lament against it.

“For Sennheiser, it’s product placement and an indictment,” Mr. McBurney said.

Did they mind?  “I don’t think so,” he said.

The Shift

The paradox of the headphone experience — which somehow brings together, as Mr. McBurney suggested, isolation and intimacy — did not seem to be on the mind of Val Kolton, 39. A sports-car-obsessed techno fanatic, he founded a headphones company in 2004, naming it V-Moda because “‘moda’ means fashion,” he said, and all his favorite brands were Italian.

“Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace,” he said. “And I was really into motorsports. Lamborghini, Ferrari, Ducati.”

Before starting his business, Mr. Kolton was living in San Diego and working at Aviatech, a digital marketing company. Then he had an awakening on a dance floor in Ibiza, Spain.

“We were doing antismoking commercials, and I heard we were going to do another for Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” Mr. Kolton said one evening this fall, as he sat on a black leather sofa in his West Hollywood offices. “And I was having a drink and a smoke, and I thought: ‘You know what? Why am I doing all these “anti” campaigns? What’s next? An antisex campaign? Dance music is going to break through. House music is here!’”

Two years later, Mr. Kolton’s parents gave him money to produce candy-colored $99 earbuds. At the time, Apple was scheduled to release the first iPhone, with a recessed headphone jack that was incompatible with most headphones on the market.

Mr. Kolton got the bright idea of manufacturing his line to Apple’s market-busting specifications. He flew to Cupertino, Calif., and made the pitch. He figured he would be one of many entrepreneurs with Apple in mind, but that was not the case.

The market got more crowded after Beats by Dr. Dre, founded by Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, and the music producer and executive Jimmy Iovine, introduced its first $300 headphones in 2008.

“Before Beats, $300 for a headphone was considered an outrageous amount of money to spend,” said Jamey Warren, the chief executive of “You could buy a Sennheiser HD 600 over-the-ear headphone for $300. It was considered the world’s best, and it was a stretch for most folks except audiophiles.”

Increased demand isn’t the only thing fueling the boom. Crowdfunding sites have given potential entrepreneurs new routes to capital, while manufacturing costs have fallen. The 2014 sale of Beats to Apple, for $3 billion, also ushered in a new wave of headphone hopefuls.

Steve Guttenberg, a contributing editor to the digital products review site CNET and a high-fidelity expert, explained how the business has changed.

“Thirty years ago, when someone said, ‘I want to make a headphone,’ he would probably try to make it here in the United States, or he might design it and then get on a plane and say to the people who make headphones in China: ‘Here’s the design. Can you execute it?’” he said. “Now, we’ve eliminated the first two steps. The requirement, quote unquote, is that the person who’s running the show knows what it should sound like and look like and feel like and is able to say, ‘Keep showing me your samples until I find it.’

By the time Jonathan Levine, 54, a former investment banker at Lehman Brothers, started the headphones company Master & Dynamic in 2014, it was clear that design and marketing were key.

Mr. Levine settled on the brand name Master & Dynamic because it sounded similar to established audio brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Astell & Kern, and Bowers & Wilkins. “‘Levine’ didn’t exactly scream luxury,” he said.

To get out the message for his 1950s-inspired, produced-in-China headphones, with its cognac-colored headband, he hired Carolina Clouet, a Balenciaga-clad former consultant for Barneys and Neiman Marcus, as his director of sales.

In October 2014, Bergdorf Goodman, Opening Ceremony and Colette received the first shipments of Mr. Levine’s pièce de résistance, the $399 MH40. In December of that year, Mr. Levine’s team sent them as freebies to Art Basel Miami Beach attendees at the Edition hotel and the Standard Miami.

After David Beckham began wearing them around Los Angeles, GQ proclaimed them “The Most Stylish Headphones Money Can Buy.” By the end of 2015, Master & Dynamic’s staff increased to 36 employees, from eight, who now work in a loftlike space in the garment district, where the walls are adorned with artwork by Christian Marclay and Terry Winters. There is even a Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass, who, Mr. Levine was pleased to say, wears Master & Dynamics.

While many celebrities serve as brand endorsers, unwitting or not, others are trying to become the brand. This year,, a longtime minority partner in Beats, started Buttons, a $200 set of wireless, in-ear headphones shaped like small saucers and sold through Apple. The fashion stalwart André Leon Talley is the creative director, styling the ads and the boxes, which star Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner.

“Nobody has made a fashion headphone that’s in-ear,” said by phone while on a break from taping the British edition of “The Voice.” “They’re all big headphones that sit over your head. The reason we went with earbuds is because we were designing it to be like jewelry.”

The countless options can be paralyzing to customers. The writer and radio host Kurt Andersen said he had trouble picking the right headphones as he perused CNET’s exhaustive review section recently.

“I like that the over-the-ears are not as dorky as they once were,” he said. “The ones from Beats seem fine. But then do I look like someone trying to be young, with groovy, hip-hop headphones?”

The Holdouts

A challenge for the industry is getting women interested in its high-end gear. Amy Uaarmorn, a 31-year-old staff member at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, received a free pair of Master & Dynamic MH40s last year. Yet she said she seldom wears them and cannot imagine spending any more than $50 or $100 on headphones

Never mind that Ms. Uaarmorn’s former boyfriend, Brannan Mason, 24, happens to be the co-owner of Noble Audio, a three-year-old Santa Barbara company that has received glowing notices for its in-ear earphones with prices that begin at $300 and go to $2,700.

Some of the ultraexpensive headphones are made to fit your ear exactly. To get a pair, you see an audiologist, who takes impressions of yours ears using a Play-Doh-like substance and ships them off to a manufacturer like Noble Audio.

This variety, known as CIEMs (short for custom in-ear monitors), started with touring musicians, who use them to block ambient noise and monitor their own sound.

Julie Glick, an audiologist who has a practice on Park Avenue, operates almost like a pharmaceutical rep for Noble Audio and other brands that specialize in custom, in-ear headphones. Matt Stone, a creator of “South Park,” and Daniel Villano, a colorist at Frédéric Fekkai, are among her clients who pop in to test demo units. When a sale is made, she earns a commission.

The trend really took off when JH Audio, a big player in this area, began posting photos of its famous customers and their CIEMs on Facebook and Instagram

But even as the boom shows no sign of abating, there are those who, like Ms. Uaarmorn, have no interest in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a perfect listening experience.

Julie Klausner is also sticking to the basics.

“Apple earbuds,” she said. “I don’t really need anything else.”


Social Media Got You Down? Be More Like Beyoncé

September 29, 2016


In Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” characters carry around smart devices called äppäräts, which are something like iPhones on meth. The book is set in the near future. Staten Island is the new Brooklyn, and all the characters use their äppäräts to chat and shop and beam their lives out to the world, nonstop. Äppäräts are also equipped with a program called RateMe Plus, which constantly calculates (and broadcasts, of course) a status ranking based on users’ jobs, financials and online popularity, which is gauged by the quantity and quality of what they share. Live-streaming the most intimate details of your life is the only way to get ahead — job promotions and romantic prospects depend on it.

Shteyngart’s extrapolations from first-generation social media are beginning to prove surprisingly prescient. The biggest companies are now slaving away to bring his vision ever closer to real­ity. It’s not a philosophical or ideological statement on their part; it’s just that their business model is predicated on sharing, and finding new ways to extricate more and more from us. This spring, Facebook introduced its 1.7 billion users to a new feature called Live, which allows anyone to broadcast his or her life in a real-time stream to friends and family. The company also said it would prioritize personal posts like Live over those from brands or news organizations — a sign that, like Shteyngart, it thinks people are far more invested in voyeurism than in anything else. (And in theory, it should know.) In August, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, followed suit with a feature called Stories, allowing users to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. The company described it as a way to “share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep.”

It all feels like harmless fun, but our online lifestyles have begun to make a real impact in our offline worlds, a trend that doesn’t seem to be reversing. In 2014, Facebook talked with lenders about the possibility of linking profiles to credit scores, and one recent survey showed that 40 percent of college-admission officers now say they peruse applicants’ social-media profiles in addition to evaluating G.P.A.s and essays.

Social media has, in its own way, provided us a means of generating other selves. We just haven’t yet learned to set them free. Beyoncé has.

Social media tends to reward those who share the most — which means we tend to see way more from certain people than we want to see. You probably already know what I mean, and have seen it in your own feeds, as friends, co-workers and complete strangers faithfully transcribe their inner monologues in a never-ending stream. Even those who make a living in the public eye aren’t immune to the perils of oversharing — on the contrary. Two recent examples come to mind: Jennifer Weiner, a very successful author by any measure (her 2002 book, “In Her Shoes,” was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz), recently wrote an embarrassingly long diatribe on Facebook blasting Oprah for not selecting her latest novel for her book club; and the rapper the Game has posted obscene, near-nude selfies on Instagram that emphasize an enormous bulge in his underwear that may or may not be Photoshopped.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either example — but they each clearly underline the ways that social media has stripped away our ability to tell what is O.K. to share and what is not. It’s not just that watching people vie for your attention can feel gross. It’s also that there’s a fine line between appearing savvy online and appearing desperate.

In high-definition contrast, let’s look at Beyoncé for a moment. Unless televised live performances count, she has never live-streamed a day in her life. She rarely gives interviews, so what we know is scraped from her social-media presence — which isn’t much. I can tell you what outfit and hairstyle Beyoncé posted on social media last week, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world she was, what the inside of her house looks like or even which continent her primary residence is on. Her images tend not to be location-tagged, or even look as if they were taken with a cellphone. I couldn’t tell you who took the photos of her, because, unlike most celebrities, Beyoncé rarely posts selfies. I have no idea who comes to her pool parties, if she has a pool or has ever been to a pool party. I couldn’t guess what she wears to bed. And yet, when I speak about her, it’s as if we’ve been attached at the hip since birth. I feel, very intimately, that I know her. Beyoncé’s feed is the rice cake of celebrity social-media feeds: low in caloric content but mystifyingly satisfying.

Most people treat social media like the stage for their own reality show, but Beyoncé treats her public persona more like a Barbie — she offers up images and little more, allowing people to project their own ideas, fantasies and narratives about her life onto it. Take, for example, her response after a video leaked of her sister, Solange, attacking Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z, in a hotel elevator. Rather than posting rapid-fire tweets explaining the whole thing, Beyoncé simply posted a series of photographs of herself and her sister having fun, quelling any rumors of a rift.

The Beyoncé we follow on social media is an illusion that feels intimate and real, one that (probably) provides the real Beyoncé space to exist privately. Credit Photo illustration by Adam Ferriss. Source photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images.

This logic extends to her creative work too. Earlier this year, she spent an entire album, “Lemonade,” stoking rumors of marital strife with Jay Z. Lines like “You’re gonna lose your wife” seemed to confirm that her once-dreamy relationship was on the rocks. The release of that album felt cathartic, an answer to questions about her personal life that her fans had been obsessing over for months. But then, before the fervor over that album faded, news of another album leaked: this time, a duet album. With her husband. In a single calendar year, Beyoncé managed to reveal what seemed to be a lifetime’s worth of secrets and pain, without it being clear whether she had revealed anything at all. If anything, that only made people want more.

Conventional wisdom casts Beyoncé as a control freak, and perhaps she is, but control isn’t such a bad thing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about her bifurcated self in the context of somewhat-forgotten cyberfeminist theory. In the 1980s, academics believed that technology would introduce profound changes for humankind, especially women. Donna Haraway, emerita professor of the history of consciousness and feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an inspiration for cyberfeminism, wrote that new technologies could liberate women from patriarchy and other oppressive systems. In the distant future, she believed, people could assume virtual bodies, allowing for “permanently partial identities” that could exist beyond gender, beyond reproach and without limits.

The internet preserved many of the same biases and hierarchies Haraway so desperately hoped we could escape. And there are no true cyborgs yet. But social media has, in its own way, provided us a means of generating other selves. We just haven’t yet learned to set them free. Beyoncé has, in her own way. The Beyoncé we follow seems to live and breathe, and provokes a real emotional reaction. It’s an illusion that feels intimate and real, a hologram self for us to interact with that, in theory, provides the actual Beyoncé space to exist away from our prying eyes.

This isn’t a strategy that works for only the incredibly rich and famous. I believe it’s a useful way of thinking about how we could all behave online. Why fret about oversharing, or undersharing, or to what extent our online selves are true to our ac­tual self? We could instead use social media as a prism through which we can project only what we want others to see. We can save the rest for ourselves — our actual selves.

Music World Bands Together Against YouTube, Seeking Change to Law

June 1, 2016

By BEN SISARIO 5/31/16

A few years ago, the biggest enemy of the music industry was Pandora Media. Then Spotify became the target.

Now it is YouTube’s turn.

In recent months, the music world has been united to a rare degree in a public fight against YouTube, accusing the service of paying too little in royalties and asking for changes to the law that allows the company to operate the way it does. The battle highlights the need to capture every dollar as listeners’ habits turn to streaming, as well as the industry’s complicated relationship with YouTube.

The dispute has played out in a drumbeat of industry reports, blog posts and opinion columns. Stars like Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams and Billy Joel have signed letters asking for changes to copyright laws. Irving Azoff, the manager of artists like the Eagles and Christina Aguilera, criticized YouTube in an interview and in a fiery speech around the Grammy Awards.

Also, annual sales statistics were released showing that YouTube, despite its gigantic audience, produces less direct income for musicians than the niche market of vinyl record sales.

“This is the result of an explosion of views of music videos on YouTube against a backdrop of decline in the recorded music business in general,” Larry Miller, an associate professor of music business at New York University’s Steinhardt School, said of the fight.

With more than a billion users, including the youngest and most engaged music fans, YouTube has long been seen by the music business as a vital way to promote songs and hunt for the next star. At the same time, music executives grumble that it has never been a substantial source of revenue and is a vexing outlet for leaks and unauthorized material.

It may not be a coincidence that the major record labels are also in the midst of renegotiating their licensing contracts with YouTube this year.

In its newest effort, the music industry has asked the federal government to change the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, saying that the law, which was passed in 1998 and protects sites like YouTube that host copyrighted material posted by users, is outdated and makes removing unauthorized content too difficult.

Cary Sherman, the chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, says that even when songs are taken down, they can easily be uploaded again.

“This is a new form of piracy,” he said. “You don’t have to go into dark corners and sell stuff out of your car. You can do it in plain sight and rely on the D.M.C.A. to justify that what you’re doing is perfectly legal.”

Europe’s copyright protections are also under review, and last month, Andrus Ansip, the European Commission’s digital chief, called on YouTube to pay more for its content. But so far, YouTube does not seem shaken.

In an interview, Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer, said that since its inception in 2005, YouTube has paid $3 billion to the music industry around the world. (In earlier statements, YouTube has said that Google, its parent company, paid that amount across all of its sites, but Mr. Kyncl now says that YouTube alone has contributed that sum and that other Google services have added even more.)

“Music matters tremendously to us,” Mr. Kyncl said. “Artists matter to us. We are connecting artists and fans on our platforms.”

He also pointed to the site’s new subscription plan, YouTube Red, and said YouTube’s copyright protections were functioning as they should. Content ID, the site’s proprietary system, lets copyright owners keep track of their material, and when the system detects a new video including a tracked song — whether in a full music video or just the background of a user-uploaded clip — the owner can choose to keep the video online or take it down.

According to YouTube, 98 percent of copyright claims on its system are made through Content ID, and 99.5 percent of the claims related to music are handled automatically. YouTube says about half the money it pays in music royalties is related to user-generated videos that incorporate music processed through Content ID.

“We are working to create what has become the most significant revenue generator in the entertainment industry,” Mr. Kyncl said, “which is a dual revenue stream where you monetize all people: heavy users through subscription, and light users through advertising.”

But the music world argues that YouTube’s financial contributions have not kept pace with the popularity of its streams. In March, the recording industry association’s annual report of sales statistics, usually a dry financial summary, criticized YouTube harshly. It said that free ad-supported sites like it, which let users pick specific songs on demand, paid $385 million to record labels in the United States — less than the $416 million collected from the sale of just 17 million vinyl records.

Spotify paid about $1.8 billion last year for music licensing and related costs, according to the company’s annual returns, although the average royalty rates for its free tier are not much different from YouTube’s, by some estimates.

The fight over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has touched a nerve. The music industry is bracing for what may be a high-wattage lobbying battle reminiscent of the one over the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that was abandoned in 2012 after opposition from technology activists and Internet giants like Google and Wikipedia.

The copyright law gives “safe harbor” to Internet service providers that host third-party material. While music groups criticize the law, some legal scholars and policy specialists say any change to it would need to be considered carefully, particularly to preserve protections like fair use.

“Anything that rewrites the D.M.C.A. isn’t just going to affect YouTube,” said James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “It is going to affect blogs. It is going to affect fan sites. It is going to affect places for game creators and documentarians and all kinds of others.”

In December, the United States Copyright Office asked for comments about D.M.C.A. as part of a review of the law, and filings by record companies show how laborious copyright policing can be. Universal Music said that after Taylor Swift’s album “1989” was released in late 2014, the company devoted a team of employees full time to search for unauthorized copies; to date, the company said, it has sent 66,000 takedown notices to various sites about “1989,” in addition to 114,000 blocks on YouTube made automatically through Content ID.

Maria Schneider, a Grammy-winning jazz composer, said in an interview that the problem was particularly acute for independent acts like her, who do not have Content ID accounts, and that the D.M.C.A.’s takedown process discouraged lawful requests.

YouTube says that about 8,000 companies and organizations have access to Content IDand that independents may get access through affiliated companies and industry groups. Mr. Kyncl said the steps in the takedown process were meant to ensure the accuracy of requests and deter false claims.

Mr. Azoff said that after the Copyright Office made its request, he and other managers asked artists they represented whether they wanted to sign a letter calling for changes to the law.

“Not one artist declined,” he said.

“But if there are creators who like their music on YouTube and SoundCloud, that’s fine,” Mr. Azoff said. “The whole point is choice: Artists should be able to choose

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

April 12, 2016

Peter Kafka  4/11/16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer is clearly “no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What The Music Industry Could Learn From 1920’s RCA

February 24, 2016

Ted Gioia 2/20/16

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

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

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

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

December 9, 2015

By: Catherine Kavanaugh  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.”

Meet the Guy Who Gives You the Heads Up If an Album Leaks

December 1, 2015

Stanley Widianto

Staffan Ulmert will let you know if and when an album has leaked.

His site Has It Leaked is like the Neighborhood Watch of musical leaks which, according to the official website, aims to mediate between fans and labels.

While it won’t provide direct links, Steffan says that the site acts as a platform for music fans to discuss leaks (and presuamably do a few quick searches and find them).

Ulmert, who has run the site from Sweden since 2012, is a music producer and podcast host, and fully understands the financial and creative harm of uploading records before their intended releases.

But digital music leaks have been a part of the way people listen to music since almost as long as the internet itself. Way back in 1993 a leak of Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion hit internet chat rooms in all it’s pre-mp3, pre-ADSL glory; and music fans have been clamoring for that early listen ever since.

Despite what major labels will have you think, leaks aren’t necessary a wholly negative thing for artists, and can also be used as a powerful tool in the right hands. Wilco’s classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot started it’s life as a leak, after Warner refused to release it, and it was that buzz generated that secured the album an official release.

Leak culture is fuelled by enthusiasm. Labels can try and lock the recordings down and control the release, but if there’s music there and people want to hear it, then they will always find a way.

Noisey: Hey Staffan, how did the site start?
Staffan Ulmert: I was working as an artist and was disappointed in how the labels treated the promotional campaign. I was surprised at how non-creative the whole thing was. I figured that I should build my own platform where I could promote my own music. I started Has It Leaked because there was a lot of albums that I wanted to talk about and I wanted to know if they had leaked, so I wanted a forum for that to happen. And I didn’t need to figure out how to make that legal; I’m not for torrents, I’m not advocating [illegal] downloads. So that’s how I started Has It Leaked: just a way to promote my music, but that never really happened. It grew too big too quickly.

Are leaks here to stay?
Yes. Unfortunately, they’re a big part of the industry. Labels haven’t really figured out ways to prevent leaks from happening. I think some of the major publishers have begun to be better at surprise albums, but still, Beach House’s Depression Cherry leaked two months in advance and Sub Pop is a big label. I asked them to clarify but they didn’t want to draw attention to the leaks so they declined.

You interviewed Slade, a leaker who says that leaks can be beneficial to artists.
Sort of. In rare cases, I think a leak can be beneficial to artists. But in the end, let’s say you have a single coming up which is tied to Pitchfork and then suddenly your album leaks. And Pitchfork or other outlets will treat the campaign as if the album hasn’t leaked, but from a fan standpoint, it’s pretty much ruined. I think Slade is wrong about that. I mean Kanye leaked his second album and he created this major buzz. But you have to understand that there are PR companies behind that; that’s a calculated move. But, you know, leaks are bad for artists.

Is a leaker always to blame for the culture of album leaks or the eager fans downloading also have a part?
I think the leaker is to blame, definitely. I’m a fan myself, I downloaded albums illegally before. It’s very, very tricky to say no to a free album. Like you respect someone’s art, but you’re also a super fan. You want to hear that album. And I think the artist would understand that, but I don’t think they would understand the leaker.

What’s in it for leakers?
There’s an incentive for a leaker to brag about having an album and they want the attention. I had another interview on the site with a leaker and he said that he only wanted the five seconds of fame.

So it’s vanity rather than business?
There’s no money to be made from leaks. Slade’s getting some ad money, but it’s not much.

Has the site run into any any legal issues?
Around the time of JustinTimberlake’s 20/20 Experience release I got an email telling me that I should remove the post. I said no, because there were no download links. They threatened me with legal stuff because I was using the album covers. I removed the album cover, and that’s it.

Did you see it coming?
No, I’ve been surprised by how little legal action there’s been. Again, I don’t think this is illegal, but there are grey areas.

Is spreading word of a leak as bad as the actual leak?
I don’t feel that I promote leaks or help leaks gain attention. I don’t want piracy to grow, that’s not my thing. There’s not a lot of money in the site. I do it because it’s fun and I like to promote friends or stuff I believe in. I’m just a fan. If you search for an album leak before it’s leaked, there’s a lot of fake sites out there who want your credit numbers, make you take surveys and make a lot of money off of that. I don’t want them to make any money. So it’s better to have Has It Leaked say that, “no, it hasn’t leaked.”

What has the response to the site been?
Very few people are negative, which surprises me. I’ve had maybe 10 angry emails from artists, labels, people in general who don’t like the site. You can say that I’m promoting leaks. That’s the worst thing you can say about the site. I would say that I’m not making leaks a bigger thing than they already are.