Little boxes – the genre-fication of music

music-genre-CD
Old-school CD music collection by Mr Shiraz)

Yes I know it’s my fault, but early in the days of turning my music into online MP3s, I accidently chose Christian Rap as a genre for one of my songs. The song I incorrectly categorised is called 53 & Fragile, about a fellow taking stress leave to ponder his future. I guess you could rap to it, in a God-less sort of way. It only took three years to discover this error.

An enterprising blogger (Glenn McDonald) compiled a list of 1,264 micro-genres; they include goa trance, aggrotech, gabba, yellow mellow, happyhardcore, terrorcore, ghost step and Nordic house.

There are many reasons why the recorded music business is in a state of flux but I continue to believe (and I’m not alone), that the industry’s insistence on streaming music into little boxes called genres has robbed many a musician of potential fans.

As Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Bernard Zuel said of a Luke O’Shea album it is put into a box labelled Country and as a result, a great many people will never open that box. This is likely to be the case, despite someone with Zuel’s acumen identifying all manner of pop, rock and hip hop influences in O’Shea’s music.

When we released our CD, The Last Waterhole, in 2015, it was our first real engagement with online music. After labouring through the online applications (and printing out paper copies), our music was magically turned into MP3s (compressed audio files), and made available for download on CD Baby and subsequently ITunes, Amazon Music, Google Music and more.

We sold the expected number of CDs, but three years later our album has drifted out to sea as thousands of new releases come in with every second wave. Online sales are about as sporadic as our public appearances.

The indie market is cluttered with home-made CDs recorded on a laptop and flogged at markets for $10. Those with loftier ambitions engage a producer and typically spend $6,000 to $10,000, which is all very well if you can sell 500 copies at $20 each. At the high end of the game, production companies spend up to $100,000 on a CD that will jump out of the radio like a rabbit on steroids. But over a long span of time, I suspect, the listening public’s ears are getting tired of it all. There’s way too much of it, no quality control and the harsh, metallic attack of compressed digital music has taken the edge off the listening pleasure.

And, as our producer predicted, the day is coming when people won’t need to own CDs anymore – all they‘ll need is a Bluetooth speaker.

“OK, Google, play The Goodwills.”

“OK, here’s the YouTube channel for the DJ Goodwill.”

The science is imperfect, but it seems to be enough for an alarmingly large group of people, who can buy an OK-quality music-streaming speaker for a few hundred dollars. The latest research estimates the value of the global portable Bluetooth speaker market at over US$4 billion, expected to double by the end of 2025.

A few years back the grand dame of folk and blues Margret RoadKnight posted an article on Facebook from Digital Music News with the droll comment “Why I’m up for House/’Salon’ concerts!!”

The article outlined the industry’s 99 (main) problems, the key one being that musicians and artists are finding it harder to “monetize” what they do, whether performing or selling merchandise.

People have got used to free stuff and now they won’t pay unless they are very drunk and you’re giving away a t-shirt or stubby holder as well.

I asked a 20-something lad why he thought nothing of shelling out $20 for a pizza but he was reluctant to pay $20 for an album.

“Yeh, but I know what a meat lovers’ pizza is like, right? And I get garlic bread.”

“But you only get to eat the pizza once,” I reasoned. “You can play a CD over and over. A pizza won’t make you think about social issues.”

“Meh,” he said.

The Digital Music News article by Paul Resnikoff identifies issues with the method of delivering music. Streaming (subscription services which offer consumers a wide variety of music to listen to in-house but not download), continues to explode, but not enough to compensate for declines in physical CD sales and paid downloads.

We chose not to take up the offer to have our music on Spotify, a subscription streaming service, which in hindsight seems to have been a counter-productive decision. A musician friend Sarah Calderwood recently asked if we were on Spotify as she was compiling a playlist of Australian indie folk music which she planned to put on ‘repeat’.

If you have a Spotify account you can listen to Sarah’s playlist, which includes acts like Gone Molly, The Barleyshakes, Michael Fix, Women in Docs and Mark Cryle.

The independent musician, defined as a musician without financial backing, has to constantly find fresh ways of reaching new ears.

There’s a lot of indie musos around, competing with each other for gigs and CD sales. Increasingly they busk, or play for nothing at ‘walk-up’ venues which ask people to put their name on a blackboard and sing two or three songs. The artist might sell one or two CDs (if he or she is really good at making an impact and the song is up to the task). The alternative is a paid gig playing in a bar or restaurant where people go to eat, drink and talk.

Resnikoff writes that the key issue is that most consumers attribute very little value to the recording itself. They already heard the song on Spotify Soundcloud, Reverbnation, Bandcamp or YouTube.

The fractions of cents paid for streaming plays might add up to dollars eventually, but you need to keep selling ‘merch’ across all platforms.

From a financial point of view, it matters little to me that there are boxes of CDs in the hall cupboard, even if the ego grapples with the notion of relevancy.

It is a different story for people in their 20s and 30s who have decided to make music a full-time career. This involves constant touring, online management of their business and profile and (the thing nobody talks about), singing the same 10 or 12 songs every night, over and over. If you’re going for it, you have to keep churning out new material (thus consigning your older material to the remainder bin).

As one musician told me, “You have to keep putting new stuff out, even when you know it won’t pay for itself, otherwise you get forgotten about.”

House concerts, and we are long-term supporters, are a sure-fire way of giving musicians a listening audience. Even if only 20 people show up, it’s a better result financially and aesthetically than a rowdy Friday night pub gig. Audiences love the intimacy and the musical and lyrical nuances that are often lost in noisy, amplified venues. We’re hosting our 110th house concert on June 10: check it out at

And the homemade afternoon tea on offer is guaranteed to be yummier than a meat lovers’ pizza and garlic bread.

Further reading: How Music Got Free, by Stephen Witt.

 

Facebook – does it really matter if they share our data?

first-facebook-postSince we’re discussing Facebook and who has the rights to personal information you’ve posted, I wanted to show you my ‘Wall.’  People used to call their Facebook page their ‘Wall’, though that has become passe. As walls go, this one would be ‘liked’ by Shirley Valentine fans (cultural reference), as it suggests romance and sun-bleached beaches.

    I joined Facebook in 2009 (apparently) as this is the first image I posted. At the time we were renovating the downstairs bedroom, rumpus room laundry and ensuite. Apart from hiring a guy to lay tiles throughout, we did all the work ourselves. If I’d known better, I’d have first put a coat of sealer on the besser brick wall as it took four coats of paint until it matched the hardboard on the opposite wall.

    I resisted joining Facebook for such a long time and then when I did, my posts were few and sufficiently opaque to resist understanding by all but my inner circle.

    Facebook has proved handy in terms of keeping in touch with younger family members around the world because, as we know, they don’t write letters. So too I’ve formed loose ties with musicians around the world, which can either be a way of sharing the passion or fishing for a gig.

    Later, Facebook became a good way of spreading the news about folk music events in our small town, some of which we promote.

    Dani Fankhauser’s history of Facebook on mashable.com charts the development of Facebook from its launch in 2004 and the 18 features it used to have and either changed or discontinued. I had no idea the original idea of the ‘wall’ was that people could use it like a whiteboard, leaving messages for their friends. You could change or delete what was there and replace it with your own messages. As Dani says, at one stage it was cool to ‘de-virgin’ someone (be first to post on their wall).

    The wall disappeared and Timeline took its place. Other critical changes since Facebook was launched includes the controversial and constantly changing News Feed and the over-weaning Like button which turned social interaction into a competition.

    Dani writes that Facebook used to be like a journey down the Rabbithole, being diverted down unexpected paths to discover new and interesting worlds. Now it’s like standing in front of the fridge with the door open, not quite sure what you’re looking for. Five years ago she wrote that – has anything changed?

    The hoo-haa about fake news and private data being manipulated by computer data experts should surprise no-one. If you are on Facebook, you are the content.

    You have probably read one version or another of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Guardian Weekly ran a two-page expose this week so if you really want to delve into it, here’s the ultimate link.

    The fall-out when this news broke was most noticeable on Wall Street. When the Observer revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested millions of people’s user data for political profiling, Facebook’s stock plummeted. It fell 17% between March 17 and Easter, wiping $US50 billion off the company’s value. Regulators in several countries are investigating Facebook and may try to limit how the company makes money from data.

    Meanwhile,Google, Apple and Amazon are like little kids who played a joke on someone and are now hiding behind a tree, giggling. The laugh might be on them, according to this broader story.

    There is a social movement (#DeleteFacebook), but social media analyst Andy Swan, writing for Forbes magazine, said the spike in Facebook deletions – the highest since 2004 – peaked on March 21 and has been in decline ever since.

    Most of the outrage stems from reports that Donald Trump’s campaign consultants, Cambridge Analytica, used ‘psychographics’ which allows personality traits to be manipulated.

    But what about our music pages, Mark?

    In January this year Facebook began changing the algorithms that influence what users/members see in their news feed. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said the changes were made because of feedback that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – was ‘crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other’.

    Changes started last year and as Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post, will take months to implement. “As we roll this out, you’ll see less public content (in your Newsfeed) like posts from businesses, brands, and media. And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard – it should encourage meaningful interactions between people.”

    This must be a deeply disturbing trend for mainstream media, which has hooked its disintegrating business model to the hems of social media’s skirts.

    Our local paper, the Sunshine Coast Daily (now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd), recently ran a 150-word ‘news story’ – Keep News #1 in your Facebook feed. The article suggested Daily readers keep up with the latest local news by ‘making a simple adjustment’.

    This means first find the SCD page on Facebook, like, click ‘follow’ then click ‘see first’.

    Well yes, it works, but it didn’t take long for the stream of sensationalist stories to ‘clutter up’ my news feed and the same could be said of choosing this option for other media outlets. Beware the Paywall!

    Just for the mental exercise, I downloaded my Facebook data. It has always been possible to download your own data and if we were smart, we’d all do it every year so we at least can find copies of the photos we posted then forgot about. Just go to your profile page and click on settings (the link is at the bottom of the page).

    Just downloading your data file does not mean you are deleting your information from Facebook. Leaving, closing your account and demanding the return of the original data is not so easy.

    But it was illuminating to trawl through this 136MB file. There is an exchange (a thread) between me and a former colleague. I wished to write something about him in my blog, about the merits of academic ambition when one is supposedly past student age. Within the conversation, my former colleague revealed quite a lot of detail about his school years, what work he did on leaving school and how he came to study journalism. I used hardly any of this information in the blog which was eventually published. But it is sitting there quietly, within my (private) Facebook data files. Let’s hope it stays that way.

    So what does the Cambridge Analytica privacy furore mean for folk who just want to post photos of their cats, dogs, partners and kids? Not much, I suspect, unless you have a ‘brand’ page like the ones I use for pur stage name, The Goodwills and this blog.

    I thought it would be fair play to share Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post. It is interesting for his over-use of marketing-speak and the sometimes snarky comments which follow his ‘community-oriented’ explanation for making business, brands and media pages less visible.

    I’m with the people who asked why couldn’t Facebook users simply curate their own news feed without having it dictated by algorithms.

    Meanwhile, if you want to keep the Bobwords brand page at the top of your news feed, click on the link, like and follow.

    Or not!