Sunday, 29 November 2015

Keep Music Auto!

Music technology is divisive. On the one hand, there are the early adopters: the musicians who take up new developments to develop new sounds. On the other hand, there is the old guard: the traditionalists who regard technology as cheating. For them, new music machines don’t represent progress. They are instead a means by which ‘real’ musicians are deprived of honest work.
            The invention of sound recording was a major cause for complaint. In 1906, John Philip Sousa railed against ‘the menace of mechanical music’. He thought that if people had records they would no longer feel the need to make music of their own. Sousa fretted, ‘vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?’ Musicians’ unions have campaigned along similar lines. The British MU and the American AFM have both fought to ‘keep music live’. They too have seen the ‘ever-present menace’ of recorded music, claiming that, if it becomes dominant, ‘the musician may well become extinct and music may cease to be written’.
            And now we have auto-tune. This device invites similar vitriol – just look at its name. It is telling us that it will automate voices and it will automatically write tunes. To use auto-tune is to cheat, replacing humans with machines. Some musicians are angry about it. Christine Aguilera has a t-shirt that says ‘auto-tune is for pussies’, Death Cab for Cutie have worn ribbons to mark their disgust at the use of the device, Jay-Z has recorded ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)’.
            Those who spring to auto-tune’s defence cite its use as a creative tool. It is part of a lineage of treated vocals. Artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Neil Young, Cher and Kanye West have used machines to reach places beyond the human voice. Conversely, auto-tune and vocoders are viewed as having a particular humanity. They can highlight both the loneliness and the funkiness of the soul. Auto-tune is also credited with being a democratising instrument, one that enables non-singers to express their full emotional range.
            What is less regularly remarked upon is the ability of machines to improve musicianship. Looking back at the early years of the phonograph, for example, we can see that sound recording helped to develop rhythmic control. Early recording artists were distinguished by their strict sense of time, a skill fostered by the limits imposed upon their work. The maximum duration of cylinders and discs in the 1890s was roughly two minutes. Artists recorded directly onto master records; if any mistakes were made these would have to be scrapped and the piece started over, literally, from scratch. Consequently, the tempo and the timing of performances were worked out prior to recording. The early recording artist Billy Murray commented, ‘We are taught to keep perfect time. Stage performers are not held strictly to the limit as we are’.
Sound recording also helped to improve rhythmic fluency. The introduction of electric recording in the mid-1920s provided steps in this direction. There were now motorized record players with standardized speeds, a development that further heightened the awareness of being in time. Electric recording also enabled the rhythm section to be recorded properly: the microphone had the ability to capture both the bass and the drums. These developments could be seen as well as heard: the steady pulse of the rhythm was visible in a record’s grooves. It is in this period that we gained the verb ‘to groove’. Groups were becoming as tight and as rhythmic as a record’s spiral scratch.
            I think that something similar has happened with auto-tune. It hasn’t made singers lazy; it has stretched their abilities. Auto-tune may have its roots in the human voice, but the human voice is now mimicking this machine. It has provided an example of what it means to have perfect pitch, and it has inspired singers to have wide vocal ranges and to master complicated riffs. Auto-tune has also encouraged songwriters to compose songs that demand outstanding vocal performances. Of course plenty of ‘cheating’ still goes on. Vocals are digitally manipulated so that they are perfectly in time and in tune. However, a singer will not make it these days unless they are almost perfect on their own. There is a feedback loop too. These corrected vocal performances only heighten expectations; each new vocal generation ‘naturally’ adopts the quantized characteristics of the last. The gymnastic bar of singing is constantly being raised. We needn’t lose sheep about machines replacing musicianship. In fact, if there is a nightmare scenario, it resides in the reverse. It may well be musicianship that is out of control. The singing is taking over the songs. 

Monday, 23 November 2015

Prick Up Our Ears

‘We never hear anything where no men were involved’. This is the opinion of Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes. She’s right, too. There are plenty of all-girl groups, and many of these groups have made conscious attempts to produce female and feminist music. Wholesale girl power is restricted, however. There is always a man lurking at some point in the process. By way of illustration, Grimes points out that Emily Lazar is the only female mastering engineer working today, while there are no female mixers at all. As a consequence, she feels that Art Angels, her new, self-made album, provides something novel. It is a truly female recording. Grimes says, ‘The whole record was produced, engineered, written, performed by a woman, which is pretty rare. I don’t know if I ever heard a record like that, fully, with vocals on and stuff.’
Art Angels is a valiant enterprise. There is nevertheless still a male presence in this woman’s music. We need only follow Grimes’ logic further down the line. Most instruments have been designed and built by men, as have most professional recording studios and most software programmes. It is men, primarily, who have been responsible for the development and manufacture of recording formats.
This matters aesthetically as well as politically. Record listening is a complex process. This can be witnessed in the interviews that Justin Morey and Phillip McIntyre conducted with artists who used samples. They wanted to know what attracted them to particular recorded sounds. I have quoted some of the responses before:

“Sometimes we might sample a drum loop that’s amazing, you know it’s got a fantastic sound. For us it’s the atmosphere that it gives [to] something . . . so [we look] more for the sound and the feel that a sample would give you rather than the playing.”

“So we sort of chanced upon all this stuff that we weren’t really aware of because it wasn’t part of our generation really … We really liked the kind of woody warmth to that stuff, which was all obviously produced in lovely studios, and the sound you were getting off the vinyl . . . And hearing that in the context of the cleanliness of the analogue synths and drum machines and stuff like that, we just enjoyed that whole kind of warmth really, and just the way it added this kind of organic dirt.”

“The sonics, the groove … it is essential the sonics.”

“the circumstances that they recorded in were atmospherically different than the way modern records are recorded, and that’s part of the whole thing”

“A lot of the time, it is the sound”

When we listen to records there are many things that prick up our ears. The songwriting and musicianship are clearly important, but so is the sound of the instruments, the sound of the room, the sound of the recording format itself. There is something great about this. A record is not just made by a community of musicians; it is made by a series of communities, including the production team, the mixers, the manufacturers and the mediators. Popular music truly is popular: it is of the people. Grimes is right, however, to make us pause for thought. Sometimes it is good to narrow the focus; we need to have records that reflect particular constituencies. This remains easier for some communities than others, however. There probably are records that are male through and through, from the songwriter’s initial idea to the finalisation of the recording format. We are still waiting for a record where only women are involved.

Monday, 9 November 2015

It's Not a Game of Monopoly

In an earlier blog entry, I found myself arguing with Lord Macaulay’s famous 1841 speech about the extension of copyright and its impact on the free trade of ideas. Macaulay argued that: ‘Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly. .... The effect of monopoly generally is to make articles scarce, to make them dear, and to make them bad’.
In contrast, I suggested that music collection societies, which operate as natural monopolies in most countries, produce the opposite effects. Through their blanket licences they help to make music accessible and they sometimes make it cheap. In fact, in their ability to facilitate the business-to-business trade in music, they provide the context in which the public is able to receive a great deal of its music for free. They also help us to access a variety of music, as most of their licensing schemes provide standard rates. Thus it costs users no more to play a Beyoncé record than it does for them to play one Bis.
In addition, I argued that it is those artists who manage to gain individual control over their copyrights who are most likely to commit the evil that Maccaulay describes. It has generally been established and successful performers, such as Taylor Swift, Prince or Thom Yorke, who have managed to escape blanket licensing, whether that is the licensing of a record company or the licensing of a collection society. There are, of course, many positives about the degree of control that they have been able to gain over their careers. This control has nevertheless enabled them to make their work scarce (it doesn’t appear on streaming services) and to sometimes made it dear (as those forced to purchase 1989 on CD will testify).
Collection societies have, in general, been transparent and fairly even-handed. Their licensing schemes are made public and they offer standard terms. There are some injustices, nonetheless. PRS, for example, has had policies that divert income from popular music towards classical repertoire. MCPS, meanwhile, operates licensing schemes that become cheaper the higher up you go. Smaller record companies have to pay licences on the basis of the number of records of manufactured, while larger companies pay on the basis of the number of copies sold. The former have to pay their bills upfront; the latter are invoiced at a later date. Larger companies also pay lower commission rates and benefit from further economies of scale if they use MCPS to licence throughout Europe.
These various concessions don’t compare, however, to the secrecy and inconsistency that surrounds streaming deals. While some artists are escaping monopolies in order not to appear on streaming platforms, record companies and publishers are escaping monopolies in order to deal directly with the same sites. As I have previously documented, record companies maintain that streaming falls under the ‘making available’ right and they believe it is analogous to the sale of sound recordings rather than the broadcast of digital radio. As a consequence they have been able to escape the monopolistic licensing that public performance would entail. They have conducted their own deals with streaming companies and they have avoided the 50% royalty that PPL accords to performing artists.
In some ways, this isn’t a great break with tradition. Record companies have always made most of their deals directly. The same is not true of the publishing companies: the majority of their mechanical and performance licensing has taken place via the monopolistic rates and regulations of the collection societies. By making direct deals with the streaming companies they are entering unchartered waters. And this is precisely what attracts them: they want to escape those collective rules. It’s a complicated business nonetheless. Although record companies have convinced themselves that streaming is largely ‘mechanical’ in nature, the publishing world regards it as being equally divided between the performing and mechanical rights. However, while it is relatively easy for publishing companies to withdraw from MCPS and to self-administer the mechanical right for streaming purposes, they have no such jurisdiction over the performing right. Songwriters assign this right to their collection societies, rather than to their publishers. Consequently, in this area it is the collection societies who have control.
In Europe, the publishers’ solution to this problem has been to form ‘Special Purpose Vehicles’ with the collection societies. These SPVs entitle the publishers to deal directly with streaming companies and secure terms that cover both the performing and mechanical rights. Any terms reached must be agreed by the collection societies, however. Once the royalties have been calculated the income will make its way to artists either via their collection societies (the performing right share, presumably) or directly from their publishers (if this aspect of the mechanical right is escaping the collection societies it will mark another another area of income that is less readily identifiable as recorded music).
The publishers argue that licensing directly enables them to negotiate higher royalties for their artists, as they escape the flat demands of the collection societies. They also argue that this method is more efficient for the streaming companies, as these deals can be completed more quickly and can expand beyond the home country remit of the collection societies. Songwriters are less comfortable. According to the Music Managers Forum many of them would prefer for streaming income to fall under the remit of the collection societies:
possibly because they trust their CMO [collection society] more than their label or publisher; or because payments via CMOs often circumvent contractual terms that enable labels or publishers to retain income; or because they feel collective licensing is fairer to all, because everyone earns the same per play fees, rather than bigger artists or rights owners having a better deal.
Nevertheless, if they are signed with a major publisher, they will find that they have no choice. Sony/ATV has entered into an SPV with PRS and GEMA, Universal has one with SACEM, Warner/Chappel has SPVs with a number of collection societies including PRS, while BMG has a joint venture with GEMA. Meanwhile, Kobalt, who are probably the most innovative publishing company operating today, have actually bought the collection society, AMRA, which they employ to conduct their SPVs.
            And what does this mean for the consumer? In the first instance, it might make some music scarce. Although these direct deals are of potential benefit to the streaming companies because they can licence one publisher for multiple territories, the drawback is that they have to do deals with each publisher individually. Some catalogues may well be left out. These joint ventures might also make music dear. If publishers are able to negotiate higher royalties for their songwriters, then the consumer may well end up paying for them. This could be directly, via subscription charges, or indirectly, via the advertising fees that result from fremium services. In addition, some music might end up being dearer than others, which in turn might make it scarce. The withdrawal from monopoly tumbles on and on . . .