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The Devaluation Myth
November 5, 2013 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Tim Quirk, former singer for Too Much Joy and now Head of Global Content Programming at Google Play, gave a speech at the 2013 Future of Music Summit: "[Y]ou can't devalue music. It's impossible. Songs are not worth 99 cents and albums are not worth precisely $9.99."

In his speech, Quirk disapprovingly references this New Yorker article: Spotify and Its Discontents.
posted by Going To Maine (39 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
HEAD OF GLOBAL CONTENT PROGRAMMING AT GOOGLE PLAY

how did i not know this?!
posted by radiosilents at 9:05 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


That guy could write a book about his past lives! Man, I had no idea. Kids are all grown up these days, I guess.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:06 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


So I read that and I'm still not sure what he's saying (or indeed what his job even is).
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:17 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure they were Sassy Magazine's Cute Band Alert one month.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:20 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tim Quirk, former singer for Too Much Joy and now Head of Global Content Programming at Google Play

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
posted by entropicamericana at 9:20 AM on November 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Bad karma thing to do.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


saying lots of stuff in small letters sometimes using curse words
here's what reality is like
We can't write a piece of software that handles id3 tags properly or allow the end user to control where their content is and mysteriously corrupts random albums' cover art so that they have to scroll past 20 copies of the same mixtape each with one track in them
We have a lot of money indeed; here are some futurey sentences about how we know stuff
My opinions are feeding my offspring so that they can flourish at your expense like I am
posted by Teakettle at 9:42 AM on November 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

I guess you could say the same thing about the musician.
posted by TheFlamingoKing at 9:43 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


He's right about one thing: The New Yorker article is terrible.
posted by rocket88 at 9:47 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


All the girls in the music biz
Have credit cards and subscribe to Perez
And they only wanna play
Free versions of Fruit Ninja

posted by Nanukthedog at 9:50 AM on November 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


I really liked too much joy, and I also agree with a lot of what he is saying here. I also think that, in so much as there is any money left to be made in the music industry, I think the new companies in control are likely to be just as exploitative as the traditional record labels.
posted by snofoam at 9:52 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


As nanukthedog basically notes, he has also thought about the music business ever since he realized what his band could accomplish if they had a drum machine, drum machine, drum machine.
posted by snofoam at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


So I read that and I'm still not sure what he's saying (or indeed what his job even is).

This might help with understanding his job, though it's hardly a straightforward description: Meet Google Music's Chief Record Store Geek, Tim Quirk. In short, I think you can consider him to be (one of the people?) in charge of keeping Google Play's music section in the black.

I read him as saying: I posted this because this seems like a nice counterpoint/complement to the recent post about David Byrne's thoughts on the industry.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


When in doubt, compare any online music outlet with Broadcast Radio, which the record companies give records for free, begging (and historically, often bribing) to get them played. That's how much they believed that this medium that gave people all the music they wanted for free would promote sales of specific recordings. Nothing is more 'devalued' than that.

(disclaimer: BMI and ASCAP never went along with this business plan, requiring payment to songwriters but not performers)
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:29 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Eh, we'll ignore him if that guy from The Cult shows up.

Or that guy from Midnight Oil. Except he's bald. And Australian. But it's sort of the same concept.
posted by Naberius at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I posted this because this seems like a nice counterpoint/complement to the recent post about David Byrne's thoughts on the industry."


Oh, OK. Feels like rightthemusic.org that advertised spoofing Bittorrent's billboard campaign, which Torrentfreak panned belongs in this thread too then. As does the rather epic comment thread under David North's response to David Byrne, but I haven't even finished reading the comments under Tim Quirk's transcripted speech yet, I need more popcorn first.
posted by dabitch at 11:16 AM on November 5, 2013


The Sasha Frere-Jones / Dave Allen / Jace Clayton / Damon Krukowski roundtable linked to in that Dave Allen article is a delight!
posted by Going To Maine at 11:35 AM on November 5, 2013


It’s amazing how often people invoke that word ‘devalue’ as if it means something. It doesn’t. You know why?

I think I just witnessed someone devaluing the very concept of language or, more generally, discussing something thoughtfully.

I've seen Markov generators make more sense. Or David North, for that matter. What did anybody think was the least bit smart about an oh-so-economically convenient but paper-shallow separation of the concepts of "value" in this take?

Personally, Quirk just convinced me not only that opening his mouth is a net subtraction of value from the word and the world, but that I should actively avoid ever buying anything from Google Play. What an ass.
posted by weston at 11:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


So I read that and I'm still not sure what he's saying (or indeed what his job even is).

In a way, I suspect he'd agree with your summation insofar as what he's describing is what the phenomenal changes currently happening in the cultural economy look like to someone who's right at the heart of it. But this seems to the nut of it:

None of this is new. What’s new is that the casual fans no longer have to buy if they don’t want to. And while there is a lot of very real and quite justified angst that there’s not enough money coming in from everyone else to make up for that loss, those casual listeners are also exhibiting an unprecedented hunger for more and more music. That is not automatically a good thing, but it is a massive opportunity.

So what exasperated me about that New Yorker article was the writer’s seeming contention that because he no longer has the same experience digging through crates and falling in love with a hard-won find, he’s stuck at the bottom of the pyramid of everything forever. His worry doesn’t only bother me because I have a very low tolerance for nostalgia; it also upsets me because if he’s right, it means I’m failing at my job.


So what's his job?

It’s variously been called editorial music merchandising or content programming, but whatever you call it, the object’s the same. We’re here to help you through that maelstrom of musical choice. We’re here to pull people up each level of that pyramid. But we don’t do it the old-fashioned way by anointing a handful of artists geniuses and declaring selected albums masterpieces. We do it by building services that let thousands of potential masterpieces find their ideal audiences.
posted by philip-random at 11:49 AM on November 5, 2013


I want to believe him when he says, "You can't devalue music," but I don't. There was a time when I took every paycheck I got straight to the record store and dropped anywhere from $30 to $120 on CDs, depending on what had just been released and how good my overall financial picture was. Every single paycheck. I bought concert tickets when I could, and I bought merch when I went to those concerts.

I listen to way more new music these days than I ever did when I paid cash money for every album I wanted to listen to at home. I feel much better educated and up to date with the current hip bands and trends. And I pay 10 bucks a month for a Spotify subscription. And that's it. Seriously, I'm listening to more (and more varied) music than ever before, but my spending has gone down by at least an order of magnitude.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit up there. I ordered the new Neko Case album on double vinyl a month or two ago just because I love her and I love that record and I want to support her. I bought a copy of the new Sleigh Bells album at a show last month because it was only $20 and the ticket to the show was just $18 so why not give the band a few more dollars after they so adroitly rocked my socks off? So Neko Case and Sleigh Bells did not do bad. Everyone else I've listened to over the last couple of months has had to settle for some minuscule fraction of my Spotify subscription fees, which is to say bupkus. And I'm not going to more shows than I used to just because I'm listening to more music. There's an "opportunity" there for some bands that I might not otherwise have become fans of, sure. But my overall spending on music is down, not up. And it's way down. And I'm not sacrificing anything. I'm a heavy music listener, and I have more good music than ever to hear -- if anything, I'm encouraged to not spend money on music, since I'll feel obligated to listen to the stuff I've purchased rather than seeking out more sounds I haven't heard yet. Which I can do, to my heart's content, 24/7, completely on demand, without spending any money at all above and beyond a measly Spotify subscription. That's what I mean if I say music has been devalued.
posted by Mothlight at 11:56 AM on November 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


I feel much better educated and up to date with the current hip bands and trends. And I pay 10 bucks a month for a Spotify subscription. And that's it. Seriously, I'm listening to more (and more varied) music than ever before, but my spending has gone down by at least an order of magnitude.

Well, that's you, and I'm glad it's working for you. But it's a big market out there, and different needs. There is no way on earth it would work for me to limit myself to Spotify/Pandora/StreamX. Every now and again, I check out a service when claims become overwhelming "they have everything!" and immediately find out they don't have what I consider the basics.

And in some ways, it's a problem that cannot be solved, because I am interested in things which cannot be solved in the commercial space at all (at least not legal) - take just this example of a bog standard super popular artist like Bowie, I already have pretty much everything he's ever released commercially, but I also have tons of demo tapes, early mixes, concert tapes etc., which will never be officially released, and therefore will never appear on Pandora/whatever. I got that stuff from bittorrent and the sharing community. Now what? That's just one tiny example.

I buy when I can (as a life-long collector), but a ton of stuff is not available for sale or out of print. Now what? Without "piracy" there is just no way for me to have access to that stuff, and streaming services are a joke.

Curating is a huge thing, and if Google can do it, that would have enormous value - but again, it's going to be limited to stuff that's viable in the commercial space. What about the rest? The way I have learned about what is available is not just from traditional sources, but from friends and fellow fanatics, and crucially from the 'pirate' communities... it was there that I found fantastic stuff that I would never find on Spotify, like just recently, traditional Japanese music recordings from the 30's and 40's or obscure piano recitals or whatever. That kind of breadth of curating cannot be duplicated by a circle of friends, no matter how wide, by Spotify no matter how big their (legal) collections get, or even Google's curating efforts.

And that is why the internet, which connects people from across the planet, has been the greatest ever boon to music fans, and why commercial solutions, whether Spotify/StreamingX, or Google or whatever commercial outfit of the future can never match that, and why there will always be a need for 'pirates' in the future as there always has been in the past. How to support artists has been a question for hundreds of years, and this is just another time when that question is being asked. Unlike you, I still spend quite a lot of money on music, even if I also avail myself of sources of music where I cannot pay even if I wanted to (stuff where rights have lapsed etc.).

To me, music has not been devalued. What has risen in value is time. There is not enough time to wade through all the stuff available, so curating is of the essence. And the sources of curating will always be varied - nobody will have a monopoly, least of all Spotify. I welcome Google to this effort, but I am also 100% convinced that there will always be an abiding need for the world music sharing community called 'pirates' (still waiting for a good replacement for demonoid :(.
posted by VikingSword at 12:50 PM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I've seen Markov generators make more sense. Or David North, for that matter. What did anybody think was the least bit smart about an oh-so-economically convenient but paper-shallow separation of the concepts of "value" in this take?

This feels like a slam on me as the poster. I'd consider the value of this piece to be that it is, very explicitly, an insider's publicly stated view about the the value of music and opinions on that value. Quirk is a person with very direct clout in this world (as opposed to David Byrne or Dave Allen, who have a heck of a lot of soft power & mind share, but less actual ability to dictate pricing), so his opinions -however shallow- matter. His simple arguments also justify the relatively high pricing of Yeezus at $11.50 - it's the price that the market will bear. The bottom price is free and the top price is infinite in his world; it's all up to what the artist can get.

I think that philip-random has already noted some of the key paragraphs. This isn't about a detailed economic assessment. It's about an executive at one of these companies noting that there's a strain of criticism aimed at fetishizing the past, and that such criticism is silly and ignores the benefits of new platforms. It's not a particularly detailed take on that, but is an informed one. Complaints about new media framed around how record stores are great experiences are not going to fix new media's pricing (if it needs fixing).

Also, a clarification: the website is North.com and the blogger is Dave Allen.

I'm a heavy music listener, and I have more good music than ever to hear -- if anything, I'm encouraged to not spend money on music, since I'll feel obligated to listen to the stuff I've purchased rather than seeking out more sounds I haven't heard yet. Which I can do, to my heart's content, 24/7, completely on demand, without spending any money at all above and beyond a measly Spotify subscription. That's what I mean if I say music has been devalued.

I suppose Quirk would say that now you're just paying the amount that you think these items are worth to you. Neko Case and Sleigh Bells were artists you valued, and most of the new acts that you're listening to you simply don't value. They've got that song-length fraction of time for you to decide that you do value them, however, and if you do so then they have a much better chance to really get their hooks into you. Back in 2005, Quirk opined at the same conference that "[w]hat little career I had with the band was basically based on getting drunk with our fans after the show. Having an online presence and basically cultivating a fanbase that way lets you metaphorically get drunk with your fans on an ongoing basis." Spotify creates a window for that getting drunk to begin to happen.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:53 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


If I was a Google Head
I'd drink pints of beer
If I was a Google Head
And talk about SFJ
If I was a Google Head
Everything would be ok
I’d have a lot to say
No one would look at me that way.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:26 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Going To Maine - nothing here is a slam on you. Relax.
posted by spicynuts at 1:56 PM on November 5, 2013


"Also, a clarification: the website is North.com..." - Thanks I had missed my edit window, further clarification; I do know his full name and past as a popstar which is why I find the comment thread where he matches wit on this topic with David Lowery so interesting.
posted by dabitch at 1:59 PM on November 5, 2013


I also don't think much of the talk, but it was certainly interesting and discussion-worthy.
posted by thelonius at 2:37 PM on November 5, 2013


I think I get what he's saying about the value of music, though. If a band sells 1,000 albums at $10 to hardcore fans then for those 1000 purchasers the value is $10. Now if you can sell to a different class of fans (more casual) at $1 but reach 10,000 new casual fans, has the music been devalued? The total market in both cases is $10,000.

Now extrapolate to music streaming services where subscribers pay mere pennies a song depending on their usage and artists get a mere fraction of that...has that devalued the value of the music even further? Not if one out of every thousand listeners becomes a casual fan, and one out of every ten thousand becomes a hardcore fan.

Streaming services are the new commercial radio from the artists' standpoint...they shouldn't expect them to be a profit center on their own, but are more of a marketing tool to reach a bigger audience, some of whom will gladly pay for your music.
posted by rocket88 at 4:14 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yay! I love Tim Quirk -- I got to meet him once at a CMJ panel about bands and legal issues (which he knew about from the Bozo thing) - he was working at Yahoo at the time, and I got his signature on his buisness card! Later I got to interview him and Jay from TMJ, and it ended up being really interesting. There's some cool stuff on Sampling and also in getting in an argument with Tina Weymouth.

(also: in the original email, all of Jay's answers were in all-caps, so I basically pictured him as Blister from Achewood. I debated on "fixing" that for the site.)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 10:37 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit up there. I ordered the new Neko Case album on double vinyl a month or two ago just because I love her and I love that record and I want to support her. I bought a copy of the new Sleigh Bells album at a show last month because it was only $20 and the ticket to the show was just $18 so why not give the band a few more dollars after they so adroitly rocked my socks off? So Neko Case and Sleigh Bells did not do bad. Everyone else I've listened to over the last couple of months has had to settle for some minuscule fraction of my Spotify subscription fees, which is to say bupkus. And I'm not going to more shows than I used to just because I'm listening to more music. There's an "opportunity" there for some bands that I might not otherwise have become fans of, sure. But my overall spending on music is down, not up. And it's way down. And I'm not sacrificing anything. I'm a heavy music listener, and I have more good music than ever to hear -- if anything, I'm encouraged to not spend money on music, since I'll feel obligated to listen to the stuff I've purchased rather than seeking out more sounds I haven't heard yet. Which I can do, to my heart's content, 24/7, completely on demand, without spending any money at all above and beyond a measly Spotify subscription. That's what I mean if I say music has been devalued.

I love how you described a situation that would have seemed like a miraculous achievement of society and technology to someone 100 years ago as if it's a terrible thing.
posted by empath at 11:18 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


So music isn't devalued, money does change hands, but do musicians get the money?

Amanda Palmer: Spotify and iTunes “Aren't Putting Any Money Back Into Content Creation”. The glaring lack of reinvestment in content, according to Palmer, is “one of the largest” and a “possibly un-fixable” problem facing artists and the music industry today.
posted by dabitch at 9:05 AM on November 6, 2013


Well, that's you, and I'm glad it's working for you. But it's a big market out there, and different needs. There is no way on earth it would work for me to limit myself to Spotify/Pandora/StreamX. Every now and again, I check out a service when claims become overwhelming "they have everything!" and immediately find out they don't have what I consider the basics.

There is an interesting effect on my own spending that maybe proves your point -- I'm a lot more likely to take a chance on new electronic composers, obscure reissues, intriguing genre and subgenre collections from other countries, etc., now that my basic mainstream needs are largely addressed by Spotify. Because I get to listen to so much new (and, yes, mainstream) music for free, I can afford to drop bigger bills on favored artists, or to take a flyer on something like the Mystic Soundz from Africa compilation that just ran me $22 plus shipping. (Of course, I have no idea whether any of the artists compiled on that record benefit at all from its existence, or if they could even be tracked down at this point, so I assume that I'm subsidizing the curator rather than the artists.)

Buying an album also becomes a weirdly political act. I bought the Sleigh Bells album at the show not because I expect it to be one of the best albums of the year or anything, but just as a way to give them an extra tip at the end of the night. I give them $20, I get a little tchotchke to take home, it makes me feel good. But it's not entirely rational otherwise.

I love how you described a situation that would have seemed like a miraculous achievement of society and technology to someone 100 years ago as if it's a terrible thing.

But I don't think it's a terrible thing! I love it! I'm eating better food and drinking better beer and wine and I bought myself a MacBook Pro for the first time ever rather than a cheap netbook, and a big reason why is that I have way more discretionary income than I ever did before. I just don't understand how anyone -- especially a smart guy like Tim Quirk with a history of selling CDs for $17.99 -- can say with a straight face that music hasn't been devalued, unless you're arguing (as I guess he is) that the generally held notion of "value" as applied to music is mostly meaningless. I don't agree -- as it stands, that $20 Sleigh Bells album is sitting on my shelf and has minimal value to me. If I want to listen to it while I'm driving or out walking, I'll be dialing it up on Spotify, not listening to the vinyl or the digital download that came with it. The value approaches zero, except for the warm fuzzy feeling it gives me to "support the artist." But if Spotify disappeared tomorrow, that Sleigh Bells album would immediately become substantially more valuable.
posted by Mothlight at 11:10 AM on November 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Streaming services are the new commercial radio from the artists' standpoint...they shouldn't expect them to be a profit center on their own, but are more of a marketing tool to reach a bigger audience, some of whom will gladly pay for your music.

The big problem I have with this analysis is that it lumps, say, Spotify in with something like Pandora, when the reality is that they're very different services which have different impacts.

I think it's fair to say that Pandora is roughly analogous to traditional commercial radio, but much better for listeners and artists camping on the long-tail. It's strongly user-preference guided, but like traditional radio, the user doesn't really control the program, just the selection of the format of the station. And like commercial radio, every play is a limited but free sample that might draw in a new member of a supportive audience.

Spotify, on the other hand, isn't at all like commercial radio. The user guides the programming to the point where it doesn't even make sense to call it programming anymore, it's simply a cloud music collection. The user can listen to anything they want without paying any additional fees, so there's no need to buy in any more for a track you really like. Even the sense of some obligation to patronize that people feel when they pirate (or repeatedly freely on-demand stream with something online like YouTube or SoundCloud) is likely to be eroded, because hey, you paid the Spotify subscription fee, you're contributing, right?

So we have a buffet-cloud service pays radio-like revenues to artists... but provides all the benefits to the user of a giant record collection that may have everything you already need (and certainly has everything you're likely to be exposed to by listening to Spotify).

There may be a place in a well-functioning and fair music marketplace for something like that, but they need to be recognized as different beasts than radio-like streaming services where users don't control the program. In particular, they should likely have different (and higher) royalty rates.
posted by weston at 7:59 PM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


especially a smart guy like Tim Quirk with a history of selling CDs for $17.99 --

Well for that 17.99 CD, the artist only ever got a small fraction. If anything's been devalued, it's all the parasites that have been leeching off of the efforts of creative people for the past 100 years.
posted by empath at 12:38 AM on November 8, 2013


I'm not so sure swapping the record label parasites out for tech parasites makes it somehow better. Out of one million plays on Spotify Lady Gaga earned £108.
posted by dabitch at 1:41 PM on November 8, 2013


Right, but spotify isn't pulling in a lot of money, either. They claim that 70% of their revenue goes to artists.
posted by empath at 9:40 PM on November 8, 2013


Maybe they should take a look at their business plan then, since artists are getting zilch and neither are Spotify and listeners are listening for free.
posted by dabitch at 10:37 AM on November 9, 2013


From The Verge in July of this year: Spotify's losses grow despite revenue doubling in 2012. And a slightly more optimistic take on the same story from Gigaom, in August: Spotify revenue up, profits down.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:03 PM on November 9, 2013


Yeah, I don't know if it makes me feel better if Spotify doesn't make much money. I care less about whether it's a parasite or symbiote taking 30% (though the later is better) than whether there's enough of a whole to support an artist working at their craft.

If one million Gaga plays earns 0.7x = £108 → x = £154.28 for artist and spotify to share, that's less than 2 hundredths of a penny per play. Someone has to listen around 70 times for there to be a *penny* of total revenue.

That might not be a big stretch for the radio model, but as I pointed out earlier, Spotify really isn't analogous to radio. It replaces purchasing recordings (in its catalogue).

Meanwhile, it can't even be profitable paying streaming-radio rates. Which means *of course* it devalues music -- even if Tim Quirk says that's impossible.
posted by weston at 4:06 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Spotify [kindof] opens up analytics in effort to prove its worth to doubting musicians.
posted by weston at 9:39 AM on December 3, 2013


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