Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why both Streaming & Vinyl can Suck It

I'm not an organized person.

Earlier this month, that one author that I like from MetalSucks wrote a solid article about how he's no longer collecting music on vinyl or CD's. In the article, Neilstein explains that he has embraced the digital age by means of listening to his favorite music solely on Spotify, the popular streaming service that notoriously pays each of its featured artists a billionth of a half penny per stream. He made a lot of valid points, likening vinyl to a "souvenir"; something that sits on your shelf collecting dust that you keep in your possession out of some strange sense of nostalgic guilt. That vinyl records are merely a retro-style trend propagated by contrarians who refuse to embrace the inevitable future of a strictly digital age of music.

He is right about this and I agree with him.

Soon after, Neill Jameson, lead singer of Krieg and contributor for Noisey (Vice's music blog. Deep breaths people...) posted his counterpoint to Neilstein's tirade. One that was written with such an attitude, I could actually hear the high-pitched, grating whine of the individual it was written by as I read it. Maybe that's just my personal experience with every single Noisey article, but I digress. The post made some great points about how favoring streaming music services is "insulting and irresponsible", and it comes from a position of "righteous self-entitlement". Referring mostly to the fact that Neilstein's preferred method of listening to music-- again -- pays each of its featured artists a billionth of a half penny per stream, while the listener typically gets to enjoy it all for free. Jameson is of the opinion that purchasing CD's or records from artists is a far superior method to show your support in a tumultuous industry where it is next to impossible to make a living.

He is right about this and I agree with him.

I feel like both individuals on both sides made some solid points with their respective opinions on how you should be listening to music. This didn't, however, stop each of them from missing some very big ones.

First and foremost, I don't collect physical copies of anything anymore. I own exactly 0 CDs. I used to own very many, but they all got scratched, broken and lost along with the rest of my childhood. As you can tell from pictured above, I have my vast vinyl collection of all five of my records sitting haphazardly atop my wife's all-in-one Crosley turntable. When I do play them, it's on a slow night where I can drink some red wine with my lady, or my buds maybe, and we can discuss the music together as it plays.

There's not always much to say though.

That's the one thing I like most about vinyl; due to the experience of switching sides and records, it's a format of music that demands your attention. If you want your album experience to flow properly, you can't play video games, you can't watch cats shit on each other's faces on YouTube; you just have to sit there and enjoy the music. Something like it is sort of a rare experience in today's lifestyle of constant multitasking. It's pleasant when such an opportunity to set your focus exclusively on the tunes makes itself available.

However, whether you like it or not, we do live that lifestyle of constant multitasking. I'm busy watching these videos of cat's shitting on each others' heads, so I need my music to accommodate that fact. It just makes sense that 98% of my music listening is done on the PC where I perform said multitasking. Spotify -- pure evil and corporate though they may be -- accommodate me as a multitasking listener. I admit, I go on Spotify regularly if I want to listen to music that I don't own. I don't, however, lead myself to believe that I'm being supportive or helpful to artists when I use Spotify to listen to music. I'm not, you're not, nobody is. It might as well still be piracy. The only people making money from Spotify is Spotify; Spotify, as well as the major labels who Spotify needs to pay big bucks for the licensing rights to stream their catalogs. Although it might be inconvenient for us as listeners, the more artists that boycott it as a concept, the better. Any other similar streaming service such as Pandora, that hides behind the guise of artist support with their criminally low royalty payouts, is something to be avoided if you really care about the bands you love.

However -- and this is major -- you're a naive presumptuous cock if you think buying vinyl and CDs is the fucking answer to putting gas in a tour van's tank.

When I was a young mall rat, I once ran into a member of a local hardcore act handing out his album for free to people that looked edgy enough to maybe want it. It was on a blank Phillips CD-R, most likely purchased in a spindle at the nearby Staples. The band "logo" and album title was scribbled on the CD with a black Sharpie. Slipped in the front of a used jewel case was a crudely-cut scrap of plain paper with the "album art", painstakingly prepared in MS Paint and printed from some cheap HP inkjet. Do any of the CD's carefully arranged on your shelf look anything like this? Probably not, especially if you haven't been to a lot of local shows, or you have the sense to throw something like it away. But even though this guy put in the bare minimum effort to decorate his album and distribute it by hand in this most extreme case of DIY, he still fucking lost money. He had to pay for those CD-R's, he had to buy that sharpie and that paper for use. It took time and effort for him to put this crap together and stand around and hand it out, all so he could expose his art to other people, hoping it would pay off for him and his act down the line.

I'm seriously very happy that bands don't have to do that sort of shit anymore just to get the word out about their music, and we have high-speed internet to thank for that; regardless of how much it has made "the industry" suffer.

But look, where do you think all that money to produce and distribute a physical album comes from? How do you think that slip with all the artwork and lyrics got masterfully put together for you to flip through? Who do you think pressed that vinyl? The band doesn't typically print or prepare any of that shit for themselves. Traditionally, if they don't foot the bill on their own for some pressing company to do it, they have a record label take care of it for them. A record label, that needs to make the money they spent to press, prepare and distribute vinyl records for this band back somehow. This is a general statement about what a band can expect from average recording artist royalties from the ASCAP:

"Under the traditional recording agreement, recording artist royalties usually range from 10% to 25% of the suggested retail price for top-line albums (although many record companies have begun to compute royalties on the wholesale price). However, there are many deductions made for items such as packaging costs; free goods; responsibility for the payment of producer royalties; reserve accounts; return privileges; midline, budget-line, record-club, and foreign royalty reductions; 90% sale provisions; new-technology rate reductions; new or developing artist reduced royalties; cut-out and surplus-copy provisions; video, tour support, and promotion expenses; recording costs; advances for not only the current album, but past albums as well; ownership of websites; and merchandising rights. In addition, if the artist is a songwriter, there are provisions in the recording agreement (known as the "controlled composition clauses") which reduce and limit, among other things, mechanical royalties."

With all that shit to consider, how much green truly gets transferred to the hands of an artist from your smug stupid face when you go out and proudly purchase their vinyl record? If you sit down and do the math, suddenly listening to music on Spotify doesn't seem so "irresponsible". Trivium can go eat goat cum for all I care, but even as the most hardened elitist, I still can't help but feel for Matt Heafy when he tweeted this royalty check back in 2011 to show for his hard work on the album "In Waves":

Hungry? Grab a Snickers.
In today's confusing market, buying a physical album is just about zero fucking help to a performing artist the exact same way streaming their music is. The only difference between the two is that one person is a schmuck who ended up paying money for it. Money that is still going into the wrong hands. The reasons people purchase music on physical media are silly, shallow, and ultimately selfish. I hear shit from other music fans about how they "like having something to hold", or how having a CD makes them feel like they "really own something", whereas a folder of audio files feels like some sort of empty concept to them. Why it's the year 2015, and people don't understand that any given CD is just a plastic slab with that same folder of audio files burned right on to it is beyond me. Put it on a flash drive if your creepy desire to caress music on plastic is so insatiable. Just go ahead and rub your uncircumcised, greyish wang all over your iPhone. The music's right in there for you, you shuddersome human horror.

People's desire for this strange, nostalgic, tactile sensation of picking up and putting down a piece of fucking music is just an unnecessary burden to artists. This obsolete redundant shit has become nothing more than a cost to them. Audio can be recorded and mixed into a high definition quality digital format. We have broadband internet so fast that these otherwise huge files can be sent directly to your computer or smartphone in seconds. It's cheap. It's easy. It's music. Fuck off with your weird handsy format fetish. Seriously. Your inexplicable pathological need to touch music is actually hurting people, you loathsome creep. Artists still put out CDs and vinyl because there is still some obnoxious demand for them. They want to make their audience happy, so they often just take the hit when they otherwise wouldn't have to. A hit that is completely your fault as a shitty fan.

Name. One. Band. 

Yes, there is an existent, albeit small profit margin from the sale of a CD or record. Yes, it's more than streaming an album, certainly. Whereas streaming gets a band fractions of pennies, album sales might get them some solid pieces of copper to rub together. Wow, take a bow vinyl buyer. What a selfless hero. Your pompous sense of self-satisfaction is rightly earned on this one. Thank you so much for your undying support. If you were to just accept a digital song file as being truly worth something to you, and simply downloaded that album directly from the band, then their cost of distribution would be much lower, and therefore, their profit margin would have been much higher. But what's that matter? While those "insulting and irresponsible" streamers are only providing artists with pennies due to their "righteous self-entitlement", your respectable and responsible vinyl purchases are contributing entire nickels to the efforts of the bands you love. Here's a cookie for you too, shitlord.

So great, let's get downloading, and make some metal musician millionaires, right? If only it were so simple. iTunes, Google Play, Beats, Amazon Music, Bandcamp, these services will pay the artist better than streaming or physical media sales, but not by much if a label's got their grubby hands in the mix. When you download a track from iTunes, Apple gives the label the bigger cut of the 99 cents. The label then decides to pay the artist based on the contract that was agreed upon. This can be anywhere from 12-20% depending on the artist's popularity. Here's a breakdown from Rolling Stone if the artist was making 16%:

Now remember, the label pays artists a hefty advance up front to make this album. There are still a lot of deductions to consider from the band's already puny cut, so even though they got those well deserved pennies from the album sale, the chances that they'll get to keep them get slimmer the less albums that are sold. So what's the solution? Well, more and more metal bands are going the route of DIY and cutting out labels altogether. You can upload your own music independently on these platforms, but you need to go through digital aggregation services to format your files properly for you to have them uploaded to these services. Not nearly as much loss there as dealing with a record label, certainly, but you're left once again spending money to make money. (Assuming you actually make anything).

A site like Bandcamp, I find, is the perfect platform for making real bucks off your own music, so long as your band never got signed. To Jameson's credit, he does mention Bandcamp briefly in his article as a good way to buy music and support an artist if you wanna stay digital. He unfortunately fails to acknowledge that record labels also use Bandcamp to sell an artist's music. Of course, no record contract would allow an artist to do something like that independently of their label. So unless the band is strictly independent, your purchase of music on Bandcamp might still not be much help to the artist. Bandcamp does ask a nominal fee of the bands that sell their albums on there directly. But we're talking pennies on the dollar for Bandcamp, and not the other way around. The example that their website gives for pricing is a dollar for every ten that the artist makes. Let's say Trivium wasn't signed and they produced their own album on their own dime and sold "In Waves" directly to fans on Bandcamp for $10 a pop. That means the band would have made $9 from every sale of their album. "In Waves" sold 22,000 copies in its first week. That's not Bruno Mars chart topping, but if you sold 22,000 albums on Bandcamp for 10 bucks, minus the fee of 10%, that's $198,000 in just one week. I don't know about you, but that sounds a fuck ton better to me than a buck and some change.

So why don't metal bands just bury labels altogether? Well, the much-needed exposure alone is why many metal musicians still even bother, because in terms of merch and concert sales, exposure = profit. Not to mention labels handle a lot of the business end and legal happenings in regard to the sale and distribution of music that would make most guitar strummers go cross-eyed. However, record labels notoriously victimize dewey-eyed artists looking to make a name for themselves by screwing them out of money they would have made a lot more of if they were able to garner equal popularity through the route of DIY. The "industry" so to speak, is essentially dead as we once knew it for artists. There's no more money to be made traditionally selling metal albums anymore, not even for the record label. Even the top metal labels have essentially transformed into these advance-giving loan sharks, where many metal bands struggle to pay it all back with an inevitable lack of album sales. Unless you're just that fucking good, monumentally lucky, or Dave Mustaine, music is no way to make a living. It's just a hobby for the majority of active musicians who still hold jobs in their daytime lives. Tragic though this may be, this fact has weeded out all the sell outs who play rock music for cash and pussy, and we're left only with the passionate artists who make music because they care just that deeply about it to struggle so much.

Regardless of heavy metal performing's hobby status, we all want to support these guys. Make it easy for them to get their gear, go on tour, and produce kick ass albums. They need as much dough as possible to make their music a full time deal. The absolute best way to do this is, as far as I can see, is with crowdfunding campaigns or downloading the album directly from them on a platform like Bandcamp. On top of not gouging each and every artist, Bandcamp typically lets consumers name their price for an album. If the band asks for $8, give them $12. You'll spend that much money on a disgusting pile of Taco Bell that will go from mouth to toilet in 7 minutes anyway. So why not spend it on a masterfully produced piece of art from your favorite band you can enjoy time and time again? Buying merch and concert tickets is definitely helpful, but even merch and physical media have a cost associated with them that the band has to eat. A cost that might not end up leading to any profit if they don't sell enough of these items after producing them in bulk. Since the direct digital download is by far the cheapest format to distribute music for an independent artist, it must be the way we acquire their music if we care to see them flourish.

In conclusion, there is only a very particular set of circumstances where you purchasing an album genuinely helps the artist, so to condemn those that are streaming music in favor of buying something physical like a vinyl record is way off base. If you still want to do either of these things, cool. That's fine, but you need to openly admit that you don't care, you're not helping, and you have no right to chastise anyone for how they go about listening to music. No matter how the music industry game is played, it's completely rigged on all fronts. It's not anyone's fault as listeners that bands don't make money. The system needs to be completely altered from the ground up. There is no doubt that the digital age has hurt artists more than any other generation of music production so far. I do think however, that there are some young, not fully realized systems set in place that make it easier than ever for a band to make good money independently from a label, and I hope it starts to make producing music more of a profitable reality for our champions of the underground in the near future.

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