T Bone Burnett is an award-winning singer, songwriter and producer, whose numerous recognitions include 13 Grammy awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe. He is a member of the Content Creators Coalition’s Advisory Board.
Music runs through America’s soul and makes us who we are — as individuals, as communities, as a nation.
It fuels all the other creative arts, as I have learned working on music-infused films such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and television shows such as “True Detective.”
And it has driven the incredible boom in digital media that seems destined to define our age. Facts don’t lie — musical artists blanket the lists of “top most followed” on Facebook and Twitter, and “always-with-us” access to music is a big part of why smartphones and mobile broadband are the fastest-spreading technologies in human history.
But this brave new digital world has a dark side, too — and it is the responsibility of everyone who loves and cares about music to acknowledge and deal with this uncomfortable truth.
Too much of the emotional, cultural and economic value that music creates is simply lost now, slipping through the digital cracks in some cases, outright hijacked by bad actors and online parasites in others.
Artists, fans and responsible music and technology businesses alike all know this. When my friend Taylor Swift spoke up for the value of our work and the righteous claim of all artists to be paid for what they do, she was celebrated and applauded — not just by her colleagues, but also by teenagers who care about the people who create the music that means something to them and businesses such as Apple that fundamentally want to do what’s right.
How bad is the problem? Consider this: In 2014, sales from vinyl records made more than all of the ad-supported on-demand streams on services such as YouTube. I’m not running down vinyl — it is still the best-sounding, most durable medium we have for listening to music, by far. But why should a technology most people consider outdated generate more revenue than an Internet service with more than 100 million American users? That’s just wrong.
Just two decades ago, a music superstar was born when her record went gold, selling 500,000 units. Today, experts say it takes 100 million streams to match that kind of success. Even the most relentless year-round touring schedule or advertising licensing deals can’t match the income that a hit record once produced.
For small and up-and-coming artists, the income collapse has been even more severe; copies of one-penny royalty checks are rampant on the Internet. These artists are struggling American small businesses, and the deck is stacked against them.
So what’s causing this gap between the value artists create and the price today’s world puts on their work?
Part of it is that the legal mess of U.S. copyright law has anchored royalties for music creators far below fair market value. In some cases, such as satellite radio, the law actually says they can pay below-market rates for music. In others, such as AM/FM radio, it’s even more absurd — when music is played on traditional radio, artists and their labels get paid nothing at all (songwriters receive AM/FM royalties, but no one else does), even though corporate radio chains earn billions selling ads around our work. That’s a legally sanctioned slap in the face to everyone who ever picked up an instrument or sang into a microphone. It is a corrosive economic dust bowl in which giant corporations grow rich on others’ work while music creators try to survive on scraps.
But the problem runs even deeper than that. In the digital marketplace, everyone seems to have found a way to make a living off music except the creators who actually record the songs. Websites put up illegal copies of music — or turn a blind eye while others do — then sell ads micro-targeted at everyone who comes to listen. Eventually, a site may be forced to pull down the unlicensed (and for the artists and labels, completely unpaid) copy, but in the meantime, its owners have cashed in.
For more legitimate sites, creators are pressured to accept a Hobson’s choice between licensing their music at desperately low royalty rates or wading into the legal quicksand and sending thousands or millions of “takedown” notices under a broken and antiquated law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Fortunately, creators have begun to band together and speak out — the roster of those demanding reform is a who’s who of the music business, from Elvis Costello to Annie Lennox, from REM to Chuck D, and hundreds more. Congress is reviewing the copyright laws, and this time, we will be heard, and there will be no more backroom deals or giveaways. Powerful new legislation called the Fair Play Fair Pay Act is being championed by leaders in both parties who care about music and the people who make it. That would be a vital step forward — a milestone of progress in a debate that has been running in Congress since Frank Sinatra lobbied Paul McCartney, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen and others to join him in fighting for a radio performance right nearly 30 years ago.
Music is an important part of who we are, an indelible record of what we care about and how we live.
And if we let that slip away — whether through legal gridlock, cultural apathy or technological drift — we will have lost something irreplaceable and fundamental to our lives.
The last time I reviewed an album by this guy in early 2014, I complimented his reclaiming stellar jazz singing for the guys in the face of so many fine current female jazz singers.
This time, withEndless Roads, Eric Van Aro has reestablished the stripped down rock/pop sound amidst an avalanche of overdubbed, over-produced, echo chambered, synthetic slop so dominant today. (We won’t name the purveyors as they know who they are; unshaken TV commercials abound for their concert tours; Good Morning America appearances before overexcited pre-teens. You know the drill.)
Eric himself writes that he has “been taught that the musical roads one can and should take are endless . . .” He may need to be careful, though, as the musical world has long since shown an obnoxious need to characterize artists and their art forms, neat little boxes to keep our tastes in without a lot of thought.
Eric, though, can find room for works by Pat Metheny, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Jimmy Page/Robert Plant, Bruno Mars and himself in the same album. Really.
Maybe the bravest piece is Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.” Reworking a big hit by a pop giant is to walk on the edge of unacceptable, as the original version is tucked so deeply into our musical consciousness. Singing along with the car radio and such. Eric pulls it off anyway by tipping his hat to the hit while singing it in his raspier, deeper way.
The lesser known Zep piece “Friends” moves effortlessly from bluesy at the start to jazzy at the end.
“This Is Not America” opens the album and sets the rocking tone with Max Elli’s slick rock guitar opening. Elli is a strength throughout the album, weaving in, under and around Van Aro’s vocals as if they had played together for years. In actuality, they seem to have met musically on Endless Roads.
Eric’s artistic generosity means this could almost have been billed as Elli’s album with Eric providing vocals, rather like the long ago days of Jeff Beck with Rod Stewart.
He notes that on this album he “really tried to let the producer in me stay at home and let myself by guided by my producer and my musicians.”
Kudos to Giordano Colombo for his production. As noted, a clean, crisp, basic sound is quite rare in these days of dubbing to the max.
Drummer Giordano Colombo is solid throughout and really breaks out on “Stratus.” If there’s such a thing as rock scat singing, Eric shows it off here.
Nyro’s “And When I Die”, recorded memorably by Blood Sweat & Tears, adds a little country flavor and Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” has just a dash of Van Morrison flavor in Eric’s vocal.
The album closes with Van Aro’s co-written “One Life One Song” and as an earlier song notes: “. . . that’s the way to treat a friend.”
Eric Van Aro’s world-wide array of enthusiastic fans have long been aware of his stylistic versatility, which he serves up with ease, singing in English, Italian, French and German. In the far-ranging selection of tunes on Endless Roads, he takes his performances up another level, applying his unique musical mastery to everything from rock, jazz and singer/songwriter classics, as well as his own originals.
Van Aro receives solid musical support from drummer Giordano Colombo, who also produced Endless Roads, and a collection of enthusiastic young European players that includes guitarist Max Elli, bassist Andrea Torresani, and keyboardist Antonio Chindamo.
The results, as with Van Aro’s previous recordings for Eraki, his Switzerland-based label, are irresistibly memorable.
And it’s no surprise that the stunning skillfulness with which Van Aro interprets Endless Roads’ fascinating array of songs has already attracted critical attention.
Reviewer Matthew Forss writes that “Fans of Southern rock, blues, jazz, Americana, roots, folk, and some pop will find a place in their heart for Eric Van Aro’s Endless Roads. Overall, there are endless possibilities of enjoyment with all of the songs on the album.”
Endless Roads will be released on September 17th 2015
Reviewer Heath Andrews accurately describes Endless Road as “a well-constructed collection of songs that are enchantingly sung and ferociously played.”
Eric Van Aro is the first to insist that his many accomplishments should be considered in the context of his creative heritage. His mother, Caterina Valente, has been an international singing star since the early fifties, selling more than 18 million recordings worldwide. His father is Erik Van Aro, Sr., a German juggler and producer.
Endless Roads is yet another example of the expressive versatility that is a primal element in that heritage. It is also a compelling display of Eric Van Aro’s growing skill at applying that versatility to every area of contemporary music.
The Ugly Truth about Apple, Google, Spotify, and the Rest of the Music Streaming Universe
By Anil Prasad
These are insanely complex times for musicians. With virtually no consultation, musicians and independent labels are being led down the path of the streaming music construct controlled largely by technology companies. Streaming royalties for these services remain mired in mystery. Nobody is privy to how royalties are calculated or assigned to different players in the streaming ecosystem.
In what other industry would suppliers offer their goods to distributors without being told precisely how much they’ll receive for their inventory?
Yet here we are, with the majority of musicians and independent labels playing ball with the Apples, Googles and Spotifys of the world, as if their industry vision is the only way forward. It isn’t.
Many wonder why Apple is shifting away from iTunes over to Apple Music. It’s clear Apple’s hand was forced and it had to enter into the streaming world, just to maintain credibility and market momentum for its device ecosystem. Without a streaming play, that ecosystem would suffer. Apple’s success is built on end-to-end control of its distribution channels and Apple Music plugs a big hole for them. With the majority of the iTunes catalog available on competitors’ streaming services, Apple looked behind the times. Market forces were working against Apple’s device ecosystem with the erosion of iTunes’ paid downloads as streaming became the dominant model.
But for Apple, Google, Spotify and all the rest, the impact of streaming on musicians and independent labels was always irrelevant. While these companies intimate that economies of scale may one day benefit participants, the truth stands in dark contrast.
“Streaming makes it very difficult for cult bands who sell 1,000 copies of each release,” the noted British guitarist and composer Matt Stevens told me. “If 1,000 people stream an album 10 times, we probably make a few pennies versus 1,000 download sales which create a model that will pay for modest recording expenses. At present, with downloads, it’s roughly sustainable, but not profitable. If we move to streaming and that income disappears completely, we’re in serious trouble.”
Essentially, we’re in the middle of a perfect storm. Once the storm concludes, we’re looking at the decimation of the commercial music industry.
It began with Napster and listener complicity. Industry panic and an increasingly entitled, self-centered public that came to believe music should be free emerged. Musicians and independent labels jumped along for the ride when Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and the rest of the streaming companies essentially constructed services with payouts so low, the end result isn’t much different than piracy. That, however, doesn’t hold true for the core investors in these services, which include the old major label guard. For instance, Spotify’s key backers include Warner, Sony and Universal.
Discussions about “payouts to rights holders” emerged. Note, you will never once see them talking about “payouts to musicians.” The rights holders are mostly the investors. That’s right — the streaming services model largely involves investors paying themselves back.
In conjunction, musicians have been misinformed about the outcome of these services. Time and time again, they’ve heard that streaming companies will someday raise their streaming fees. The actuality, as documented by The Trichordist, is that as the services scale, the streaming royalties actually shrink. Only ad and subscription revenue grow for the services, not royalty payouts.
The grand irony of all of this is that no streaming service is yet profitable. That doesn’t mean there aren’t investors making incredible amounts of money, but the bottom line is in the red, not the black. Because of the incredible complexities of licensing and the ponzi-inspired nature of these organizations, money is rolling in. In Spotify’s case, they are looking at a giant monetization event in the form of an IPO or acquisition. If either occurs, everyone — including the major label backers — will cash out, and all that will be left is a feeble shell that will eventually collapse.
It’s obvious virtually all the insiders of the streaming companies see this model as a short-term, unsustainable play. They’re all in it for a quick buck and are just fine with pushing the self-destruct button.
Those that are unable to make a liquidity event happen are doomed. You will see the remaining companies rapidly die off. As George Carlin once famously said, “The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice.”
My advice is for musicians and labels to opt out of the commercial streaming services, and seek out other options available to them, such as Bandcamp and PledgeMusic, which appear to remain relatively honorable territory. Another option is to create your own infrastructure. I’m aware of at least a couple of teams that have a fair-minded, artist-driven structural concept in mind for streaming that can’t be rigged to benefit a few.
The big question musicians and independent labels need to ask themselves is why allow these companies to determine the value of your music?
While the streaming companies propagate a myth of mass-availability offering greater possibility of mass-adoption, the truth is it almost never works this way. It’s up to you to create your own audience and accompanying ecosystem via community, social media, virtual events, and non-electronic outreach, be that gigs, touring, and creative guerrilla tactics related to physical spaces that cater to musical interests. None of these things depend on your music being on one of the big streaming services. You can send people interested in what you do anywhere to access your music.
The inevitability is musicians and labels are eventually going to be on their own again as the streaming services begin to collapse one by one across the coming years. It’s time to plan for that future by establishing your own model now, apart from these companies. Reclaim your independence and ensure your music benefits the people that really believe in it, not soulless streaming companies seeking to take you for everything you’ve got.
Before Apple and Taylor Swift and even the Moog synthesizer were born, there was Quincy Jones. Over the last six decades, the legendary composer and former record company exec has amassed 79 Grammy nominations (winning 27 actual awards) and produced hit albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Today, he is involved with several projects. One of his latest? An online music-learning tool called Playground Sessions, which recently kicked off a fundraising campaign via Crowdfunder. But his role as co-creator of the self-proclaimed “Rosetta Stone” of music doesn’t mean he believes the Internet has had a positive affect on the record industry—a topic he remains as opinionated as ever about. Fortune caught up with Jones to ask for his take on new digital music distribution models and why he got involved with Playground Sessions. Read below for an excerpt of the recent conversation.
Every year around Shakespeare’s birthday, which has also been declared World Book and Copyright Day, I see articles popping up here and there repeating some howling inaccuracies about the legal and economic concept of copyright. I get it — copyright is complex and, frankly, not all that gripping. Also, there’s that free culture movement that says all sorts of truthy-sounding things about how copyright might just be a bad thing. And we’re pro-freedom, right? On the other hand… Shakespeare!… plus all those still-alive authors I love to read, and who need to make a living.
How is anyone supposed to do the work of truly understanding copyright?
I offer this short list of seriously dumb copyright myths to help you through the clutter of free culture bunkum. Hope it helps:
Myth #5. Artists Feel Restricted by Copyright
Right… and cyclists feel restricted by bike paths. Drivers feel restricted by the network of roads and highways. Pilots feel restricted by lift and drag.
Truth: Professional, working artists who respect their own work also respect the work of others. Ask one — you’ll see.
Anti-copyright crusaders love to shout about remix culture and how copyright aims to stop it. Real artists understand:
a) Remix culture was not invented by the Internet. Original works of art have been referencing and remixing other original works of art since the dawn of… well, art.
b) There’s a difference between creative remixing and uncreative copying. That’s a line all professional, working artists recognize by instinct, and it’s a line professional artists are happy to have defined by law.
Myth #4. Copyright Harms the Public Domain
First of all, there is no “public domain” without copyright. By definition, the cultural public domain consists of those works of art and expression that have for one reason or another fallen out of copyright protection. You can’t really have one without the other.
Secondly, can we please stop conflating copyright with a lack of access? Anti-copyright activists are weirdly proud of how they “liberate” books into the public domain when copyright terms end. The Little Prince fell out of copyright protection almost everywhere but France at the beginning of this year. Was it more difficult to find, obtain or read a copy of The Little Princebefore January 1st, 2015 than it is now? Are the French suffering culturally because the book — one of the most popular books in the world — is still protected where it was written, and income is still flowing to the estate of the brilliant man who wrote it?
Truth: Just because a work has its economic and moral interests protected by law, this does not mean it’s unavailable to those who wish to access or use it. Works outside the public domain are simply still economically alive, which means folks still believe they’re worth being economically alive. In other words, there’s a functioning economy for cultural works. That’s a good thing, right?
Myth #3. Copyright is an Attack on Artistic Freedom
I have been a working, professional writer for close to thirty years. I’ve felt my artistic freedom threatened by a great many things — state censorship, all manner of fundamentalisms, Internet bullying and shaming… to name but a few.
Copyright law is not on that list, and it will NEVER be on that list. The very foundation of copyright is the insistence that if I create an artistic expression, I own that artistic expression. And if I own something, you best believe I will protect it from those who want to impose their restrictions on it.
Truth: My right to own and profit from my free expression is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Enough with the Orwellian doublespeak about copyright attacking my rights. Copyright IS my right, dammit.
Myth #2. Copyright Costs Consumers
In a recent, weakly researched piece on copyright, Canada’s National Post published without challenge the claim that copyright term extensions for music in Canada will cost “the public billions of dollars in the long term.”
Well, duh. We call that “the economy.”
You know what else will cost the public billions of dollars in the long term?
a) all jobs
b) the continuation of human existence
Truth: Paying artists for works we want to consume is how we have a cultural economy. As long as we live in market-based economic systems, the exchange of money for works, goods and services is going to be an essential mechanism. Oh well.
Myth #1. Copyright only helps Corporations
This is the whopper of anti-copyright mythology.
Anti-copyright activists love to invoke the specter of “big content” in their relentless drive to weaken artists’ rights. They claim protections under copyright really only help the bottom lines of huge corporations who grab rights from working artists. As a working artist, I am concerned about my contract terms with large corporations, absolutely — but at least there is a contract. The existence of a contractual offer for my rights means my right of ownership is being acknowledged and respected. I sure don’t remember being offered a contract for the use of my work when it was pirated online.
Guess who profits the most from this ridiculously inaccurate and misleading line of anti-copyright reasoning — giant corporations who have built a business model on free content.
Truth: Say what you want about large media corps, publishers, music and film companies, etc. — they’ve made way, way more of a tangible contribution to the livelihoods of the working artists I know than Google ever intends to.
There you have it. I hope this quick list has helped my friends and colleagues in the media who may be hurrying to file a story on World Book and Copyright Day. Here’s a final, simple, rule of thumb for writing about copyright.
If you want to understand how a working artist feels about copyright, talk to an actual working artist.
The last time I checked, ivory-tower legal-theory departments and digital-utopian advocacy groups were not the best places to look for actual working artists.
Life Song is an album to be savored. The songs can be appreciated by fans of jazz, electronic music and world music, but you don’t have to be a fan of these types of music to love this album. If you are looking for something different,Life Song is really a feast for the ears. Eric Van Aro has a voice that you will quickly fall in love with; it is smooth and mellow and full of romance. Fall in love with Eric’s voice and fall in love with Life Song at the same time.
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