Music has gotten louder not to drive sales but because artists want it that way

Recorded music today tends to be loud – and this is what many artists want:

The problem with Katz’s pronouncement, though, is that the market doesn’t incentivize loudness in the first place. Studies have shown that there is no correlation between volume and sales. Broadcast radio, where the competition for loudness might be most fierce, already clips the audio waveform at a certain level to avoid conflicts with advertisements and speech. Many cloud music services like Rdio and Spotify already have volume adjustment logic built in with no noticeable effect on recording trends. Low-fidelity loudness has succeeded and survived for some time without much outcry from the public, just from the small population of audiophiles and sound engineers.

The truth is that artists and engineers make their music loud because they want to. And the desire to do so usually correlates more with trends in technology than with commercial concerns. From gramophones to electric playback of records and digital technology, a series of short-lived fads have sprung up wherein musicians abuse new listening mediums to make their songs as loud as possible to the detriment of fidelity. In a paper for the journal Popular Music, Kyle Devine reviewed the long history of feuds over formats and electrical amplification for attention:

The history of sound reproduction can be understood as a history in which auditory ideals and practicalities are in constant negotiation, where the priorities of audiences and “audiophiles” drift in and out of synch…

And something similar is happening now in pop music as more songs that aren’t in the vein of screaming punk choruses make their way onto the charts. While not high fidelity, groups like Adele and Mumford & Sons are easing away from the volume ceiling with moments of quiet that are actually, technically, quiet.

We’ll see what happens in the latest installment of the loudness wars. There appears to be an interesting interplay between what is possible technologically, what artists want to try (and this varies quite a bit by genre), and what the public wants to listen to. From a production perspective in the sociology of culture, technology is the important part because that is what drives tastes. Flip the question around and we could ask whether punk rock would have emerged as it did without the technological ability to simply play loud.

I wonder if another reason is the uptick in headphone/earbud usage throughout the day which really began in force during the 1980s with the Walkman which was followed by the Discman which was followed by mp3 players/phones. While walking around and with lower quality headphones, particularly ones that don’t block out other noise or cover the whole ear, quiet songs are difficult to hear.

A musician who argues he can make more money by giving music away for free

Musician Derek Webb argues that he can make more money in the long run by giving away his music than selling albums or tracks on iTunes and providing his music to streaming services like Spotify:

For example, I am paid $0.00029 per stream of a song on Spotify, and even this amount depends on whether the song is being streamed by a paid user or someone using the service for free.  This means it will take upwards of 3,500 streams of a single song on Spotify to earn $1.00 versus that same revenue for one iTunes song purchase (not to mention the fact that Spotify refuses to pay the same amount to independent artists as they pay major labels, unlike iTunes)…

If someone buys my music on iTunes, Amazon, or in a record store (remember those?), let alone streams it on Spotify, it’s all short-term money.  That might be the last interaction I have with that particular fan.  But if I give that fan the same record for free in exchange for a connection (an e-mail and a zip code), I can make that same money, if not double or triple that amount, over time.  And “over time” is key, since the ultimate career success is sustainability.  Longevity.  See, the reality is that out of a $10 iTunes album sale, I probably net around a dollar.  So if I give that record away, and as a result am able to get that fan out to a concert (I can use their zip code to specifically promote my shows in their area), I make approximately $10 back, and twice that if they visit the merch table.  I can sell them an older/newer album and make approximately $10 back.  The point is, if I can find some organic way to creatively engage them in a paid follow-up transaction, I increase my revenue 10 times on any one of these interactions.

This is all an equation of scale. I might be able to outright sell 20,000 albums for $10 each (again, netting around $1 each).  Or I can remove any barrier from someone hearing about or discovering my music by giving it away, which will result in an order of magnitude more albums distributed, maybe around 100,000.  If I can then convert 20% of those free downloads into paid transactions of any kind over time, I have probably well over doubled or tripled my money.  And I can do this repeatedly as I continue to grow, and learn more about and invest in my tribe, to whom I now have a direct connection (rather than having to go through Facebook, Twitter, or Lord forbid, MySpace to access them).

If this is true for middling to struggling artists, what does this mean for the music industry in the long term? Will many artists follow Webb’s example and can they if they aren’t already established artists? I assume the low compensation for artists from streaming services has to do with the services making money.

I wonder if this is just about the money or if this is also about certain artists wanting to truly connect with fans as opposed to simply selling them music. Webb suggests there has to be a more meaningful relationship between artist and consumer for the whole industry to thrive:

Music does have monetary value.  But more than its monetary value is its emotional value, its relational value, its artistic value, even its spiritual value.  When you make meaningful connections with people based on artistic self-expression, I think you’re actually increasing the value of that art based on the many ways it’s valued.

How many musicians see it this way?

A side note: I haven’t yet tried Spotify but I have been tempted, particularly since my Facebook feed has been full of messages noting the songs my friends have heard through the service. If you think I should really jump on board, let me know. Webb’s opinion wouldn’t necessarily stop me from trying the service but I would now think more than before about joining.