Global feedback: others before self?

  • “The worst reality TV show ever”. That’s how Jason Miller headlined his op-ed for Time magazine on CBS’ The Briefcase . “[The Briefcase] takes advantage of desperate people and calls it entertainment”, lamented Miller. Where’s the beef?

    The show’s basic premise is this: a financially-strapped family are given a briefcase containing $101,000 and are asked to choose between keeping it all for themselves or giving all or part of it to a similarly financially-strapped family. That second family have also been given a briefcase containing the same amount of money and the same instructions. Neither family are aware of the each other’s dilemma.

    The result is a reality TV show with echoes of The Hunger Games, one that numerous critics have tritely dubbed “Poverty porn”.

    But what if you were given the opportunity to change your life or the life of another in an instant? What if with the flick of a metaphorical switch you help yourself OR help another?

    I have pondered this conundrum as it relates to the music and audio industries? What single change would I make if all that was required was a click of the fingers? An Aladdin of sound, if you will.

    From a self-serving audiophile perspective, one issue that consistently rears its head more frequently than ABX testing or the value of hi-res encoding is mastering quality. Or rather the lack of dynamic range – the distance between the quietest and loudest sounds – of many modern recordings.

    Catch up here:

    That new Radiohead record that you love, A Moon Shaped Pool, even as a hi-res release, scores little better than an average of DR5. That’s well under half the average of most recordings appearing before the early 90s – the start of the so called loudness war.

    Mastering engineer Bob Katz has been a well-known proponent of bringing the loudness war to an end. In 2013, he claimed that Apple’s decision to turn on iTunes’ sound check option by default would essentially put the boot into studio engineers’ need to dynamically compress their final masters. Alas, it didn’t. The need to make a song ‘pop’ on the radio is apparently sharper than ever.

    Look up your favourite artist of album over at the dynamic range database here.

    This year, a petition was started by an alliance of music industry luminaries, one that (no surprises) also features Bob Katz. They go by the name of The Loudness Petition Group and at time of writing they are eight (8!) signatures shy of their target of 5000.

    But what if you could just flip a magic switch and have the loudness wars end immediately? Would you do it? As an audiophile you’d be sorely tempted, would you not? But hang on just a sec…

    For a proper Briefcase-esque scenario we need an alternative option, one that puts others before ourselves.

    At the other end of the music chain sits the artist – the maker of music. His/her world has been rocked hard by the Internet: first by online piracy and then by the seemingly pitiful micro-payments received in return for each play of a song on a streaming service.

    YouTube essentially gives listeners access to any song at any time and for nothing. So when we learned that vinyl revenue outstripped revenue arriving via YouTube et al’s free subscription tiers last year, maybe – just maybe – it’s not because vinyl has suddenly become so HUGE but that the revenue generated by each ad-funded streaming tier remains painfully small?

    According to Pitchforkmedia, one billion people access music via YouTube and don’t pay a cent for the privilege. (And it is a privilege). For a sense of scale, that figure all but buries Spotify’s free-tier user count of 89 million. Spotify is big but YouTube is way BIGGER.

    Via these streaming services, along with Pandora and Soundcloud, users continue to access music for free and the executives charged with running them are more than a little bit afraid of asking for financial recompense; they worry it will drive away ‘customers’. The inverted commas underline my quizzical stance on a word used to describe users who pay nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch.

    Even as recently as 2015, a handful of streaming services could be heard making the right noises about re-thinking their business model (and nixing the free tier) but not even high-profile holdouts from Taylor Swift seemed capable of finally tipping Spotify over the edge.

    Contrast this with Spotify’s Scandinavian neighbour Tidal whose 2016 album exclusives (from Kanye West and Beyoncé) have caused paying subscribers to pour through their doors, credit cards held aloft. People are willing to pay for music if they want it badly enough.

    Even the humble download is alive and well in certain quarters, as evidenced by Bandcamp who sales are up 30an shown that making music available direct from the artist and in a format that’s desirable still has financial legs for the artist.

    If tomorrow you could end free access to music as provided by streaming services like (but not limited to) Spotify, Pandora and YouTube, would you do it?

    There’s YOUR briefcase, dear reader. Your needs vs. artists’ needs. You get to choose only one option: end the loudness war or end free-tier streaming.

    Let us put it to a vote:

    [poll id=”5″]

    This polling station will be open for the next 7 days. Insightful comments are encouraged below.

    If you think this scenario is largely unrealistic or just plain silly (or have no opinion) then consider watching this instead.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. Most music today (but not all) sucks compared to true classics. Music today is manufactured by the industry. The ‘stars’ are all about the popularity and money (and in that order)
      Gone are the days of paying a realistic price to see a band live (not lip syncing) playing actual instruments. Today is about show. Sets and dancing. Not about the music.

      Foo Fighters still put on an amazing show. But who else can or does ? Not many.

      I don’t buy much music now days. I use spotify. But if it’s an artist i think warrents me spending my hard earned money then i will.

      I watched a few episodes of the Voice. But it’s more about the judges and them being ahow ponies than about real tallent.

      I love coming home from work. Cracking a beer and sitting in my listening chair and playing some music that, no matter what type of day I’ve had will lift my spirits. Todays music can’t do that for me. I like hearing a raw voice and real instruments.

      So streaming music for a small fee is what i like. The ‘artist’ is not really there anymore.

      I own a lot of music on vinyl, CD SACD and high res FLAC or DSD.

      Until artists come back and make real music. I won’t be paying for their new shoes 🙂

      • Between the (rock) classics of yesterday and The Voice/Top 20 lies a vast ocean of music. You just have to know where to look. Alas, as one tips middle age, popular culture (and therefore modern music) has a tendency to pull away from us…but only if we let it.

        Built To Spill, A Place To Bury Strangers, Smog/Bill Callahan, Conor Oberst, Eagulls, The Hold Steady, Radiohead, Tame Impala, LCD Soundsystem, Massive Attack, Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs, Lana Del Ray, Four Tet, FKA Twigs, Savages, Beach House, Joanna Newsom…

        …these are all artists pulled from the top of my head who have made great albums in the last 5-10 years. Few of them would be classed as manufactured by the industry and all are a mile away from the likes of Rihanna or One Direction or whoever is being aimed at tweens this year.

        By all means say you don’t like any of the artists that I’ve listed but only someone completely out of touch with the contemporary music world would opine that they don’t write songs like they used to.

        • Oh I agree. There are some great albums/bands/singers (alot of who you stated) also Rufus from Australia (great band) My point was not ‘all’ music but the manufactured ones. They seem to be the ones that complain about being paid (well lack of via Spotify)

          I listen to all music, I buy what I like. In that, I used to buy a LOT now days not so much (of new artists) I find myself buying more older music. More vinyl and digital downloads of albums I already have.

          I want to give a great artist my money. Not the cash grabbers of today (no not all are)
          It’s the music industry that is failing the artist and the consumer due to greed.

          I buy CD’s of buskers and the like to support someone that is trying to make it in a tough world.

          I could go on and on about this, it’s the way I feel. Now I am going to chill with some Sax and Violins (Talking Heads) and then some Lullaby (The Cure) then to top it off Junior B by Yello

      • Re: “Most music today (but not all) sucks compared to true classics…”

        Is it the music or the production values? I am still not sure exactly what the point of the article is, but if it’s “the Loudness Wars”, then it extends well beyond new music. Re-released/re-issue/re-mastered/… albums from the past are, for the most part, being mastered to be less dynamic and normalized to 0dBFS or just under. The high amplitude levels result in a lot of inter-sample peak/clipping distortion leading to also an unpleasant listening experience.

        • I sincerely think that quite some “new music” is killed by the production (lack of) quality. Case in point: to me the Adele studio albums sound rather flat & lifeless. Her Blu-Ray concert release at the Royal Albert Hall tells another tale already, and last wednesday I went to see her live based on that Blu-Ray (and to please my wife) and was truly blown away …
          Another example: I’m quite a metalhead actually, modern metal records aren’t really known for stellar production qualities, but live metal is still all about the musicians giving their best to the public …

    2. Which would you choose to end tomorrow if you could? With a little hesitation – The loudness war.
      Why? Because that I can not influence. I can buy music I like on Bandcamp, buy cds, Vynil, T shirts, attend concerts, summer festivals, subscribe to Tidal or any other paid service and support my favorite artists like this but I cant do much about loudness war.

    3. I’d be happy to see an end to free streaming services. My decision could be seen as being selfish, as most of the music I enjoy is released independently and (mostly) doesn’t suffer from the loudness wars. I’m a proud supporter of artists (but not the music industry per se). I still go to shows, I buy albums and merchandise and support new projects through crowd funding. I’m a believer! I was at a show by a local artist in April, he had the top selling album on the iTunes chart that week. He said it had sold twenty copies. Unbelievable! Yeah, I’d be happy to see an end to free music streaming services.

      • I’m in the same boat. In my support for music I even do volunteer work for local clubshows and festivals, so they can reduce costs and put on more shows, with less known bands as well …

    4. John,

      Great article on Dynamic Range & the Loudness War. I found the link to the DR database interesting. It confirmed some recordings I’ve thought had lots of DR such as the 96/24 HDTracks download of ‘Unauthorized’ from Dave’s True Story.

      The list also had me scratching my head on albums (actually downloads) many of us have considered to be sonic references that didn’t score as well from a DR perspective. The HDTracks 96/24 download of Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’ appears to have fallen victim to the Loudness War, especially compared to its 1980 vinyl version.

      Does that mean Gaucho would sound better if it had more DR? Hmmm

    5. Youtube does provide music and performances that I can’t seem to find anywhere else (that I would love to buy). So it has some historical/archival value. As an example Nick Cave sings with many other famous artists, but try to find this music for purchase on ‘legitimate’ sites.

      • Hi Alex,
        as a metalhead and reader of you own site I certainly agree with you that the Loudness War is a bad thing. I did subscribe to the “ban free streaming” camp though, as i’d like to think that each artist would like to make a decent living off his art, thus being able to pursue some artistic independence. Looking at this ( though, it seems quite impossible to actually earn anything from streaming. Add to that that physical sales have been on a decline since years, and that the earnings situation there probably isn’t all that good either, and they could be forgiven for adopting a stance of “Why would we give a f***k what the public thinks of the production quality”.
        I hope them actually being able to make a living (again) would actually give us some leverage to demand better production quality …

        • Hey Bort. Thanks for reading DAR and MFi!

          I have mixed feelings about the Trichordist. I do read it from time to time when I want one side of the story and I do empathize a lot with what some of his talking points.

          • I do agree that the point he’s trying to make is probably one-sided, but on the other hand, it was brought to my attention by Cindy Coverdale, wife of David Coverdale of Whitesnake/Deep Purple fame. I think it’s safe to say these people at least know what’s happening, otherwise I wouldn’t even have mentioned it …

    6. I’ve been paying to hear my favorite radio station over the web since September of 2002 so I’ve voted with my pocketbook. With that in mind everything vendors played at T.H.E. Show in Newport without prompting should be free and compressed.

    7. Tough choice. But I’m choosing free music. Otherwise we’re eating our seed corn.

      My music (classical, jazz) doesn’t suffer too much from loudness wars. For now, I will buy pop on vinyl (or not at all) to avoid the loudness issues.

      I was listening to Devo Whip it! the other day. I could hear one of the band members whispering the lines just after the lead sang them. A kind of low tech reverb, if you will. I cannot imagine that being possible in the post-loudness wars.

    8. I would end the loudness wars. I deliberately avoid consuming free music because it’s against my principles, but I realize what a huge problem it is for artists. I think the genesis of both problems was the ipod. Artists mastered their music louder and louder to keep pace, while people became accustomed to having music with them wherever they went. That convenience demanded large inventories of music, which begat the current situation. A lot of people use music as wall paper and they don’t want to pay for it. It’s a shame. I still think the loudness wars are a worse problem, if only because of all the great historical recordings that have been remastered and ruined by excessive DRC.

    9. Although users don’t pay cash money for “free” YouTube music videos, there is (nearly always) an ad component that involves a financial transaction. Google’s financial results Q1 2016 showed that the average cost they earned per ad clicked was down (-12%), but the volume was up (+38%). Industry commentators believe this was due to YouTube, where masses of content is being consumed but the consumers aren’t buying as much per ad.

      I still lay the majority of blame on the music labels, not the new technology models. The contract arrangements were never great for artists, but with the new business models such as streaming the artists are getting screwed in new and creative ways. Do a quick search (on Google, ignoring the irony) and you’ll find plenty of articles on how the calculations work against smaller artists.

      The reality is that ad-supported streaming models won’t go away. We just need to work out how we (the consumer) can help the artists gain their fair share from the labels.

      My push is to encourage everyone I meet to pay for Tidal or at least Spotify. Why? $12 or $24 per month for a brilliant service is at least putting some cash into the music industry, rather than the zero (cash) they would have given to listen to free Spotify with ads or watch YouTube videos.

      • As you say, the ad model doesn’t generate anywhere near enough cash for musicians making the free tier increasing untenable. Like you, I cannot relate to those who don’t pay for Spotify or Apple Music, which, in my opinion, are ludicrously cheap.

        • Too cheap, probably. I pay $20 a month for Tidal 16/44, but I suspect it is not nearly enough to run such a service AND have the artists (excepting perhaps the most popular) adequately compensated. I for one would pay a lot more for it, and I am guessing I will be in the future.

          Still, I don’t really think streaming can be a primary way artists get compensated – I think it will be more like radio in that it is exposure used to sell other things (downloads – or for those of you still rubbing two sticks together vinyl… 😉

    10. Interesting article with interesting links. I think YouTube and Google (and Facebook) have too much influence, but that is not their fault – it is the fault of the “average” user who do not understand that Facebook and YouTube is NOT the internet – their ignorance is too easily manipulated. I hardly ever watch YouTube now (I quit watching commercial years ago) and I don’t “do” social media such as Facebook. As someone who spent some time working with computers and law enforcement, I am all too aware of the use and abuse of such “services”.

      I choose the loudness wars not because I don’t support artists (I spend more at Bandcamp and similar sites a month than I should) but I don’t blame all their problems on the “free” (as in freedom) internet. I think artists don’t really understand how streaming actually drives sales (particularly of downloads). I have not purchased anything recently that I did not stream first. Streaming for me is mostly a “try it before you buy it” store.

      Nope, these issues are more nuanced than “free”…

    11. I’m not sure why YouTube gets so much flack. The music may be free for the consumer but it’s certainly not free for YouTube. If they don’t pay enough, the rights holders to the music could take it off. But of course the don’t. Why is that? Because the people who own the rights aren’t the musicians and it’s worthwhile for the rights holders to get the cash even if that canabilses cd and download sales.

      The issue here is the distribution of the cash we pay to listen to music. And you know what, musicians have been screwed since the dawn of the music industry. The Eagles sued Geffen in the 70s. Tom Petty sued his lable in the 80s. Then there was George Michaal and Prince. All of the complaining that they got a bad deal and these were the big guys. This is nothing new. Currently many artists are being royally screwed now cause their contracts were signed before the surge in streaming – free or otherwise. That should correct itself over time are their managers and agents become more savvy.

      But in any event, why should musicians get a % of my money spent on music. I’m not paid a % of my work product which my company sells. I get a salary. The cleaner in my building gets a far less salary and my boss whose a partner gets a much bigger salary. Big variations in the distributions of consumers’ cash happen in every industry but no one bats an eyelid. But somehow musicians should be treated differently?

      • YouTube gets flack because their safe harbour condition effectively see them have record labels playing an un-winnable game of whack-a-mole in requesting song/video take-downs.

      • “But in any event, why should musicians get a % of my money spent on music. I’m not paid a % of my work product which my company sells. I get a salary.”
        Because they’re not employees? They’re self-employed, having a deal with a record company to either:
        a) Distribute their music (Ditribution contract)
        b) Pay for the whole recording & stuff + distribute the music (full contract, also known as “signed to a label”, most often for a predetermined number of albums)
        There’s probably still other forms of contracts, I’m no expert on that level. What I’m trying to get at is: “Does the record company actually create/produce anything?”. No it doesn’t, it provides a service, for which it should get a fee. At this moment for artists under “full contract” it seems to be that the artist is actually the one getting a fee (x% of total revenue), whereas the label gets the majority of the income, which is plain wrong.
        Now you can argue that artists should better negotiate their contracts with their labels, but this practice has over time become industry standard, leaving an artist with no real choice: it’s either accept or don’t get signed. If you aim to make a living out of your music, not getting signed used to be a big deal, as it meant no airplay, which in turn meant less sales and so on. Streaming has changed all this: once a song is out there, it can be listened to at will by anybody, on the radio/tv you only had the one play every x time for a certain period. This of course also has an impact on actual sales of music (sales being either physical media or a file download), as everything is available online.
        Nowadays I’d urge any musician to no longer aim for the full contract, but to actually go for the distribution deal, and to create a strong online presence, allowing for direct marketing + sales to their fans. Advancing technology has resulted in bringing the threshold for a well recorded pop/rock album a lot lower, making studio time less important (voice, drums & acoustical instruments probably being the exceptions IMO). This also means recording music has gotten cheaper if,as a musician, you’re willing and able to learn how to deal with recording techniques and tools, mixing and mastering … Keeping it all “in house” diminishes the cost, but if you can’t sell it, and you don’t get recompense from streaming eithe,r you’re either heading for bankruptcy or you have to take a job to pay for your music hobby. Example: Belgian Metal band Ostrogoth, existing since the early 80’s. Some of the members also perform in a cover band, playing rock & metal classics all around Belgium on all sorts of occasions (company parties, neighborhood fests, …); The revenue thus generated allows them to continue recording and touring as Ostrogoth …

    12. Definitely would pick to end free streaming. Many people don’t realize just how toxic it is going into the future, and I’m not just talking about the future of those who make the music. Many audiophiles rave about MQA, but they don’t realize that the format includes hooks for embedding DRM within the container. What’s still a relatively open market for streaming (with regards to what service you can pick on your chosen OS/platform) will soon become a fractured, siloed mess.

      • Almost forgot,
        From the mouse-over text (in case you’re on a neutered mobile device); “If you think the purveyors of DRM simply want to protect artists, check out chapters 13 and 14 of Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. Their goal is the elimination of all culture they don’t control.”

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