The Beatles have landed — in the stream-o-sphere!

I’d posted in the social stream about the Beatles Christmas Eve entry into the world of subscription streaming — all their studio albums and a number of special editions are now available on most of the major subscription stream platforms — and one of my stream-skeptic pals had asked (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I suspect) if I thought it would help or hurt stream subscription uptake.

I’d glanced at that thread as I was getting out of bed (yes, I’m one of those sods who now picks up the tablet and scans the news before getting out of bed — you never can tell when it’s just gonna be a better idea to pull the covers up and bury your head under the pillow) but somehow reinterpreted it in memory as Do you think it will help or hinder sales?

And, so, I had all these thoughts about that queued up in my head.

I was going to write something like:

Will it help revenue is probably the real question.

Streams, of course, are treated as sales as far as artist mechanical royalties to artist/label rights holders but songwriting royalties from streams are (currently) apportioned on a variation of the radio broadcast songwriter/publisher royalty formula.

(Radio performances in the United States, unlike many other nations, do not generate any royalties at all for artist/labels, since radio play has been traditionally seen as form of marketing — a view reinforced, of course, by the record industries long history of paying — legally and illegally — for radio play.)

Let me tell you my own Beatles collection story. I have, I think, all the American releases and a couple of Brit releases, on vinyl with the exception of Help! (CD)

But… I only bought one new — the first I bought, Sgt. Peppers (I was coming back to listening to rock and roll after a long hiatus from grades 7-10 when I disdained ‘teeny bopper music’ — friends had finally begun convincing me I’d like the changes that blues rock and the psychedelic revolution had brought — and they were right).

Every other Beatles record in my collection was bought used or given to me used by someone.

And, in the US, that means the artists, labels, songwriters, and publisher received exactly nothing for any of those used purchasesor any of those thousands of plays so derived. (Other nations do mandate royalties on used records and books, but in the US the right-of-resale is largely unassailable.)

The fundamental question, of course, is whether the artist will receive more from an outright sale or from ongoing stream revenue. In my experience with streaming, I have played some tracks thousands of times. (I only have a count of individual track plays for the last 2 years I’ve been on Google Play Music.)

But in just those two years, I’ve racked up enough plays of one album that the pay out to the rights holders (based on GPM’s payouts on my own material) to put about $40 — and counting — in the artist/label rights holders’ pockets — for one, 13 song, mid-60s album. That’s not the ROYALTIES on $40 — that’s FORTY DOLLARS stream revenue for one album — that cost about $3 retail when it was first out. And, as long as people keep playing it, it’s going to keep making money for the rights holders. (Now, sadly, there’s little chance that the original artists still have a stake, because, well, that’s how it goes in the music biz. But the principle of ongoing revenue remains.)

And, while that album is a longtime fave, it’s not the only album I return to fairly frequently. I’ve become quite addicted to the Anonymous 4 (pre-Renaissance vocal music performed by [gasp] women) as well as the kora and chamber string concoctions of exoticist Jacques Burtin. Many tracks by Anonymous 4 have racked up over a dollar’s worth of plays (per track!) from me. That’s not RETAIL price — that’s straight revenue — and it’s ongoing!

So… in answer to that question you didn’t ask — if one’s music has legs, if people keep listening, then streaming can work out very well for an artist who keeps control of his library.

And, I’m thinking, the Beatles music has strong, ongoing appeal.

That said, it had to weigh on their strategists that while Beatles tracks were well represented in the iTunes Top 100 (10 tracks), the very highest rank reached by any of those ten tracks was only #40. I suspect they may have worried that at some point further holding back of their work was going to significantly impact their ongoing uptake by young listeners.

A label I’d like to be on only takes submissions from music biz attorneys — should I hire one?

Because no one knows A&R like a lawyer…

I, personally, would be distinctly disinclined to throw money at a lawyer just to submit music to a label that only takes submissions from attorneys.

If I was going to do that, I’d do it the way people setting up bribes and crooked business/government deals do it. When they suggest getting an attorney, ask them who they recommend. They will recommend someone they have a cozy relationship with. You’ll probably still get royally screwed, but at least you’ll have been screwed by the people you’re trying to get in with. Valuable lesson.

Do I sound cynical?

Mind you, I’m not anti-music attorney. They have an important role in understanding some very complicated bits of legal and licensing mumbo jumbo for those dealing with sharky music biz types and big bucks licensing issues. Those are roles where their specialized knowledge of music/entertainment/Intellectual Property law can be crucial. If you need one of those guys or gals, you need a good one.

Now, there ARE often-mentioned reasons why a label might say they only want to deal with a lawyer, even for simple submissions. The rationale typically goes along the same lines as why old line book publishers often won’t even look at a manuscript unless the author has an agent. There’s the notion that an agent is the first stage of vetting of the author’s professionalism — but the usual reasons cited is that the publishers want to avoid dealing with nonprofessionals who might turn around and bring a groundless lawsuit for some imagined infringement when the guy who submitted a children’s mystery story about a walrus who solves crimes sues when the same publisher later prints an adult human murder mystery where the victim is killed by a trained sea lion.

So there is that.

But, really, that’s kind of old school… today’s publishing — like the music biz — is increasingly disintermediated — that means we’ve finally found marketing platforms and techniques that go a long, long way toward cutting out ‘the middleman.’ In our biz, there have been a lot of middlemen. (So many middlemen who make so much money that it often seems like in the music biz it’s only the people actually making most of the music who don’t get rich.)

But we now have ways of marketing directly to fans. That means, of course, that there are many MORE people marketing directly to fans. To the labels, that fact is one of their last justifications: the traditional ways of getting music noticed by fans are extremely expensive — it means lining a lot of pockets, spending a lot of advertising money, filling a lot of pockets above as well as under the table, paying off gatekeepers in favors, swag, and monetary ‘compensations’ and ‘considerations.’

And we’ve seen the result as big labels have concentrated on the market sectors that are most readily subject to this kind of money-driven buzz: teen and secretary/shop boy music markets, aka, dance pop and ballads.

Other markets, club music, hipster music, outsider, their audiences tend to see themselves as ‘independent’ of commercial trends — iconoclasts who know their own minds, maybe even seeing themselves as trendsetters and opinion-makers. They require a more subtle form of manipulation and marketing. (No, wait…  Well… kinda, we’re all human.) Those are the people who can to some extent be reached by working the grassroots, ‘zines, blog reviewers, associations (even organizations) with other, similarly oriented bands and artists.

The ‘punk revolution’ of the late 70s and very early 80s (while the big labels were doing everything they could to ignore real punk bands and pump out wimpy fake punk bands in the new wave mold) provided some valuable lessons on how to grow a scene –complete with ‘outlaw clubs,’ lose-but-loyal social skeins of punk bands, little labels working out of the trunks of cars — when the indies were frozen out of mainstream distribution by the big labels and their distribution arms (where the big label artists’ supposed profits often disappeared into, perhaps poetically on some level).

Anyhow… today we have the disintermediated methods of promotion and distribution that many of us could only dream of in the 1980s… It’s a brave new world, to be sure. It’s complex, it’s tricky. But it provides basic mechanisms for artists to really exert more control over their own careers.

But no one else is going to do it for you. That’s the other side of disintermediation.

Q: I love vinyl and want to capture that ‘analog sound’ — will I get that if I record my synthesizer to a cassette recorder?

A: The characteristic ‘sound’ (complex of deviations from accurate signal, aka, distortion) imposed by the cassette format is very different from that created by vinyl transcription.

While a good grooved disc can do a pretty good job with regard to fidelity (accuracy), at least within certain parameters — and, no doubt there are those who seek out those characteristics, preferring them over objectively less distorted, higher fidelity transcriptions — the state of the art vinyl record’s main divergences from fidelity are: random noise in the form of surface noise, scratches, dust, etc, as well as the basic, always-running sound of stylus-in-groove (drop the needle in a ‘blank groove’ with the volume at an ‘active listening’ level and see what you hear), as well as various forms of intermodulation distortion produced by both record wear and mechanical imperfections or design flaws in pickups, motor noise and or bass feedback rumble (the stereo becomes a resonant system with bass frequencies being transmitted from speakers through floors and cabinetry back to the pickup, which is why high end turntables put so much effort into anti-vibration/shock mounting), and finally, while the fidelity at the outside of the groove can be high and frequencies quite extended, by the time you get to end of a record side, the stylus-in-groove speed is much slower, higher frequency response has diminished greatly and because the diameter of the inner groove is so much tighter, dynamic levels must be watched carefully or various forms of distortion will become problematic. Oh, and don’t forget lack of stereo separation, with separation between channels typically between 25 to 40 dB. And, in lesser turntables, throw in fast and slow speed variations: wow and flutter.

While the grooved record was the best mainstream delivery medium of the analog era, pre-recorded reel tapes offered some arguable advantages but were fraught with tradeoffs: they were expensive and consumers balked at threading tape machines (??? — but they did!), and good decks were plenty expensive. (Add to that good tape was far from cheap.) And they were far from immune to their own pernicious form of noise: hiss. Still, with wide enough tracks and high enough speed, they could carry a decent signal. (Tape/capstan flutter was still an issue, but record scratches weren’t. Unfortunately, record scratches were ‘replaced’ by the tendency of magnetic tape to shed the ‘active’ oxide layer — where the magnetic signal is stored — from the backing, letting your signal flake off slowly — and sometimes not so slowly.)

The cassette was introduced first as a portable format — voice and tape letters were the big selling point. Through the 60s, different attempts to get tape into cars had supplanted the goofy lover’s lane phonographs that some folks mounted under their dashes. (You couldn’t drive with them running. The needle would skip to hell and back.) ‘Endless’ tape carts like those used in broadcasting were employed, leading to commercial car decks like the 4 and 8 track models that dominated the end of the 60s. Around that time, a move was made to bring ‘high fidelity’ to the cassette. Sony was one of the first makers to bring out a ‘hi fi’ cassette deck. It cost $600 back in ’69 (equivalent to around $3800 today). And it sounded AWFUL. The flutter made it sound like it was running through a cheap guitar chorus pedal just about. There was almost no high frequency response.

Cassettes definitely got much, much better, but they were always limited in their frequency response and accuracy (at both ends of the frequency spectrum), slathered in hiss, and beset by lingering speed issues in the form of flutter, which was particularly bad because of the low speed of the tape and the tiny circumference of the capstans — meaning that even micro-tiny imperfections in the mechanism could be ‘magnified’ into relatively noticeable speed problems.

Now, of course, we know that many ‘lo fi’ enthusiasts like cassettes for many of those perceived negatives: they’re looking for ways of ‘mangling’ the sound and imparting a distant-in-time-or-space sort of vibe. And that’s fine, particularly for those aware of the issues. They grew up with clean, relatively high accuracy signals and they’re bored with them. I get it. Just as, hopefully, they get it that I grew up trying to squeeze accurate signal out of analog media like vinyl records and tape and, so, have been delighted to finally have that fidelity delivered by modern recording systems and media.

Now… as someone who recorded a lot of analog synths to a lot of analog tape in the 1980s, I have to say that I, personally, prefer to get — as a baseline — more or less the sound that came out of the synth. That really didn’t happen until I got my first DAT machine around 1990. Me, I did not like the sound of the synths I was working on to get mangled by the recording medium. But, that’s me. Not you. Not anyone else. Everyone must ultimately find their own way.