THE DOTS PER INCH MAILER

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Humbolt & Yours Truly.

HELLO, IT’S ME:

The Dots Per Inch Mailer is back. This edition is a draft version of a larger piece that’s in the works, to be titled: Sounds Like Music, Music. This incarnation focuses on the peculiar kind of voice one has as a listener of music, in both the sense of being a fan and of being one with a voice that allows you to decide where your monies run off-to. There’ll be no techno-utopia without a well-toned muscle of thoughtful marketplace engagement. Don’t let the cynics be right, don’t let them skim the foam off the top of the proverbial cappuccino. Let’s not pay middlemen who cannot point to where the middle is.

I TAKE FOR GRANTED THAT YOU’RE ALWAYS THERE:

Music is and has-been sustained by cold, hard, cash—somehow. The art-for-art’s-sake artist is a welcomed & celebrated participant in commercial music, as long as someone gets paid. Of course, the industry welcomed all that is transcendent and/or subversive as long as it could capitalize on it, which was ultimately O.K. because everyone kind-of got what they set-out for—artist, fan, and any opportunists who jumped in along the way.

But then the techno-unfolding occurred: the small file size of MP3, especially when compressed, undercut commercial viability by making music more liquid than its own means of distribution; stealing became remarkably easier than paying. And while more music was being made available to more people, fewer and fewer artists were compensated for contributing. It was like a race-to-the-bottom with no race, all bottom.

After a decade, an aboveground alternative to torrents came onto the scene and offered the all-you-can-eat-option-without-Time-Warner-shutting-off-your-internet-for-bad-behavior-risk. It started convincing people to start paying $119.88/year for music they were previously not paying at all for, and it worked—paying became easier than stealing. At Bandcamp prices $119.88/year is a little more than seventeen albums bought in one year; at iTunes prices it’s exactly twelve albums bought in one year. Hardly anyone I know was ever buying twelve, let alone seventeen, new albums in one year. This fact alone is certainly something to celebrate, but it doesn’t mean we’ve reached Valhalla.

Of course, some argue that perhaps it’s not such a big deal that only a little over half of your money actually gets to artists & labels. And hey, it’s maybe a plus that artists don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of selling themselves quite so much as maybe they once had to? It’s all taken care of, thanks to “Artificially Intelligent” playlists whose taste and market-command is the proprietary stuff of the very companies that put an end to the passive thievery committed by casual-listeners and discography zealots. As always, as complexities and complications emerge, we again see the shortcomings of what we’ve got and a quiet desire for something better pushes its beak through the eggshell. We are at that point now. Acknowledging present failures is the seed of an effective optimism.

And as more layers are peeled back, we learn that the Digital Service Providers (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) were rewarding themselves handsomely for extracting value where others saw none: the DSPs get to take all the credit, even if their successes hinged on the works of many others, even if those “others” produced the contents they now sell, even if those “others” have zero guarantee of pay, and even if those others are the ones that bring any semblance of value to their platforms by on-boarding their fans at the obscure promise of “some compensation, maybe.”

Spotify likes to paint itself as the great medium that bridges music & fan, fair-by-default because of… data. But this picture leaves out the very real and important work of the artists and labels that play no small part in the process. In fact, this catchy narrative essentially erases the agency of these players in favor of some “neutral” (but lest we forget, proprietary) algorithm that divvies-up the bounty “fairly,” without, who knows how, “human bias.” Of course, this isn’t at all how any of this works.

Spotify does not want to share the credit, nor the spoils. Only in the past year have they added songwriter and producer credits to their platform: evidence of a sustained effort to devalue a key player in the supply chain. They still don’t credit many labels, whose curation alone has a value-potential through association and whose practices of quality assurance is the last semblance of any QA left. Spotify even pumps some of its highest performing playlists full of Muzak that it owns the copyrights to: a scheme that permits them to pay themselves royalties a la microcosmic vertical monopolies.

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The most important question to ask now is this: how can this net-positive, albeit corrupted, step towards fair compensation be followed by another, better model? A modestly improved situation is no reason to fall asleep at the wheel, and it is as vital as ever that us fans of music stay sharp, critical, and just in our motions & clicks. No one is denying that couple hundred dollars is better than zilch, but we don’t have to kid ourselves either and profess that a couple-hundred is enough to justify the practice spaces, studio sessions, touring, and time. The situation can improve. We just have to take steps to ensure that it does.

Purchasing power can be a democratic and political tool, and services like Spotify would rather this not be. They’d rather this not be for no other reason than active listenership devalues their services. They parade their “curation” as a music industry equivalent of the Silicon Valley mantra: “Our data knows you better than you do.”

If this is true, the music community is in grave danger because music is a social (i.e. human-to-human) phenomenon, at all levels, and from the social level stems its value and capacity for growth artistically. Human-driven development and critique, even at the most basic level of searching for an artist after you liked one of their songs, is of immense importance because the practice has a wonderful byproduct: credit. Credit is a first step towards fair compensation and is crucial practice in encouraging learning & innovation. It's a byproduct of physical media and physical exchange worth preserving, even if nothing else is.

 

OPPORTUNITY:

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“Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free - as opposed to rote - human response.”

-Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp