September 21, 2014

Three Great Acoustic Performances

As I’ve been working tonight, I’ve been listening to three performers on YouTube – Stefani Germanotta, Justin Timberlake, and Adele – perform live acoustic versions of some of their songs. It makes me wonder why the music industry is in such disarray. The business would be far healthier if people like this were left alone to compose, perform, and release music from their own homes or studios. It just isn’t necessary to have huge productions when you’re talented; the smoke and mirrors are only required when you are trying to hide something.

A few years ago, a young songwriter named Stefani Germanotta performed at Ultraviolet Live, NYU’s annual talent show.  You know her now as Lady Gaga.  But this is what she looks, and sounds like, if she were to walk into your living room, sit down at your piano, and perform as a person rather than an act. She really is extraordinarily talented. Just as I prefer Elton John now to his on-stage antics of the 1970′s, I vastly prefer the “real” woman to the persona. She should release an acoustic album.

Then, you get to Another Song (All Over Again) but Justin Timberlake. He has come so far since the boy band days. The composition; the performance … the talent really is evident. It’s just great music.

Finally, you get to embodiment of raw talent herself, Adele. Acoustic. On a rooftop. No production values. And she still kicks every other singer across the stage with a song she penned herself. She is the real thing.

  • Gilvus

    I disagree – I believe that artists choose to adopt titles, pseudonyms, and symbols because they are consistent. Stefani Germanotta is overflowing with talent, but she can still get sick, she suffers from human fallacies and vexations, and one day she will grow old and die. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, will forevermore be quirky, outrageous, and larger-than-life. It’s like in the Mask of Zorro, when the old retired dude hands off his mask to the new vigilante. The person behind the mask is merely human, but to everyone else, the values that the mask of Zorro represents didn’t change when the mask switched hands.

    The music industry is here to formulate and perpetuate symbols. It’s like a brand name – Coca-Cola has changed formulations throughout its 125-year history, but the symbol has never lost its potency. And just like Coca-Cola will most likely defeat or acquire new, promising soft drinks, the music industry will probably out-compete or “acquire” independent artists who don’t have the connections or massive capital reserves.

    • Joshua Kennon

      I understand that and it was certainly true throughout the 20th century but I look at it this way: The only way the music industry is able to have the power it does is through its control of distribution channels.  With the rise of digital content distribution and the ability for nearly anyone to release their own goods, you can see an almost mirror image decline in the traditional business models of newspapers, pornography studios, record labels, publishing houses, and even some magazines.  Also, brand symbols built around people were possible in the 1950′s before the age of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and online publish-to-YouTube-with-a-press-of-the-screen.

      It’s entirely possible I’m wrong.  Maybe you’ll turn out to be right.  Looking at the current market layout, I’d bet on two outcomes:

      1.) Gimmicks work for a short period of time but authenticity wins in the end.  This is the result of an on-going 24/7 media culture that will make it impossible to keep up a facade for very long.  

      2.) Technology is reaching a point of creative disruption where a winner-take-all system results in content creators who are successful capturing most, if not all, of the fruits of their work, with a handful of “toll bridge” companies, such as Apple through its iTunes platform or Amazon through its Kindle network, earning very high returns relative to capital deployed.  The perfect example is the YouTube video “David After the Dentist”.  The father who published the viral hit of his son after a trip to the dentist still experiencing the effects of the drugs has already made $100,000 in profit from the advertising revenue simply by throwing up some Google code and making it available for license to television shows and other outlets.  

      Will there always be a music industry?  Certainly.  But I think it will never again have the access, scope, power, and prestige that it did.  Instead, I think the ultimate business model 10 or 20 years out is going to be on individual artists who own and release their own material.  I think the technology is changing the landscape so quickly that no artist in his or her right mind would agree to get paid only 10% to 20% of the royalties on record sales.  Why, when you can easily keep 65% to 70%?  

      This isn’t limited to music.  Take writing.  In my own case, I’m only 29 but my lifetime career earnings from copyright royalties, which I do as a part-time hobby, are far above what the average person makes at a regular day job throughout his life.  I don’t have to go through Gate Keepers to get my content out there; I own the means of production and the distribution channels (in the case of The New York Times / About.com, there is a mutually beneficially licensing agreement in place based upon performance).  There are some individual articles that have generated tens of thousands of dollars for me, and continue to churn out cash each year, that had I gone with the old model and sold on a per-piece basis (e.g., $10 per article, $50 per article, or $100 per article, or so much per word), I’d have allowed all earnings to flow to someone else.  That’s the old model.  There is no reason to do it anymore.  It’s just not worth it.

      But, again: Who knows?  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe people will continue to doubt themselves and sign over the rights to their works, allowing the edifices of the old complexes to remain in place.  Heaven knows the airline industry has managed to survive despite everyone but Southwest being an economic failure (strategically valuable to the country, yes, but from an owner-viewpoint).

      • Gilvus

        Okay, I see what you mean about human brands falling eventually. Unless it’s a clothing designer.

        The problem I see here is because everyone has the opportunity to create their own work, the market will be flooded with people competing among themselves to get the most subscribers/likes/followers. This allows people with lots of capital (music moguls) to hand-pick and promote artists with high-capital tactics that haven’t be hurt by the Internet: concerts, radio play, advertising, etc.

        You’re definitely right about music distribution shifting from CDs to the artists themselves. But I can see the music industry snatching up synthetic equity in new artists just like how the App store holds synthetic equity in Angry Birds. And unlike other forms of synthetic equity, they can demand a much higher percentage of gross revenue because there’s a surplus of other artists hoping to “make it big.”

        • Joshua Kennon

          I can see the music industry snatching up synthetic equity in new artists just like how the App store holds synthetic equity in Angry Birds. And unlike other forms of synthetic equity, they can demand a much higher percentage of gross revenue because there’s a surplus of other artists hoping to “make it big.”

          That is a very possible outcome.  If you can figure out who owns the synthetic equity and buy a stake in it at a reasonable price, you can make a lot of money.

        • Gilvus

          That’d be nice, but I need to learn how to calculate that “reasonable price” first. I’m sitting here with a copy of Security Analysis, trying to figure out if GM is a steal or if I’m just stupid.

  • Chris Falkner

    Your Justin Timberlake video is no longer available. Here is a link to one still on youtube.http://youtu.be/NipABdzg8vY Great post I enjoyed it.