Iron Maiden – The Number of the Beast

The Number of the Beast
Year :
Judas Priest / Dio / Ozzy Osbourne

Iron Maiden made the news early last week when it was announced that the band has made a bit of a killing by planning tours in locations where data suggests high rates of piracy. The immediate conclusion to draw from this is that music piracy actually helped Iron Maiden in this specific case. The reality is a lot more complex, though.

Our own Matt Belair began to delve into the issue yesterday, looking back on Metallica’s now-infamous battle with Napster. He rightly concludes that Metallica was oddly prescient on the issue of piracy, not because piracy itself has become so rampant (it’s actually on the decline), but because it normalized the idea of free (or, in the case of Pandora and Spotify, virtually-free) music. Popular music obviously isn’t going anywhere overnight, but there is a constant, influential chorus of voices insisting that this new paradigm has made things unquestionably worse. It’s the central non-artistic question facing the music industry today.

Thom Yorke (sorry Thom, you’re my straw man) of Radiohead has been one of the most vocal critics of the music streaming service Spotify, noting that the service pays out such small amounts to recording artists that most are unable to make any sort of a living. Spotify, to their credit, has been pretty transparent about how their payout system works. A quick review of the system makes it clear that there is only so much room at the top for paydays. In essence, only the most popular artists on the service secure more in royalties than what amounts to an extra gig or two.

It’s of course impossible to measure, though, the impact of having readily available music on attendance at live events. Iron Maiden, in this sense, is perhaps the worst possible example to look at. It makes the recent reports about the band somewhat troubling. Iron Maiden is as big as it gets. They are legendary. Pirating an Iron Maiden record in 2013 is like renting a full season of The Sopranos from your local library. It’s not an act of discovery–it’s an act that simply gets around a paywall. Having the data, be it about piracy or sales, to indicate where and when to tour is simply smart business. It’s hardly evidence to suggest that there isn’t actually a problem.

So, as we enter 2014, where does that leave us? I, for one, find myself grappling with three key questions:

Is music under-priced?

I’ve written elsewhere about my unabashed love for Spotify. It was essentially a dream product made real. Given that, I’ve asked myself “What is the most that I’d be willing to pay for the service as it currently exists?” The answer is, probably, somewhere around $30 a month, or about the cost of one new album per week. Spotify is still an astoundingly low price (considering what the customer gets in return) at around $10 per month ($9.99 to be exact–the real Number of the Beast). That puts the service at slightly more expensive than Netflix, but a total bargain considering that a single MP3 on iTunes still runs $0.99.

Obviously there are other forces at work. Spotify is making a play to be the music streaming service. That means low barriers to adoption and a massive, loyal user base. Charging more doesn’t fit into that equation. Certainly not charging more for the sake of simply paying more out, anyway.

Is there simply too much music on the market?

Fans of the NBA will remember the early days of league expansion when the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors entered the league. These were not great times for basketball. Why? There was simply not enough talent to go around in the league. It watered down the experience and had the odd side effect of creating overpaid mediocre players who were suddenly the “best” players on bad teams.

Like it or not, this is the music industry today. Technology, self publishing platforms, and yes services like Spotify, have made music so readily available that some modicum of quality (as something different than popularity) has literally nothing to do with consumers ability to hear a particular piece of music. Thom Yorke, David Byrne, and others suggest that we are nearing a phase of market retraction, where musicians will essentially quit because they can no longer make a living. The unanswered counterpoint is this: “Why is that a bad thing?” There is more new music available now than at any point in my entire life. It’s absolutely natural that not all of it will be good enough to sustain an audience.

What is the job of the musician?

Thom Yorke and company seem to want a return to the days where musicians are seen as the creators of an album in much the same way that directors are the creators of films, authors are the creators of books, an so on. In other words, they want an Auteur System. An Auteur system is utterly dependent on limited supply, but it is also dependent upon gatekeepers and tastemakers. The digital age has destroyed that for music. A band like Radiohead, once the vanguard for progressive music, is now both competing with a production cycle that advances by the minute and a army of upstarts. It’s no longer possible to disappear into a recording studio for three years to produce “art.”

The modern paradigm is shifting musicians back into the role of the entertainer. Bands can still make a living by touring and by putting butts in seats. It is a systems that rewards those who can provide something that people are willing to pay for. Iron Maiden seem to have figured this much out.

What is missing, though, is the path for the small, new bands and artists to follow. As we enter 2014, it’s less clear than ever as to what a recording artists’ “job” is or is going to become. For fans, though, it’s pretty clear. Get out there and see some live music.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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