Sunday, October 2, 2016

How a musician views piracy and streaming

In May I was in New York at an academic conference and had time to spend with my son, Patrick Breiner, a jazz saxophonist.

I wanted to hear what he had to say about the economics of the music business from his perspective. He ended up talking more about relationships than economics.

Patrick says that in the digital world, the connection between the artist and their work is intangible. So the act of downloading the work for free "doesn't feel the same as taking a physical thing from a store or a person."

"When you download content for free, at least in my experience, my relationship to that content is cheapened."

Patrick, 32, says he has downloaded lots of material for free from libraries and other sites, and never listens to it. On the other hand, the music he has bought and literally invested in -- whether from streaming services, CDs, or vinyl albums -- "I listen to all the time." 

The act of paying for the music changes his relationship with the music and the artist, he says. "I still buy CDs. CDs have liner notes. I love reading about who's on the record, who produced the record." Sometimes the liner notes mention the historical significance of the recording or the performers on it.

Steve Byram's album cover for saxophonist Tim Berne
He mentioned that saxophonist Tim Berne's album covers have all been designed by the artist Steve Byram, and this art adds to his enjoyment and appreciation of the physical object of the recording.

Streaming services

Patrick has mixed feelings about streaming services. He has discovered dozens of artists that he never would have known about if he had not been listening to Pandora. But it has commercials, so "it's a cheaper way to experience a thing."

"Imagine if you went to an art museum and there were commercials in between. You can't look at the next painting yet. You have to read this billboard first."
The various streaming services -- iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, etc. -- pay very little to the artist for the use of their material. "As an artist I get residuals checks a couple times a year. They're not for very much, and if they say they sold 5 copies of my record or they say they sold 500 copies -- how do I know?"

He buys a lot of music on the digital music site Bandcamp because it allows him to have a relationship with the artist. "When you buy something from Bandcamp, the artist sees your name. When friends of mine buy my recordings on Bandcamp, it's a certain type of validation."

"Pandora, iTunes, Spotify -- those are completely anonymous platforms. You don't get to know your audience, and your audience doesn't get to know you."

The poor quality of MP3s

Listening to music on streaming services like Spotify, he says, is "like watching a highly pixelated video" since much of the sonic information has been removed from MP3s so that the recordings can be compressed for streaming.

"They take out the top frequencies and erase them. They take out the bottom frequencies and erase them. Then they take out slices in the middle. And your brain actually has to work really hard to fill in the missing information." He says there is research that shows that this mental effort put out by people listening to MP3s actually makes them tired.

A social art

Breiner lives for live performances and points out that up until about 100 years ago, the only way to experience music was in person. You had to be in the room or in the space with the musicians and not only hear but feel the vibrations in your body from the instruments. For him, digital recording eliminates that. It makes music anonymous.

Below, Battle Trance recording, "Blade of Love," with Patrick Breiner on tenor saxophone.


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