Spotify and Lady GaGa

Lady GaGa leaves her London hotel, March 2010. Image: Rolling Stone

I don’t think I’m alone in the world in expressing my sincere admiration for the sheer artistic commitment of Stefani Germanotta, better known to her millions of fans as Lady GaGa.

While an in-depth critical dissection of the songwriting, performance and (perhaps most notably) entrepreneurial talents of contemporary music’s hottest new star are outside the scope of this blog, I will probably post something about this fascinating artist from a musicological perspective down the track. (Just one thing that intrigues me: GaGa’s Italian-American ethnicity and the clear inspiration she seems to have taken from another Italian-American, Madonna).

But GaGa’s relationship to the changing economics of the music industry certainly is a topic of this blog. And that’s been much in the news lately, with the revelation that Spotify, the hit new streaming wesbite based in Sweden, paid GaGa only US$167 for more than 1 million downloads.

The news quickly spread around global media, as horrified musicians and collection agencies mobilised to fight the latest threat to artistic livelihoods. Sam Leith has weighed in at The Guardian, as have a number of other commentators.

So, is this more evidence of the internet destroying recorded music as we know it? Well … no, actually, as Steve Lawson points out:

[The original report about the Spotify royalty] does mention that she’s had 20 million paid downloads. 20 MILLION paid downloads. (that warrants a Dr Evil pinky-in-the-corner-of-the-mouth pose).

Yup, that’s not the headline, that her digital strategy that includes Spotify has lead to her selling 20 MILLION downloads – in an age when any of those 20 million sales could’ve been grabbed from a file sharing service or copied from a friend (I’m taking a wild guess that Lady Gaga fans run in packs – she doesn’t strike me as the kind of artist that appeals to the friendless reclusive goth kid with the idiosyncratic taste).

Lawson concludes that even if Spotify only functions as a streaming radio service, the artists are still winning.

In fact, Spotify has since responded to the criticism by saying that the $167 figure was only a small part of GaGa’s royalty earnings. According to Paul brown of Spotify, quoted in Billboard,

“This figure is over 15 months out of date and relates to a short period of time, just after Spotify had launched back in late 2008 and is not an accurate or current reflection of the total royalties paid out to an artist and composer like Lady Gaga. It also only relates to royalties due from STIM (the Swedish collecting society) in respect of plays in Sweden ONLY and none of the other markets.”

On the other hand, there is no doubt that the revenue streams once available to artists from music sales are far less than they hay-days of the 1980s and 90s, as Peter Kafka points out in this post:

Remember when people used to predict that digital music sales would make up for the disappearing CD? That’s officially over now: Last quarter, for the first time ever, the number of digital songs sold in the U.S. declined.

More on Spotify: Information Is Beautiful has a typically impressive post about this very point, and the Guardian’s Charles Arthur has an excellent post breaking down the known information underlying Spotify’s business model.

What’s new in the International Journal of Cultural Policy? The IJCP’s special book review issue

A classic cover of Raymond Williams' classic study, Culture and Society 1780-1950.

The first issue of the International Journal of Cultural Policy for 2010 is a refreshing departure from its more typical, research-0based fare: an issue of book reviews by some of the leading thinkers in the field – many of whom I’ve discussed on this blog.

So, for instance, there is Jeremy Ahearne on Michael de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life,  Franco Bianchini on Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilisation, Bennett himself on Raymond Williams’ classic Culture and Society, and Eleonora Belfiore on  Janet Minihan’s The Nationalization of Culture: the development of state subsidies to the arts in Great Britain. Interestingly, given the strident debate that has developed about the “neo-liberalism” of the creative industries school, Stuart Cunningham has opted to review that capitalist classic, Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Editor Oliver Bennett writes that:

This special issue gathers together some personal reflections on the intellectual influences of many of those that have contributed to the development of cultural policy as a field of academic enquiry. Each contributor was invited to write a short review essay on one book that had influenced his/her thinking and which s/he would want new students of cultural policy to read.

The collection thus serves a twofold purpose: it offers a fascinating insight into the intellectual force fields within which the study of cultural policy has grown up; at the same time, it provides a valuable resource for teachers of cultural policy, their students and all those with a general interest in the field.

For breadth and diversity, it’s one of the best issues of the IJCP for some time.

Zizek on Havel

Vaclav Havel.

I’ve been reading the archives of the LRB lately, and uncovered this gem from Slavoj Zizek reviewing biographies of Czech intellectual and politician Vaclav Havel. Here’s a glimpse:

Rarely has one individual played so many different parts. The cocky young student in the early Fifties, member of a closed circle which holds passionate political discussions and somehow survives the worst years of the Stalinist terror. The Modernist playwright and critical essayist struggling to assert himself in the mild thaw of the late Fifties and Sixties. The first encounter with History – in the Prague Spring – which is also Havel’s first big disappointment. The long ordeal of the Seventies and most of the Eighties, when he is transformed from a critical playwright into a key political figure. The miracle of the Velvet Revolution, with Havel emerging as a skilful politician negotiating the transfer of power and ending up as President. Finally, there is Havel in the Nineties, the man who presided over the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and who is now the proponent of the full integration of the Czech Republic into Western economic and military structures. Havel himself has been shocked by the swiftness of the transformation – a TV camera famously caught his look of disbelief as he sat down to his first official dinner as President.

Read the rest here.

10 books that have influenced me

A grander library than mine ... photograph of Sir John Soane's library. Source: Sir John Soane's Musuem.

Tyler Cowen is blogging it. Matt Yglesias is blogging it. Bryan Caplan is too. So I thought I’d post my list of ten books that have most influenced my intellectual development. Behold – no Ayn Rand!

In no particular order …

1. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.  Because it’s a Tuchman book, it’s beautifully written and flawlessly narrated. But the big take-home message for me was how quickly the best-laid plans of the various combatants of 1914 came to grief, and how bereft they were of a plan B once “mobile warfare” had solidified. A brilliant case study in unintended consequences.

2. The Nichomechean Ethics by Aristotle. Aristotle’s supple wisdom still rings true today as he analyses the human virtues as way of good living.

3. In Search of Lost Time by Proust. Taught me about love, and obsession, and human changeability, and the Dreyfus affair.  Also taught me that ploughing through a difficult multi-volume novel for months can be intensely rewarding.

4. Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama. The best book about art history I have ever read, by one of the grandest contemporary historians.

5. The Space of Literature by Maurice Blanchot. Perhaps one of the most intense works of literary criticism of all time.

6. Illuminations by Walter Benjamin. Still the best introductory collection.

7. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and Straw Dogs by John Gray. I conflated these two as together they represent two of the most incisive critiques of humanism, as well as two of the best-argued.

8. Essays by Montaigne. And for the defence of humanism, we have Montaigne, whose literary generosity has perhaps never been surpassed.

9. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Still perhaps my favourite ever comic novel. Contains multitudes.

10. The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm. Glory in the broad-brush sweep of contemporary history, marvel at the quality of his judgment, wonder at the scope of his compass.

Why “the market” is a poor long-term judge of an artist

Giacomo Meyerbeer, Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber, 1847. Meyerbeer is little performed and almost forgotten now. Source: Wikipedia.

As Donald Sassoon reminds us in his magisterial The Culture of the Europeans, in the short term the market decides the popularity and importance of an artist.

But in the long term, the market doesn’t decide. There are countless artists now forgotten who were socially feted, richly rewarded and immensely popular in their own time. For instance, who now remembers the famous Victorian photographer Valentine Blanchard? Or the gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe? Or the opera composer/conductor Giacomo Meyerbeer, in his day more famous and far wealthier than Beethoven?

This point is worth remembering in debates about the long-term value of particular works in “the canon.” In the future, our successors may continue to watch and revere the films of Steven Spielberg. Or they may not.

We can get a glimpse of the fate of a wealthy, famous and increasingly forgotten artist in a recent London Review of Books article by Michael Hofman about the German poet Stefan Zweig:

It’s not easy to think of a writer so poorly thought of by his maybe peers, and it can’t all be attributed to envy or resentment of his great inherited wealth, easy success, unproblematic seductions and vast readership.

The rest of the article is a stinging attack on a once-famous writer who died more than 60 years ago … which only goes to show that wealth, fame and literary success will gain you enemies as well as fans. An interesting, if florid read.

Well-funded art museums cry poor, again

Christopher Menz has taken his bat and ball and gone home. So why should we care? Source: Fairfax.

The news that the Art Gallery of South Australia’s director, Christopher Menz, has declined a contract extension because the South Australian government has not increased the gallery’s funding has brought predictable squeals of outrage from the champions of the entitlement culture at Australia’s large cultural institutions.

Now art critic John McDonald has weighed in with a mendacious opinion piece in the Fairfax newspapers in which he claims that Menz’ dummy spit “represents one of the few occasions a senior figure in an Australian public art museum has shown the courage of their convictions.”

Was Menz asking for an outrageous sum of money? He wanted only another million. Over the past two years, even allowing for its slender budgets, the gallery has initiated important shows such as The Golden Journey, Hans Heysen, and Misty Moderns. There could be no questioning the quality of the staff’s work and commitment.

Well, there are obvious questions about at least one staff member’s commitment. The director has effectively resigned.

But what really annoys me about these kinds of articles is the utter detachment they show from the on-the-ground conditions in which actual working Australian artists ply their trade. Recall that the average Australian visual artist can’t even earn a wage above the poverty line from his or her art. Meanwhile, art galleries spend millions on acquiring thhe masterpieces of dead foreign artists.  “Only another million” writes McDonald, without realising that this is by no means a trivial sum in terms of funding for individual visual artists.

Actually, the South Australian government injected more than $2 million in recent years to pay for renovations, but McDonald doesn’t let that get in the way of his spray,  dismissing it as merely about “air conditioning” – which I would have thought was a rather significant investment in a city where summer temperatures regularly get into the 40s.

I’m sorry, but McDonald and Menz are nothing but whingers. Let’s examine the facts. Menz enjoyed a healthy salary to run a major cultural institution with a budget that would comfortably exceed all but a handful of Australian arts organisations. If this wasn’t commensurate with his talents and abilities, he is free to take his bat and ball and go home. But let’s not mourn his departure. The board of the AGSA should immediately get on with the business of appointing a young and dynamic director who can take the institution forward. For his part, McDonald should stop whinging.

Jane Rankin-Reid, in a devastating quote I have often cited, had this to say on the issue way back in 2002:

“It is time Australian visual arts bureaucrats faced the fact that although they are professionally dependent on artists for their raison d’etre, the guy in the paint-splattered suit may never enjoy quite as high a standard of living as an arts management desk jockey. Ideally, artists are here to promote these and other truths, but the politesse of the Australian arts funding system often muffles these dangerous voices in our society.”

Australia’s newspaper arts critics: a dying breed?

Over in New Matilda today I have a short essay on the state of Australian newspaper arts critics.

Like their colleagues in newsrooms, newspaper arts critics are having a hard time of it.

As I point out,

The Australian newspaper arts critic is a dying breed. Readers of newspapers are vanishing far faster than audiences for Australian films, and publishers and proprietors, who have never made much of a profit from arts pages, are responding by slashing the amount and quality of their arts coverage.

As noted British music critic Norman LeBrecht recently observed, “In a borderless realm where anyone can tweet an uninformed response, reasoned criticism is under threat and undervalued. The arts are the first casualty of newspapers in retreat. Many US papers have sacked critics and abolished book sections.”

In Australia, there hasn’t been much in the way of reasoned criticism for some time. When I first started as a theatre and arts critic for Brisbane’s Courier-Mail in 2001, that paper sustained a surprisingly serious commitment to the arts that belied its bucolic reputation. The paper gave regular work to a number of intelligent and well-qualified reviewers, corralled by an agile and feisty arts editor in Rosemary Sorensen. There was scope to write long features on important trends in contemporary culture, like the growth of turntables as a musical instrument or the popular success of electronic music.

A glance at what passes for the arts section in today’s bowdlerised tabloid Courier-Mail shows the extent of the cultural regress. Sorensen has moved on to greener pastures at The Australian, and her replacement, Suzannah Clarke, is more of an arts reporter, penning friendly but only marginally critical feature articles and employing a dwindling band of specialist reviewers to judge the vibrant culture of Australia’s third-largest city.

At the Fairfax newspapers, a similar story can be told. Although The Age’s A2 section retains a certain commitment to surveying local books and literature, truly critical articles and reviews are hard to find. As with most newspaper arts coverage, the sycophantic interview and the PR puff piece are by-and-large the order of the day.

read the full essay here.

Right-wing literary magazine cries foul over Australia Council funding cut

If it wasn’t so deliciously ironic, you’d struggle to believe it. Quadrant, the staunchly conservative little magazine, has had its funding cut by the Australia Council. Who is to blame?  Lefties, of course! As Crikey and the Sydney Morning Herald have variously reported, the journal’s controversial editor Keith Windschuttle has written an outraged letter to subscribers slating home the funding cut to the perfidious progressives on the Literature Board (the drop-quote is from the SMH):

Quadrant’s editor, the historian Keith Windschuttle, a key protagonist in the history wars who denies that the removal of Aboriginal children from their families was racist or deliberate policy, has written to subscribers saying the decision by the council’s literature board was ”patently political”.

”Throughout the 11 years of the Howard government, its appointees never reduced the funding of overtly left-wing publications like MeanjinOverland and Australian Book Review,” Mr Windschuttle says in the letter. He says the entire Australia Council grant is used to pay writers and does not fundQuadrant’s political commentary.

While I agree with Windschuttle that Overland is overtly left-wing, it’s hard to describe Meanjin under current editor Sophie Cunningham in the same terms. As for the generally poker-faced ABR – well, it’s actually difficult to pick up any “overt” political discussion at all in what remains a journal of book reviews. Guy Rundle had great sport with the story yesterday in Crikey (the link is firewalled), pointing out that:

… the even funnier thing about Windschuttle’s letter is that, since the departure of Robert Manne from the editor’s chair, Quadrant has made its economics firmly neoliberal, and come down hard on the whole notion of subsidised culture at all. Here’s Michael O’Connor,Quadrant’s online editor, in a ringing jeremiad (about 65% of which I agree with)on cultural policy and funding:

“Whitlamesque pork-barrelling of the arts obtains the artists’ vote (of minor importance) and their amplified voices (of incalculable benefit). Public money flows to culture, and its associated artists and carpetbaggers, from all levels of government—local councils, state governments and federal governments. Even individual government departments give away money and undermine the workings of a free market.”

Ah, the good old free market – ever the friend of the neo-liberal, except when he’s applying for government grants.

UPDATE: Imre Salusinszky has fired back in today’s Crikey comments. Salusinszky is understadably annoyed at Rundle’s insinuation that his political views contributed to Quadrant’s funding increase while Salusinszky was Chair of the Literature Board, pointing out that in 2008, “all the major literary magazines supported by the Board, not just Quadrant, received a boost to their funding,” and that “the Chair is one of seven members of the Literature Board, and that all decisions are taken on a majority basis.”

Salusinszky ends with this zinger:

I note, in closing, that the goateed little grub finds non-Anglo names hilarious. Is this what it has come to, for the far Left?

The culture wars. They shall not die.

Meaghan Morris dissects the Facebook grizzlers

It’s fair to say Meaghan Morris is one of my intellectual heroines. Her rapier wit and nimble intelligence make her something a national treasure in the intellectual life of this country. A stylist without peer, she is an ornament to the study of culture.

You can therefore imagine my delight on encountering her latest essay, “Grizzing about Facebook,” in the Australian Humanities Review. It’s a carefully argued but effortlessly expressed tip-toe through the vacuous grizzling that so often characterises old media’s response to social networks.

Morris begins with a fairly typical article in the Murdoch newspaper, a sententious editorial the South China Morning Post critcising Mark Zuckerberg’s invention for its supposedly insidious grip on our lives (“Facebook no substitute for real world contact”):

While forming a very small part of the on-line discussion of social networking sites, these stories arise from news media efforts not only to catch a wave of popular interest while reporting actual incidents but also to shape collective perceptions of a wider phenomenon. In the process, journalists often draw on their rich professional reserves of reductively metonymic realism (‘setting the scene’, the ‘character sketch’) to cast social network users as types whose ways of acting are symptomatic or productive of diverse social ills: alongside terrorists and sexual predators there are always students uploading their mobile pics of boorishly drunken parties, ‘stupid girls’ sharing every detail of their vapid daily routines, and workers who boast about bludging but forget that they’ve friended their boss. As in folklore, each of these figures is sustained by a dense field of concrete examples both stellar (Hugh Grant and Bono for Facebook party uploads, MySpace’s Paris Hilton or Twitter’s Ashton Kutcher for cosmic triviality) and ‘it-could-be-you’ mundane (Kyle Doyle’s ‘SICKIE WOO’ Facebook status update). Simultaneously grounded in and abstracted from the real history of on-line culture, such figures ‘stick’ in media memory, powerfully eliciting recognition (the party animal, the princess, the slack worker) while drawing attention away from a myriad other practices thriving on the sites. Stereotypes are forms of apprehension rather than bad representations, and their force is to mobilize familiar knowledge to explain and absorb unfamiliar experience (Morris,Identity 143-44). Continue reading