Questions I haven’t asked Dave Allen

I’m going to be speaking with Dave Allen on Tuesday this week. Dave is Director of Artist and Music Industry Advocacy for streaming music service Beats Music. He also happens to have been the bass player for one of my favourite post-punk / new wave bands of the 80s. No, not Gang of Four – I’m talking about Shriekback.*

Dave is going to give a presentation about Why Musicians Should Embrace Streaming – and then he and I are going to sit down and have a chat.

I’ve been preparing for the conversation, which will be live in front of an audience at Birmingham City University (it’s free, and there are still some seats left – but you’ll need to book now) – and I thought I’d share with you the questions I’m going to be asking Dave to continue the conversation.

Of course, that means he can read these questions ahead of time should he wish. That’s absolutely fine – I’m not trying to trip anyone up. I’m asking these questions to try and find out the answers, as well as to open up the dialogue a little further and take it in some interesting directions.

That said, I may play devil’s advocate from time to time. So here’s what I have in mind…

  • You assert that we need to embrace the formation of new markets. Aren’t markets the whole problem? Music is still ultimately commoditised, and the end game is simply to maximise returns to shareholders. Aren’t musicians and audiences exploited in this relationship by definition? How does moving the pieces around on that particular chess board solve anything?
  • Given that I can buy a disk or a download of a game that features dozens of hours of immersive entertainment created by hundreds of people (see GTA-V, for instance) for not much more than the price of a couple of new albums that would run to around 50 minutes of audio only, aren’t the expectations of musicians and music businesses unrealistic in the current context anyway?
  • Is it weird to have to spend so much of your time defending a competitor? (Spotify is the ‘straw man’ in the vast majority of the public discourse about what online streaming services pay out to artists such as Thom Yorke or David Byrne)
  • Is it the internet’s job to make things better for musicians? If not, what’s it actually for and how can we use that?
  • Forget for the moment how we make things better for musicians. How do we make things better for music?
  • My own problem with streaming services – and perhaps this is only important to me because of my age – but the songs I listen to on Beats are just ‘some music’. It’s not ‘MY music’. There’s long been an important connection between recorded music, ownership (and especially collection) and identity. Is this relationship no longer important?
  • On that note – as an aside – I had an iPod on which I could store a lot of music. I loaded it with my 1000 favourite albums of all time (including three Shriekback records). And that list didn’t coincide with ANYONE else’s ‘greatest albums’ list. They were important to me for lots of reasons other than their ‘recommendability’, broader cultural importance or aesthetic merit. But that felt like the last meaningful act of music collection. Is collecting and organising music simply a performance of nostalgia now?
  • Another issue with streaming services: they reinforce an aspect of the status quo of the age of recordings you’d think they could somehow contribute to subverting: that the role of some people is to make music, and that the role of others is to sit down, shut up and consume. And yet one of the larger cultural projects of the digital age has been the shift from passive consumption to active participation (e.g.: amateur videos on YouTube). With that in mind, what problem does Beats Music (or Spotify, Deezer, Rdio, WiMP, etc.) actually solve?
  • Does streaming music and a focus on curated discovery have the potential side effect of diminishing active fandom or even making fandom obsolete? And would it be a good thing if it did?
  • A bigger problem than the amount of money paid to artists by streaming services (assuming it is a problem) is the lack of transparency. How much of my money has gone to the artists I listened to? What if I only listened to one album once this month? What if I listened to that album 100 times? Given I paid £10 – how does the maths work?
  • Spotify did a deal whereby in exchange for licences, it gave equity to major labels. That means that everyone on Spotify – whether signed to a label or not (and whether or not they like it) – is making money for the major record labels. It would appear that Deezer did the same deal, though Rdio and WiMP did not. Did Beats Music have to do that deal too – and is that a problem?
  • Who gets our listening data, and what does that reveal about us?
  • Streaming music services – a net positive for musicians? for non-musicians who want a career in music? for music as culture? for music education? for music participation? for creative industries other than music?

There’s a lot to talk about. These questions – perhaps not verbatim, but in spirit at least – and others will form the basis of our conversation, and I’m really interested to hear what Dave has to say about these things.

I suspect these are not the questions he ordinarily faces. I’m not interested in often-repeated and rehearsed responses. I’m interested in dialogue, and a more complex and nuanced understanding of streaming music services and their place in the contemporary music industry environment – and given that Dave is clearly a very smart man, I think there’s some value to be had in letting him think about the questions for a day or two before we get together.

These are my questions. You probably have your own. There’ll be an audience Q&A section at the BCU event on Tuesday as well. Hope to see you there – but if you can’t make it and you have an interesting question to add, let’s hear it in the comments.


*For some reason, we had a special affinity for Shriekback in New Zealand. They seemed to go down better there than almost anywhere else. Pretty much everyone my age in NZ remembers them. Hardly any of my friends here in the UK. Never been quite sure why that was – but I’m struggling to think of an act that was more central to my music fandom in my late teens, and it certainly wasn’t just me. I saw them play in Auckland four times to packed houses.

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