Culture Magazine

Tyler Cowen Interviews Ted Gioia

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Conversations with Tyler #79, 2019.
Music, memory, society
COWEN: Let’s start with some questions about music. Do you think our collective memory from music is decaying more rapidly because communications technologies move so much faster and preserve things so much better?
GIOIA: What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.
Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.
COWEN: Does music today still carry new ideas? If you think about radio in the 1960s, there’s the idea of drug culture, of psychedelia, antiwar protests. Those are often carried by music and by the radio. But today, the internet carries the ideas more or less for free. Do we even need music for that?
GIOIA: There’s a very prevalent view now that music is just diversion or idle entertainment. You know, Steven Pinker is the great exponent of this. He calls music auditory cheesecake, and he’ll tell you that music is just for brain stimulation. For example, I would listen to a song the same way I might drink a martini or use recreational drugs.
I really think this misses the point. I do think music is embedded in ideas and culture and takes place in the world at a much more intricate level than Pinker understands. For example, hardly a week goes by when I don’t read about a musician somewhere in the world getting into trouble with politicians. Putin will try to stop a group from performing. In Saudi Arabia, somebody will be thrown into prison for a song.
Recently the Hong Kong protests have used music very actively. I just read the other day about a protest song in Hong Kong, where the composer has to remain anonymous because it’s so dangerous to have composed this song. This is a good reminder of how powerful music is. It’s not just diversion.
Streaming's business model cripples music
COWEN: Now, you also have a background in management consulting and venture capital. So tell us, does Spotify have a viable business model, yes or no?
GIOIA: I’m well known as a critic of streaming, and I also believe that the economics of streaming are fundamentally flawed, but I don’t believe it’s going to go away. I do believe there’s going to be a painful retrenching and downsizing. We already see Netflix, which has $15 billion in debt, announce the other day they’re going to borrow $2 billion more. They’ve got a huge audience, but they can’t even cover their costs. They’ve been negative cash flow every quarter for five straight years.
Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.
Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.
That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music sub-economy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.
The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.
The anomalous 60s in (popular) music
COWEN: As you well know, if you compare American popular music in 1963 to American popular music in 1968, over a period of five years, it sounds really quite completely different. And you can tell, upon hearing music from either year, which year it’s from. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. Is there still real innovation in American popular music?
GIOIA: Well, what happened in the 1960s is an anomaly. I don’t think it will ever happen again. And what happened is — you must give credit to the Beatles because everyone was imitating the Beatles, and they changed their sounds every six months, every year.
People always tell me, “Ted, do you like the highbrow music and the lowbrow music?” I say, “No, no. The real conflict is not between high and low. The real challenge in music is the formula, where formula emerges, and then everybody imitates the formula.” And that’s what deadens your musical culture, the repetition of the formula. And the Beatles, for a period of five, six years, made sure there was no formula. This is amazing. It never happened before. It probably will never happen again.
If you tried to imitate the Beatles in 1964, ’65, you soon were out of date. For example, the Monkees tried to do exactly that. The Monkees imitated a certain Beatles sound. But by the time the first episode was on TV, the Beatles were already off to something else.
I do think you had this amazing period for five, six years where there was no set formula in the music business. It was an amazing time. I think we should enjoy it for what it was, but I don’t think we should expect it to come back. [...]
COWEN: But if we look at broader trends — so in the 1960s, we have what we now call classic rock and the Beatles, also in the ’70s. The early 1980s, rap comes along. It’s still with us — maybe that’s surprising. In the early ’90s, you might say there’s electronica. But what has been since then that’s new? What’s the next big thing? Or has it stopped?
GIOIA: Well, there’s a certain irony here. The music business always prided itself on disrupting the culture with some new sound. But the big thing in the last 20 years is, the music business itself has been disrupted. They’re on the receiving end, and tech companies in Silicon Valley have done the disrupting. And what they’re disrupting is not the sound of music. It’s actually the whole socioeconomic setting of music.
Now, you ask yourself, what did the music industry do to respond to this? What was their big innovation? And it’s almost laughable. If you go back to the early years of this century, when the internet was taking over music distribution and the music culture, the biggest innovation in music was — and this is sad to say — it was the TV reality-show singing contest. [laughs] This was the big innovation that the music industry used to respond to this complete disruption and everything else.
“Well, we’ll do American Idol; we’ll do America’s Got Talent.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.
I want to make one more observation, though. There are periods in music where it seems like there’s a lull and that we’ve reached some happy end point. My historical research tells me that those happy end points never last.
Female musicians as innovators
COWEN: If we think about the accelerated advancement of women in music — today it might be St. Vincent, Laura Marling, but there are many, many more. Do they fit into the shaman model the same way that the men do?
GIOIA: Well, my book shows that, again and again, throughout history, female musicians were innovators. Then once their work was assimilated by the broader society, these origins were hidden from view. One of the reasons why women were innovators is because their music tended to tap more into the emotional power of music.
If you go back to Plato, it’s very clear that there are two kinds of music. There’s a music that he favors, which instills order in society. It sings the praises of great men, and it brings people together for the social good. But he understood that there was a second kind of music that was really involved in personal emotion and self-expression. He associated that with women, and rightly so, because that really comes out of Sappho. And it comes out of what I call the three Ls of female singing: the lullaby, the love song, and the lament, always associated with women.
So the idea that women have a special place in musical culture going back for thousands of years is something I take very seriously. And I think it’s surprising, in fact, nowadays, how much connection there is between the music women sing now and the origins of the music that came out of women thousands of years ago.
Silence in the forest and on the savanna
GIOIA: [...]It’s interesting, in my book I talk about the very first musicians, who were hunter-gatherers. What they did was fascinating because back then there were no loud sounds. You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.
So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt. They were scavengers, and they didn’t try to kill the lion themselves. They let the lion kill the prey. Then they would sing together to scare away the lion, and they would get the food. That tells you that back then, loud sounds were so rare that they were an amazing expression of power.
The thing to remember is, even today, loud sounds are an expression of power, notoriety. So you have competition in terms of sound, and the restaurants believe — and maybe rightly — that they’re going to stand out with the noisier environment. Now, once again, I will avoid those restaurants. I’ll go to the quiet one, but I really think the same way there was an arms race in the 1960s, there’s a noise race in society right now.
Heavy metal
GIOIA: I think it’s underrated. If you say that you like metal music, that’s supposedly shameful, or maybe you’ve got some dark, satanic impulses. But metal music has persisted at very high levels of virtuosity, and they take musicianship seriously. They take the entertainment aspect of it seriously. Sometimes it’s almost performance art. I’m not personally a huge fan of metal music, but I think in terms of the whole music ecosystem, it’s tremendously underrated.
Music and sex
COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince.
GIOIA: It’s very interesting. If you go back to the earliest songs in human history, they were linked to fertility rituals. There was an idea that the king would have sex with a goddess, which, usually, the high priestess had to step in because it was hard to find a real goddess, and there were songs associated with it. They were very explicit. Some of them I couldn’t even say to you, Tyler, because I would get into trouble because of the explicit quality of the works.
The point I would make is, songs these days are very similar. Someone studied recent hit songs, and 92 percent of them refer to sexuality. The typical hit song has 10½ reproductive phrases. That’s the word the researcher used — not just the dirty parts, the reproductive phrases in the songs. I do think there is — and this I bring up in my new book — the long-standing connection between music and sexuality.
Even as we see a new Victorianism and sexual primness entering our larger mainstream culture, there’s a tremendous force that forces popular music to address sexual issues.
COWEN: But is music in some way antisex or a substitute for sex? Or maybe some kinds of romantic music, like Bruce Springsteen — they’re best for people who are not in love? And if you’re actually in love, you don’t need Bruce Springsteen. And now we’re doused in music and the internet, and we have less sex. [...]
GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?
Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential. [...]
COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?
GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.
COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?
GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.

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