The Killing of America’s Creative Class


A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”


Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.


Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.


Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”


The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”


Spotify Says It Now Has 15 Million

Subscribers; 60 Million Overall


     Spotify last week announced it now has 15 million paid subscribers worldwide, which The New York Times says is a “clear indication of rapid growth for the company and an implicit rebuttal in a roiling industry debate over whether people are willing to pay for music online.” The digital music service, available in 58 countries, is now used by 60 million people, meaning that about 25% of its listeners pay $10 a month to listen to the ad-free platform.

While this growth may be good for Spotify, investors, and listeners, many artists insist it’s not good for those who create and perform the music that’s being played. Most recently, Taylor Swift removed virtually her entire catalog from Spotify, apparently because the company would not restrict it to its paying subscribers. Major labels also have  been pressuring free outlets (YouTube and SoundCloud) to generate more revenue. The Times suggests that Swift’s dispute, widely covered in the news media and on social media, gave Spotify a huge publicity push, and may have helped attract new customers. When the service last disclosed user numbers two months ago, it reported 12.5 million paying subscribers.

Spotify’s continued growth also points to the strength of the company’s “freemium” model, in which free music is used to lure customers to pay for more access. In late 2013, the company began letting people listen to more free music on mobile devices, where a majority of Spotify’s listening now takes place. “Our free service drives our paid service,” Spotify co-founder and chief executive Daniel Ek wrote in a blog post last fall. 

Judge Again Rules Against Sirius XM

In Turtles Copyright Lawsuit


     No surprise here: A federal judge in New York has rejected Sirius XM’s request to reconsider her November 14 decision in favor of members of the 1960s band The Turtles over payment of royalties for songs made before 1972. Sirius had argued that Flo & Eddie Inc, controlled by founding band members Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, did not own the copyrights for the recordings, or had given the satellite radio service “implied” license to play them. “We’re obviously pleased that the judge sees the law the same way we do,” attorney Harvey Geller, who represents Flo and Eddie, said in an interview with Reuters.

There was one bright spot for Sirius XM, however: In her decision, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon ruled that Flo & Eddie could recover damages for copyright infringement only for the three years before it sued on Aug. 16, 2013, not six years as she had previously suggested.

The lawsuit is one of a several challenging both Sirius XM and Pandora over the playing of songs recorded before Feb. 15, 1972. While such songs are not covered by federal copyright law, some recording artists and labels have won rulings entitling them to copyright protection under individual state laws. 

Coleman Study Set To Determine

When A Hit Becomes A Hit


     “While there are definitely a few differences between what consumers play using on-demand digital media platforms versus what they are hearing on radio, the differences aren’t as dramatic as some are reporting.” That’s the word from Coleman Insights, which is in the midst of a massive study to determine when a hit actually becomes a hit.

A report posted on Coleman’s website this week says the research firm studied 26 consecutive weeks of Billboard’s Top 10 On-Demand Songs (charts that rank the biggest songs of such on-demand streaming services as Spotify) to determine the age of the songs listeners play most when they’re in control of their music. Coleman then pegged each song’s “vintage” (when a song first enters public consciousness and enters the Billboard Hot 100) and then conducted the same analysis of Billboard Top 10 Radio Songs in each of the same 26 weeks.

As noted by Coleman’s Matt Bailey, “while there are slight variations between on-demand streaming and broadcast radio exposure, a comparable pattern of song development emerges for both media.” For instance:

  • Songs are typically growing in their first 8 weeks;
  • The majority of the biggest songs are between 9 and 20 weeks old; and
  • Songs are typically in decline after 20 weeks.

“Of course, there are variations in the performance of individual songs,” Bailey says. “Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ caught on faster on streaming services in the U.S. than it did on radio. Tove Lo’s ‘Habits (Stay High)’ also broke on Spotify before radio picked it up. Other songs developed faster on radio than on streaming media, such as Maroon 5’s ‘Maps.'” Interestingly, one particular song – Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” – was a huge hit on streaming but totally absent from radio, which Bailey says many Frozen-weary parents appreciate.


Forgotify Plays The 4 Million Spotify Songs

No One Has Heard Yet…But Just Once


     Spotify claims its digital music library consists of over 20 million tracks, but 20% of them – at least 4 million – have never been played. Not once. A new website known as Forgotify – created by a San Francisco art director named Lane Jordan and a few friends – aims to change that by randomly playing each of those songs, one by one. The service works by “crawling” Spotify to figure out which songs register play counts of zero. As the New York Post reports, the mix is highly eclectic, perhaps offering up a folk song followed by a classical piece, followed by a children’s song. Clearly no human curation is involved.

“We were shocked that there were four million unheard songs and we were curious about what those songs were… and if they were worth listening to,” says Jordan, a self-avowed classic rock lover.

Atlantic Monthly says Forgotify is built upon a database that Jordan and his pals created to locate the “virgin” tunes buried in Spotify’s library. Once a song has been played, it disappears from the website, “rendering it oddly reminiscent of an old, archival audio cassette which, once played, may never play again,” the magazine’s Rebecca Rosen says.

According to Jordan, many of Spotify’s undiscovered tracks are older: Newer music tends to get at least a few plays as it posts, but the backlog from decades past just sits on Spotify’s digital shelves, accumulating virtual dust. Forgotify, however, is built to mix it up. “We’ve tried to randomize the plays as much as possible so that each sequential track is from a different era and genre,” Jordan told Rosen. 

“The Audience Is Listening” To Low-

Res Music…But Does Anyone Care?


Music      “For some reason music is the only format where people accept something worse than before.” That’s the word from Andy Chen, the CEO of Norway-based “lossless” streaming provider Tidal, who last week told the website Quartz that society is at a tipping point for consumer awareness of music quality. He points to growth in premium headphone sales (now a $1-billion industry in the U.S., and growing rapidly) as evidence that people want better sound and are prepared to pay for it. “It’s the 21st century,” he says. “Technology’s job in our civilization is to make life better.”

Except for a handful of audiophiles like Chen (and musician Neil Young, whose new Pono service has only received lukewarm reviews), many consumers seem unconcerned (or unaware) that the music files on their mobile devices are massive dilutions of the masters from which they were made. As the Quartz article says, this “devolution” runs contrary to what has happened in just about every other consumer category, where technology steadily improved the quality of the experience. (Example: video, where resolutions keep improving.) But with audio streaming, the quality of sound has deteriorated. The oldest format (vinyl) had the richest sound quality, while the newest digital download and streaming formats have the worst. CDs fell somewhere in between.

“People [are] kind of discovering that MP3s suck,” Young recently said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It was great to have thousands of songs, but the fact that you could only recognize them, and couldn’t hear them, made it so you weren’t experiencing music.” 

Pandora Hires New SVP In Charge Of

Agency And Advertiser Development


     In yet another move designed to siphon national advertising from terrestrial radio, Pandora last week announced it had hired Alan Schanzer to serve as Senior Vice President of Agency and Advertiser Development. According to a company statement, Schanzer will lead the company’s collaborations with advertising agencies and brands, “providing strategic counsel to marketers to maximize the power of Pandora and leveraging feedback from agencies and brands to help Pandora build attractive and innovative products.”

“Alan’s successful track record in cultivating deep industry relationships will help us fortify our already-strong agency and brand partnerships,” Chief Revenue Officer John Trimble said in a statement. “With the explosion of mobile and Pandora’s persistent growth and leadership in internet radio, this is a perfect time for Alan to join our team.”

The announcement follows a profile of Pandora in Bunzel Media Resources Radio 2015: The Year Ahead, in which company co-founder Tim Westergren made it clear that his intent is to disrupt AM/FM’s hold on audience and advertising. “There will always be a place for terrestrial radio, but we think we can get a good share of the time people spend listening in the car,” Westergren said. “Half of all listening now takes place in the car, so it’s just a matter of finding good sources of content that are compatible with what we’re doing, and with licensing and ad rates that make sense. We have to have a way for the content to dovetail with [the] music experience. I would be really surprised if we didn’t have a substantial part of that in the next five years.” 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015

Portrait of the Artist as a Dying Class


Scott Timberg argues that we’ve lost the scaffolding of middle-class jobs—record-store clerk, critic, roadie—that made creative scenes thrive. Record store clerks—like Barry (Jack Black) in High Fidelity—are going the way of the dodo. (Getty Images)


It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places, that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America.

Though Scott Timberg’s impassioned Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class focuses on the struggles of musicians, writers and designers, it’s not just a story about (the impossibility of) making a living making art in modern America. More urgently, it’s another chapter in America’s central economic story today, of plutocracy versus penury and the evisceration of the middle class.

Timberg lost his job as an arts reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 2008 after real-estate mogul Sam Zell purchased the paper and gutted its staff. But newspapers are experiencing a natural dieoff, right? Wrong, says Timberg. He cites statistics showing that newspaper profits remained fat into the 21st century—peaking at an average of 22.3 percent in 2002—as the industry began slashing staff. The problem isn’t profitability but shareholder greed, and the fact that we’ve ceded so much authority to the gurus of economic efficiency that we’ve failed to check their math.

The story of print journalism’s demise is hardly new, but Timberg’s LA-based perspective brings architecture, film and music into the conversation, exposing the fallacy of the East Coast conviction that Hollywood is the place where all the money is hiding. Movie studios today are as risk-averse and profit-minded as the big New York publishing houses, throwing their muscle behind one or two stars and proven projects (sequels and remakes) rather than nurturing a deep bench of talent.

For aspiring stars to believe that they may yet become the next Kanye or Kardashian is as unrealistic as treating a casino as a viable path to wealth. Not only that, but when all the money and attention cluster around a handful of stars, there’s less variation, less invention, less risk-taking. Timberg notes that the common understanding of the “creative class,” coined by Richard Florida in 2002, encompasses “anyone who works with their mind at a high level,” including doctors, lawyers and software engineers.

But Timberg looks more narrowly at those whose living, both financially and philosophically, depends on creativity, whether or not they are highly educated or technically “white collar.” He includes a host of support staff: technicians and roadies, promoters and bartenders, critics and publishers, and record-store and bookstore autodidacts (he devotes a whole chapter to these passionate, vanishing “clerks.”) People in this class could once survive, not lavishly but respectably, leading a decent middle-class life, with even some upward mobility.

Timberg describes the career of a record-store clerk whose passion eventually led him to jobs as a radio DJ and a music consultant for TV. His retail job offered a “ladder into the industry” that no longer exists. Today, in almost all creative industries, the rungs of that ladder have been replaced with unpaid internships, typically out of reach to all but the children of the bourgeoisie. We were told the Internet would render physical locations unimportant and destroy hierarchies, flinging open the gates to a wider range of players. To an extent that Timberg doesn’t really acknowledge, that has proven somewhat true: Every scene in the world now has numerous points of access, and any misfit can find her tribe online. But it’s one thing to find fellow fans; it’s another to find paying work. It turns out that working as unfettered freelancers—one-man brands with laptops for offices—doesn’t pay the rent, even if we forgo health insurance.

Timberg points to stats on today’s music business, for instance, which show that even those who are succeeding, with millions of Twitter followers and Spotify plays, can scrape together just a few thousand dollars for months of work. (Timberg is cautiously optimistic about the arrival of Obamacare, which at least might protect people from the kinds of bankrupting medical emergencies that several of his subjects have suffered.).

In addition, Timberg argues that physical institutions help creativity thrive. His opening chapter documents three successful artistic scenes—Boston’s postwar poetry world, LA’s 1960s boom in contemporary art, and Austin’s vibrant 1970s alternative to the Nashville country-music machine. In analyzing what makes them work, he owes much to urban planner Jane Jacobs: It was livable, affordable, close-knit cities, with plenty of universities and plenty of cheap gathering places that allowed art to flourish in 20th-century America. In Austin, the university and the legislature provided day jobs or other support to the freewheeling artists, Timberg notes: “For all its protests of its maverick status, outlaw country was made possible by public funding.”

Today, affordability has gone out the window. As one freelance writer, Chris Ketcham, puts it, “rent is the basis of everything”—and New York and San Francisco, gouging relentlessly away at their middle class, are driving out the very people who built their unique cultures.

Take live music, for example. Without a robust support structure of people working for money, not just love—local writers who chronicle a scene, talented designers and promoters, bars and clubs that can pay the rent—live music is withering. Our minimum wage economy isn’t helping: For the venue and the band to cover their costs, they need curious music-lovers who have the time and money to come out, pay a cover charge, buy a beer or two and maybe an album. That’s a night out that fewer and fewer people can afford. Wealthy gentrifiers, meanwhile, would rather spend their evenings at a hot new restaurant than a grungy rock club. Foodie culture, Timberg suggests, has pushed out what used to nourish us.

Timberg is not a historian but a journalist, and his book is strongest when he allows creative people to speak for themselves. We hear how the struggles of a hip LA architect echo those of music professors and art critics. However, the fact that most of Timberg’s sources are men (and from roughly the same generation as the author), undercuts the book’s claim to universality. Those successful artistic scenes he cites at the beginning, in Boston, LA and Austin, and the mid-century heyday of American culture in general, were hardly welcoming to women and people of color.

It’s much harder to get upset about the decline of an industry that wasn’t going to let you join in the first place. Although Timberg admits this in passing, he doesn’t explore the way that the chipping away of institutional power might in fact have helped to liberate marginalized artists.

But all the liberation in the world counts for little if you can’t get paid, and Timberg’s central claim—that the number of people making a living by making art is rapidly decreasing—is timely and important, as is his argument that unemployed architects deserve our sympathetic attention just as much as unemployed auto workers.

The challenge is to find a way to talk about the essential role of art and creativity that doesn’t fall back on economic value, celebrity endorsement or vague mysticism. It’s far too important for that.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

Beautiful songs about “dark, grotesque stuff”: The world according to Panda Bear

Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox discusses his latest solo album, the creative process and death

Beautiful songs about "dark, grotesque stuff": The world according to Panda Bear

Panda Bear (Credit: The Windish Agency/Fernanda Pereira)

Noah Lennox feels relieved. It is Tuesday, January 13 — the release date of his very well-received new album, “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper.” The euphoria I assumed he’d feel has yet to sink in. Maybe relief will morph to happiness in a few weeks, Lennox mused.

This is not the first release day for Lennox. He has dropped several solo albums under the moniker Panda Bear, and nine more with the critically acclaimed experimental group Animal Collective. This latest effort suggests aspects of his personality: reserved, curious, competitive, playful and overwhelmingly thoughtful. The title evokes the concept of death, but Lennox explains that it is more about change — shedding one aspect of yourself for another. While grim material is certainly present on the album, by design it takes a few listens for the feeling to seep in. The darker messages are wrapped in sugary pop-sounds, and bright packaging.

Panda Bear creates a distinctively beautiful form of electronic music. It’s an amalgamation of sound, and is nearly impossible to tease out the individual components: an underlying rhythm, or a string of piano, and of course Lennox’s floating Brian Wilson-like voice. (The inability to “tell what’s what” is how Lennox describes psychedelic music.)

Lennox sat down with Salon to discuss the album, the method of creation, some of his favorite records,  and why he thinks music festivals are weird. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So the album’s out today!

It was a long road. It took like three years door to door. There were a lot of people working really hard for this one, so the overwhelming sensation is relief at the moment. Maybe in a couple more weeks it’ll transfer to happiness.

You can exhale now. It’s out and it’s well-received.

Yeah it seems like people like it OK.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. You said it was a three year process. What is your process, and is it different for each album? 

It is a bit different for each album, but for this one every song followed pretty much the same path, in that it would start off without any singing or any vocals of any kind. There are two songs on the album that don’t have any rhythm, and those started really with the samples — classical samples that I used. One’s piano, I think it’s Debussy [on the song “Lonely Wanderer”], and the other [on “Tropic of Cancer”] is from “The Nutcracker.”

But every other song started with the drums and some type of rhythm. I tried to create these little rhythm machines where it wasn’t just the drums but also weird noises, and tried to set it up in this really specific, kind of rhythmic, little rhythm music box. And then just kind of refining that and spending a lot of time refining those little pieces. I made maybe like 60 of those, and the ones I liked the best I fleshed out into more fully realized songs. Refining those Lego constructions of the rhythms, the singing parts, I would kind of just start to hear little lines, and I would maybe record those in some kind of trashy way, just really quickly, to remember it. Then the melodies would get built in a similar way, just sort of adding and seeing what felt right and what didn’t. The words were really the last thing.

You mention Legos — is it sort of a visual process to build it?

Yeah, it is a bit like Legos or painting — or cooking, especially, is my favorite analogy. Certain elements in production feel more like salt and pepper, or like stuff that always has to be there in a way, or that almost always works in some kind of form. And the way that flavors kind of work together, I find a lot of corollaries in production where certain types of production elements really seem to fit together really nicely.

I like production and cooking analogies, because it’s like in cooking the ingredients have been, more or less, the same forever, but people are still finding new ways to combine flavors and present things in really specific ways. To cook the stuff or not to cook it — all these different ways of combining elements and techniques that create new experiences. And I feel like production is the same way, or music production is the same way, where the frequency spectrum has always been the same. There are limits to what you can do with sound but the way that you produce it, the way that you present it, the instruments you use, the types of sounds that you use and how you mix them together, you can still hopefully craft new musical experiences.

Was there a specific feeling or something happening in your life or something you were reading that influenced the trajectory of the album?

Maybe not so much at the time, but thinking back on previous experiences there was definitely a…kind of noticing what would happen to me. There’s a couple moments in my life where I felt like it was a really dramatic shift in who I was before and after an event. Often intense break ups, or when I moved to Portugal, when I moved to Europe the first time, when my father died, stuff like this where it’s like, the way I thought about myself, my identity really changed because of certain events.

I can’t say that I had a blueprint for that, or that I game-plan going into making the album. It really made sense when we had recorded all the songs and I was trying to figure out a sequence or a group of songs that would tell some kind of story, I hoped. And once I found the sequence that is eventually on the album, it really seemed to reflect the process that I would go through in these, or that I thought I went through in these intense periods of change. Of course, with the whole “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” theme, it made sense. Never talking about death in any sort of literal way, but I was hoping to talk about how, when I would go through these really intense changes, there would be parts of who I was before — or this self image of who I was before — that would kind of die.

What I thought was interesting was how, despite its name, the album itself is pretty buoyant — and even the album cover is beautiful.

The whole concept of the thing was kind of presenting something dark and abrasive and something that maybe we don’t like to think about so easily and presenting it in a way that made it easier to digest. Like if you put this kind of dark, grotesque stuff in this costume that’s really kind of funny and light, it’s much easier to deal with that harsher stuff.

A lot of the way that stand-up comedy works, where the stuff that they’re making jokes about is often really kind of painful and dark, but talking about it in a humorous way makes it easier to think about. And I felt like a lot of music worked in that way, where a lot of the subject matter is kind of heavy and way below the surface, but the songs themselves, the actual sound, feels kind of playful and light.

And there’s certain parts of the production of the music — I guess I’m talking about the vocals and sing-songy, really simple melodies, kind of like pop, in a way — I hope that that stuff would be kind of the costume that was making the more abrasive elements of the production sort of easier to deal with, or would make you want to listen to them to the point that you could kind of wrap your head around the elements of music that take more time to appreciate.

It’s the kind of album where you listen to it multiple times and it sinks in.

I’m glad to hear that, a lot of the albums that have really stuck with me over the years work in that way, where at first maybe I didn’t totally love them but over time I really kind of developed a relationship with them.

What are some of those albums?

[J Dilla’s] “Donuts” is one of them. It was like the pace of stuff, how fast the stuff would transform. It didn’t make sense to me at first. But the more I listened to it, the more I loved it. Probably Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty.” That one, I would like certain songs, but developing an appreciation for the collection of songs just took me a while. Trying to think of something else. “Discovery” by Daft Punk wasn’t as immediate to me as the first one, “Homework.” But I really love that one now. Some Scott Walker stuff — maybe like, “Scott 2,” “Scott 3.” There’s a lot.

I’ve heard people say — I mean, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan — and I’ve heard people say that they had to ease their way into it. Do you think about that when you guys are creating?

Not so much, no. I don’t think any of us like to get our minds involved too much beyond a certain point. I feel like, personally speaking, I do a lot of thinking before actually making any music. I dream about what the thing’s going to be and there’s an excitement to thinking about something that could be exciting and trying to conceptualize it. Like what kind of equipment I’m going to use to make it and how I’m going to perform it live and what’s going to be exciting about it in terms of my picture of what the musical universe is.

But once I actually start making music, I try to remove the mental part of the process as much as I can, because I feel like after that point, it’s just sort of a slippery slope. I was listening to a podcast with Lorne Michaels the other day and he was saying how he really liked that on “SNL” there’s this really hectic, intense schedule, where you have people writing sketches down to the wire and people are working really late into the night and not sleeping a lot. He really likes that kind of atmosphere because he feels like the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty, and I guess that’s sort of what I’m talking about here where if you start thinking about something too hard you’ll just start not making progress and not developing the thing because you’re constantly making judgements about how it should be, or what it should be. Once we start getting our hands dirty we try not to think too much about how it’s going to be received or how it’s going to make sense.

Is the process different for Animal Collective versus Panda Bear? One’s obviously solitary…

Yeah, that’s actually the biggest difference. When you’re doing something by yourself, you know all the moves, and it is much more difficult to surprise yourself with the results. But it’s like this streamlined process; it’s like this unobstructed flow of stuff. But it’s also what makes it less interesting in a way. Working with a band and trying to marry everybody’s perspectives on the thing, you’re often forced to go to places you wouldn’t really go otherwise, so you can be surprised by the results in an exciting way.

Does place have any sort of influence? Baltimore, New York or Portugal?

Yeah, all of those places, I’m sure. But it’s always really difficult for me to trace the lines in any sort of obvious or literal way. For example, the two records before this I made within about 100 meters of each other in Lisbon, but the two albums sound drastically different to me, have very different feelings to me when I listen to them. The environments, like the actual rooms were a bit different, but I still feel like that highlights how tricky it is to talk about how the environment influences the stuff.

But having said that, I’m sure that living in Portugal has influenced the music in some way, it’s just really difficult to talk about exactly how it’s done. But I’m a big believer that when you’re making something, when you’re a creative person, as much as you might try to hide yourself and your experience and your environment and what you do, there’s always little clues and breadcrumbs in there. And sometimes I like to do it really kind of literally, where I’ll title songs [after] places or streets or zones that have meant something to me, kind of as a little breadcrumb trail to my life.

I’ve read some reviews, and I’m always amused by the ways reviewers will project their ideas on an album, and it’s fun to sit with the artist, and learn at least to some degree what the actual intent is.

I don’t mind that at all. I feel like that’s perfectly natural. What bothers me is when they act like that’s not what’s happening, that it’s not just their perspective. You know what I mean?

One of my favorite quotes that my wife is always mentioning i.s, “We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” I think that’s totally true. She never knows who said it. Somebody said it and they were a smart person.

I’ve talked to some people who say they could not pick out a favorite songs of theirs, on a specific album or even at all, because it would be like picking favorites with their children. Could you?

I feel that way with albums. It’s really hard for me to say this album is so much stronger than this one. But songs I can do.

And I do because I feel like [my favorites] are the most fully realized versions of what my vision for this stuff was in the beginning. They are the most successful attempts at doing what I wanted to do: “Mr. Noah” and “Come to Your Senses.” They are kind of the most rock songs to me, “Come to Your Senses” less so, but there’s kind of like an aggressive energy to it. The vocals really more sugary and like ear wormy, which is what I want to do.

How do you know when a song or an album is done?

It’s sort of like cooking, you can’t cook the steak forever. At a certain point you’re like, oh it’s done, I’m going to eat that now. That’s kind of what it’s like, a feeling and you know experience helps, just a feeling like something is ready.

I read the Rolling Stone interview where you’re contemplating killing off the Panda Bear moniker.

He kind of goaded me into that though. He’s my friend, Andy Beta, really cool guy, known him for a really long time. It was after we had done the interview and he was like “yeah, I was just wondering if you’ve thought about this?” And I had to admit, I figured if there was a time to do it, now is a good time because of the title, because I’m an old guy, and because I felt like this album was sort of like coming full-circle on something.

It definitely feels like the end in someway of something, which of course is the beginning of something else. But if there was like a smart time to do it would be now, but I can’t say that. I’ll see in a couple or years. I’m not planning on it now.

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email


Album Sales Tumbled 11% In 2014

While Music Streaming Grew 54%


Cash sales      Digital music and physical CD sales experienced significant declines last year as nearly 20% of music buyers stopped shopping for albums at retail outlets. Only 257 million albums (including CD, digital, and vinyl) were sold in 2014, an 11% drop from 2013’s 289 million. CD sales experienced the biggest drop, slipping 14% to 140.8 million vs. 165 million in 2013, and only two CDs went platinum: Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the Frozen soundtrack. By contrast, digital streaming saw a major increase in 2014, with 78.6 billion audio streams plus 85.3 billion video views – a 54.5% increase over total streams in 2013.

As reported by Rolling Stone, the steep decline in digital song sales was reflected in the fact that just one track sold more than 5 million units during the year: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” which tracked 6.45 million units. In 2013, three songs passed the 5 million mark: Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines” (nearly 6.5 million), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” (6.14 million), and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” (almost 5.5 million).

“Digital music consumption continues its robust growth,” Nielsen Entertainment SVP David Bakula said in a statement. “Music fans continue to consume music through on-demand streaming services at record levels, helping to offset some of the weakness that we see in sales. The continued expansion of digital music consumption is encouraging, as is the continued record-setting growth that we are seeing in vinyl LP sales.”


As Digital Music Sales Continue To Slip,

Vinyl Is Making A (Small) Comeback


     One of the choice nuggets found in Nielsen SoundScan’s music industry data was the fact that 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the U.S. last year, marking a 52% increase over 2013’s sales figures. According to the Wall Street Journal, these are the highest vinyl sales numbers since SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991, and the British Phonographic Industry revealed that for the first time in nearly 20 years, more than one million vinyl records were sold in the U.K. in 2014.

While 9.2 million is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 117 million digital albums that were sold, some audiophiles are anticipating a vinyl renaissance. As Time  magazine reports, German-based Optimal recently said it’s expecting to press 18 million records in 2015, while a new vinyl pressing plant called Canada Boy Vinyl (CBV) is scheduled to open in Calgary, AB, later this year.

According to the Time article, vinyl’s renewed popularity largely stems from the high-quality sound it delivers vs. that of the typical m3p file. Additionally, there’s a tangible aspect of vinyl that neither a digital file nor a CD can deliver. “There’s a physical thing about putting a record on a record table and dropping the needle,” says Simon Cole, the CEO of 7digital. “There is a new generation that is discovering the physicality of playing a piece of music like that.”

Part of vinyl’s appeal also comes from good old-fashioned consumerism, says Nik Pollinger, a digital anthropologist who advises companies on the factors that motivate consumer behavior. “What we display in public is used to send social signals about our identities,” he told Time. “Making our taste in music visible has historically played an important role in such signaling for many people.” Owning a vinyl collection, of course “restores this ability,” he said. 

Motley Fool To Apple: You Need To

Do Something With Beats Music ASAP


      While more and more people stream music via such on-demand music services as YouTube and Spotify, Apple has yet to do much with the Beats platform it acquired last year for $3 billion. While the Cupertino, CA-based tech giant has the largest stake in digital music download sales (around 60%), the amount of net revenue the company actually lost from the 9% decline in music sales in 2014 isn’t much more than a rounding error on Apple’s income statement. Motley Fool calculates that Apple’s net revenue slipped a little more than $43 million last year, 0.02% of the $18 billion the iTunes store earned in fiscal 2014, which ended in late September.

As a bean-counter’s line item this loss is minuscule, but Apple’s overall value is based largely on customer perception – and that’s why Motley Fool says the company needs to do something with Beats Music now. “For a company that strongly associates itself with music, the slow bleed of music sales from iTunes could impact sales of its devices,” MF said in an online analysis. “Strong integration with iTunes helped sell the iPod last decade (and vice versa), and it helped sell the iPhone and iPad after that. Apple is missing out on the newest growth market in digital music. Nielsen says on-demand streaming grew 54% in 2014 to 164 billion streams, which is why Apple needs to integrate Beats Music more closely with iOS, and leverage its large device footprint to beat the competition in streaming.

Meanwhile, the number of paid streaming music subscribers continues to grow. Spotify claims to have 15 million subscribers who will generate $1.8 billion in revenue for the company this year. Apple’s gross digital music sales are estimated to be around $3 billion, but integrating Beats Music with iTunes and iOS could spur subscriptions to fend off the slow decline in music downloads. Motley Fool says Apple could catalyze additional sign-ups if it can negotiate a lower price with record labels – something it currently is trying to do.

Forbes: Five Digital Music Business

Takeaways From CES 2015


Music Business      As usual, much of the focus at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was on such things as self-driving cars and zillion-inch curved-screen TVs – but music also was a pervasive topic. Whether it had to do with connected car dashboards or hi-res audio formats, most analysts who have a foot planted in the digital music landscape were intrigued by the panel discussions and the products on display. One of these analysts was Forbes’ Zack O’Malley Greenburg, who says he came away from Las Vegas with a five key digital music realities:

     Reports of the music industry’s death have been greatly exaggerated: Music listening is at an all-time high, as there are more ways to consume music today than ever before. The value of music to consumers has never been greater, but they’re just not being pushed to pay as much as they once did.

     Record labels still matter: Like it or not, the big record companies continue to control much of the content. That gives them major leverage in negotiations with streaming services and other new music companies, and they have the infrastructure to keep collecting. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t keep pushing for better deals.

Niche audiences can add up to big bucks: Despite the power of the major labels, many indie labels (and artists) have built massive user bases by putting out apps populated with user-generated content, from collaborative pop covers to merchandise offers and other goods, both real and virtual.

     Audio quality is shaping up to be a key issue in the coming year: Sony ‘s new $1119 Walkman was hailed by some attendees as “an audiophile’s dream,” while others suggested it was something of a sham and dubbed Sony a snake-oil purveyor.

     Hip-hop continues to be the creative engine of entrepreneurial innovation in music. Jay Z and P Diddy started their own clothing lines in the 1990s, Dr. Dre founded a line of headphones, and Wu-Tang plans to sell its secret double-album via Paddle8. Each of these moves was creative, provocative, and envelope-pushing.

Hypebot: Five Digital Music Shape-

Shifters To Look For In 2015


     Almost anything and everything in the digital media space is shape-shifting at a pace destined to induce whiplash, and nowhere is this more true than with digital music. Virtually every company or person involved in digital or social platforms – from Apple to Zuckerberg – had a hand in shaping the transitional role of music last year, and there’s no reason to expect anything other than more of the same in 2015. As Hypebot’s Jon Maples suggested in a recent blog post, the next 12 months will see significant moves by existing companies and new entries.

With that in mind, Maples offered the following scenarios to expect as the digital music universe continues to expand over the next 12 months:

     At least two services will consolidate: Apple and YouTube will join Amazon and Google Music Play as the giants. With access to their digital stores, consumers might just activate the AppleStream or Music Key apps just because it’s simple. Meanwhile, Rdio, Deezer, Rhapsody, Slacker and a host of others will come under pressure to find alternative ways to market to customers.

     Apple’s streaming service will be a mess, and it won’t matter: It wouldn’t be surprising to see their streaming service attract users because it’s already installed on their device. The company will get it right eventually, but streaming services are a completely different beast than anything it has tried.

     Spotify will IPO and more artists will criticize it: Regardless of any public launch, a successful IPO will make many of the company’s employees and early investors a lot of money. Expect to see a backlash from artists after this event, with more and more holding back new music on the service to give retail channels first shot at making money.

     Pandora will become musicians’ most-hated digital service: Pandora is already facing a firestorm for its exceptionally low payments to songwriters, but continues to aggressively lower royalty costs, regardless of how it affects its relationship with artists. Expect the hate to expand in 2015.

     Amazon will continue to do what it does best: Seattle’s commerce behemoth will focus on what it always does: keeping its customers buying more stuff. The company had a rough 2014 with its failed Fire phone launch. While its nose is bloody from that setback, don’t expect the company to change its game plan. The focus will remain on selling goods – including music downloads.



A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2015
Reed Bunzel, Editor and Publisher


Attorneys In Apple Antitrust Lawsuit

Must Find New Plaintiff By Tuesday


Justice      After slogging through years of legal tussles, the antitrust class action lawsuit against Apple Inc. encountered another hiccup this week when the presiding judge removed the last remaining “named plaintiff” from the suit. U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers scolded Marianna Rosen and her attorneys on Monday (Dec. 8) for not providing more complete information about the iPods Rosen had purchased. That move came after Apple lawyers successfully argued that the devices Rosen bought were not among those affected by the lawsuit.

Judge Rogers also quickly rejected Apple’s argument that the case should be dismissed because it’s too late to name a new plaintiff. She ordered the attorneys suing Apple to identify a new lead plaintiff by Tuesday (Dec. 16).

As reported by Billboard, a class-action suit must identify at least one person as a “named plaintiff” who suffered the losses or injuries alleged in the case. Rosen had previously said she purchased several iPods that qualified, but Apple attorneys produced evidence that those devices either had the wrong software or were purchased outside the time frame of the lawsuit. Rosen and her attorneys said she had purchased two other iPods in 2008, but Apple lawyers were able to produce records that showed they were purchased with a credit card issued to her husband’s law firm. Apple attorney William Isaacson argued that meant she was not legally the purchaser. A series of pretrial rulings had narrowed the case to covering just 19 months between September 2006 and March 2009.

Both sides estimate 8 million people bought iPods that were potentially covered by the lawsuit. The plaintiffs claim Apple used restrictive software that prevented iPods from playing music purchased from competitors of Apple’s iTunes store, and maintain that amounted to unfair competition. Apple was able to sell iPods at inflated prices because the software froze makers of competing devices out of the market, plaintiffs’ attorneys argue. They also say Apple is liable for $350 million, an amount that would be tripled if a jury finds the company violated federal antitrust rules. 

Lawyers: Apple Secretly Deleted

Competitors’ Downloads From iPods


     Before the antitrust suit against Apple was delayed while attorneys search for a new lead plaintiff (see story, above), lawyers presented evidence that the company deleted music that some iPod owners had downloaded from competing music services without telling them. According to the Wall Street Journal, when a user who had downloaded music from a rival service in the period between 2007 and 2009 tried to sync an iPod to the user’s iTunes library, Apple would display an error message and instruct the user to restore the factory settings. Attorney Patrick Coughlin said that, when the user restored the settings, the music from rival services would disappear.

“You guys decided to give them the worst possible experience and blow up” a user’s music library, Coughlin said in U.S. District Court in Oakland.

Apple insists the moves were legitimate security measures, and Apple security director Augustin Farrugia testified the company did not offer a more detailed explanation because, “We don’t need to give users too much information. We don’t want to confuse users.” Farrugia told the court that hackers with names like “DVD Jon” and “Requiem” made Apple “very paranoid” about protecting iTunes. Updates that deleted non-Apple music files were intended to protect consumers from those system break-ins, he said, explaining, “The system was totally hacked.”

Apple declined to comment to the Journal outside of the court testimony. 

Time Spent Listening To Pure-Play

Streams Increases While AM/FM Slips


     Satisfaction and time-spent with digital streaming of broadcast (AM/FM) radio is slipping and soon could be overtaken by such on-demand pure-play companies as Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes. That’s the word from Bridge Ratings President Dave Van Dyke, who said in a LinkedIn post that time spent with broadcast simulcast online streams five years ago (2009) was 2-1/2 half hours a day, while pure-play time spent was just under 1-1/2 hours. Furthermore, until 2012 broadcast online listening and pure-play listening continued to increase.

That all changed in 2013, Van Dyke says, as time spent per day with online broadcast streaming dropped while pure-play time spent continued to increase. “At Bridge Ratings, our first thought was that this could be an anomaly,” he observes. “The perception was that all internet streaming behavior was increasing. [But] trends do not support this thinking.”

In fact, a new year-end analysis from Bridge Ratings suggests that, since 2012, broadcast radio online daily time spent listening (TSL) has fallen 9.4% (2.65 to 2.40 hours per day) while pure-play online listening has increased 65% (1.7 to 2.35 hours per day). “By this time next year, online pure play time spent will have surpassed broadcast radio’s online simulcast TSL,” Van Dyke says. “And if broadcast radio streaming content remains more or less the same as it is, we project this trend will continue on out to at least 2017 with a large gap favoring pure play internet listening.” 

Grooveshark Offers New Digital

Music App In Plan to “Go Legit”


     After suffering a string of legal setbacks over the last few years, Grooveshark has developed a new app designed to set the company on a legitimate path to digital music streaming. As CNET reports, the new Broadcasts app lets users create customized radio stations without running afoul of the record companies. The app, expected to launch next month, lets customers build and access custom radio stations and text fellow users as they listen to music. Designed for iOS and Android users, the app will cost 99 cents a month and be commercial-free. The online stations will be developed directly by users rather than generated by Grooveshark.

One of the primary objectives behind the new app is to create a business model that will keep the company out of the court system. Grooveshark currently offers websites both for PCs and mobile devices in which users can search for and stream an unlimited number of songs produced by major record labels. That system led several record labels to sue the company, arguing Grooveshark lacked the necessary rights to upload the copyrighted songs. Back in September a federal judge in New York ruled that Grooveshark’s co-founders had uploaded almost 6,000 songs for which they had no licenses, and subsequently destroyed evidence of the uploads.

Since then, Grooveshark has created dedicated iOS and Android apps for its streaming service, but both of those apps were taken down following complaints from the record labels. The new Broadcasts app means Grooveshark will pay government-mandated performance fees set by the Copyright Royalty Board rather than negotiate directly with the recorded music companies. 

Pandora Releases New User

Interface For Mobile Listening


Pandora Mobile      Pandora this week released a beta version of a refreshed mobile user interface that includes new station personalization features and functionality. According to a company statement, the update currently is available to only 3% of iPhone and Android smartphone users, but will roll out to all mobile and tablet listeners over the coming months.

“For more than a decade, our engineering team has worked to perfect the personalized radio listening experience and unleash the infinite power of music for our listeners,” Pandora Chief Technology Officer Chris Martin said in standard PR-speak. “With our users logging more than 1.65 billion listening hours in September alone, we were extremely mindful in the way we made adjustments to the [user interface] so as to enhance and simplify the experience.”

Major changes include enhanced station personalization capabilities and improved artist discovery. The redesigned interface also is reported to be simpler to use and clearer to the ear. “Listeners are given a different sense of place and navigation with the new transitions from the ‘station list’ to the ‘now playing’ screen, and can view comprehensive thumb history and adjust thumb feedback for old tracks listened to,” the company said. [Read more: Company statement]



A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014