The Ubiquity Paradox: do far more of this but also do a lot less of that

Credit: Press

Columnist Eamonn Forde (pictured inset) is a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig.

His new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.

Eamonn Forde

A contronym is a word that can have two diametrically opposed meanings. “Sanction” is a fine example of this – meaning either to approve something (sanction an action) or to boycott something (put trade sanctions in place).

In music, the world of marketing is beginning to feel and behave like another contronym – “resigned” (meaning either having quit or signing up to something again). Acts are expected to be using heavy artillery in some marketing contexts while simultaneously holding down a ceasefire in other marketing contexts.

To give this all a feeling of grandiosity, I term this The Ubiquity Paradox.

It affects two distinct forms of visibility for musicians in two distinct ways.

We see all-guns-blazing marketing happening, particularly around streaming and social media – and it is behaving like a causal nexus on spin cycle. The more you do here, the more you keep having to do it.

If you post once a day on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or Snapchat or TikTok or Pinterest or Line or Douyin or Sina Weibo or Telegram or [seemingly endless list of names of social platforms you simply must be on to go here] but if you do not post the next day then the algorithm will read that as a lack of engagement and start to downrank subsequent posts so your followers are even less likely to see your posts organically.

It starts to resemble a form of zero-hours labour for anyone who is tempted to get started there in the first place.

Of course you can put in a shift on Monday and Tuesday – and even put in overtime on those days, which is practically demanded anyway – and then not show up on Wednesday because you are ill or fancy a day off or it’s raining. Of course you can. It’s a free country. Do whatever you like. But when – fizzing with new ideas after your vivifying day off – you show up again on Thursday, do not expect anyone to let you in the building or even give you a mediocre reward if you manage to put a full shift in.

The same is true for streaming services. If you are not adding new tracks or acoustic versions or remixes or outtakes or session versions or a re-recording in Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Mandarin/Hindi or a version featuring Snoop Dogg/Dua Lipa/Drake/Roddy Rich/MNEK then you are going to slide down the greasy algorithmic pole. (Apologies for that gruesome image.)

There are now an estimated 60,000 new tracks being ingested by DSPs every day. If you are not part of that arms race then you are becoming more and more invisible as far as the DSPs are concerned. Yet by joining in, you are not just putting more pressure on everyone else to deliver more and more music, you are putting the same pressure on yourself to do exactly the same

In Victorian London, there were upwards of a dozen postal deliveries a day. It was the main form of communication between those who could afford it and, had there been even more demand, there would surely have been more delivery slots and the net effect would have been that people began expecting both more replies and more frequent replies – thereby whipping the process on even further.

Email and texts simply ramped up that Victorian postal system process to breakneck speed and social media is just everything moving at light speed. The more we use it, the more people expect us to use it. It’s such a vicious circle it could – topical reference incoming – almost be the denouement of Squid Game.

The demands of the algorithm for social media and streaming are making musicians have to foie gras themselves. And do so for either no payment or the hope of micropayments so small as to be almost invisible to the naked eye of an accountant.

It’s like the trials of Sisyphus where, if you take a day off, they put another mountain on top of the existing mountain you’re condemned to repetitively roll that rock up. Maybe that’s what “rock ’n’ roll” should mean now.

On the flip side of all these perceived (albeit slim) rewards from this expected digital ubiquity is a form of punishment if you have the temerity to tour with the same frequency that daylight savings time comes around.

“Unless you are a buzz act going from second on the bill at The Windmill to main support at the 100 Club to headlining The Windmill to filling the room at Omera to rolling the dice and hoping to sell out the Scala in the space of 12 months as every A&R and music journalist in London chases you, playing so frequently in the capital is an accursed venture.”

Unless you are a buzz act going from second on the bill at The Windmill to main support at the 100 Club to headlining The Windmill to filling the room at Omera to rolling the dice and hoping to sell out the Scala in the space of 12 months as every A&R and music journalist in London chases you, playing so frequently in the capital is an accursed venture.

Of course there is a natural scarcity to live music – there are only so many nights a year an act can physically play and only so many people who can fit in each room they play in. It is not like the infinite world of digital where there is, theoretically, no cap on scale.

And yet…

That scarcity of live is a very conditional manifestation of scarcity overall. You book one night at, let’s say, Barrowlands in Glasgow. Everyone is terrifically excited, there is a stampede online and it sells out in two hours. You have a second date on hold so you confidently release tickets for that. The second date sells out in a day. The blood sufficiently oxygenated, you announce a third date. It sells reasonably well but there are still tickets on the door on the night of the show. The fourth night of your dreams never gets beyond a pencil mark in your agent’s diary.

Try and pull off another night at Barrowlands a month, or even six months, later and that stampede is now some mild jostling.

One’s mind, as with so many things in life, naturally wanders to This Is Spinal Tap.

“The last time Tap toured America they were booked into 10,000-seat arenas and 15,000-seat venues and it seems that now, on their current tour, they’re being booked into 1,200-seat arenas, 1,500-seat arenas, and I was just wondering: does this mean the popularity of the group is waning?” asks documentary, if you will, rockumentary maker Marty DiBergi.

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no – not at all,” splutters manager Ian Faith, defensively. “I just think that their appeal is becoming more selective.”

That might seem like a dark mocking of the dwindling fortunes of an anachronistic rock band, but there is a harder truth buried here about just how often a band can come back around and play the same city before there is a bit more selective, let’s say, social distancing happening in the crowd.

By all means go on tour; just do not go on tour too often.

The bleak irony at the very heart of The Ubiquity Paradox is that musicians have to do yet more of the stuff that pays the least (if it even pays at all) simply to keep their heads above the digital tide; but they must simultaneously have to be harshly selective when it comes to the things that might actually keep the lights on.

This was all exacerbated during the pandemic: as artists were unable to tour they had to lean even more heavily on social media and streaming so they did not become invisible. The pent-up demand for live – now acts can go on the road again – was always going to be a severely short-lived phenomenon. The tour bus drops everyone back to square one.

On the one hand, acts are urged to take up squatters’ rights in every digital platform going; on the other hand, they are warned to not overstay their welcome in the concert halls of every major city.

What musicians are being told to deal with in The Ubiquity Paradox is this: always, always be thirsty; but never, ever be greedy.Music Business Worldwide

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