The Internet Did Not Kill the Music Star

For decades now, we’ve been hearing how file sharing, cheap iTunes singles, online radio, and stream ripping “killed” the music industry. In 2014, Taylor Swift wrote about the future of the industry in a Wall Street Journal article.  Her fantastic economic claims have been debunked elsewhere, but one of her basic criticisms was that Internet streaming is challenging the traditional revenue model of the music industry.  However, Taylor’s own career demonstrates how the Internet and digital technology have lent themselves to a creative renaissance of the music industry, in part due to her own leadership.

Rather than the death of the music industry, we are seeing a glorious revival of music, and nowhere is that more evident than the top music videos on YouTube, which has become one of the primary ways that young people listen to music. The YouTube “music” channel has almost 100 million subscribers, with over 4 billion views for top videos. Nearly all of the top 100 videos on YouTube are music videos.

Here are five videos which demonstrate how the Internet is enabling a glorious revival of the music industry:

1: Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

Shake it Off seamlessly blends Taylor’s “dorky dancer” style with some of the world’s best dancers, combining hip hop, ballet, modern dance, jazz, breakdancing, and even a cheerleader performance. The video makes dozens of pop culture references while mocking Taylor’s competition and inspiring dozens of articles about her feuds with other celebrities.

When it rocked the charts with 2.4 billion views, Shake it Off was one the biggest pop music videos ever. Released for her 1989 concert tour, the video helped Taylor make over $250 million, making hers the highest grossing concert tour ever, and making Taylor one of the world’s highest-paid celebrities.

Taylor used the demand for her album to force Apple to change its policy of not paying artists during free trials of its music service. While Taylor often denounced streaming music on the Internet for not paying artists enough, it’s clear that she (or her publicity team) is a clever negotiator, and skillfully used the audience made possible by the Internet to achieve massive success.

2: Fifth Harmony – Work from Home ft. Ty Dolla $ign

With 1.7 billion views, Fifth Harmony’s hit music video Work from Home shows that the girl group still has massive appeal.

Fifth Harmony rose to stardom through effective social media marketing, with billions of YouTube views and over 10 million followers on both Instagram and YouTube.

In “Work from Home” the group mixes R&B hooks with hip-hop and minimalist synth beats to create a sexy, modern neo-feminist take on the relationship dynamic.

The song features “…slinking beats and playfully sexy lyrics about convincing your partner to skip the boardroom for the bedroom.” Numerous double entendres are present in the lyrics and the music portrays “freaky bedroom fun as glorious mostly in the bounds of a relationship.”

While a previous generation of R&B and pop music presented women as sexual objects, this song and video flips the dynamic and presents men in hard hats with bulging muscles as the object of desire. The women in this video “appear to now be in full control of their collective sexuality and [are] wielding it as they choose.”

The audio and video editing on the music video are impeccable. Before digital editing, music videos like his would have been prohibitively expensive to produce for all but the biggest stars. Modern digital video editing tools have allowed little-known groups like Fifth Harmony to rocket to stardom by releasing tracks and videos that are just as polished and thought-out as Hollywood blockbusters.

The music in Work from Home was digitally produced by two artists, while other groups recorded the vocals, and yet another company mixed the vocals and audience, and incorporated samples from other songs. The digital nature of modern music and video production allows the entire process to be distributed across a complex global supply chain.

Similar videos have led to great success for other girl groups: see G.R.L.’s Ugly Heart and Little Mix’s Black Magic.

3: Cher Lloyd – Want U Back

Cher Lloyd’s track Want U Back is one of my favorites for the playful and creative way she uses her voice:

The track is produced by Shellback, a musician and record producer (with four Grammys) who is responsible for several songs on this list. Cher’s vocals span from low note A3 to high note F#5, and Shellback uses Cher’s vocal dexterity to “give the song an almost caricature quality.”

While digital audio processors such as Auto-Tune are often known as cheap gimmicks, modern pitch correction tools are much more subtle and were creatively used to mix LLoyd’s vocals, including a recurring hook from the sound of her ‘frustrated grunts.’

4: Logic: 1-800-273-8255

American rapper Logic often writes about his drug use and issues facing African-American communities. His song 1-800-273-8255 referrers to the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

This track shows the remarkable merger of rap and hip-hop with pop music culture, both musically and socially. Here is Logic’s explanation of his song:

So the first hook and verse is from the perspective of someone who is calling the hotline and they want to commit suicide. They want to kill themselves. They want to end their life. When I jumped on a tour bus that started in Los Angeles, California and I ended in New York City and did a fan tour where I went to fans’ houses and shared meals with them, hung out with them, played them my album before it came out. Them along with other people on tour, just fans that I met randomly, they’ve said things like, “Your music has saved my life. You’ve saved my life.” And I was always like, “Aw so nice of you. Thanks.” And I give them a hug and s**t but in my mind, I’m like, “What the f**k?” And they’re really serious. And they tat s**t on their arms and get s**t like lyrics that save their life and in my mind, I was like, “Man I wasn’t even trying to save nobody’s life.” And then it hit me, the power that I have as an artist with a voice. I wasn’t even trying to save your life. Now what can happen if I actually did?

Rap music has evolved from boasting about women, drugs, and money to awareness of greater social issues. Logic’s music video features a young black man who struggles with his sexuality and considers suicide. Following the night of the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards, the NSPL experienced a 50% surge in the number of calls to their hotline.

For a similar video in the electronic music genre, check out Clean Bandit’s Symphony, which merges classical opera and electronic music.

5: Sia – Chandelier (Official Video)

Sia’s “Chandelier” is brilliant on several levels. On first listen, the song appears to celebrate binge drinking culture. However, a closer look reveals that Sia is really diving into her experience with substance addiction and the culture of binge drinking. The music video reinforces the message with a stunning dance performance by 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler. Maddie’s performance is an “interpretive dance in a deserted, dirty apartment ‘while spinning, kicking, leaping, crawling, falling, twirling and hiding herself behind window drapes.’”

I am no fan of contemporary dance, but Maddie is clearly a highly skilled artist who integrates movements from ballet and gymnastics into a sequence which deftly visualizes the mix of ecstasy, escapism, and – ultimately – the self-loathing and desperation of Sia’s lyrics.

While Chandelier is lyrically and visually simple, it also highlights cultural assimilation at its best. It is an electropop song that features electronica, R&B, and reggae influences. Sia is an Australian whose career took her to London and ultimately Southern California, where she met local choreographer Ryan Heffington on the set of her music videos. Their collaborations have “done more to raise the standards of dance in pop music than nearly any current artist integrating the forms.” Ryan has since choreographed several hit music videos, tv shows, and even the film Baby Driver.

One unique aspect of Sia’s performances is that she chooses not to reveal her face, and even faces away from the audience during live performances. With 5 billion views, the success of her YouTube videos has been essential in taking her career from a music writer for other musicians to a successful performer, despite her unconventional performing style.

While musicians and music industry executives have often criticized the impact that the Internet and technologies are having on music, several tech innovations are in fact enabling a creative renaissance in music. These include:

  • Digital audio processing innovations such as Auto-Tune and pitch correction have opened up new harmonic and compositional possibilities and created stars from singers with less-than-pitch-perfect voices.
  • Digital video production and editing tools that have dramatically lowered the cost of producing quality videos.
  • Social media allows artists to reach fans on an unprecedented scale and bootstrap themselves to massive success.
  • Instant global communications have allowed artists to collaborate in new ways, sourcing the best talent from around the world, and inspiring the synthesis of cultures and genres.

The Internet and tech aren’t killing music, they are driving its creative explosion.

Can DAG-based cryptocurrencies like IOTA scale better than the blockchain?

Some people claim that DAG (directed acyclic graph) technologies like the IOTA’s Tangle or Byteball will be able to scale (process large transaction volumes) better than blockchain-based technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Let me start by saying that only a few people in the world are qualified to offer an expert opinion on the question of whether a blockchain or DAG perform better. They make a great deal of money, and their time is generally too valuable to comment on Internet forums. This is why you see a lot of DAG advocates claim that it is superior without informed counterpoints.

I will admit that I’m not qualified to offer an expert opinion on this either.

However, the claim that a DAG scales better than Blockchain should not be accepted at face value. A number of people smarter than I have said that validating a DAG is far more labor intensive than a block.

There no magic solution to the problem of keeping thousands or millions of nodes synchronized, and DAG based networks like IOTA actually rely on a single Coordinator node which keeps the network from fragmenting. This is the very thing that cryptocurrencies were created to avoid!

While some see the need to put transactions in a block as a negative, the blockchain is actually a very efficient, market-driven way for the users of a network to bid on processing capacity. Transaction fees ensure that the network is always capable of processing the most valuable transactions, whereas a DAG-based network may be overwhelmed and fail if load gets too high. Centralized “coordinator” nodes may solve this problem, but if so, DAG advocates cannot claim that they are necessarily more distributed and scalable than Bitcoin.

Furthermore, with second-layer technologies like Lightning Network, Bitcoin has explicit and unlimited scaling options. The scaling potential of coordinator/master node model in DAG-based currencies is far less clear.

How Easy Money Is Rotting America from the Inside-Out

The Federal Reserve has been the main cause of business cycles in America since 1913. For several decades, it has tried to hide the consequences of its policies by enabling easy credit during each recession. As Jonathan Newman wrote yesterday, pouring trillions of dollars into the financial sector obscures the external signs of the recession such as low asset prices and high unemployment and promotes economic malinvestment.

This malinvestment creates the conditions that cause the next recession. Some of the consequences of the Fed’s policies, such as stock market and housing bubbles can be directly attributed to its policies. In other cases, the artificially low interest rates and other “easy money” policies foster an “infrastructure rot” that erodes the efficiency of the American economy, the standard of living of consumers, and eats away at American infrastructure. These effects are difficult to trace back to the Fed’s policies, so let’s concretize some examples to understand how Federal Reserve policies affect America.

At the city level, low interest rates allow cities to fund new public projects such as parks and bridges. While this may seem fine and dandy, all infrastructure projects have a maintenance cost. It’s not sufficient to build a park. One must also have the money to maintain it every year. If there is not enough revenue to pay for maintenance, the park will literally rot until the playgrounds fall apart, the lawns are overgrown, the lights fail, and the park becomes too dangerous for families to play in.

The same thing will happen to streets, bridges, and plumbing. This is one of the ways urban decay happens: easy money policies fund unsustainable urban infrastructure projects which make politicians look good, but end up crumbling a few years or decades later. The Flint water crisis happened in large part because the Federal government funded infrastructure projects that were not sustainable by the incomes of the people of Michigan.

Easy money from the Fed also rots the guts of American corporations. New money goes to the most politically-connected businesses first, and funds projects that would not be possible in a free market. Because private investors haven’t actually saved enough to see the projects through to completion, and consumers don’t value the product enough to cover production costs, the companies getting free money from the government either fail or receive endless bailouts. For example, easy money encouraged unsustainable commitments like high union wages and pensions, forcing US automakers to sell cars for prices that consumers could not pay given their actual savings rate. When sales dipped in 2009, the government was forced to bail out GM, Chrysler, and Ford in 2009.

While small businesses are the last to get access to the Fed’s easy money taps, big banks received over $700 billion in TARP bailouts and even more selling U.S. Treasury bonds to the Fed under the QE program. Such subsidies signal to banks that their primary customer is the government, not consumers. As a result, financial services have stagnated, and banks have fought rather than embraced genuine innovations like the blockchain.

The 2009 crisis made banks cautious of making mortgages to people who clearly could not afford them. But the Fed kept giving away free money and enabled a new phenomenon: zero-interest auto loans. While this may seem like a good deal for consumers, the Fed’s credit expansion has created an auto-credit bubble worth 9.2% of all household debt. Consumers are buying and leasing cars that they would not normally be able to afford.

Instead of being taught to save, millennials are learning to have a negative savings rate (acquiring more debt than assets) and trust their future entirely to the government. If a recession happens, millions of people will suddenly find that they are unable to keep their cars and lack any emergency savings. When millions of unwanted cars are dumped back onto the market, automakers will again be unable to keep up with their inflated liabilities, requiring another bailout.

Perhaps one of the most destructive products of easy money has been the War On Terror. The U.S. has spent about $5 trillion on this seemingly endless war, and most of the money has not come from higher taxes, but from selling bonds to institutions like pensions funds, and especially foreign countries such as China and Japan. American citizens have gained nothing of value, while our government has been spreading death, destruction, and revolution abroad.

While the national economy has gotten away with federal deficits and a $20 trillion dollar debt for decades, this trend is only sustainable as long as the rest of the world keeps lending the U.S. money. When they decide to stop funding our wars and financial irresponsibility, Americans will suddenly be faced with paying trillions of dollars in liabilities. This overdue correction will likely come with dramatic reductions to Americans’ standard of living.

My point in writing this is to help you visualize the destructive effect of the U.S. government’s easy money policies from an abstract harm to the practical harm: collapsing bridges, kids poisoned from lead plumbing, millions of cars rotting in junkyards, scandalous bank services fees, bombs falling on innocent people all over the world, and widespread poverty once the easy-credit party ends.

Originally published on FEE.org

Is the value of Bitcoin based solely on speculation?

It’s not true that Bitcoin’s value is set solely by speculators. It has a use value which would exist even if all the speculators vanished. I know a company that pays their employees in Bitcoin – not because they think its value will go up, but because it’s cheaper than the transaction costs involved in fiat-denominated payments. I know a lady in Zimbabwe who is using Bitcoin because she does not have access to a sound currency.

These people are not speculators: they may prefer to trade their Bitcoin for a fiat currency at the first chance. However, their ongoing usage provides a demand for Bitcoin and thus establishes a price floor. The price of Bitcoin is the combination of current non-speculative usage and expectations for future non-speculative use cases for the Bitcoin network.

This is different than a purely speculative asset like rare stamps or baseball cards, which have no current or future use value.

Bitcoin is still the most innovative crypto asset

I’ve heard an assumption that because many alt-coins do “more” than Bitcoin and have a higher combined market cap, their technology must be more advanced, and therefore Bitcoin will be left behind in value and market share.

I disagree for two reasons:

First, the fact that an asset such as Ethereum does “more”, does not mean that the market will value its feature set higher.
The potential market value of any given cryptoasset depends on the value proposition it offers to individuals times its potential market share. It remains to be seen whether Ethereum will be able to create meaningful products for individuals and how big the “smart contract” market will be in the near to medium future. Likewise for Blockchain-based lending, eSports, prediction markets, or organic banana crypto assets. Currency is a more universal need than smart contracts, so even if Ethereum provides a lot of value to autonomous corporations, the Bitcoin market may be much larger.

Second, the market cap of crypto assets is not an indication of the pace of technical innovation. Bitcoin is worth less than 35% of the 400 billion + crypto market cap, but that does not mean that it has 35% of the resources. According to analysts at JP Morgan, the ratio of money invested to market value for crypto assets is about 50/1. In other words, there has only been a few billion dollars invested in crypto, not $400+. That’s why the price fluctuates so wildly. ICO’s and altcoins are even more overvalued than Bitcoin given how fast their price has shot up. Altcoins have far fewer resources at their disposal than the price would suggest because their price would rapidly drop if the founders sold their share to pay for innovation. The vast majority have only a few people (if any) actively doing development. Bitcoin and Ethereum have the largest development teams by far. I suspect Ethereum has more contributors, but it also has a far larger feature set, so core functionality gets a lot less attention than core Bitcoin functionality.

The fact is, the vast majority of ICO’s and cryptocurrencies are doing very little technical innovation compared to the resources invested in Bitcoin Core. This is not at all to dismiss the value of experimentation and innovation, just to put it in context. As an analogy, it’s great that Bugatti and McLaren are innovating in supercars, but Honda and Toyota invest far more in technology that is practical to the vast majority of drivers and therefore are worth far more. Honda’s work in automatic accident mitigation/prevention is far more important than shaving 1/10th second from your 0-60 time. Likewise, Bitcoin Core’s work in implementing fast and stable large-scale networks (with Segwit and Lightning Network) is more important than the latest exotic token.

I believe that the market will eventually correct the imbalance between the fundamental value of Bitcoin and the hype over altcoins. It is also possible that some other asset has or will come up with a genuine valuable technical innovation, overcome Bitcoin’s network effects, and gain dominance. Presumably, that hope is why Bitcoin is down to 35% market share. However, I have not seen the evidence for it yet, and I would not dilute my portfolio over 1000+ assets (as some friends have) in the hope that one of them will hit the crypto jackpot.