Dr. E. Michael Harrington, Music Business Program Faculty Chairperson at SAE Institute Nashville, is not someone you’d expect to hear make disparaging remarks about music technology. In fact, during our interview he said, “Technology has always shaped our music capabilities. For example, Beethoven’s range is bigger than Mozart’s which is bigger than Bach’s because technology improved and created bigger keyboards. To me, music and tech are friends.” But nevertheless, Harrington is highly critical of Apple’s new streaming offering saying, “Apple Music’s launch didn’t solve any consumer problems in the same way that the brilliant iTunes Store did in 2003 and the Apple Store did in 2007.”
Harrington has taught courses at Berklee College of Music (2012-present); was Professor of Entertainment & Music Business in the Mike Curb College of Ent. & Business at Belmont University (2000-2008); and part of Nashville’s Leadership Music Class of 2007. A musician, composer, consultant and professor he has worked as an expert witness in copyright issues involving HBO, the Dixie Chicks, Lady Gaga, Black Keys, Keith Urban and many others. He has lectured on music business topics at Harvard and George Washington Universities plus many more. SAE, his current home base is located on Nashville’s Music Row and has six other US campuses. The fully accredited school teaches audio technology and music business programs to prepare students for music industry employment.
In the following discussion, Harrington starts out by making apple sauce of the Cupertino giant’s latest streaming product, then jumps into insights regarding streaming royalties and wraps with some brief observations about the development of country music. Read On…
NEKST: You’ve been outspoken in your disappointment with Apple’s new streaming entity, Apple Music. Why?
Dr. E. Michael Harrington: I’ve owned Apple devices since June 1985, including an Apple Watch that converses and connects with my Apple iPhone 6+, but this new offering is loaded with flaws. First it lacks an ad supported, free tier. Ad supported radio and TV has been around for most of a century. And what about the $10 price? Why is it more valuable than Netflix which is $8/mo or Amazon Prime which is $8.25/mo. and gives you—movies, music and free shipping? And finally, the way they designed Apple Music is really a disappointment, especially considering how great Apple has been at creating user experiences.
Technology always threatens business-as-usual until it becomes business-as-usual.
NEKST: Considering all the Apple products you own you must also be a fan?
Dr. E. Michael Harrington: I look at Apple as a company who is seldom first, but always the best. With the iPod they showed everyone what an MP3 player should do. The iTunes store launch in 2003 was brilliant—it’s first day outsold what the majors had done in six months. The iPhone was the first really good smart phone and the App Store was genius, it made apps comfortable and fun for everyone. And there’s more—the iPad got most of us into tablets and the Apple watch is a great start and will develop greatly in coming versions. So many big things done so well, but in the last few years I’ve been watching what they’ve been doing wrong with music.
NEKST: Can you be more specific?
Dr. E. Michael Harrington: If you’ve visited apple.com lately you may have noticed that there is an important navigational link missing from the top of the home page—iTunes. It’s gone! Plus, iTunes is suffering from a confusing and cluttered redesign. You used to be able to put a CD in your drive and up popped the songs which you could then drag into your playlist or library. Now you have to first burn the songs to your hard drive, then find them and find where to move them. Their overall design has become too complex. Perhaps they’re saying in a not so subtle way, “get this $10 streaming subscription first and then you can buy some tracks too.” Lastly, the way Apple Music got paired with Apple match was messy. Songs were disappearing and there were duplications of songs in the same lists. That’s the thing about Apple, you expect them to make everything simple and clear, but now it’s unclear whether Apple Music is meant to eliminate iTunes as a vendor of MP3s or complement it with an added streaming service.
It’s unclear whether Apple Music is meant to eliminate iTunes as a vendor of MP3s or complement it with an added streaming service.
NEKST: Many people blame Spotify or Pandora for paying low royalties, but those companies are paying out 70% of their revenue. Is the process flawed?
Dr. E. Michael Harrington: A lot of the public hasn’t caught on to Internet radio yet, which is a benefit for Apple since they have almost a billion credit card accounts in their database system. Technology always threatens business-as-usual until it becomes business-as-usual. But with respect to revenues, Internet radio has to be ultra transparent and pay twice as many parties as terrestrial radio who doesn’t pay performers a sound recording copyright. And unlike regular radio that pays a lump sum, internet radio pays per listener, per stream. And then there are record contracts attached to all these payments. The money comes to a record label first and then those contracts detail how it will be paid forward or held back, either to recoup advances or for a myriad of other reasons that record labels use to keep money longer and/or pay it out months later. The Rethink Music Report on Transparency and Money Flows in the Music Industry asks, why shouldn’t those payments be instant? If I go to buy something and my credit card isn’t working it doesn’t take anyone six months to figure that out. So why shouldn’t payments be more like that and go directly to the recipients? But to do that contracts would need to be cleaner and some of the collections agencies might no longer be necessary. And it’s unfortunate, but true, that there are many ways to spend your money besides for music. For example, twenty years ago you didn’t have to worry about paying your internet bill or your cell phone. There’s so much competition to have everything we want—everywhere and anytime.
NEKST: You testify in court as a musicologist and copyright consultant. What do you think about the current country music climate?
E. Michael Harrington: You mean in the sense that people say it’s all the same— about pickup trucks, dirt roads, girls and beer? Bro Country is actually a clever term. There is always something that sticks out in all kinds of music that is indicative of its time. I mean, if something is a hit, you get sequels. Rarely are there periods when music is only creative or all dull, that kind of labelling is usually overstated. With country music there has always been some very good stuff, although sometimes it might be hidden in Americana. What has changed is we no longer embrace the idea of developing an artist over multiple album releases.