The Millennial Ruse

On this very special episode of Hereit Blog, let’s talk about inappropriate, predatory targeting of young people.

Kids, if anybody ever calls you a Millennial, say “No!” firmly and loudly, and then turn and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. No matter what they promise, don’t trust them. They do not have good intentions.

“Millennial” is a marketing term for a demographic segment brands and businesses desperately want to target. It may have roots in the Strauss-Howe generation theory, but these days it is mostly used for one reason: To extract money from you. And, of course, to peddle any alleged expertise in extracting money from you.

But not just your money, of course. Brands and businesses now want as much of your personal information as they can get as well. Your personal information is, in fact, often far more valuable to them than money. That’s why it is usually the currency you are required to pay with under the con of a free service.

It’s not called a “target audience” for nothing. And when you see or hear people that vaguely resemble you in an advertisement, it means that you are the target. Duck!

Over the past five years, marketing agencies–armed with increasingly sophisticated digital measurement tools, and nearly unimaginable amounts of personal information to work with thanks to social media and all the streaming music platforms, among other things–have gotten a lot more aggressive and savvy in the ways they target so-called Millennials–online and off. That’s what $1.3 trillion can do to you.

Remember a few years ago, when all the Millennial talk was about young people and their helicopter parents and their collective sense of entitlement and their spoiled, lazy, gotta-give-them-an-award-to-get-them-out-of-bed work ethic? You don’t hear that so much anymore. Guess why?

Turns out it’s a lot harder to convince people to give you all their money if you are constantly insulting them. So now, all the formerly spoiled, coddled Millennials are “digital natives” who live their lives online, always connected, seamlessly integrating work into their personal lives through their deft use of mobile technology and social media! (Cough. Wage theft! Cough.)

Hold on tight to your dreams, coffee achievers. You are disrupters who are disruptively disrupting old models in the digital revolution, driving “fundamental shifts” and creating “new realities.”

The funny thing about new realities, though, is that they get old pretty quick. Especially when you’re staring at the ceiling in your childhood bedroom.

The unemployment rate among 18- to 29-year-olds is 15.8 percent, and more than 45 percent of recent college graduates are living with their families. That’s a 61 percent increase since 2001. In 2010, out of 41.7 million working recent college graduates, 48 percent were working jobs that didn’t require a college degree. And 38 percent were working jobs that didn’t require a high school diploma. By 2020, the number of college grads will grow by 19 million, but the number of jobs requiring a college education will only grow by 7 million.

But who wants to talk about that?

Not the the digital marketing experts, that’s for sure. Let fly with that kind of buzz kill, and it is gonna make it a lot harder to get the money and the info. So instead, marketers–and all the brands and companies that depend on them–perpetuate and propagate the Millennial ruse.

To distract from the actual stark (political, economic, social, environmental) realities that this generation is inheriting–many of which are quite profitable for the kinds of companies that are usually referred to as “major clients”– they provide a fantasy.

This particular fantasy–the one that says the Millennial generation is changing everything about how we connect, communicate and live–has an interesting common denominator, though. It is all contingent on digital technology.

The prerequisite for all this revolutionary change in human connection and interaction always seems to be the use of fairly costly devices and data plans to access services and platforms which are highly optimized to track and exploit user information. And all of which are owned and controlled by a small handful of unbelievably profitable and powerful companies that are not that concerned or constrained with, you know, basic ethics.

Herding people onto online platforms and calling it “disruption” or “innovation” is the digital equivalent of “free-speech zones”–the caged barricades at political conventions where protestors are contained and monitored. You can disrupt all the industries you want, so long as you do it in ways that are most profitable for companies that own the platforms and sell the devices.

They have built the mousetraps. Now all they need are the mice.

Which brings us to the cheese.

The big problem with all these platforms is that if you don’t have anything on them, nobody goes to them. You can’t data capture personal information with no people. So you need what is called, in the parlance of our digital times, “content.”

Now, “content” is a funny word. It can mean all sorts of things. The one thing that is true about it, though, is that it is kind of difficult to produce if you want it to be any good. And if it is not any good–no mice.

It turns out, as discussed in the How Much Does It Cost If It’s Free post, that one of the most effective types of cheese is music. (And not just online, either.) 

But good content–writing, art, songs–is difficult and expensive to produce. It is way easier to use other people’s already-created good content, and lots of it, to attract the mice. Once you do that, you have not just the mousetrap, but the cheese too.

Could the mice be far behind?

Maybe something to think about the next time you hear somebody gush that you are “single handedly killing the music industry,” offering a bunch of straw man arguments about private planes and champagne. (Millennials did not kill the music industry. But there are a lot of people–from all sides of the equation–doing everything they can to make sure Millennials’ fingerprints are on the murder weapons.) Check to see if the people saying things like that are in a position to somehow profit from claims such as, “Over a billion dollars will be spent for the opportunity to build customer relationships and brand equity with digital natives… What brands understand is that music is an important part of Millennials’ identity.”

That certainly puts all the fawning celebration of brands, branding and “being your own brand” to attract magical new “revenue streams” in a different context.

It’s quite a trick–to create a business built on the use of other people songs, paying them a negligible pittance, and then exploiting the personal information of listeners who like their music to sell targeted advertising. It’s an incredibly profitable one too.

But the bigger trick is convincing young people–especially those facing longterm, even lifelong diminishment of earnings because they have started their careers during the recession–that spending thousands of dollars to stream free music on iPhones and laptops with monthly data plans from telecommunications companies is somehow cheaper than buying a song for $1 or just going out and buying an album. And that not only is it cheaper, but that it is in any way positively innovative or disruptive. Much less worthy of generational self-definition.

Talk about the power of marketing.

There are glimmers of hope, though.

Take this recent report from CBS News about “the triumphant return” of vinyl. (Last year, vinyl sales grew 32 percent.) The report is filmed here in Nashville, and prominently features Nashville’s great independent record store Grimey’s. It features Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys talking about why they love records, and why they release their albums on vinyl.

But the coolest part of the segment comes from Grimey’s Doyle Davis, who says, “I see young people in their 20s bonding with people in their 50s, becoming friends, going to shows together. They meet up at the record store. It is a pretty cool thing.”

That is a pretty cool thing.

Hereit pleads guilty to being a website. But it is a website with no advertising and no data capture, that allows artists to set their own prices for their music and keep 100 percent when they sell songs. And, importantly, that encourages people to focus on and explore the independent music communities where they actually live, and then elsewhere. I’ve always said that I hoped Hereit would inspire people to be off it more than they are on it. (Going gangbusters so far, believe me.)

Hopefully, the site will inspire people to seek out and see some local bands. Go hang out at a record store, if your town is lucky enough to have one, and ask the people there who they listen to, who they like and who they recommend. Buy music by and from independent artists. You never know. You might find a whole group of people all around you that are doing something really cool. That’s the best way to discover music anyway. Privately, with all your friends.

As life becomes increasingly digitized and commercialized, maybe the most disruptive and revolutionary thing people can do is to stay out of the mousetraps in the first place. Don’t take the cheese, kids.

And that’s one to grow on.

How Much Does It Cost If It’s Free?

“How Much Does It Cost If It is Free?” That’s what renowned artist right’s advocate Col. Tom Parker always threatened to title his autobiography. Catchy. But he never wrote it. He was too busy managing Elvis, for a cut that grew over the years to 50 percent of all Elvis’ earnings–in some areas, it was rumored to be as high as 80 percent.

Fun fact: The Colonel’s real name was actually Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. He was born in the Netherlands. Some people think he was from Sweden, but they are probably just confusing him with Spotify. (An honest mistake, but Spotify would never give an artist that generous a cut.)

Still though, it is a good rhetorical question. One that deserves an answer… How much does it cost if it is free? It reminds me of something a friend once told me that he learned in prison: “The cheapest way to pay for something is with money.”

Wise words in this age of allegedly free music.

Before we take a look at how you pay for music if you don’t pay with money, though, let’s take a look at the actual money, because it is surprising how much you need to enjoy all this free music.

For starters, what are you listening to the music on? Despite what they pay people to make them, an iPod is not cheap. Shuffle: $50. Nano: $150. Classic: $250. Touch: $300 or $400. Neither is an iPhone ($200 to $400). And if you’re streaming all this “free” music from “free” platforms like Spotify or Pandora, you are going to need some kind of service as well. Basic home internet with Comcast is about $40 to $50 per month. A 2 GB mobile data plan with AT&T is going to run about $80 per month and a 4 GB plan is $110 per month–with a two-year contract. Plus taxes and fees.

Yeah, I know, sometimes you get the phone for free with the contract and I guess you could just stream music over wifi at some corporate coffee shop all day. Point taken, cost cutter.

But actual money aside–what else are you paying with? You pay with you. Even if you don’t think your personal information is all that valuable, Pandora, Spotify and Google’s All Access sure do. In fact, it seems like that may be one of the main reasons they exist.

Check out this article on Google All Access: “Google’s music service could fail to capture market share from the big players and still be a success. That’s because delivering music and new accounts is yet another way for Google to amass personal, intimate details about its hundreds of millions of users — information that enables it to better target ads.”

Guess how much of Google’s $50 billion in revenue last year came from advertising? 95 percent.

Or as the New York Times puts it: “Listen to Pandora and It Listens Back.”

“Pandora has collected song preference and other details about more than 200 million registered users, and those people have expressed their song likes and dislikes by pressing the site’s thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons more than 35 billion times. Because Pandora needs to understand the type of device a listener is using in order to deliver songs in a playable format, its system also knows whether people are tuning in from their cars, from iPhones or Android phones or from desktops.

So it seems only logical for the company to start seeking correlations between users’ listening habits and the kinds of ads they might be most receptive to.”

The article goes on to quote Eric Bieschke, Pandora’s “Chief Scientist”:

“It’s becoming quite apparent to us that the world of playing the perfect music to people and the world of playing perfect advertising to them are strikingly similar…The advantage of using our own in-house data is that we have it down to the individual level, to the specific person who is using Pandora. We take all of these signals and look at correlations that lead us to come up with magical insights about somebody.” 

Magical insights! Wow. Isn’t the Internet amazing? But insights into what exactly? From the Times story:

People’s music, movie or book choices may reveal much more than commercial likes and dislikes. Certain product or cultural preferences can give glimpses into consumers’ political beliefs, religious faith, sexual orientation or other intimate issues. That means many organizations now are not merely collecting details about where we go and what we buy, but are also making inferences about who we are.

“I would guess, looking at music choices, you could probably predict with high accuracy a person’s worldview,” says Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies computer security and privacy. “You might be able to predict people’s stance on issues like gun control or the environment because there are bands and music tracks that do express strong positions.”

Pandora, for one, has a political ad-targeting system that has been used in presidential and congressional campaigns, and even a few for governor. It can deconstruct users’ song preferences to predict their political party of choice. (The company does not analyze listeners’ attitudes to individual political issues like abortion or fracking.)

During the next federal election cycle, for instance, Pandora users tuning into country music acts, stand-up comedians or Christian bands might hear or see ads for Republican candidates for Congress. Others listening to hip-hop tunes, or to classical acts like the Berlin Philharmonic, might hear ads for Democrats.

Because Pandora users provide their ZIP codes when they register, Mr. Bieschke says, “we can play ads only for the specific districts political campaigns want to target,” and “we can use their music to predict users’ political affiliations.” 

Valuable insights indeed.

In 2013, out of $427.1 million in revenue, Pandora generated $375.2 million from advertising. (Imagine how much additional user information Spotify and Facebook receive through the integration of their platforms.)

Spotify has seven different ad formats: Audio, Display, Homepage Takeover, Branded Playlist, Lightbox and Advertiser Page. And here’s some advice for how brands can use them, such as, “Add to the listener’s experience by integrating marketing messaging into their Spotify ecosystem.” And, “Encourage listeners to build playlists around your brand.”

But the one that sums it up most succinctly is this: “Leverage users’ musical passion points and positive affiliation with music to accentuate your brand’s message.”

Because that is what it is really all about.

Music, as much and maybe even more than any other art form, can inspire pure, deep and powerful emotional connections and associations. Advertising and marketing–whose role in the experience of listening to music has become completely commonplace and accepted now, under the incredibly insidious and disingenuous ruse of “compensating artists”–is completely parasitic to that connection.

Advertisers are so drawn to these platforms not only because how we interact and respond to music reveals to them more than we ever would willingly or consciously–but also because it provides them the ability to feed off the genuine feelings that music creates in listeners and forge an association and emotional connection to a brand. Like a virus looking for a host.

So you pay for this free music with your time, sitting through these absurd and obnoxious sub-radio ads, and the mindshare that they try to extract from you. But you also pay with the potentially permanent association they forge between music you like or even love and  some stupid brand.

But the worst part is what it is doing to that actual emotional connection. If advertisers are hoping to take advantage of listeners’ strong connections and associations with music, there may be less and less there to exploit.

Now that it is so easy, so banally convenient to have tens of thousands of songs at your fingertips–legally or illegally–it feels like the process and the act of discovering and experiencing music grows less consequential and meaningful every day.

When you expend no energy on something, you have no personal investment in it. Songs become meaningless, just files on a computer or a passing stream. As music itself grows increasingly toploaded with convenience and stripped of the relevance that comes from expending effort on something, it becomes more and more disposable. You wind up paying for all this endless free music with something far more valuable than money–your actual emotional connection and love for the music itself.

Now, certainly, paying money for something is not the only way to expend effort on it. But it does–as the marketers like to say–“add value” to the experience. So does going to a show, so does jumping around in a crowd or somehow experiencing something collectively. To be a part of something–not just as a passive, marginalized consumer, but as a citizen and an active, important participant.

It is bleakly but oddly fitting that performance royalties are paid on streams based on an audience of one–as opposed to royalties for terrestrial radio, which are based on broadcast market size. Instead of listening to and experiencing something together–baby, they’re playing our song–the image is of one person, alone and disconnected, with ear buds on, streaming songs on a platform that is tracking their information to exploit with advertising.

That’s why Hereit doesn’t have any advertising of any kind and doesn’t engage in any kind of data tracking either. It is also why Hereit is constantly trying to encourage people to buy music. Don’t just click the Like button. Don’t just stream it. Buy it. Own it.

The artists on Hereit receive 100 percent of the song price. Not only does actually buying music directly, entirely support independent artists and bands at the community level–it also feels good. It feels good to buy music straight from the people who created it, with no cuts siphoned off by some digital platform, and to know that you have made a difference in their lives, emotionally and financially, through your support and encouragement. It’s like voting for something–a very clear way of making your opinions known and your voice heard.

And it feels good to actually own it too–to be able to play it whenever you want, and to do it without connecting or exposing yourself to predatory companies looking to exploit your love of music for their own financial benefit. That’s a lot of freedom, power and peace of mind for the buck or two that songs cost. And that’s a lot to give up in order to pretend you’re not actually paying for something. Because you are probably paying a lot more than you think. The worst thing about free music is what it costs.