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Q & A With Dave Allen, Ex-Gang Of Four Bassist, On His New Role With Beats Music

OPB | Feb. 28, 2014 7:45 a.m.

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It is likely, no matter what Dave Allen does for the rest of his life, he will largely be remembered for one thing: helping create the seminal punk band Gang of Four. But what if he helps create a new, more robust music industry? That’s what he believes is possible with his new job. 

On Tuesday it was announced Allen signed on to the new music streaming service Beats Music as the Director of Artist & Music Industry Advocacy. Allen, a long-time Portlander, will stay put in the city working from his home in the Southwest Hills. He described his new role like this:

I will act as an ambassador for Beats Music, reaching out to artists and the recorded music industry to find common ground and debate real issues and real problems, problems that can hopefully be solved without resorting to rhetoric that inflames rather than assuages doubts.

Allen has been an active voice in the streaming music debate. In October, he wrote an op-ed article for The Guardian defending streaming services in response to his contemporaries — David Byrne, Thom Yorke, Mike Mills  — who are searching for different solutions.

The heart of the debate is exploring how the music industry can profitably move forward in the digital, broadband, peer-to-peer file sharing age. Below is an edited Q & A with Allen about the promise and challenge of his new role at Beats Music.

Dave Allen. Photograph by Chris Hornbecker

Dave Allen. Photograph by Chris Hornbecker

Arts & Life: Your first real dip into the online music world was in 1998 when you became the general manager for eMusic.com. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

Dave Allen: What I learned very quickly, with the eMusic sort of debacle really, was it’s all very well that we were the world’s first paid MP3 download company. But as soon as the two Seans created Napster, we had a problem. They didn’t have the business model that we built because it didn’t occur to them that you have to go out and pay for licenses, for instance, if you want to be distributing music across the Internet. You can’t just do it. The problem with the web is that you can just do it.

A&L: What from your experience at eMusic has prepared you for something like that happening now? If Beats Music continues for a while, there’s going to be something like Napster in the future.

DA: I think what we’re looking at now is a societal shift. The idea is that people no longer want to own music. They want to rent it. They want access to it wherever they are on a mobile device.

What we have to do as any streaming company is follow where the music fan is going. We no longer have control over them, as in: Here is a neatly wrapped plastic CD and that’s the only way you can access the music, by inserting this shiny disc into a player.

I think we have to look at this as a scale problem and a growth problem. We’re going to have to look at how many of these streaming services can get enough people to pay $9.99 a month to make it a viable business and therefore a larger recorded music industry in the future.

I hope in a decade companies like Beats will have managed to solve this problem of getting young people to sign up for a subscription plan. I’m more interested in talking with 14-year-olds today than I am in talking to my class at University of Oregon, where I teach. There I’m talking to 22-year-olds who’ve only grown up throughout a system of absolute free. Unfortunately, music fell into that as an idea that it should always be free. But when I talk to young people who haven’t known that as long, they’re quite interested in paying something to access music.

Beats Music's "sentence" is an example of their highly curated-based model.

Beats Music's "sentence" is an example of their highly curated-based model.

Screenshot taken from beatsmusic.com

A&L: Beats Music has taken a very different approach than its main competitors like Spotify. It’s a highly curated user experience. The method of discovery is through playlists, the “sentence” (a search function like musical Mad Libs “I’m _ & feel like _ with _ to _”), searching by activities like “hitting the slopes” or “starting a riot.” In your new role, as an advocate for this company, do you believe this type of curation model is the model of the future?

DA: It’s really hard to predict what the future of technology such as Apps will look like. But what I am convinced about, as an online commentator one thing I’ve noticed, when it comes to music online is it requires filters.

The best filter in my life when I was growing up was John Peel, the British DJ. He made a point of listening to every single submission that was sent into his show and then he decided not what was good or what was bad. He just decided, ‘I think my audience should hear this and then they can decide.’

Now think about this, each of the streaming music services only have access to the same music catalogs. If Beats has 20 million songs than Spotify has 20 million songs. Personally, I’m not speaking on behalf of Beats, I don’t need 20 million songs. I don’t think anyone does. We have to look at what’s called the ‘paradox of choice.’ If you have too much choice, how would you make a decision on what to listen to?

A&L: You’ve written about how streaming services create a larger music industry. What do you envision the infrastructure looking like over time?

DA: One thing I stress to my students is that the web isn’t an American conceit. Everyone seems to think because in Silicon Valley you have all these big companies, like Apple and Google, that’s where the web lives. But then you look at Asia and you look at the margins.

There’s a billion-plus population. The margins are massive. If you can get smartphones into everyone’s hands, which is why Apple and Samsung are going head to head in these markets, just think about the number of people you can get to sign up for these music services. We have to stop being myopic about it all being in the West ’cause the rise on the East is really where the markets are going to be expanding.

A&L: If you were to curate a song for this interview, what would it be?

DA: ‘Natural’s Not In It,’ by Gang of Four. It’s my favorite Gang of Four song of all time. The idea behind it is that we act in herds and must act in herds. When in fact, it’s a completely separate decision each of us make every morning when we get out of bed. What are we going to do today?

To listen to Dave Allen’s interview on Think Out Loud, click on the audio player at the top of the article.

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