Water and Music Podcast: EP.12 “What does an artist-centric future for music-tech look like?” ft. Madame Gandhi

Hosted by Cherie Hu for the Water and Music Podcast

Prolific drummer, electronic artist, feminist activist and public speaker Kiran Gandhi (a.k.a. Madame Gandhi) joins this episode to exchange perspectives not just on how technological change has transformed artists’ careers, but also on what artists themselves can do about it. We discuss, among other things, the potential reasons why artists are left out of the majority of conversations about the future of music-tech; the importance of artist-residency programs within music and tech startups (of which Kiran was previously a participant); the myth of the “gut-versus-data” binary; and how international consumption trends are changing the type of visual content artists need to create. At the end, we discuss the surge in new lyric-display features on social-media platforms, and how artists rely heavily on tech platforms to determine the constraints of their creativity — perhaps to a fault.

You can listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Pocket Casts and most other major audio listening platforms.

Below is a summary of the most interesting parts of our chat; you can read the full transcript of this interview on Medium.

1. Including artists in more conversations about music-tech requires chipping away at old-school information asymmetry — in both directions.
KG: “I think one of the reasons that artists get left out from music and tech is sort of the old-school music-industry paradigm, whereby the folks on the business side — and now the folks on the tech side who control the money — actually prefer to operate from [a position of] information asymmetry.

I don’t think anyone’s ever getting together in a meeting and saying, ‘Let’s exclude all the artists.’ It never looks like that. But it certainly does benefit the folks who are trying to make money, for them to feel like they’re the only ones who know how to do it and to prevent that information from being accessible to all people. I think if artists were more in control of their own business — you know, making, performing and selling their music — we would be in a really different industry.

At least for me, I try my best to be so aware of what the payouts are, how to collect royalties, how to negotiate for live show performances, how to understand what other folks in my same artist tier are making — so that when I’m partnering with different people, I’m coming from an empowered place of knowledge. And I think part of my desire to go to conferences has been just that, so that I can hear what’s happening in these mainstream conversations and then feel like I could be the artist who would never be exploited.

And then for folks who are listening who might be on the music-tech side: It is true that sometimes it’s frustrating to have artists in the room. When I was working at Interscope, I remember folks on the business side would sometimes feel really misunderstood and underappreciated by artists, saying that artists don’t understand just how much work is being done for their projects and that they’re ungrateful. And for that exact reason, that’s why artists should be invited to the conversation, just to see how much work is being done on the good side for the music industry.”

2. Music-tech startups should have artists in residence from the outset.
KG: “Two of my favorite companies that I enjoyed working with were Stem, the company I use to distribute and upload my music to streaming platforms, as well as Spotify, which obviously is one of the biggest music streaming platforms in the world.

Both companies had artist-in-residence programs at their onset. I remember it was 2015, I had graduated from Harvard Business School and had been doing a consulting project for Spotify, and I was really surprised that they would have folks who were either an official artist-in-residence or who were former, you know, rock-and-rollers, or hip-hop talent, or any talent on the music side as artists who were now coming back in as programmers, as the artist-relations people, as the label-services people.

It makes a lot of sense. You’re having people who have the empathy of being on either side, so they know how to talk to artists, instead of being sort of awkward or corporate or not really knowing how to liaise. I think it creates empathy, and I think it’s more fun.

I think it makes the artists feel excited, as they want to take ownership of being part of Spotify or Stem, instead of feeling like they’re forced to upload their stuff to those services out of industry necessity. You don’t want someone using your platform because you’ve strong-armed the industry so much that people don’t have a choice. You want them to use their product because they love it. It’s like people who use Lyft over Uber; they use Lyft because they love it.

So, do I think it’s important to have artist folks who work at the actual tech companies? Yes, I do. Even now, when I have meetings now as someone who’s on the artist side, it’s almost annoying sometimes, the way tech folks are condescending towards the musicians who are literally powering their entire platform. I think it’s a bad look. I think there’s a way to explain things and to teach, and to be communicating in a way that is uplifting and mutually exchanging value, as opposed to being oddly condescending to the person you’re meeting with.”

3. There’s an opportunity to invent a new, “intermediary” visual format for music — one that fills the gap in between a standard, high-budget music video and just static album artwork.
KG: “Many folks [internationally] use YouTube, because they have Internet and they all have data [plans] … That got me thinking: for most of my songs, I don’t have a music video. It’s just the album artwork uploaded. Since when did we decide that it’s either a really high-budget music video, or it’s just album artwork? At least that’s what I had in my head.

So I’ve been trying to think of some sort of intermediary visual that could be played. I know people have lyric videos, or people can make music videos [for] super cheap. But if I was gonna make a music video, I would want to go all the way … I was trying to think, like, what is an innovative, happy in-between that I can be making for my YouTube [channel] that makes watching or hearing the music fun, but it’s not as all-the-way expensive as a music video?”

CH: “Yeah, that’s a really good question … one feature that I think is super interesting — I don’t know if it’ll expand beyond Spotify, but they do have a Canvas feature, where artists can upload a looping video [with their song]. I think it would be cool to have that feature expand beyond Spotify, or to have that integrated with YouTube somehow — given that a platform like YouTube still has much more global reach than Spotify does right now, in terms of the number of countries where it’s active.”

4. Streaming platforms have a long way to go when it comes to giving artists more control over their image and branding.
KG: “Sometimes, I’m almost flabbergasted at how basic, relatively speaking, Spotify and YouTube are. As a creative person, you can’t control or skin anything. It all looks so janky. We all look the same. The joke is on us [the artists], you know? It’s so silly.

I think the platforms have gotten a little bit better about being accessible when the artist feels, ‘Oh something is spelled wrong,’ or ‘actually that’s not my artist page but it says that it is,’ or “that’s not my song but it’s looped in there,’ or whatever. They’ll fix informational errors like that.

But if you hit somebody up and you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to code my YouTube to make it all yellow and skin it with some Madame Gandhi fonts,’ and things like that, you’re not going to hear back from them. That’s not a priority. So I think it’s just interesting that all of us are really creating things only based on the platforms.”

5. Playlist editorial teams could benefit from mechanisms that control for biases around what music they, and consumers, think is “good.”

KG: “If the folks who are programming these big [streaming] playlists are under the belief that a certain kind of music is ‘good,’ or that what’s in the mainstream is the best music that’s available, that already is a problematic assumption that will continue to keep folks isolated from ever being heard. It’s kind of like if M.I.A — who now is one of the greatest artists of our time — if someone hadn’t given her a shot. That kind of crazy, Sri Lankan, percussive music that was her first album Arular? There’s no way it would have ever gotten playlisted or heard, because it would have been such a risk.

So I think for me, the biggest thing is that for folks who are playlisting, there should be some sort of internal anti-biasing process that controls for people’s inherent, unconscious biases of what they perceive to be good.

And then also, as a musician who’s making electronic music, trap music, percussive music, I either sing about love, or about feminism and where we are today in this battle for gender liberation. And if Spotify playlists me on the women’s playlists, I’m grateful — especially when it’s a time that’s culturally relevant like the Women’s March, [in which case] you’re soundtracking for history. But if they’re only playlisting you according to the theme of your music and not the music itself, then the message is actually only being told to people who have a feminist inclination to begin with. And that music is not infiltrating the more mainstream playlists, where I actually really do want my message to live.”

6. The surge in new lyric-display features on social media contradicts how many people dismiss the importance of lyrics in the first place.

CH: “I’ve noticed so much more buzz around the role of lyrics in streaming and social media. Instagram recently announced a new feature that allows select lyrics to be displayed in real time in Instagram Stories, along with Music Stickers. They integrated with Musixmatch, which is surprising to me — I thought they would integrate maybe with a site like Genius, but they went with one of their competitors. Deezer recently announced a lyric integration feature with Instagram also. I don’t think they’re real-time displays, but I think you can share a song you’re listening to from Deezer to Instagram and include a snippet of lyrics that are just displayed in the story … I had never seen so many announcements or features around lyrics coming out at the same time, just over the span of a couple of weeks.”

KG: “Yeah, I just love hearing all these updates. My lyrics are the whole thing for my [upcoming] project. I’m talking about gender liberation, I’m taking ideas from my speech and putting it into the body of work. So to hear that lyrics are becoming more of a priority makes me personally really happy.

I also find it interesting, though, because I feel like most of the time when I talk to people about, ‘What about the misogyny in this song? How can you play this music? It’s so violently misogynist.’ People’s responses are always like, ‘Oh, I’m not listening to the lyrics, I’m just listening to the beat.’ And so I find it interesting, in that day-to-day experience where people say they don’t care about the lyrics, to hear that this trend is actually suggesting the opposite.

I wonder if that will make people more aware of what’s actually being said. I think the normalization of misogyny, even for women and female-identifying folks and femmes, is such a problem, where at this point we just accept it. We’re like, ‘oh, I guess that’s just the way the world works.’ No! We have to shut it down. We have to stop taking it, and we have to say, listen, you need to sing about something else if you want to talk about us like that.”

7. The “gut versus data” binary is a myth.

KG: “I think it’s very simple: I think everyone’s just going by their gut, and then once they’ve decided in their mind what the answer is, what it is that they want to do, then they use the data to tell that story. Truly, I think that.

I think people love to act like they’re using the most data. But I never saw that once when I was at Interscope Records. I was a data analyst for two years, and most of the time, even though I was reporting as to what was exactly there and what my intuition was, I definitely think people wouldn’t take the numbers that they didn’t want to see or hear about. Even if the numbers were good in some other direction, they would just ignore that and pick the ones that were telling the story that they were trying to tell.”