Theo Ploeg is a media sociology lecturer, journalist for publications like OOR and Gonzo (circus), and cofounder of the critical culture blog frnkfrt. M3 spoke with Theo about copyright, albums sales, and his perception of music in the digital age.
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Theo – I’m a journalist for the largest music magazine in The Netherlands, OOR. Furthermore I am writing for a couple of underground magazines about pop culture like Gonzo (circus) from Belgium. This week my new webzine frnkfrt will be online. It is an initiative from well known Dutch journalist Peter Bruyn and myself to combine pop journalism with theoretical culture analysis. Besides being a journalist I teach media sociology at the University of Applied Science in Amsterdam (HvA). Twenty years ago I studied sociology at the University of Amsterdam. I wrote my thesis about the future of the music industry. I am still researching that topic.
What inspired you to focus on music? What is your own musical background?
When I was eight I got a red Philips record player from my parents with Let There Be Rock from AC/DC. From then on I got addicted to new music. Every Saturday I took my bicycle and rode to the neighboring city of Heerlen to buy records. In the beginning of the nineties I start writing for the cult magazine Opscene about rather unknown artists and bands. Bassic Groove, still the best dance magazine The Netherlands ever had, was second. From then on I decided to earn my living by doing what I liked most: thinking and writing about the sociology of music.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
Well, not much. Album sales are still enormous, although they aren’t as good as in the beginning of the nineties (vinyl replaced by CD) and seventies (the first big pop dinosaurs). The music industry has ben nagging since it was established. So, I don’t think there has been that much change. Okay, through the internet there is the possibility to listen music for free, but there are enough studies that stress that people are willing to pay for good music.
There is something else that is interesting: making music was never so easy, so there are more bands, more musicians that are competing with each other. Earning money with your music as small band isn’t easy. But, on the other hand, it never was.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
Definitely vinyl. As a pop journalist I get hundreds of CD’s and MP3’s a day. CD’s don’t have value for me anymore. At least, most of them. Some are so beautifully designed I like them, but keeping MP3’s is easier. Music I really like, I’ll try to buy on vinyl. Vinyl has a better sound and playing a record is kind of a ritual that is different than playing music to review it. By using records I am making a difference between work and enjoying music, I guess.
Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
A couple of years ago I thought the album would disappear. The internet is teaching us new ways of telling stories. The linear story with a beginning and end has been challenged by other ways of telling something. The idea of an album being a piece of art is also challenged by the digital music formats. Music isn’t a physical medium anymore, at least it doesn’t have to be. That is an interesting development. Well, both are. Lately the album is coming back. My students, between 18 and 25, are interested in the vinyl album for different reasons. The idea of having something special, the scarcity of an album pressed in low volumes appeals to youngsters who want to be different than their friends. You could say the magic that is so important for a piece of art (loosely based on the idea of Walter Benjamin) seemed to have disappeared but is coming back after all.
Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
Well, I don’t believe the album on vinyl will disappear. That is because music on vinyl isn’t only music. An album on CD or tape is just that. A vinyl record is more, it has a sleeve, it has a certain ritual. So the album, without the music, has a quality of its own. With our postmodern society yearning for nostalgia, for ‘real’ things, it isn’t that strange that vinyl is coming back.
What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
They are the wrong means for a wrong cause. I don’t think SOPA and ACTA have anything to do with cultural ownership and copyright protection. They are means to control the globalised network society that has been very difficult to control by governments in the last decades. Copyright protection is good, I think, although it is a good question if our current idea of copyrights and intellectual ownership have to be revised. The essence of SOPA and ACTA aren’t linked to copyrights but to know on forehand what people are doing. And that is wrong.
In a few decades time, what genre or sound do you think will come to define the 2000’s?
Difficult question. I think the longing for nostalgia (or longing for the past). Every musical style that existed is used again right now. A producer like Skrillex is sampling all kinds of genres in the past in one song. Our obsession with pop history taken out of context has never been bigger than now. Let’s hope that marks the end of our current postmodern era.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
That there won’t be one method of distribution. I think the music market will cease to exist and will make room for thousands of smaller and tiny music markets that will use different tools to connect the music makers with the music listeners.
If you look closely you can see the changes already. There are numerous, different tools like Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mixcloud to name a few that reach a different audience. Within the realm of a certain niche also pop journalism had to find a new place. I think the pop journalist of the future is a kind of a curator that selects music that is worth while for a niche network of producers and listeners.
Finally, what does the future hold for Theo Ploeg?
As a journalist I will focus more on becoming a curator, someone in a network that can provide the others in the network the best information about which music is interesting and what is worth while to check out. The consequence is that the magazine I am writing for will be less important in the near future and that I have to press a few buttons in my head before I am able to realize I have to become some kind of brand in the things I do. I think the same goes with my academic career: universities are becoming incredibly slow in researching the present. Researchers and academics themselves have to create their own networks, not only in the academic world, but increasingly outside it. I am living in very interesting times.
More of Theo Ploeg’s writings can be found in OOR and Gonzo Circus, and also in his new webzine frnkfrt. Theo is currently teaching at Hogeschool van Amsterdam. For more information on Theo Ploeg, check out his website.