Arguing over the dissemination of music is something of a pastime for Allen, a Portland resident since the early ’90s. At a TechfestNW panel discussion in 2012, he grilled a representative from Spotify over its shoddy royalty payouts. A year later, in a piece for The Guardian, Allen “reappraised” his stance on digital-music streaming, rebuffing artists like David Byrne and Thom Yorke, whose criticisms once mirrored his own. In February, he took a job with emerging Spotify competitor Beats Music, as director of artist and music industry advocate—essentially, an ambassador for the company and, in general, the idea of streaming.
Next week, Allen appears at Powell’s City of Books for a conversation with Kevin J.H. Dettmar, author of a new book in the 33 1/3 series on Gang of Four’s landmark 1979 debut, Entertainment!. WW spoke to Allen about the legacy of his old group, and what changed his mind about streaming music.
WW: Are you comfortable with the idea of a book-length deconstruction of Entertainment!?
Dave Allen: I think there’s a place in the world for deconstructing things like that. With Gang of Four, what [Kevin] has done, he starts out with a mondegreen, which is that term for when you mishear lyrics. It’s hilarious because how he interpreted the lyrics makes no sense at all.
And the lyrics are pretty crucial to the album. Was this book his attempt to understand the record better?
It’s a very personal book. I think the context here is that he’s a professor in the Pomona [College] English department, and so focusing on the lyrics would be natural for him. When he interviewed us, he learned along the way that everything he thought he knew was wrong, lyrically. He also expressed his delight at being in college and seeing us perform at UC Davis. You either loved it or hated it, and he was one of the lovers. I can imagine that, with all his degrees, it’s in his DNA to think, “These guys actually have something to say beyond ‘verse, chorus, verse chorus.’”
The sound Gang of Four established on Entertainment! was hugely influential, but it seems like most of the bands that picked up on what you were doing musically ignored the political aspect. Is that disappointing?
It’s certainly disappointing when we’re compared to outfits as if they’re the same as us. That came to the biggest head when we reformed in 2005 to do that three-year touring season. People were comparing Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party to us. They helped us get back into the limelight with a whole new generation of music fans, who came along thinking they were going hear Bloc Party or Franz Ferdinand and then got their tiny minds shattered. There’s all sorts of content in every song, and then people will come out and say, “Rage Against the Machine is just like Gang of Four.” I respect those guys, but no. We weren’t revolutionaries. We were dissecting everyday life.
You left the band again in 2008. What was the issue?
My only question was, “Why are we making a new album?” Because Jon [King] and Andy [Gill] had set their sights on a new record, which became Content, and me and Hugo [Burnham] went, “Hmm, I don’t think the world needs a new Gang of Four album.” What I’d wanted to do instead was set up cameras in our rehearsal room in London and do what Radiohead did. This would have been a perfect Gang of Four moment: You can check in on our working methods, you can check in on the arguments that take place. You’d get the chemistry of the band, and then I just felt like, let the crowd decide: What do you think is worth following up on? We’d still never make an album, just complete these songs and leave them up on YouTube so millions of people could stream them forever, and you don’t have to pay a thing. Meanwhile, our cachet goes up in the world for touring, and we can go out again. That’s what the Web’s for. In music, I think the Web gives you this massive distribution system out of the hands of radio, out of the hands of distributors, out of the hands of record labels. What could be better for rock ’n’ roll than that?
In 2012 at TechfestNW, you interrogated representatives from Spotify and Shazam about how little they pay artists. Now you’re an ambassador for Beats. What changed?
I apologized to those two guys belatedly for grilling them like that. I was looking at it from a musician’s point of view without taking into account how music fans want to access their music.
Your biggest issue with Spotify was the lack of transparency, that artists didn’t know what they were supposed to be getting paid. Is Beats any different?
I mean, it’s an impossibility. I can’t even fathom how many artists in the world there are with [record] contracts, and they’re all different. I’d love to be giving artists that information, but it’s going to take time. Right now, it’s not a big part of our immediate business model, but it’s certainly in the road map.
Do you envision the streaming system ever working better for artists?
In a role like the one I have, you have to remain optimistic that some of these hurdles can be dealt with. It won’t happen overnight, and that’s where patience is required from everyone. But it can only be based on what music fans want to do. All we’ve learned in the last five years at least, is they really want to access it via mobile devices. The illegal downloading of music is, I think, being offset by the availability of all of this music for free, if you want to put up with the ads in the stream. So it’s not hyperbole to say that we could solve some of the downloading issues where artists are truly getting ripped off. “I’m just not getting paid properly” is not a real question or a problem. The city workers filling potholes aren’t getting paid properly, either. What we’re talking about here is the world of creative arts. It’s very difficult to earn a living. I’m not saying that one has to accept that. I’m just saying, be aware of it, and learn how to make it happen.
You’ve talked about the philosophical shift in the younger generation of music fans who’d rather “rent” music than own it. How do see that affecting music artistically?
I don’t see why that should affect the creation of music. That’s because, as a musician, I can only look inward and say, “What would I do even if I didn’t get paid?” Guess what? I’d make music. This correlation between pay and art is another delta that needs to be somehow resolved in the rhetoric. What I’m saying is that the access to a vast global audience through Internet distribution is an investment in your future. But if you want cash up front, that ain’t gonna come. That’s going to be harder to achieve than building an audience by giving them what they want. Don’t say to yourself every time you go to bed, “Goddamn it, they ripped me off again today.”
GO: Dave Allen in conversation with Kevin J.H. Dettmar is at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, July 7. 7:30 pm. Free.