What Rushkoff’s “Present Shock” Reveals About the Future of Music


I’ve been a huge Douglas Rushkoff fan ever since he predicted the future of viral media in his influential 1995 book Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture.

I was just a teenager then, trying to figure out whether I was Gen X, Gen Y, or whether it even mattered. As I grew up reading his books, Rushkoff was one of the few voices telling me not only did we matter, but we were going to change the world.

I just finished reading his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Rushkoff is no longer talking as much about the future. This is probably because, as his book explains, the future is disappearing. In a society of always-on, interconnected devices, a market of infinite choice, and an economy that commodifies attention, regard for the future is being replaced by an obsession with the present.

Present Shock’s five beefy but breezy chapters are easy to summarize. Rushkoff makes his case by illustrating the collapse of the traditional narrative, the temporal schizophrenia of digital omnipresence, the “short forever” of today’s compressed timescales and the need to differentiate patterns to make sense of information. The book closes with a short chapter on America’s cultural obsession with zombies and the apocalypse (close to my heart as the leader of an apocalyptic rock band).

Rushkoff doesn’t so much change the way you see things as help you make sense of an increasingly interconnected world of complex relationships and “big data.” It’s an illuminating, lively read, if you have the attention to spare, of course. It’s not just a book that will hone your perception of the impact modern media and technology are having on our culture and society — it also serves as reminder of the value in occasionally escaping this Present Shock to enter long moments of focus and concentration. In the “meta” sense, reading this book is a perfect example of such a fruitful escape.

OK, that’s the Amazon review — so what does Present Shock have to say about how music is changing?

I could offer a lengthy narrative of my own, but I know you don’t have the time or attention for that. So allow me to comment on a few quotes from the book — those that resonated with my own experience analyzing music media and technology trends, a practice which continues to be inspired by Rushkoff’s books:

“The word ‘entertainment’ literally means ‘to hold within,’ or to keep someone in a certain frame of mind. And at least until recently, entertainment did just this, and traditional media viewers could be depended on to sit through their programming and then accept their acne cream.”

Corporations are losing control over the market for and culture of music. Their apparatus of control for the past century has been technology and law. But now technology is evolving too fast for law to catch up. Culture is on the leading edge of this evolution. The market is struggling to remain relevant. Professional musicianship is on the decline. Through all of this change, a big picture is emerging: music is not just for entertainment (and through correlation, for profit). This is a huge realization that has yet to dawn on the defenders of the “old” music business. But it’s second nature to digital natives. The commodification of music depends on its being perceived primarily as an entertainment product. But music’s true purpose is to bond us socially in shared experience. Context is the new commodity. Attention/time is the new scarcity. Entertainment products are no longer enough. We want to make our own experience. We don’t want to be ‘held within’ someone else’s meaning. We want to create our own meaning — the semiotic democracy in action.

“The Occupy ethos concerns replacing the zero-sum, closed-ended game of financial competition with a more sustainable, open-ended game of abundance and mutual aid… It is not a game that someone wins, but rather a form of play that — like a massive multiplayer online game — is successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going.”

I’m a huge champion of the “amateurization” of music. All signs point to a world with a greater quantity of music, being played and listened to with greater frequency, with a greater diversity of styles. We may be losing a certain subjective “quality” of music as defined by big studio budgets, virtuoso performances and mass appeal. We may be losing a “depth” of listening as defined by repeat listens, compositional literacy, and attentiveness to the nuances of performance and recording. Change is going to be both bad and good, but when contrasted with the “zero-sum” game of the “old” music industry, I see a clear net benefit to our culture and market where “more people get to play.”

“When everything is rendered instantly accessible via Google and iTunes, the entirety of culture becomes a single layer deep.”

One of the biggest tensions in IP law is between third-world cultures whose ancient traditions have fallen into the public domain, and the first-world exploiters who appropriate this collective creativity from indigenous societies for profit. Both sides too often miss the point: So-called “traditional knowledge” must and will be free to appropriate for future creativity to flourish. Conversely, the profit in appropriating the work of others is rapidly shrinking as we culturally assimilate a truth we too often deny in our Western Romantic concept of authorship: the creative act is based on appropriation. This is second nature to the creators of remixes and mashups — the idea may never resonate with older generations. But believe me, when culture is “a single layer deep,” we enjoy the ultimate creative freedom, swimming in the sum total of humanity’s creativity. All existing meaning at any time can be appropriated, remixed or transformed to create new meaning. We still have to watch out for the dangers of hegemonic, corporate monoculture on the one hand, and lazy, uninspired copycat music on the other. But “Present Shock” means our attention is too fleeting to be “held within” either the traditional cultures we grew up with, or the co-opted, for-profit cultures sold to us. The cultural playing field may not be equal, but it certainly has been “leveled” by technology.

“The great peer-to-peer conversation of the medieval bazaar, which was effectively shut down by the rise of corporate communications, is back.”

The ‘cathedral’ represents a top-down, hierarchical approach while the ‘bazaar’ is a bottom-up, open-source approach. Jacques Attali’s brilliant, essential, but painfully dense Noise: The Political Economy of Music is perhaps the best exploration of the relationship between the cathedral and bazaar in the context of music. It also happens to be a central theme in the book I’m writing: what is the nature of the relationship between the ‘top-down’ architects of our musical culture/market, and the ‘bottom-up’ flow of musicianship and musical creativity/productivity?

By invoking the bazaar, Rushkoff’s sentence here immediately reminded me of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, a foundational open source essay by Eric S. Raymond, published in 1999. While his essay was mostly about software engineering, he proved a core thesis that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” — in other words, the collective authorship power that digital technology provided was, at least in software engineering, a vast improvement over sole authorship of the kind encouraged by the IP industry since the inception of copyright. I believe the same to be true of music.

Of course, the cathedral started out not as a metaphor but literally as church control over the culture, market and technology of music. Over time, this gave way to corporate control over music, which retains a firm but tenuous grip on our auditory culture and market to this day. Rushkoff’s acknowledgement that we are returning to the ways of the bazaar should be wind in the sails for anyone who loves music and prefers a productive culture over a profitable one.

All one need to do is listen to a few mash-ups to hear the sound of the bazaar approaching loud and fast.

Copyright Law Robs Us of Political and Social Power of Sampling

Sampling is a political and social act. Requiring permission and a license -- particularly without a fair mechanism to facilitate that -- is a form of oppression. (Photo by John R. Southern)
Sampling is a political and social act. Requiring permission and a license without a fair mechanism to facilitate that is a form of oppression. (Photo by John R. Southern)

It is difficult to name a court decision that has had a greater negative impact on recorded music than Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Film. The de minimis doctrine, with respect to digital sampling of sound recordings, effectively disappeared after the court’s decision, summarized as: “Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.” From the perspective of culture theory, the court could not have made a more erroneous statement.

At the time, there was abundant social and political energy associated with hip hop, a genre based on sampling. Hip hop was and still remains an important social and political institution. The appropriation of mainstream culture by the “underground” through digital sampling was a direct, progressive response to disempowerment among the hip hop community. Bridgeport crushed this culture overnight. Samples became the province of the minority of rights holders who owned songs of licensable value, and the minority of musicians and labels who could afford their licensing fees.

Arguments in support of Bridgeport primarily appeal to labor/desert and personhood theories of copyright. Mandating all samples be licensed decimated their widespread use and was a failure from the perspective of cultural theory. But under theories of fairness and personhood, it’s a small price to pay to ensure the original author is compensated, remaining in control of granting or denying permission to sample.

Samples chosen purely for their aesthetic quality are the easiest samples to recreate in a studio, at far less cost than licensing. This is often invoked to defend Bridgeport, but it misses a critical cultural point. Popular songs carry the greatest political and social meaning. Generally speaking, the more popular the song sampled, the larger the audience with whom the meaning will resonate.

In practice, many musicians have transferred their rights to a record label by the time they achieve popularity that warrants being sampled. Particularly with less established artists, a label will avoid the risk of investing in a sampling license when a musician’s sales potential is unproven. Most unsigned musicians can’t afford to license samples at all. This is a chilling of creativity for dubious rewards.

We are compensating yesterday’s musician by erecting a prohibitively expensive barrier of creative entry for today’s musicians. It seems rather contradictory to appeal to the labor/desert theory by raising the cost and bureaucracy of entering the market.

Hip hop adapted and continues to evolve as a central part of our musical culture, but its development as an art form was unquestionably arrested. The near-disappearance of unauthorized digital sampling between 2005 and 2010 has been interrupted by an explosion of creativity. In much the same way hip hop did 30 years ago, mashups and remixes rapidly emerged over the last few years, challenging the sound recording status quo and facing an arrested development of their own.

Today’s sampling musicians lack the history of commercial success hip hop enjoyed. In a way, they don’t know what they’re missing. They feel more entitled to appropriating sound recordings, and less entitled to compensation. They’re participating in what Lawrence Lessig calls a “read-write” culture, similar to the culture of amateur performance that existed prior to the invention of the phonograph and the industrial commodification of music. They’re involved not just in a semiotic democracy, but a new culture of creative consumption that’s productive, not passive. This has numerous implications, not the least of which is that less labor/desert incentives and personhood assurances are needed to stimulate creativity — it now happens as a corollary of consumption.

Nothing changed in the law to enable this trend, it’s simply another case of technology racing forward. Songs can now be produced from samples on a tablet in under an hour. Music tastes and popular songs change in weeks, not years. Culture moves at speeds that copyright law can’t keep up with anymore. This creates large financial challenges for “professional” musicians, who are rapidly being offset by an exponentially larger pool of amateur and “semi-pro” musicians.

We must also acknowledge that sound recordings are themselves a platform for music discovery. Sampling can be a way for fans to discover new artists. Having one’s sample appear in the remix of a famous mashup artist can generate huge exposure for an emerging artist. Licensing chills this kind of spontaneous creative reuse, and if one demanded compensation, one may not be sampled. Well-established musicians whose music has demonstrated value do not share the same view, but from a welfare and culture perspective, the greater good is best served by free appropriation.

This is a messy situation, and reform to copyright is needed. A compulsory license for the sampling of sound recordings seems an appropriate solution. The specific mechanisms by which such a license would function are surely more complicated and contentious than, for example, compulsory performance licenses. However, they would be based on well-established legal precedents.

The deadweight loss experienced by our culture when the cost of licensing samples skyrocketed from zero to thousands of dollars was staggering. Cultural theory guides us toward compulsory licensing as a way to foster a more diverse, democratic and equal creative landscape. It encourages us to make works more freely available for creative reuse so that the next generation of musicians can make the next generation of music, while sustaining their livelihoods long enough to pass on their musical traditions.

Creative Commons offers a fine stopgap solution, allowing artists to license music such that it can be freely shared and remixed, yet protected against unauthorized commercial use. As access to music becomes free or nearly free, musicians will need to rely on revenue streams and methods of discovery outside of traditional music retail settings. Today it is more important to live the creative life than achieve the American dream with all the labor/desert it entails. I think that represents the triumph of culture and cultural theory over the increasingly anachronistic theories of copyright which address pre-Digital Age creativity.

21st Century Recording Means Less Studio Time: Deal With It

It's sometimes hard to tell if a producer is depressed or just concentrating. Photo by Saucy Salad.
It’s hard to tell if a producer is depressed or just concentrating. Photo by Saucy Salad.

This is a long comment I made in response to this Trust Me, I Am A Scientist blog post which was Facebook-shared by friend and record producer extraordinaire John Naclerio at Nada Studios. I lump the ‘Scientist’ blog in with the Trichordist folks who basically try to complain the old music industry back into existence. They think music is devolving, I think it’s evolving… I guess that makes us sworn enemies. But I don’t want to fight, I want to find solutions, and all I hear from them is complaints.

This is addressed to John but could really be addressed to any professional career producer/engineer worth their salt.

John –

Sorry, I’m going to be the guy that points out this article is BULLSHIT!

John, we’ve had these discussions before so I know you know I appreciate the work of a professional. You made our record sound 1000% better than it would have sounded fresh outta my basement.

I disagree with the main point that “It always takes longer than the band expects” to finish a record… I mean, I’ll take your word for it if you think this is a good article. I’ll accept that most or a growing number of bands think this, but I believe the true professional musicians understand the process and understand it takes time.

I totally disagree with his implication that somehow technology has had a negative effect on the recording process simply because a few people are impatient. Technology has made it possible to have a studio on every laptop — we should be celebrating that!

Yeah, from a producer/engineer standpoint it sucks because culture is getting lo-fi, there’s less money in the music economy and budgets are smaller. We’re never going back to Led Zeppelin locking out a studio for a year, nor was that ever necessary to make a good record. It was important for doing lots of drugs though.

What about the black market for drugs? With musicians spending less time in the studio, they have more time freed up to do drugs. Maybe you should consider a career as producer/dealer?

Seriously, I think I can understand why producers and engineers would be totally fucking annoyed by bands coming in and expecting to have a great record in a few days. Maybe that happens more often than not these days. It must frustrate the hell out of you to want to do an awesome job but the band only has the budget to do 4 songs in 2 days.

This blogger offers no solutions whatsoever, just complaints. How about thinking about ways musicians can have bigger budgets? How about thinking about “fuck the album” because people listen to singles, and just take the time to do really good singles until you get financial backing for an album? How about record it at home because listeners are cool with lo-fi as long as they’re getting a type of music they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten because the musician couldn’t afford to be in a studio? How about celebrating home recording as a gateway drug to valuing professional production/engineer services?

It’s not that bands don’t value the professional recording process or how long it takes… they just don’t have the money they used to, plus they can do a C+ job at home… that’s just reality. They’re not going out of their way to be assholes about it, but they are fair to expect that recording technology has evolved to the point where yes… it actually does take a shorter time and is much cheaper to make a great record than 5, 10 or 20 years ago. All of the sudden you CAN record an LP in a few days for $1,000. Will it be awesome? 99% of the time, no. But your odds don’t get much better with a professional recording… it’s not about the art, it’s about the business.

John, you are one of the most respected professionals I know in the music business — not just from me but from the hundreds of musicians who have come through your studio. You don’t complain about any of this shit, so I’m not directing this at you. I just want to say that 99% of musicians have never been able to afford a $20,000 recording budget, so nothing much has changed there. It’s the label situation that’s changed. And good riddance. Patronage beats exploitation. It sucks for producers/engineers, there’s less money. But it’s better for musicians and they are the ones ultimately keeping you in business.

We’re just going through a rough, awkward patch in the industry where the old players are dying but throwing every dollar and lawyer at holding on to paid access to music. But access to music is already free or nearly free, and we’ve yet to adapt the music economy to it because these assholes are preventing us from finding new solutions.

Recording technology will continue to get cheaper and more efficient. Digital editing means there’s no reason for a musician to play the track 47 times. Recording time is getting shorter and that’s a good thing for everyone but the people who are paid based on recording time. So for those folks, like you, John, and the countless other producer/engineers struggling against this wave of amateur musicianship and production — let’s start talking about business solutions.

Let me close by saying I think that you, John, are a shining example of a producer talking solutions. You started a label and are now taking backend interest in some of the bands you produce. The producer/engineer becoming more of a part of the band or their management is probably the most promising avenue for talented studio professionals right now. But there will be more, and I’ll work with you to help find the money!

How Google Glass Will Change Music

See the guy with the MacBook Air? Yeah, that's not weirder than wearing glasses or anything...
Wave your Macbook in the air like you got AppleCare.

We’ll be remembered as the awkward generation that carried around small glass-and-metal bricks, pointing them at things of interest.

Seriously, have you been to a concert lately? Half the crowd is holding up an iPhone or Android device, taking the same grainy video with crap audio from a slightly different angle than the other three thousand people holding up their devices. It looks ridiculous.

Before I come off as some sort of elitist snob or luddite, let me say I celebrate those three thousand people and the video they take, however unwatchable I personally might find it. Who am I to declare someone’s creativity ‘crap’ just because it doesn’t relate to me? So what? 99.9% of everything ever created doesn’t relate to me!

So many technophobe critics make the embarrassing mistake of uttering something like: “More people that ever are creating, but most of it is crap.” When has that not been true? Crap has far outnumbered substance for as long as I can remember. Why not celebrate the fact that everyone is creating their own meaning? To the people in the crowd and their friends, that grainy video of their favorite artist is the coolest thing ever — not because it’s an amazing work of art but because it encapsulates a personal experience. There’s a wide range in between and it’s all valid creativity.

Like Douglas Rushkoff points out in his new book Present Shock, we are a generation that’s actually heeding the advice “live for the present” — perhaps a little too much, in fact. We are in our own little bubbles of curated niche content, and you can look at that as good or bad. Withholding our judgements for the moment, let’s allow that mobile devices allow this to happen and it’s only going to accelerate as we enter the “Google Glass is kind of a glimpse into the future.

Let me say right here that I think people who regard Glass as a fad are fools. Comparing Glass to the Segway or the Bluetooth headset may make haters feel better, but there’s really nothing new about the Segway or the Bluetooth headset. We’ve had motorized people-movers and wireless earpieces for decades. We’ve never had the ability to record visual and auditory memories as they are perceived. Our devices come close, but we have to hold them up in front of our faces and point them around. The hand will always be utilized for finer control — it’s not like hand-held devices are going to vanish. But for the purpose of recording pure audiovisual memory, Glass is the penultimate experience before our brains get jacked directly into the Web.

Glass is like a “selfie” of the soul… and you see how popular those are. “Selfies”, I mean, not souls.

Anyway, if you think people will be laughing at Glass-like devices in ten years — when they’re indistinguishable from regular glasses — you’ve got another thing coming. You’re the one people will be laughing at, pointing your glass brick around the room like a senior citizen, blocking my view at the Rolling Stones hologram show.


We get it, Glass looks silly and stupid now. So did the World Wide Web!

Okay, we got that out of the way: Glass is here to stay. So, the question I’m most interested in asking is: how will it change music?

We will certainly look back and cringe at the photos and videos we took of 100 other people with their arms up taking photos and videos of a tiny, blurry blob that might be a musician. When we go to a music festival 10 years from now, there may still be a few hands in the air with a handheld device trying to get a better shot. But plenty of people will prefer to capture the entire experience as they experienced it — not just the stage but the epic fight through the crowd to get to the front. Not just the hit single but also the cute person you met in the beer line. The music — as always — will be the thing that brings all these people together, and the technology will facilitate the connections.

It’s also going to offer an incredible window into the musician’s lifestyle. Fans will live vicariously through their idols — it’s the logical progression from the celebrity-worship happening on Twitter right now. Hordes of amateurs will quickly realize they too can live broke and free like a musician, listening to records and jam all day, party all night, and sit in a van for eight hours. That last part will probably not be Glass’d.

Musicians will evolve as well. What we’re really talking about is wearable devices with long battery lives and cloud-based storage with Wi-Fi access. That’s a very specific (and first-world) combination, but it’s happening with greater frequency. In 10 years it ought to be commonplace in developed nations. For musicians, that means never losing a musical idea, because any time your device detects you playing music, it’s going to automatically record. Every musician reading this just had a huge lightbulb go off. How many great songs are lost forever in the folds of our brains when we don’t remember the tune?

For those familiar with copyright law, a musical “expression” is “fixed” when it is recorded, and you are immediately granted copyright protection. Anyone with Glass and a guitar will be a walking copyright machine! The copyright industry can’t handle today’s complexity, they might just buckle under the weight of this new Glass-enabled consumer-creator.

Music discovery will become visual as well. All you need to do is look at the logo on a band T-shirt and say a simple voice command, and you’re watching their music video. If one of your friends mentions a band you haven’t heard, within 60 seconds, you have. It’s possible now with our mobile devices, but the amount of tapping it takes to get the end result isn’t worth it. Are you beginning to see the true power of Glass? That it’s not so much the things it does but how it does things?

To be sure, there will be Glass experiments that don’t work. I wouldn’t want to watch too much of a show from a musician’s point of view — it’s all hot, bright lights and awkward, sweaty faces. Too much access could demystify artistry, which to an extent is awesome and democratizing, but artists need to retain some sort of mystique to distinguish themselves from the herd.

You’ll never use Glass in a casino or while taking a final exam. It’ won’t be socially acceptable in every place at every time. Neither are today’s mobile devices.

But everyone will be wearing them at the concert, backstage, at rehearsal, in the studio — wherever music composition, performance or recording is being done. Not everywhere every time. But it’s undeniable that wearable devices like Glass and its ilk will become a big part of the music culture.

A lot can happen in ten years, but everything I mentioned here has an analogue in the way we use our glass-brick mobile devices today to record our musical experience. Through the Glass, exciting new rabbit holes will appear through which we can dive deeper into the music we love.

Kickstarter for Bands: How We Raised $4,300+ from 112 People


My band just raised $4,356 from 112 people in 60 days on Kickstarter to release our new album Pandemic.

I’ve been espousing the virtues of crowd funding for a while now, so I’m really glad we didn’t blow our goal of $3,666. Instead, we went $690 over our goal.

There were a few strategy/marketing moves that really worked, and a few unexpected but important issues that arose during the process. I’d like to share them here with my fellow musicians.

This isn’t about how to make a great video or a great campaign — I’m assuming your campaign is already totally awesome and your album rules. I’m here to give you the war stories so you don’t repeat the same mistakes and make real money with these Kickstarter best practices for crowd funding an album.

Why We Picked Kickstarter

The first big choice is Kickstarter vs. Indiegogo vs. Pledge Music vs. Sellaband vs. Patronism. The last three were either overkill or still in beta. For most bands, the choice is going to be between Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Kickstarter is the most established, fully-featured and polished of all the platforms. The only reason to consider Indiegogo is because unlike Kickstarter, you keep whatever money you raise even if you don’t reach your goal. You will pay a 9% fee instead of a 5% fee for this honor. When we weren’t 100% confident in our goal, we lowered it until we were. Indiegogo is perfectly fine (and charges the same 5% fee if you reach your goal), but we went with the established player. Remember, many of your backers will be funding their first project and will have to sign up with Kickstarter, so it pays to go with a trusted name.

Why We Set 60 Days to Achieve our Goal Instead of 30 as Kickstarter Recommends

I’m not going to dispute Kickstarter’s assertion that 30 days is the optimum length of a campaign — I’m sure their statistics clearly show it. But for us, 60 days was the right length. I think that for bands just getting their footing with marketing and sales, it’s better to have a longer window to utilize — think of it as a challenge to keep your audience’s engagement for a continuous two months. It’s hard to do, you will make mistakes, there will be lulls… but it’s a fantastic learning experience. If you’re not in any particular rush, more time will allow you to draw in more people from outside your fan base.

Delays to Watch Out for at the Beginning

Don’t expect to have your campaign up and running the day you decide to launch it… or, for that matter, anytime that week. Unless you’ve done a campaign before, you’re going to wait 2-ish weeks for Amazon Payments and your bank to work things out to where you can accept payments. You’ll need to provide tax info — oh yeah, you’re getting taxed on this income. You really ought to have an LLC and a business checking account, but you can squeak through DBA yourself with your personal account.

You may also be delayed if any of your campaign rewards (or any other piece of data) triggers Kickstarter’s moderators to flag your submission for violating the terms of service. That’s not limited to penises in the promo video and human blood as a $100 incentive. Our campaign was stalled because our top backer package offered free admission for life to any of our band’s gigs. Apparently, lifetime rewards are not allowed. There are dozens of “small print” rules like this. For us, it was an easy fix, but it’s important to be aware your launch can be delayed a couple days if it’s not up to spec.

Remember Shipping, Taxes, Fees and Declines when Budgeting

Setting your goal is all about figuring out how much money you are 100% confident you can raise, and then creating a budget to produce the album that matches that amount. When you do this, don’t neglect to factor in additional expenses that will have a significant impact on the money that’s left over to produce the record.

  • Shipping – Shipping gets expensive quickly and is highly variable based on where the recipients live. You’ve really got to budget for shipping, and for that you have to guess how many of each package you’re likely to ship. Take your guesstimated total and round it up to be safe.
  • Taxes – If your band has an LLC or a partnership, your company will be liable for the taxes. Otherwise, the person who handles the money will be on the hook. Like shipping, taxes are difficult for the average citizen to estimate, but you should be building in some room for cost overruns in your budget, and setting aside some money for taxes alongside.
  • Fees – Kickstarter will take 5% of total funds raised, and Amazon will take ~3% for processing the payments (less or more depending on how much you raised). This quickly adds up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars in fees — you will wish you worked at Kickstarter when you see what they take out. Factor the fees into the budget!
  • Declines – Backers’ cards are charged when the campaign ends. Depending on how broke your fans are, you may get a number of declined credit cards. Kickstarter tries to get the cash by sending alerts to the backer every day for seven days after the campaign. Then they give up, and the money is gone. Everyone’s going to have one or two declines, but some may have more. You’ve got a real problem when someone backs you to the tune of hundreds or thousands, and then their card declines, but there’s nothing you can do about that except try to build a relationship with that backer outside Kickstarter before the campaign ends (which is a good idea anyway).

In our case, all of the above added up to roughly 1/4 of our total production budget, so pay very close attention to fees and charges that may not be apparent at the outset.

By the way, we were worried about how long it would take to get paid after the campaign ended because we saw some people saying it took them up to two weeks. It took two business days for the cash to hit the Amazon account, and another day to transfer to our bank account.

The Hustle

A great video, a bunch of great packages, a great album… these are all… great. But they are nothing without the hustle.

Put briefly, we made a list of around 300 people we thought would back us at some level. We also had our 600+ Facebook fans and 300+ Twitter fans as a captive audience, and we hit them up every day. But as the deadline grew closer, we ran our 300-person list like we were doing a fundraising run against terminal illnesses.

Preaching to the choir is not everything — you absolutely have to be drawing in people from outside your fan base. Around 30% of our backers were total strangers to us before the campaign. We constantly were meeting new people on Twitter and pitching the album, and that was good for a few hundred bucks. Ditto on reaching out to the Creative Commons folks, who gave us a spot on their curated Kickstarter page because we license all our music CC-BY-NC-SA.

So get out there, meet new people, and get them to back your dream.

Musician as Entrepreneur, Band as Business – Take My Class!

Today I’m excited to announce the culmination of over two months of round-the-clock production work to answer the common musician question: “How do I make money from my music?

I proudly present Musician as Entrepreneur, Band as Business, an online course offered by Artists House Music on the Udemy eLearning platform. Watch the promo video below:

Earlier this year I teamed up with John Snyder of the awesome Artists House non-profit to plan a curriculum that would engage and educate a new generation of musicians. Artists House has a massive video library — John brought to the table hundreds of hours of video footage featuring interviews with the top names in the music business.

I edited that massive mountain of content into 5.5 carefully curated hours, and with John’s wisdom (and 85 pages of written advice) to guide the production, we emerged with a course like no other.

Please head over to Udemy to preview the course — we’ve made one section available for free so you can get a glimpse of the top-shelf, real-world education we are offering here. There are no boring lectures that drone on, just solid tips from folks who have already proved they know how to make money from music.

Compositions with Samples: A Music Discovery Market in Arrested Development

Girl Talk producing live. Photo by IllaDeuce. CC-BY-SA
Girl Talk producing live. Photo by IllaDeuce. CC-BY-SA

When you can’t sample something, you can’t discover you like it, and you won’t buy it.

Like many suburban white kids, my first exposure to hip hop was when Run-D.M.C. teamed up with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”.

That collaboration was not just how I discovered Run-D.M.C., it was how I discovered the whole genre of hip hop. 2 Live Crew, Beastie Boys, NWA, Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and LL Cool J would soon follow, along with lots of awful hip-hop/teen pop crossovers I needn’t mention. For someone straight outta the Catskills, my hip hop roots run deep.

Was Run-D.M.C. showcasing its sound through Aerosmith’s composition? Or was Aerosmith showcasing its sound through Run-D.M.C.’s composition?

The answer, of course, is both. In this case, it was as much musical chemistry as calculated salesmanship. Both bands were rocking each other’s compositions as a platform for greater exposure. Run-D.M.C. appealed to fans of hair rock, and Aerosmith suddenly seemed relevant again, saving their music career. The whole thing was a marketing plot orchestrated by bearded studio magician Rick Rubin, who carefully arranged the profitable pairing in advance.

As any hip hop fan knows, creative appropriation of sound recordings — samples — are a fundamental building block of the genre. “Walk This Way” was staged, but most samples at the time were taken without permission. Hip hop had not yet begun to emerge as the commercial powerhouse it would soon become. It wasn’t until Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films that copyright law was brought down like a hammer against unauthorized sampling, and the practice suddenly became very expensive if not impossible.

Hip hop pre-Bridgeport was a revelation because it was a genre of music based on exposing people to other artists and genres of music through the actual composition. It wasn’t a composition as we traditionally thought of — sheet music with lyrics. Instead of notes, there were bits of sound recordings, with compositions contained within. Songs were transformed through sampling into new compositions that showcased artists and genres in a new context.

Hip hop wasn’t just a music genre, it was a music discovery platform.

The mashups, remixes and EDM of today are taking the mantle of genre-as-music-discovery vacated by hip hop after Bridgeport. I would argue that these genres are the natural progression hip hop would have taken had the creative act known as “sampling” not been stagnated by an unjust court ruling.

Today, you can discover several artists or genres in a single mashup. Like an audio scavenger hunt, listeners follow snippets of sound to their source, finding new favorite tracks and entire styles of music they didn’t know existed.

All of this is happening under the commercial radar right now because creating songs with unauthorized samples is technically copyright infringement. Girl Talk is the poster child for trying to make a career out of claiming such use is fair, using hundreds of uncleared samples and making lots of people scratch their heads as to how he gets away with it. There was a whole SXSW panel on it:

No one can argue there is a growing cultural awareness of Girl Talk-esque sampling as transformative, fair use among listeners and musicians. This contrasts with another widely held belief that there is a limit to sampling another’s work without payment. As they say in the video, “Puffy’s got to pay” when it comes to using the heart and soul of a song as the heart and soul of your new composition. In other words, any rational musician or listener can see there is a spectrum between fair use and copyright infringement when it comes to sampling. Unfortunately the law is generally absolutist about these things, and Girl Talk only avoids prosecution through conspicuousness. The fact is, anyone who samples any copyrighted song without permission is breaking the law and risking a lawsuit, and because of that, the professional mash-up musician is not allowed to be born.

Where does that leave music discovery via other people’s compositions? Will mashups/EDM atrophy without commercial support? Probably not. That’s the beauty of the illegal art form — it remains relatively un-compromised by commercial interests, and sustains a creative if chaotic scene. The uglier side — at least from a purely aesthetic perspective — is that the genre remains clogged with amateurs with no clear path toward a professional music career.

Much of the progressive talk in the music world around this issue centers on the concept of introducing a compulsory sampling license. Some serious thought and legal expertise has gone into developing this path toward copyright reform. The intent is to balance the welfare of the greater good and culture at large against what many perceive as too much power given to the individual — in this case, the copyright owner of the sample in question.

In the same way I can cover a song without permission so long as I compensate the original composer via a compulsory license, I could theoretically do the same for the composers (and sound recording rights owners) of my samples.

In practice, this is tricky for a number of reasons. For example, how do we set a compulsory sample licensing fee? Most people seem to think it should be based on what percentage of your composition the original sample represents, or what percentage of the original composition/sound recording you took. But how does one possibly determine that? Length of the sample? Whether it’s used in the chorus or the verse? Amount of sample transformation? The variables are endless. Calculating them in any standard format is flatly impractical — any attempt to do so would be fraught with compromise.

Then comes the personhood concerns — the idea that a person might not want their composition to appear in a particular context. For example, when Kanye West paid handsomely to use an Otis Redding sample on Watch the Throne, Otis Redding’s estate vetted every word in the song to ensure it matched Redding’s legacy. A compulsory sample license would allow me to use the same sample in a new composition called “Otis Redding Sucks” as long as I paid the requisite fee.

For those unfamiliar with music copyright, a song basically has two rights attached to it: the actual sequence and structure of the notes and lyrics as well as the actual recording. It’s another reason why sampling is trickier than cover songs — with a cover, you’re making a new recording, so you don’t have to pay or get permission to use the old one. With a sample, you’re dealing with two different sets of rights, which technically means two different licenses. Compositions are administered by performing arts organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SEASAC) on behalf of publishers and artists, licensing them is a fairly standard process. But many musicians transfer their song’s second right — the sound recording right — to a record label in exchange for financing the recording and marketing of their album. Thus, negotiations for sample use are not always entirely up to the artist, but their label as well. So in many cases, the composer would be cool with using the sample, but the record label that owns the sound recording would say no or hold out for more money.

For these and other reasons, it’s not likely that genres based on unauthorized sampling will reach any sort of widespread commercial viability any time soon. And that’s a real bummer, because we’re denying a generation of listeners one of the most vibrant music discovery platforms yet invented by humans — the composition-within-composition. Not to mention all the dough being left on the table.

Thankfully — as I always say — music finds a way. Bridgeport didn’t stop unauthorized sampling any more than Napster stopped unauthorized file sharing. In both cases, music discovery was driven underground.

We will continue to see the growth and evolution of compositions that make unauthorized use of other people’s compositions and sound recordings. I would urge all musicians to fight the good fight and protect their compositions and sound recordings with a Creative Commons license instead of relying on traditional copyright. With Creative Commons, you can protect your song against unauthorized commercial use while giving a wide berth to allow transformative uses of your song like sampling and remixing.

Sample culture will continue to thrive beneath the surface of the mainstream, waiting for a law to pass and unleash its bottled-up commercial potential. Until then, it will only get cooler and more creative, and samples will only gain more political power.

The corporations that control 75% of the world’s music would be keen to pay attention and change their strategy. Picture this: Girl Talk takes the stage with Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. at the 2014 Grammy Awards and they infringe 60 years of music in 5 minutes. Watch that mashup single become the new “Gangnam Style” overnight.