Imagine a world in which there is only bottled water. Then, quite rapidly, changes in technology connect every household to a municipal water line so they can have tap water.
Suddenly, you don’t have to pay for water every time you want to drink it. And even though you’re paying a small monthly fee for access to the municipal water line
This is what’s happening in music. We’re hooking up and turning on the taps. We’re reclaiming the water as a public resource.
Recently there was a putrid click-bait post on Digital Music News titled “Why Streaming Music Isn’t Like Bottled Water“. It’s part of a trend — albeit a trend quarantined to snarky music bloggers and obscurity-fearing professional musicians — to paint streaming services as the great evil.
What bothers me the most about knee-jerk demonization of tech companies is that record labels are really the ones to blame. It was the labels that used lawyers and lobbyists to bring copyright under corporate control. Don’t hate the industry that’s trying to make it more fair!
I would agree it’s naive to think tech companies would have anything but their bottom lines in mind when it comes to decision-making, just like the corporate oligarchy controlling music copyrights. Nonetheless, look at all the great music that has come out of the labels despite them being largely evil empires. The same will be true of tech companies, but they still have a long ways to go before they can compete with the unabashed exploitation of musicians at the hands of the labels. Remember McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”
Sure, making music more fair means the 1% of musicians who earn 95% of the profits in the music industry are going to have to take a hit to their paycheck. That’s the shift caused by technology in many corners of society, in music it is embodied by the streaming services. The record labels are the ones who want to see the 1% hold on to their money, because they collect over 50% of their revenue before it makes it to the artist! Who’s screwing who?
Back to bottled water. It’s been a popular thing for technologists to say that “music is like water” because… well… it is. It’s kind of common sense and obvious. Tens of thousands of people have agreed. This is why the click-bait trolling article was written in the first place, like a kid kicking a bees’ nest.
If you visit the link, you’ll notice I started to refute the article point by point before getting overwhelmingly bored. I’ve been fighting against the trolls who demonize the music tech industry for years. It’s getting tiresome. What’s more, the world I talk about — the world in which music flows like water — is already here. We’re never going to regress back into the world that the copyright maximalist musicians are trying to complain us back to. This much is clear in their total lack of advancing any workable solutions for increasing the value around music.
Here’s the problem: Musicians (and many others) are confusing copyright with music.
Music is Free
If you don’t understand why music is free, please take a second to hum a song. Now try to put a price tag on it. You can’t. You need some sort of way of gatekeeping access to that song in order to create value around it. There are two ways: build a fence to keep people out, or build a fence to keep people in.
Copyright is the fence built to keep people out. Patronage is the fence built to keep people in.
Copyright Productizes Music
Copyright has been the way we’ve generated value around music for roughly 200 years, first by protecting sheet music, but most importantly by protecting the song recording. For the first time in the music business, the gates didn’t have to be physical to create value around song. Prior to the invention of the recording, the only way to create value around music was to attract patronage — the main way of doing so was to be paid for a performance. The way to create value in a performance is to charge those who pass through the entrance. The gates were physical and literal.
With copyright, the gates became more like music — ineffable, conceptual. Over time, listeners and musicians were brainwashed by the copyright industry to combine copyright and music into a single concept — “sonic product” — the idea of music as a product to be packaged and sold like any other consumer good. The free music, like that on the radio or TV, was just promotion for the sale of the product — a free sample.
But the product of music isn’t like consumer packaged goods. The “packaging” is copyright, a law that you can’t touch, smell, taste or hear.
That’s where the bottled water analogy comes in.
Streaming music is tap water in a world where bottled water used to be the only choice. Oh sure, you can saddle up to the water fountain of radio, or the office cooler of music television. But to have on-demand access to the water that you want, a bottled-water system makes no sense when tap water technology is here. Sure, plenty of listeners will continue buying bottled water because of its perceived convenience or quality, the rest of us are thirsty and just want a drink.
We’re undergoing the same kind of fundamental shift that happened when music moved from performance to recording, from patronage to copyright.
Of course, the multibillion-dollar bottled water will fight with all its might to protect its profits. This is the true crisis in music — corporations ruining music just for profit. Tech companies are also trying to profit, but they’re doing it by building walls that keep people in, not walls that keep people out. The tech industry is building the music taps, the listeners want it, the musicians want it — only the bottled water industry wants to fight it. Unfortunately, the bottled water industry (and the labels) have lots of money and lawyers to ruin society with!
We need to stop confusing copyright with music. Music exists independently from the access-control mechanisms we use to create value around it. This is not to say the forces of business and technology have no role in shaping music. Quite the opposite is true — we tend to underestimate just how much commerce and technology shape creativity.
But when it comes time to talk about what music really is, the cacophony of music bloggers and complaining professional musicians drowns out the truth.
Music is like water. It’s a free but precious resource necessary for human life that must be maintained and made fairly accessible for humanity to progress. And like water, it is constantly under threat of corporate control for the best interest of the corporation, not society.
The record labels are the water bottlers. You pay a premium, and you feel it in your wallet every time.
The streaming services are the tap. You pay a small monthly fee, and metering makes sure the costs and revenues are evenly distributed.
But guess what? The water analogy doesn’t stop there. Do you see the ocean?
In the music analogy, the ocean is the sea of musicians — the majority of musicians — who don’t make a penny playing music. Forget money, they don’t even get a chance to be heard.
Right now, the sea is undrinkable unless you build an expensive system to filter it. This is exactly where the music industry is right now. We’re trying to figure out a way to filter the millions of musicians playing across the world and deliver something of value to the listener. Or, in water terms, we’re trying to desalinize the ocean.
We’ve come to define the hit song as the pinnacle of music, but that’s not true. The pinnacle of music is in every musician being heard, whether it’s by one person or one million. We’re getting there, and it starts with moving past the bottled water industry.
Even as mainstream culture grows even more monolithic, one by one, people are waking up to this new way of thinking about how we create value around what we create. Control is moving from the corporation back to the individual as profit takes a backseat to community. Music isn’t a product to be sold, it’s a service we provide to each other.
It’s the most exciting time to be a musician… and it’s a pretty exciting time to be a human in general.
So pour yourself a nice, tall glass of tap water and toast to the future of music, where all musical thirsts are quenched!
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair
It’s the latest fad: rock stars hating digital music. Well, not really — it started with Napster. Back then, a lot of artists held their tongues, realizing that it would be mega-uncool to call their fans thieves just for being fans. Plus, the major labels had screwed them repeatedly, and it was schadenfreude to see them suffer because of their own greed and ineptitude.
Flash forward over a decade, and the labels have figured out how to continue to profit from gatekeeping access to the world’s music. Sure, they’ve seen their market share slip versus the indies, and now only own the rights to around 70% of recorded music. But they’ve once again managed to control the means of mass distribution, this time by dictating the terms of digital music streaming services so that they could not exist without the majors, legal or financially. (I’s also the reason why streaming royalty payouts are so low for most artists — the major labels, as always, take the lion’s share.)
The rock stars realize they’re being screwed again by the majors (what did they expect?) David Byrne is the latest to pile on While many famous musicians point the finger at tech companies ad exploiters du jour, Byrne’s piece rightly acknowledges the majors are culpable for setting the terms of streaming music. Nonetheless, he speaks in concert with many other high profile artists when he blames digital distribution of music for destroying music, saying “The internet will suck all creative content out of the world”. I respect Byrne as a musician and a well-spoken, well-written, thoughtful musical provocateur, but this is too much.
Most of the complaining is just reactionary vitriol, the same way journalists deride blogging, or photographers bellyache about Instagram. There were probably some pretty pissed off monastic scribes when the printing press came out.
The problem with creative professionals complaining about changes brought about by technology is that they’re focusing only on their careers. I don’t blame ’em. Only those with a laser-like career focus can find any long-term success in the creative industries. As it relates specifically to the music industry, I never would have expected vaudeville performers to welcome recorded music, or for Tin Pan Alley to welcome radio, or for the record and radio busiensses to welcome digital.
When rock stars and professionals make the digital music debate all about their paychecks, they not only pass culpability from the major labels that deserve it to the technology companies that enable freer access to music. Tragically, when music professionals make grandiose statements about how digital is killing music, they measure the decline only in the dollar amount of their paycheck, and they denigrate music in the same way the major labels do. They reduce one of humankind’s greatest evolutionary and expressive triumphs to mere profit, and they fail to ignore the benefit of digital music to everyone else.
Put simply, more music is being made and listened to than ever before. Digital music combines the best of recording (accessibility to high-quality music performances) with the best of radio (free access). It’s the best thing to ever happen for fans — and make no mistake, fans control the music industry, though more often than not they may not realize it.
There is no doubt the professional musician is on the decline, which is bittersweet. Most career musicians are working-class survivors, a group of ~50,000 musicians in the U.S. who have fought their way tooth-and-nail to profitability. Only a fraction enjoy profitable careers lasting more than a few years. A generally non-vocal majority of professional musicians are busy adapting to the changing market, but a handful of very vocal complainers are raising an awful stink about their shrinking paychecks. Again, I don’t blame them for being protective of their livelihoods — but look what good paywalling did for newspapers/journalists. Successful pro photographers found out ways to embrace Instagram, not fight it.
My biggest gripe with the anti-free access to music, professional musician mentality is that what little time it spends focusing on solutions, those solutions belie any understanding of the change that has already taken place, and ignore those who aren’t professional musicians — namely, the tens of millions of music fans that make their paychecks possible.
It’s absurd how many artists, Byrne included, just complain. At least crusaders like David Lowery are trying to articulate solutions, though they often reduce to useless catch phrases like “stop artist exploitation” or “piracy is stealing”. What is all this doing except making professional musicians look like entitled, out-of-touch geezers to their fans?
The other troubling development is that these activist musicians end up bolstering the exploitation-based business built by major labels, by virtue of the fact that major labels control the market. Every dollar musicians fight to earn back by more strictly enforcing copyright law is $99 that goes into the pockets of the labels. Even the labels are finally realizing after 125 years of fighting piracy, that the War on Piracy is like the War on Drugs or the War on Terrorism. To the extent that battles can be won, the cost of doing so — both financial and in the hearts and minds of fans — is unsustainable.
What these money-focused musicians miss is so obvious: it’s not about the money. As Henry Rollins said, “I’d rather be heard than paid.” This is not something that only professional musicians feel. Every musician feels this. Even fans feel this. And I think what every professional musician needs to realize is that their careers are transforming because digital technology awakens the musician in all of us. Music professionals no longer enjoy a monopoly on the title of “musician.”
Free access to music empowers the amateur and the aspiring musician to earn income on scales that were not possible before. It reverses the trend of music without context — instead of digital files floating around in the cloud, creators are now compelled to create imagery, video, and other media around the music, enriching the fan experience.
Free access to music is blurring the line between fan and musician, creating a new culture of creator-consumers, remixing and mashing up several generations of recordings to create a new art form. They curate playlists to become the new DJs. They sample at will to electronically create entirely original compositions with embedded links to music history.
Free access to music rebalances the world of music more toward performances, away from the hegemony of the recording. In a post-scarcity economy, copies of performances lose value, original performances gain value. This rewards the generation of new music without having to rely on messy copyright law. EDM is explosively huge, and so much of it exists outside the copyright exploitation paradigm.
Free access to music allows musicians to focus on what’s really important: their relationship with their fans. Gone are the days when fans were measured in dollar amounts. Success in music is now measured in attention, in engagement.
Free access to music de-emphasizes the ethically compromised business model of copyright exploitation in favor of direct fan patronage. It may not scale to gold records, but the only people that seem to care are the rock stars, and those that still believe in the rock star myth. And if you’re hell-bent on copyright exploitation as your main source of revenue, there are plenty of academic studies showing free access to music increases sales of access to music.
I get that it’s counterintuitive — especially for professional musicians — to see their disappearing careers as a good thing. But it is. You just have to consider that music is bigger than the ~50,000 professional musicians in the U.S. There are fifty times as many musicians creating music right now for no money, and waving it all away as crappy music is a defense mechanism. They are finding their audiences. They are supplementing their income and breaking even. They are being heard even if they aren’t being paid. And if they’re really good composers, performers, recording artists and entrepreneurs, they are getting more chances to be heard, more chances to build a career.
There is no doubt that free access to music is inevitable — if not here already — and will continue to be the major force in reshaping music. To the detractors and complainers, I’m afraid the question of whether that’s a net benefit to humanity has already been settled. The fans have spoken. They want the music back.
The price of music is… well… schizophrenic. A single track can be simultaneously obtained for free on BitTorrent, or purchased on the iTunes store for $1.29. Or you can stream it for next-to-nothing on Spotify, or for a fraction of next-to-nothing on YouTube. And you can still buy the CD for $14.95 to get that one song you like, if you’re a masochist or retired.
The free music debate is often framed as an epic battle to save music itself. Proponents of stricter copyright enforcement claim that keeping these price points high is necessary to keep the quality of music high. Without the proper funding, musicians will make less music, or if not less, at least worse.
I think we can all agree that while the price of music is effectively (with streaming) or literally (with torrenting) free, the cost of producing music is anything but. There is real labor, real expense involved in producing an album.
What does it cost to produce music? Whatever you want to spend, or can afford. That’s the problem with putting the pricing debate in perspective — the costs to produce vary as wildly as the results. There have been plenty of multi-million dollar flops and home-recorded hits, so how can one ever put a definitive cost on music production? We can only assign a range of possibilities, but doing so does help illuminate the debate.
Before we talk production costs, there is something important to be said for the fact that costs vary wildly. It would suggest that pricing of music ought to vary wildly, at least somewhat in line with the cost to produce it. And yet, the basement DIY record and the multi-million dollar Rhianna album both retail for $1.29/track on iTunes. This is because the price of music is fixed by the big 3 record companies that control around three quarters of the global music industry. And yes, those same three major labels were the ones who negotiated how much artists get paid on streaming services — an amount that as we have seen is so paltry as to only be sustainable on a large, major-label market scale.
Point is, music should cost whatever the artist and their business team wants. This idea is often invoked by detractors of free access to music. “You can make your music available for free, that’s fine,” they say, “but I have the right to charge for mine.” Which is true, and copyright makes it so — artists enjoy a monopoly over the right to distribute copies of their music at the moment they record or write down a song. The intent of copyright is to create value around this right, so that production costs (both in labor and materials) can be covered, and the production of music can flourish. So it would stand to reason that the value created by copyright would not remain fixed as production costs fall.
Nope. The major labels have consistently fixed the value of music copyright by litigating and legislating against any force that threatens to devalue music access fees. They have extended copyright terms to draconian lengths. Any technology that is outside of their price-fixing controls is sued out of existence, and the law is changed if it does not suit their litigious needs. Forget free access to music, the powers that be don’t even want variably-priced music!
Major labels have enjoyed an effective monopoly over the monopoly that copyright grants artists. This happened because the value of copyright was not intrinsic, rather it was hitched to the ability of a business to exploit it. In the past, it was incredibly difficult for the artist to exploit their own copyright to create value — they had to sign their rights over to a label to be exploited. They didn’t have access to the apparatus of production, marketing and distribution like they do today. Thus, the value of music copyright was in the value of being exploited.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a major shift in the value of copyright, due in no small part to the falling costs of production. The cost of recording technology dropped to a fraction of what it once was. You can still spend a few million dollars building a state-of-the-art studio, but more and more are recording for less and less. Modern recording technology also speeds up the recording process considerably, so there are fewer labor costs.
Music listening is becoming a more participatory process, and more music is being made (via remixes, covers and mashups) just for fun or expression, without commercial intent. You can still spend a year writing an album, but plenty of musicians are vastly reducing the labor involved in composing an album by using technology to demo as they write, with feedback and collaboration happening at a faster pace.
Marketing costs are at an all-time low thanks to social networks and the ability of bands to connect directly with fans. You can still spend millions on a national marketing campaign (or get a consumer electronics company to underwrite it), but it’s now possible to market an album guerilla-style, and catch on virally without spending a dime.
And don’t get me started on distribution. Since the Napster days, the cost to distribute digital music has been effectively free. The real expense that these streaming sites have is not server bandwidth (a point that would be largely mooted by peer-to-peer technology). The exorbitant expense is in the labor required to seek out rights holders, get them to sign a digital service license agreement, and the accounting behind tabulating and paying out their share of the streaming pie. And when you’re talking about having to negotiate with the big three majors, you better believe the expense is going to be as exorbitant as the top entertainment lawyers can manage.
Digital distribution is what truly democratized the music industry, and the genie is never going back in the bottle no matter how much the RIAA continues quixotically to cram it in. I can distribute my music worldwide via any number of retail aggregators (CDBaby, OneRPM, TuneCore, DistroKid, etc.) for the cost of a magazine subscription. I can certainly distribute it worldwide absolutely free as well. The cost of digital distribution is near zero, and has been for quite some time.
So, there we have it. The labor involved in songwriting (to the extent you can call it ‘labor’) has been slightly decreased by technology. The time and cost of recording has been drastically reduced. Successful marketing can be achieved at a fraction of former costs. Distribution is nearly free.
The cost to produce music is much lower than it was just a decade ago. Shouldn’t the price of music adjust accordingly? Isn’t the pricing of streaming much closer to what’s fair for consumers? Doesn’t the declining cost of music production dictate that we charge less — even nothing — for access music? When you factor in new opportunities in direct fan patronage, a growing live music market and greater demand for licensed music, shouldn’t we continue to develop the intrinsic value of music as a service, and relax monopoly distribution rights on the music product in order to do so? This would be disadvantageous for the big three record labels, but a boon to most musicians and their fans, because a chance to be heard is a chance to be supported.
I have enjoyed satellite radio for the last three and a half years. There’s nothing quite like genre-sorted, slightly random playlists of singles peppered with a few b-sides.
But here’s the truth: Sirius XM sucks.
You bet Top 40 radio is unlistenable! Who wants to listen to advertisements for music sandwiched between advertisements for products when there are so many other options?
Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, Grooveshark, Turntable.fm… they’re all great on a desktop, workable on mobile, but get most into a car and you’re a slave to cell signal strength.
It’s crazy that a world of digital music still can’t compete with satellite radio for convenience in the car. And it’s all because they followed the business model of the 8-track cassette — build the damn thing directly into the dashboard of every American-made car.
Sirius XM has a market monopoly on delivering music via satellite. I’ll admit it, I hated them even before using the service, and I ended up a customer anyway.
The merger was a profitable move for both companies. Without the government’s blessing on its monopoly, satellite radio might have gone the way of the 8-track. But the industry elite had deemed satellite radio too big to fail.
The merger was not good for artists or fans, but who cares about them, right?
No, this blog post is not about the obvious ethical bankruptcy of the FCC or of large media conglomerates like Sirius XM. It’s about my personal experience with their predatory billing practices, poor promotional ploys and abysmal customer service that led me to cancel my subscription today.
I ended up with satellite radio as most people do — with a free 6 month trial in a new car. When the six months was up, I was offered a great introductory deal. I forget exactly what the rate was, but it was far less than the $18.99/month default payment plan ($227.88 when billed monthly for a year). I made sure that I was purchasing a single year of service, and made sure Sirius XM knew they did not have my authorization to charge my card after my year was up.
$227.88 per year is waaaaaaay too much for satellite radio. And this is the low end of the cost — if you don’t own the hardware or want to access your Sirius XM online, it’s going to cost you extra. If the FCC’s intent was to ignore the issues of customer price fixing and price gouging in order to maintain satellite radio’s profitability, they did a great job.
But nobody pays $227.88 for their first year of Sirius XM. They sign on for 30%, 40%, 50% off or more. And like any bait-and-switch introductory rate, the fine print says that unless you call to cancel your subscription, you will automatically be billed the full $18.99/month in perpetuity.
After my initial free six months and toward the end of my killer one-year deal, I started getting the expected renewal offers in the mail. There seemed to be a new one every two weeks — even before I could consider the 50% off, they were throwing 60% off at me. 70% off. Finally, I got an offer to get 6 months for $25. The regular price for 6 months of service is $113.94. I took it.
Only now, they wouldn’t accept my terms not to auto-bill my credit card. After much insisting, they finally told me that there was no way to have a subscription without it being automatically renewed and billed. I could pay by check, but the service would auto-renew and a new check would be due unless I called to cancel.
So, like your typical idiot consumer, I made a mental note to cancel my account right before the “six months for $25” deal expired, and I forgot. I spent a year paying the $18.99/month like a chump. Had I only taken 20 minutes out of my day to call Sirius XM and threaten to cancel my account, I could have been paying $4.17/mo. instead of $18.99/mo.
Folks, if you like Sirius XM radio and you’re not paying $4.17/mo., put that 20 minute cancellation call on your calendar right now. You can thank me later for saving you a few hundred bucks a year.
I’m not ashamed to admit I probably would have gone on paying $18.99/mo. like a chump had my debit card not fortuitously expired. This required Sirius XM to call be to update my billing information, and that’s when they began to really lose me.
The customer service nightmare began, as it often does, with an underpaid customer service representative in a foreign country where labor is cheaper.
“If I could not stop auto-renewal,” I told them, “I would like to cancel my account.” That’s when the barrage of offers started coming. 60% off, 70% off, all the way back down to six months for $25.
I insisted that unless there was a better offer, I would like to cancel my account and see if I can get a better offer after canceling.
The rep then asked if I would like to finish out my current plan. I said sure, seeing as there were only a few months left and assuming I had already been billed the annual fee. What I didn’t realize was that I was still being billed monthly, this monthly billing was part of a year-long block of billing time. So with a few confusing words, the rep convinced me of finishing out the year with Sirius XM (my “current plan”) and then having my service cancelled. I settled last month’s fee, agreed to pay out the remaining four months of my plan, and then my account would be cancelled.
It occurred to me that I had just accomplished what I was told was impossible — to continue to get Sirius XM service without my subscription being auto-renewed! Success!
Then I got a call on Friday that would be the beginning of the end.
You know it’s one of those calls when you get the awkward 2-second pause between saying “Hello” and hearing the rep saying his or her call script. When I heard the rep was from Sirius XM I couldn’t believe it. Here I had already cancelled my service, and they were calling me to renew. I didn’t mind that I had already received a couple of letters in the mail from Sirius XM offering me the $25 for 6 months deal. But calling me on the phone, direct telemarketing, was just over the top.
I told the rep that it wasn’t a good time and to call back later, but I had my mind made up. Finishing out my plan was not worth it if I was going to be harassed by customer service. I would answer their call and cancel.
They called once in the morning and once at night for four straight days. I admit, I didn’t pick up because I wanted to see how long they’d go for. Finally, this morning, I picked up and got yet another surprise.
Even though I had updated my billing information the previous month, Sirius XM was calling me to update my billing info because the card they had on file was expired. This despite taking and successfully processing new billing info last month. And what happened to the “plan” that I was finishing up? If I was being billed monthly, what the hell was the “plan” the last rep was referring to in any case?
At this point I couldn’t tell the difference between their mistakes and their scams. All I knew was that I wanted out. I updated my billing info (for the second time) and was transferred once again to the cancellation department.
I understand the game. When you call to cancel your service contract, you run the gauntlet of incredible deals meant to coerce you into doing anything but cancel. It starts with the magic question: “May I ask why you are canceling?” From there, your conversation branches off in one of two directions. Say you can’t afford it and they will offer you discounts until you can (at least for the next six months, after which you’ll be auto-renewed at the unaffordable rate). Say you have a problem and they’ll throw the same deals at you, and maybe add on a month or two of free service for your grievances.
I explained that my problem was that I found it unethical that Sirius XM was bait-and-switching its customers, auto-renewing subscriptions for premium fees after getting cards on file at introductory rates. I thought they were being predatory by not clearly disclosing that their business model was to sign you up for $4.17/mo. and then begin billing you $18.99/mo. six months later with no notification. I told the rep that I understand the need for promotional deals, but the sheer number of different proposals, and the universal nature of their deceit, had finally gotten to me. Finally, I told the rep that I knew Sirius XM didn’t care and probably wouldn’t listen to my concerns but maybe, just maybe, she could talk to her boss and relay my concern that Sirius XM’s predatory billing practices are unsustainable.
In most situations, there is nothing you can do to change a corporation other than to not patronize it. Luckily, I can do something more than just cancel my support for the satellite radio monopoly. This blog gives me the platform to let others know: Sirius XM needs to change its billing practices, because more customers each day are realizing they’re complicit in unethical business practices. We see the switch behind the bait. We see through the false empathy of the customer service training. We understand your business exists solely to make a profit and has long since parted with any intention of fostering the greater good of musicians and their fans.
Today I cancelled my Sirius XM subscription. I will miss the occasional discovery of a new artist. I will miss the ability to turn on CNN to hear up-to-the-minute descriptions the latest thing to be blown up and/or engulfed in flames. I will miss it on long drives when I most need musical surprises to break up the monotony.
I won’t miss relinquishing control over the terms on which a company takes my money. I won’t miss the incessant attempts to bait-and-switch me back as a customer. I won’t miss feeling complicit in the exploitation of all the artists on the station, whom Sirius XM lobbies against paying. I won’t miss the customer service hold time, or the feeling of having my concerns ignored.
Today, and for as long as people Google “Sirius XM sucks”, this blog will be there to remind the Sirius XM corporation and its employees: The legitimate value of your service is being undermined by the exploitation of your customers and those who made the music that gives your service value. You will profit in the short term, but the business will be unsustainable in the long term. Tomorrow’s headlines are “Sirius XM Goes Way of 8-Track”.
Hang out for a few minutes and I’ll tell you why Grooveshark may be more ethical than Spotify.
Brief History Lesson
By suing Napster and its kin out of existence, the music industry elite created a “soft landing” for its multi-billion dollar business of selling access to recorded music. They couldn’t kill so-called music “piracy” (also known as song sharing), so they killed the nascent technology companies that tried to build a business around it.
To what extent have musicians benefitted from this business model? Until access to music became free, it was our primary revenue stream. But too often we got such a small piece of the overall pie. The record business was never particularly ethical, with its exploitative contracts, shady accounting and history of corruption.
Free access to music wiped these ethical dilemmas off the table with one click of a mouse, giving us a new debate over the question of whether music should be free to access and share.
Notice I didn’t say “free music”. Music isn’t free to produce or market, though costs have dropped considerably any way you spin it.
At the time of Napster, music suddenly was free to access with an Internet plan and a computer. It took the industry hundreds of millions of legal and lobbying dollars to finally stop the bleeding. In 2013, the slow death of physical media has been largely offset by the rapid growth of digital after a precipitous $3B drop.
The corporate music industry would be quick to tell you that suing innovative digital music companies and individual file sharers was all about protecting musicians’ revenue, that they saved our bottom lines. This is the same industry that coerced us to sign exploitative contracts, that price gouged and price fixed consumers, that bought off radio to play the same songs on repeat.
But musicians are starting to wise up as they see the bottom line on their streaming revenue reports. To be fair, Spotify (and iTunes) pay roughly 70% of its revenue to artists (more accurately, “rights holders”, which are primarily the labels who exploit the artists’ copyrights). A lot of the negative reaction can be chalked up to failures in long-term vision — as the decibel point moves right in our royalties, the multiplier grows exponentially. But the current streaming royalty system clearly favors the big four major labels over the short and long term, because it is harder for independent, unsigned and emerging musicians to compete with their massive back catalog of perennially popular music and marketing budget to match.
Some musicians are coming around to bridging the art/business divide and becoming entrepreneurs themselves. They’re sick of having to rely on someone else exploiting their rights for increasingly less money. The Internet allows direct fan patronage in the form of crowdfunding, tipping, or selling both virtual and physical products from one’s own website. Home studio production is getting cheaper and better. Licensees are hungrier than ever for the latest music. Marketing is as easy as creativity > strategy > click. These aren’t empty catch phrases like “downloading music for free is stealing” and “piracy is bad”, these are realities clear to any musician working in the field today.
Yes, there will always be artists who dare not sully their art with business concerns, but they are an increasingly lonely breed. The new musician adapts to the meager streaming royalty stream not by petitioning for higher royalty rates from Pandora, but by embracing business models with far more promise than selling access to recorded music. If only the record business elite would step off. But there’s billions at stake and they like their yachts. Who can blame them? They’re the last generation of the American Dream and they don’t want to wake up.
Really? What about “a digital world that rewards the gatekeepers between artists and creators”. That’s really what the IFPI is concerned about. It doesn’t represent the interests of musicians, it safeguards the commercial exploiters of musicians’ recorded music copyrights. Let’s tell it like it is — the money trickles down through the cracks in their multi-billion dollar pavement. The markup on music remains artificially high to justify the expense of major label production and marketing. They also need to even out the variance from gambling on bands like derivatives traders.
What’s concerning is to see musicians jumping on the IFPI’s bandwagon, supporting the suing of technology companies, demonizing their own fans for sharing music. I mean, what do these musicians think is going happen? Are we going to all of the sudden roll the music industry back to 1996 when a CD cost $14.95 and you were forced to buy 9 crappy songs for every hit single?
“Of course not,” these skeptics will tell you. They love new technology, it just has to be applied fairly to musicians. Technology companies, they say, are even worse than the exploitative record labels, because they want to use your music for their own gain and pay you nothing!
It’s not even remotely that simple. Of course, there are plenty of digital music companies exploiting musicians’ copyrights. But it’s precisely because we’re still working within the model of copyright exploitation established by the labels.
Grooveshark is an exploiter. Spotify is an exploiter. And on the face of it, Grooveshark would appear to be screwing artists far worse than Spotify. Google has decided to blacklist them from certain search functions under pressure from the IFPI and its minions to fight so-called “piracy”. But Grooveshark has only been convicted in the industry, not in the court. They’ve literally been blacklisted from the industry for daring to question the status quo of corporate-hijacked music law and technology.
Corporate Hijacking of Music Law and Technology
The majors and some indies have refused to license their music to Grooveshark. As a result, the majors are trying to sue Grooveshark to death just like Napster or all of the other -ster’s they shut down with copyright infringement lawsuits. We know how well that worked — unauthorized song sharing only grew more popular. The industry’s well-documented and cyclical fight on piracy is the same kind of endless war the US is engaged in overseas. The industry has been fighting it for 100+ years and the only true goal has been to co-opt the developments of independent innovators rather than truly eliminate piracy, which is quixotic. (See the book Pop Song Piracy.)
Spotify and its ilk only use officially licensed music. But what happens when the legal system is broken? Copyright is supposed to protect our right to profit from our labor and to express one’s personhood. It’s also supposed to promote social and cultural welfare, and benefit the greater good by making creative works accessible to the widest possible audience. The cost for access is supposed to be high enough to incentivize creators to keep creating, while low enough to prevent a large deadweight loss, depriving the least amount of citizens from access to the work. These are the moral and economic foundations of copyright, and they’ve been hijacked — just like the political process, the food supply and our media — by large corporations.
In 2011, the four major labels controlled 88% of the market share for recorded music. That’s enough to make the Monopoly Man jealous. These labels own the rights to the vast majority of the music we listen to, and use their enormous legal and lobbying resources to keep it that way. It’s not some sort of conspiracy, it’s standard American capitalism, and the American way of music business is increasingly the way of the world.
Don’t Bring Back the $14.95 CD, Bring Back Napster
People rallied around Napster for two reasons. One was that it made it possible to access all of society’s recorded music for free. The second was that many music consumers knew they themselves were being exploited by major labels almost as much as musicians were. They witnessed a history of major music industry settlements for price fixing, price gouging and payola. They heard the stories of great musicians suffering because a label coerced them into an onerous contract. They paid $14.95 for one good song.
The music industry was incapable of embracing a world where all of society’s recorded music was available for free, even if that’s clearly what consumers wanted. (Most people at this point will say, “of course that’s what people wanted, people want everything to be free” to which I reply, “Yes they do.”)
As a quick aside, I believe music is closer to a necessity than a want — closer to food, affection, sex, shelter, etc. than a new TV or a Snickers bar. As a society we should endeavor to provide free and fair access to music — a Right to Music — on a humanitarian level. (Follow the link for more.)
Free access to music is good for musicians for one simple reason: An opportunity to be heard is an opportunity to be paid. Anyway, the best musicians make music in order to be heard first, paid second. The motivating factor of copyright and the potential of being the 1 in 10,000 musicians that become a rock star have been greatly exaggerated. If copyright law evaporated tomorrow we’d still be making music. That the music industry lost half its value and we have more artists creating more music than ever before is testament to this fact.
Grooveshark vs. Spotify
This all relates to the Grooveshark vs. Spotify ethics question, because Grooveshark is pretty much the only company of its size that believes access to music should be free (or nearly so.)
Spotify, and the dozens of other streaming services (many of them restricted to certain geographical regions because of licensing rights restrictions) believe that the way to save musicians is to increase payments to the labels that exploit them.
Let’s contrast two opinions, the first from IFPI chairman Domingo:
“…policymakers better understand that the internet does not make music “free”.”
Here we have a straight-up threat by the IFPI to stop funding politicians’ re-election campaigns if they don’t pass legislation protecting major labels’ ability to exploit musicians’ rights for maximum profitability. Spotify et. al. would agree with this statement. As we’ve observed, just because the Internet provides free or near-free access to music, that doesn’t make the production and marketing costs of music zero (though costs have inarguably dropped significantly).
Storm the Gates
It seems we are left with two solutions. The one proposed by the IFPI is to protect the gatekeepers by charging a monthly subscription fee for access to music.
I have no problem with this business model, nor do I think should musicians.
I had no problem with it back in 2000 when Napster brought us the technology and proposed the exact same business model. But too many salaries built from exploiting musicians were on the line, and they were sued out of existence. It wasn’t done for the musicians. It was for the executives, the lawyers, the lobbyists and the other business associates at the multi-billion dollar multi-national corporations. Any musician who thinks these companies have their best interests in mind are deluded. It’s not entirely black and white — I’m sure there are plenty of employees who do good and mean well. But even the legends that deserve our respect, like David Geffen, eventually had their ethics compromised by commercial forces. A cursory glance at music industry history clearly demonstrates why gatekeepers between the artist and fan are a really, really bad idea from an ethics standpoint.
Musicians had no choice but to put up with it to get paid. This is no longer true.
Let’s contrast Domingo’s threat with Grooveshark SVP Paul Geller’s vision on where the music industry out to be headed:
“…I think that we have to be creative about how to get more money into this ecosystem, because I don’t think anyone sees those numbers [streaming payments] and is really inspired by them, I think people look at them and say ‘well this is a soft landing for the music industry,’ it’s ‘hopefully we don’t have to lay off too many people.’ And that’s why I think that Grooveshark is out there trying to be creative about how to infuse the industry with more money in ways that I don’t think are commonplace right now.” (from Digital Music News)
Grooveshark’s technology and innovation was neck and neck with all the other streaming music sites a few years ago, prior to having to dedicate an enormous chunk of their time and revenue to fighting legal battles with the majors. They recently rolled out some nice new features to compete with the Spotifies, but it’s clear they are living in a legal and fiscal nightmare. Their CEO Sam Tarantino admitted as much while doing an interview for Grooveshark’s new Broadcast feature. I can only surmise by statements like the one above that the people at Grooveshark truly believe they are fighting the good fight. And why shouldn’t they?
Grooveshark does pay artists, it’s just that they haven’t reached a licensing deal with the majors because as of yet they’re unwilling to bend over far enough. To Grooveshark, the majors are just trying to extort them and screw musicians anyway.
If you’re an independent artist or label, you can register your music with Grooveshark and they will pay you a share of their advertising and subscription revenue. These payments may be even smaller than what Spotify can offer, but Grooveshark is also much smaller, and draining their pockets just fighting to exist. Legally, they are in the right, because the DMCA allows for a safe harbor to exist for copyright-infringing, user-generated content, provided the company removes this content upon request and the platform has other significant uses beyond so-called “piracy” (really just unauthorized sharing of songs… does that sound so bad?)
Nobody knows right now if Grooveshark will give out and sign away their seemingly sinking ship to the majors, or if they’ll keep fighting the good fight until the courts deliver a predictably narrow, safe harbor-eroding decision. Law was never good at keeping pace with technology.
Toward a Two-Way Music Industry
The majors would like to continue collecting 88% of the market share for recorded music (and then pay a fraction of it to musicians because they signed exploitative contracts at low points in their career). How does consolidating wealth in media gatekeepers accomplish the IFPI’s mission of achieving “A digital world that rewards artists and creators”?
This fits into the larger context of corporations and governments trying to kill Internet freedom. Ask yourself, “Why wasn’t radio two-way? Why couldn’t the listeners also be the broadcasters? What about television?” At a glance this seems to be a technology and cost issue, but it’s not that simple. There are powerful commercial forces that ensure these technologies are developed in a way that maximizes profit for corporations, creators and consumers be damned. That’s why we have a long history of gatekeepers in all creative industries, not just in music.
The Internet changed all that with one simple feature — the consumer is now also the broadcaster. Large corporations have spent the last 15 years trying to litigate and legislate their way back to one-way media. Discouragingly, they continue to make gains every day.
This is why I believe Grooveshark may be the more ethical approach on balance. Spotify may talk a good game on paying artists. They may be expanding the pie we take our little piece of. And we can’t rush to conclusions that just because a single stream payment looks small today doesn’t mean it will add up in the long haul. Ultimately, any discussion of musician’s revenue share is taking place within the context of what their revenue share will be after the technology company takes their 30%, and then the label takes its majority share. Spotify and the IFPI are really only innovators in repressive legal maneuvers and artist exploitation. They’re profiting from a 15-year-old idea Napster first realized.
How can I say Spotify and the IFPI are exploiting artists when they’re trying to collect more money for them? Because it perpetuates the old model of exploitation on new technology. It’s repeating the same cycle of co-option that happened with the phonograph, with radio, with cassettes and with CDs. It’s a smokescreen to prevent you from thinking like an entrepreneur, from adapting to free access to music, from finding new opportunities to profit without the gatekeepers and stealing their market share. They desperately want to continue the same systematic exploitation and price-fixing that the record industry has been guilty of for the last 100+ years.
Grooveshark is more ethical because it rejects this corruption. They aren’t saints. They’re certainly pariahs. They haven’t figured out how to improve upon tiny streaming music payments, but they’re trying so hard they’re sacrificing their personal lives, their livelihoods, their reputations and quite possibly their sanity.
The vast majority of musicians will see no significant increase in revenue until the major labels lose their market monopoly, and their revenue share drops considerably. In this sense, Grooveshark is using loopholes in the DMCA to kick the IFPI in the nuts — pretty much its only defense against the obscene legal might of the industry elite.
As a musician, do you really think the IFPI or Spotify (if they can stay in business) are going to solve your revenue problem? Of course not. They’re looking out for #1: the record industry elite.
The solution for musicians is to start looking out for #1 too. That means building a culture of entrepreneurship. That means direct patronage from fans via crowdfunding and tipping. That means cutting out the gatekeeper and giving fans exclusive access to products that are still scarce. Selling access to music is no longer viable, and only by corrupting copyright do corporations make it so. The ethical foundation of copyright is sound, but it has been corrupted.
The greatest lie told by the IFPI is not that their mission is driven by musicians (they have musicians in mind, maybe, but certainly not a priority). The greatest lie told is that they are somehow going to bring musicians back to a world where they were fairly paid for their labor, where they are free to express their personhood without exploitation, where society can access and share music freely, and where more music of higher quality and greater diversity is listened to with greater frequency.
That world never existed. But it can today, with free access to music as the great equalizer.
The only way to fairly solve the musician revenue problem is for musicians to reject the century-old system of exploitation and fight to keep the Internet free so we can build a new culture and economy of direct fan patronage and musician entrepreneurship.
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.
Let’s all take a deep breath and relax, folks. Young people still love music, they just have a different relationship to it than us. We need to stop framing generational relationships to music as “worse” or “better” than ours. In fact, we need need to stop this whole “young people” talk — it’s making us look old and out of date.
The all-too-familiar argument behind this imaginary desertion of music by today’s youth could not sound less crotchety. “These kids walking around in a bubble with their over-compressed MP3s on their crappy earbud headphones! Back in my day we listened to records or the radio all night! Now they just play video games! They don’t pay for music, they don’t respect artist, they don’t even care who wrote the damn song, they just want to listen and forget it!” Even Flea has whined: “MP3s suck. It’s just a shadow of the music.” I thought Flea was cool!
The problem is that the older generations can’t help but view youth culture with a comparative lens. Once you make that mistake, your analysis is done for. Want to know how MTV dominated youth culture in the 90s? They literally turned teens’ bedrooms inside and out to assume their identity and then programmed accordingly. They got inside the teenage mind. You’ll never get into the teenage mind by holding on to anachronisms like big production budgets and adulation of musical “genius”. Skrillex songs and Eagles songs are apples and oranges.
Instead of gettin’ cantankerous with it in our old age, why don’t we see youth culture for what it really is? In fact, “youth culture” is inadequate because youth is culture in the sense that the younger generation drives cultural change.
The truth has been obscured by bitter anecdotes of musicians and fans who preferred the culture built by a music industry based on corruption and exploitation (just sayin‘!) When one sees youth culture for what it really is, there is actually more to be optimistic for in music than ever before:
The Semiotic Jukebox – Semiotic democracy in action. Today’s listeners create their own meaning from art. They’re not lining up at the trough to be fed a product. Unlike previous generations of passive consumers, today’s listeners need to participate in the creation, production and performance of the music themselves. See mashups, dubstep, remixes, crowd funding, social networks. It’s a boon for personal expression. They want to participate in culture, not just consume it. They are living proof that the fulfillment gained in expressing oneself through music is a greater incentive than any copyright-granted market monopoly. This is why they reject copyright — it now serves cross-purpose to democratized creativity.
Lo-Fi Listening – A lot of people consider the home studio revolution the biggest driver of democratization in the music business. But “in the box” production wasn’t a playing field-leveling powerhouse until listener’s ears adjusted to the over-compressed earbuds. Add in computer speakers and used car stereos to their college debt-riddled existence and you’ve got enough questionable audio fidelity to make Neil Young admit that rock and roll actually is dead because it sounds so crappy. Or does it? In reality, young people have adapted to listen to and enjoy music at varying levels of audio quality and still enjoy it. “Legitimate” digital downloads are improving in fidelity as compression technology advances… and would you look at that, digital download sales have been on the up and up for a while. Today’s listeners haven’t lost their appreciation for hi-fi… they’ve just adapted to a world of constantly varying fidelity. It’s admirable.
Quantity over Quality – The youth of today prefer access to all music — good and bad — over access to a sliver of “really good” music (as judged by market consensus and manufactured popularity). Older generations were born and raised to adulate musicians as creative geniuses. This is a cultural construct from the American Romantic period. Ever wonder why the Chinese have “free-spirited” IP attitudes? They never had a Romantic period! They still appreciate that Everything is a Remix and it’s not just the author but also the shoulders of the giants the author stands on that is the wellspring of creativity. Thus, the old way of having a really small selection of the “best” music is inadequate. They are willing to sacrifice the upper percentile of quality for the benefit of all other percentiles, and their sacrifice should be commended. They will be their own judges of quality, thank you very much.
The Decline of Professionalism or the Rise of the Amateur? – This is the big one. You can look at it either way — but either way, it’s hard to argue against the trend toward fewer professional musicians and more amateurs. When equal temperament and music notation met the printing press and the industrial production of the piano, amateur music exploded — so there is a good past precedent for such “amateurization” in the wake of transformative technology. The big difference is that back then, the pros benefitted from the overall interest in music — these were generally amateur performers who still needed compositions. Today, the “amateurization” trend not only includes composition and performance but recording as well. The career musician — rare to begin with — is now a dying breed. Again, that can be a good thing or a bad thing to you, but ultimately, it just is. I for one think it’s a good thing because the purpose of music is social bonding, not generating wealth.
Instead of acting out of fear, let’s endeavor to understand youth culture, keep calm, and carry on.
I am witnessing a disturbing trend among musicians: they are mindlessly joining the major label chorus and stigmatizing their own fans as criminals for gaining free access to their music.
The trend won’t last that long. If you’re one of these fan-chastising musicians, you will your bread and butter will be toast faster than you can say “filesharing is stealing”.
The approach for most artists is considerably more velvet-gloved than the RIAA, but the message is the same. The graphic pictured at right is a perfect example of the condescending tone some musicians are taking these days. Not surprisingly, I’ve noticed most of these complainers are those who profited from the old recording regime. This includes not only musicians but also producers and engineers, whom have suffered quietly for the most part.
Look, we’re all upset that fans buy $5 cups of coffee daily yet balk at spending the same amount on five songs a month. But guess what? As a Facebook commenter points out, “you can’t download coffee”. It is a scarce commodity. Music is not. Music is everywhere. If musicians suddenly stopped making music today, there would still be more music than anyone could listen to for centuries. But of course that won’t happen, because music will go on whether fans are paying $1 per song or not. In fact, all evidence suggests music will become more frequent, more diverse and more interesting as its price approaches zero.
These are the people who want to support you. Why are you suggesting they are thieves? Why do you think they’re freeloaders who are too lazy to drop you a buck?
Your fans know that the recording business model is broken. They know that when they buy the single for $1.29, a healthy chunk goes to iTunes, and the rest goes to the record label that’s still recouping on your marketing budget.
Your fans know the system of compulsory licensing is broken. They know it concentrates wealth at the top of the industry and creates a tall barrier of entry to those seeking a career as a professional musician.
Your fans know digital distribution costs practically nothing, yet you have to fork over $50/year or 9% annually just to get it on iTunes so they can take their 35% cut.
You’re not giving your fans a way to compensate you fairly. You’re not letting them contribute directly to your projects and to see that contribution reflected back on them and your fan community. You’re not engaging them on a personal level, at a level where you can communicate your financial needs and they can respond. You’re not providing incentives. Albums aren’t incentives any more. They’re advertisements for the experience of being a fan.
But even if you don’t believe any of that, guess what? Deterrence never works. It is a losing battle. Read Pop Song Piracy and learn about the technological arms race the record business has been losing for over a century. It’s not gonna work. All you’re going to do is make your fans not want to access your music for free anymore. I guess that’s what you want, right?
Let’s get a few things straight:
• The cost of access to music to fans is approaching free. In many ways it already is. Accept this and move on because it won’t change. Music is a utility, and you’re selling energy. Electrify the audience and they will power your career. Don’t extort them for loving you.
• Sitting back and collecting “mailbox money” no longer cuts it for a music career. Writing one hit and paying your rent for twenty years is a thing of the past. You and your business team are no longer selling a product, you’re selling a service. It’s time to get creative and forge new revenue streams because the old ones aren’t coming back.
• Fans sharing your music are the opposite of enemies — they’re your brand advocates. They’re out there doing unpaid marketing work, spreading your music virally among peer groups faster than you can fill out your ASCAP paperwork. You should be thanking them and listening to their advice.
• Finally, stop whining and go work on your music. You look like Lars Ulrich.
“We are probably entering a new ice age right now. However we’re not noticing it due to the effects of carbon dioxide.” — Lars Franzen, professor of physical geography at University of Gothenburg
In other words, man-made global warming is preventing us from entering a new ice age. That’s not to say climate change is a total boon to humanity, but it does suggest a silver lining. What does this intriguing theory, gaining traction in the scientific community as of late, have to do with music?
It’s the first thing that came to my mind when I read about the stabilization of record sales in 2011-2012 in Digital Music News. Metaphorically speaking, without the plummeting price of music, album sales would have continued its downward trend, crashing hard in the last two years.
In other words, with the ‘cultural warming’ of increased free or near-free access to music, we are staving off an ‘ice age’ of decimated album sales.
It’s quite clear to see how free music spurs album sales. Study after study after study confirmed that those who shared illegal downloads also purchased more music as a result.
Now we are awash in near-free music from Spotify, Pandora and the new school of streaming audio — aka the companies fighting to control the operating system of the “celestial jukebox”. Don’t you think it’s pretty astonishing that despite the growth of these services in the market, album sales remain flat?
Album sales have not been saved by music industry litigation, paywalling, DRM, or any attempt by those running the antiquated record album business model to protect it and stifle innovation. Album sales remain stable (or stagnant) because music is approaching free, and as a result, more people are listening to more music than ever before. No matter how hard the industry elite try to bring on a new ice age where they go back to controlling access to music, no one can stop the proliferation of free songs spurring a new generation to a deeper love of music than we have ever seen. But there is a limit to free music spurring album sales. When that limit is reached is as much up to content creators as consumers.
The album itself is anachronistic, we are moving into a world of singles. The album-based business model would melt in front of our eyes if not for the phalanxes of music industry lawyers erecting a stockade of copyright law to protect their walled gardens. Consumers never really wanted to have to buy songs they didn’t like in a bundle with songs they did — that was forced upon them artificially.
The album is also a die-hard tradition for musicians and fans. It’s kind of fascinating how the economic imperative of the album become part of the art of music. Bottom line, fans don’t demand quantity of songs, they demand quality. It is nearly impossible to write 10 consecutive songs of the kind of quality fans demand and deserve — think of how many “perfect” albums you can name. Therefore, the future of music will not necessarily see the disappearance of the album, but a transformation from 10-12 song collections to more varied numbers of songs, more mix tapes and compilations (collaborative albums) and some new concepts like curated licensing, app albums and status-based perk-bundling. (If you want to know more about these, sign my mailing list to get word on when my book will be out.)
Ultimately, the “cultural warming” I talk about transcends any particular revenue stream or business model. Free and near-free access to music also stimulates more music creation. As listening becomes more interactive and creative (music games, remixing stems, mood-based browsing), it will become harder to separate the “musician” from the “listener”. In the end, album sales will begin to decline again as music takes on a different role in society. There will still be “albums” because it’s useful to organize groups of songs under a single title to denote an era or concept, but the bundling of songs will entirely be in the consumer’s control. Increasingly, fans will opt for bundles of the songs they like, rather than being forced to buy songs they don’t, or blindly following tradition.
Yes, the political and industrial elite are still trying to ensure we don’t even have this discussion. We may be a bunch of people screaming at each other in a room, but at least our voices are being heard.
But why does there seem to be no middle ground between those who believe copyright is critical, and those who believe culture should be free?
Or, to put it another way: Why can’t copyright supporters realize their policies are killing our culture, and why can’t free culture advocates realize without copyright, culture would fall apart?
What we have here is a complete contradiction in positions, so the violent clash comes as no surprise. Each side believes the other is killing culture, and will fight to the death to protect it.
So who’s right?
The problem with the debate is that both sides think they’re fighting over the same culture — and in a way, they’re right. Culture by definition is something we all share, an invisible but interconnected web of expression and communication.
But that’s not the way the debate should be framed for one big reason that virtually everyone is ignoring:
We are trying to kill each other’s culture, trying to stop each other from sharing the way they want to share. And it’s got to stop.
There are no absolutes in human culture. Some folks want to be Steven Spielberg (Star Wars and Jaws), others are happy being like Harmony Korine (Gummo, Kids, Trash Humpers). Both represent the apexes of their respective cultures — the biggest difference is that Spielberg’s culture is about pleasing the greatest amount of people and making the most amount of money, while Korine’s culture is pleasing only himself and his small niche audience, worrying about money only as far as it allows him to sustain his art.
The world is full of Korines wanting to become Spielbergs. At some point along the way, the transformation from Korine to Spielberg requires being exploited and making compromises. This is precisely where art crosses over to business. How quickly the Spielbergs forget their humble beginnings, and how quickly the Korines resent their success and judge them for it.
We all need to support the Korines, but over time the copyright system has transformed from something to protect the Korines, to something that protects the Spielbergs. That should come as no surprise to those who understand copyright has always been meant to protect business, not art.
Want to bridge the polemical gap? Let’s start with the truth: we need each other to succeed. The Korines need the Spielbergs to keep the market going, the the Spielbergs need the Korines to keep the art going. Without the Big Content megastructure, there wouldn’t be as much business opportunity for the indies, but without the indies, Big Content dies.
We should celebrate our passions, whether they be business, art, or a mix of both. But we have to be cognizant that while we may be at opposite ends of the media ecosystem, there’s room for both of us to thrive if we can foster mutual respect. Only then will we get the kind of copyright reform we need, or else both our cultures may die.