Talk is Cheap, Music Shouldn't Be

I've got to get this off my chest because it is driving me absolutely nuts. I've been reading a lot of coverage regarding the music industry where commenters in blog posts, Twitter, and even in industry "analyst" Bob Lefsetz oft cited newsletter-rantathon (where he calls David Byrne an old fart) complain about all the cry baby artists and how they only care about the money and blah blah blah. Hipster Grandpa tells Grandpa he's not hip. The irony is about to make my head explode. 

 Here's my problem: It's called the Music Business, not the Music Charity, braniac. It's called that because people work and create something that people in turn pay for, and that revenue goes back into the same system which creates more products that people pay for and so on. This simple exchange of labor and currency is the basis of the music business and in fact this is how most businesses work.  Something is made, money is exchanged. When your grocer does this, it's called commerce, but when an artists does this its called greed. Perhaps the way to combat this "artists are greedy" straw man argument is to stop calling them musicians and change it to music business people (or music grocers?).

Since artists, er music grocers, are really the face of the music business, everyone holds them up as an example of largess and excess and come up with some fallacy that somehow, their success was at the expense of the rest of us and their suffering is simply because the oldsters ain't with it. 

"We don't pay for music these days grandpa. Sheesh." 

What all of these people fail to take into consideration (because it requires deeper thought than 140 characters) is that there is a whole ecosystem that employs thousands....maybe millions of other people...because people pay  for music. It isn't free...it's a novel idea these days, I know. 

We create jobs and have innovations in music technologies because artists take their money and invest it back into their product. That's what a business person does in any other industry, music isn't any different. Computers, software, musical instruments, microphones, pedals, cables, mic stands, repairmen, electricians, producers, studio engineers, gofers, secretaries, assistants, utility companies, HVAC companies, carpenters, and so on...all depend on musicians. 

Artists also innovate, often coming up with the very ideas that have made music sound better, and these innovations have a trickle down effect, as it's the artists who pioneer the newest technology that later becomes available to the amateur musician or music fan. Hello digital...hello iPod...hello cheaper/faster hardware. I'd go as far as saying there would be no more Apple if it weren't for musicians. There certainly wouldn't be a Spotify. 

 The democratization of music technology all exists because someone before you paid for it, and it was paid for with their hard work and money, which you gave them because you valued it. If you didn't value it, who was it that spent $14 billion dollars back in 1999? Apparently we were all forced to buy music all those years, against our will.  

And now you're complaining because those same artists are upset they aren't making enough money to support themselves in an industry that saw half its sales vanish in under 10 years (obviously because people stopped loving music). Now think about what that means. It means that if they can't make music, they can't support their industry, and if they can't support their industry, people will lose their jobs, and you'll stop hearing great new music. All that will be left are more and more manufactured versions of It's Friday. Then you'll be sitting there wondering how this all happened and looking to point fingers, when what you'll really need is a long look in the mirror.   

Who's the crybaby now?

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You know, tech entrepreneurs are not simply the only source of innovation in the music industry, just because they've found a way to put someone else's work in your phone. If it weren't for the hard work of the music business  there would be no iTunes, no Spotify, no Pandora, no YouTube worth watching. Pandora is a publicly traded company because someone else made a product they could build a business on. Did Spotify save the music industry or did the music industry create Spotify? This isn't chicken and egg. If it weren't for artists and their music, many of the revolutions in technology would simply not exist today.

 In fact the Internet itself would look very different, considering music (and porn) has driven the development of web protocols, increased storage technologies, increased bandwidth, wireless advancements, etc. That's how much we love music, although we're not showing much love to it's creators at the moment. Sure, tech guys are today's rock stars, and sure, we'd all like to be an Internet startup and just bleed money and not have to be profitable or anything, but most people in business want to see more money that comes in than goes out.   

Now I'm not defending the past behaviors of labels and the RIAA for fighting innovation (I'm on record years back tearing them a new one), but I am saying that the more you misplace your anger at them and instead attack artists as the enemy, you take away attention from the fact that a whole ecosystem is about to collapse that goes well beyond a handful of labels. I get it, you think Thom Yorke is a whiner and David Byrne it and old fart, that's your prerogative, but try to also remind yourself that both of those artists created work that influenced you, impacted your life, and probably created a great deal of wonderful memories, that you paid to experience and wouldn't trade for anything (except that breakup you had where you crawled into a fetal position and listened to OK Computer about a million times in a pool of your own tears). So what are you complaining about again? That you paid too much for something that brought you joy and now you feel that somehow you were ripped off for rewarding David's work and now you deserve a rebate going forward? Sure it was embarrassing that I was singing "Wild Will Rice" for years, but I'm not going to penalize Byrne for that (enunciate, David, enunciate).

Now I'm a fan of streaming and again, I'm on record supporting it years ago, but this idea that if artists just get with the program, stream everything, connect on social networks, tour your ass off, sell more Tshirts, and give all your music away...it's all going to work out is absurd. Perhaps Ford will start giving cars away and just charging for the gas? Stupid car company expecting to sell cars. The nerve.   

The problem is that what we've done is systematically started to dismantle the "value" we once had for music and have instead placed value on convenience. That's what we pay for today. There's no direct cost to music (especially when it's a service bundled as part of another service), so there's no tangible investment and no pride in having a "music collection," since we all have access to the same catalogues. I certainly miss pre-judging someone by flipping through the CD collection in their house. "What no Ramones? Yeah...this isn't going to work out."

I know everyone is all To Boldly Go...and let's ignore the past because what do the oldsters have to teach us, but that's a mistake. In the past 10 years we've created a system of "free" that destroyed industries surrounding the written word. We didn't want to pay for anything, so we either scraped/reposted it or hoped online male enhancement ads would pay for it all. Seriously, have you seen the state of news reporting today?

Embarrassing. 

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In the late 90's I was a tech writer making $1 a word online and in print. I actually was able to make a living after the first tech bubble collapsed. I was able to write longer pieces and spend more time on quality than worrying about quantity. After I went back to tech, but later returned to do some writing in the mid-2000s, I was now paid on page views, which worked out to be about $.02 per view. This focus on traffic as a metric for success (ignore the words on the screen) drove my editors to split up articles from one page to three or more, sometimes ruining the flow of the piece, all to eek out a few more clicks. Years later I worked for a billion dollar media company where I no longer wrote (ran social stuff), but still sat in weekly editorial meetings. By that point, writers were making $25 a post, having to write 3-4 posts a day, and getting most of their money from traffic bonuses which were almost like a kill or be killed Thunderdome competition:

  • Most Viewed Gallery: $150
  • Top in Category: $50
  • Lowest Bounce Rate: $100
  • Editor's Pick: $100

This meant more clickable tricks like increased use of galleries and whatnot. Each weekly meeting was less a discussion of content, but analytics.

"This worked great last week...let's do it again...but make it even more sticky." 

We've taken the value of words and turned them into a formula which has made it nearly impossible to find really good writing anymore. Our Buzzfeed/Huffpo business models have ensured that we'll never again get the best writers out there, but only those machines who can churn out product with every clickable editorial trick they can think of. 

This is where we're taking music. This is what Lefsetz calls the Golden Age. We are devaluing something that most of us would gladly admit is a cornerstone to our lives by making a statement that all music is worth is $10 a month. We're telling artists, as long as you hustle, there's plenty of money to be made as soon as the whole world adopts this "all you can eat" buffet of music, where the lobster has the same value as the lettuce. Then when David Byrne writes an op-ed saying maybe we should really just think all this through before we jump headfirst into the pool, you're telling him that only old people check to see if there's water first. 

This is the same mentality I saw when the first tech bubble blew up.

"I'm not sure how we're going to make a profit selling discounted 50lb dog food bags with free shipping, but trust me it will all work out. Look over here, we have a cute sock puppet for a mascot."  

Only now it's:

"Don't worry, the tech industry is here to save you all. This way to the future...we're making all music worth the same ten dollars a month, regardless of whether you are Bruce Springsteen or Milli Vanilli. We're all equal now!"

 Fool me once...