Pro-Copyright Strawmen Won't Protect You From Real Economics
from the knock-'em-down dept
Over the last couple of months, I’ve discussed some unsubstantiated claims by Hank Williams, a writer for Silicon Alley Insider, that seemed dubious and uninformed, such as the idea that business models based on “free” were the fault of venture capitalist and made it impossible for small businesses to survive. Then, a couple weeks ago, there was his totally unsubstantiated attack on those who support weakening copyright protections. Williams has now responded, with a piece taking a few quotes from me out of context and insisting that I had no evidence to back up my claims. In reading through his claims, one thing becomes clear: Williams, like many others, likes to set up strawmen on what he wishes I said, and then to try to prove his point, puts artificial restrictions on what counts as proof. Let’s take a look.
Williams original statement: First, if music goes down, so will every other form of copyrighted material including ultimately books, movies, TV, etc.
Masnick said: This assumes that without copyright, content creation goes down. There’s no evidence to support this. In fact, we see more content creation today than ever before in history, and most of it is not because of copyright in the slightest.
Williams’ Response: First of all, as far as I know, we still have copyright laws in this country. But Masnick says copyright isn’t important to the creators of that content. How do we know this? Because Masnick says so. And I am sure most movie makers, book authors and publishers, and TV producers agree that they could continue to make their products without copyright. I am sure Jeff Zucker agrees. I am sure Bob Iger agrees. I am sure all those writers who get book advances agree. What about YouTube? What about the blogosphere? Well, the last time I looked Star Wars Kid had neither a TV nor movie deal for his famous clip.
The strawman that Williams is using here is to mix and match what type of content he’s talking about to suit his purpose. I thought he was talking about content as a whole, which is what he implied. But when I pointed out that there’s more content being produced today than ever before (thank you internet) and the vast majority of it isn’t being produced because of copyright, he changed his tune, to say he only meant professionally made content that was made using copyright. In other words, it’s a tautological argument: the only content that counts is the content produced by this particular business model — so if that business model goes away, there will be less content produced by that business model. Well, duh. But that doesn’t mean less content will be produced, which is what his handwaving is meant to imply.
And, of course, there’s little evidence to suggest he’s correct even there. The music industry, as has widely been demonstrated, has not been decimated by piracy at all. While the recording industry has had trouble adjusting, just look how many musicians have found a decent audience thanks to the internet. The combination of cheaper tools to make music, record music, distribute music and promote music means that more people can and are making music today than ever before in history. The same is true of other types of content as well. Of course, Williams has a neat trick in his bag to discount all of those, but we’ll get to that next.
Williams said: There is no evidence at all that free music on the Internet is an effective (i.e. successful career building) marketing tool.
Masnick said: That’s simply untrue. Mr. Williams may not have found such evidence, but it’s only because he didn’t look very hard. The number of bands who exist solely because of their ability to build a following on the internet is rather large at this point, with plenty of bands crediting the internet’s ability for easy distribution and marketing for their own ability to exist.
Williams’ Comment: Again, Masnick’s response appears to be: “You are wrong because I said so.” But I’m trying to help: Via the Free Music Research Project I’ve started, I’m trying to see if I can find any artists that have effectively used the Internet promotion for anything other than to get noticed by a label. We are still in fairly early days, but so far no qualifying artists have been submitted. Kevin Kelley and Jaron Lanier have both also aggressively been looking for such artists, and they haven’t found any either. I am not saying that there aren’t any, but at this point any evidence is elusive. I suspect that there may be one somewhere. But probably not three.
And here’s the neat little trick. The devil is in the details, but Williams has defined using free music to create a success so incredibly narrowly to make sure to limit the number of musicians who meet his qualifications. Let’s go through the problems with his definition one-by-one.
First, he says it only applies to bands that are not on any label. Why? Who knows. I certainly have never claimed that bands need to remain off labels. In fact, I’ve pointed out exactly the opposite — that even in the world of free music there’s plenty of room for music labels who take a more holistic approach to helping a band create a full business model. So, suddenly, he cuts off any band that has ever signed with a label, even those that are embracing giving away their content to make money in other ways.
Second, he says it only applies to bands that make all their music downloadable as mp3s on MySpace. Why only on MySpace? Again, no idea. I’m not sure what MySpace has to do with any of this. Perhaps this isn’t that much of a limitation, since most bands do seem to have a MySpace page — but it still seems like an odd restriction.
Third, it only applies to musicians who are US based. He says this is to make it easier to research the details, but of course, that leaves out successful examples we’ve discussed in countries like Jamaica, China and Brazil. But that’s okay, because none of those examples meet some of Williams’ other pointless restrictions.
Fourth, it only applies to bands who have agreed to give away all of their music, rather than those who are just testing the waters. Why this limitation? Again, it’s not at all clear. But just because a band is testing the waters and learning how “free” works, doesn’t mean that they don’t count as evidence.
As a subsidiary point (point 4a) it appears to also only apply to bands that don’t also sell their music (Hank can hopefully correct me if I’m wrong here). I’m putting this as 4a, because it’s not entirely clear if this really disqualifies a band — though, Hank does say: “The idea is to find artists that, as a career choice, are not selling their music.” Hank is pulling a sneaky strawman trick here: by saying that if a band is still making any money from the legacy system, then obviously that legacy system works great. This is similar to the problem with point 4 above. No one says to completely ignore the old way while you transition — but for Hank, that’s just not good enough.
Fifth, Hank insists that the bands can only make money from touring, and demands that they have a published schedule online. In fact, in the comments he dismisses Jane Siberry/Issa, who has built a career out of giving away her music because she doesn’t happen to have a tour listed online. This is a common point of attack that people have made. But, it again is an artificial limitation. I have never suggested that bands should make their money touring, so I’m not sure why Williams thinks that’s a reasonable limitation. I have simply said that they can sell scarce goods while giving away the infinite goods (the music). And, those scarce goods can include many things. Touring is certainly a big obvious one — but hardly the only one — as can be clearly seen by the successful experiments run by both Trent Reznor and Jill Sobule.
In both cases, Reznor and Sobule sold other scarce goods that had little to do with concerts (though, one of Sobule’s “tiers” included concert tickets). Reznor ended up making well over $1.6 million. Sobule made $75k (her goal) in less than two months. But, to Williams, these don’t count — even though neither of them were business models predicated on copyright. And, so we have a strawman. Williams has decided that the business model we support has all of these limitations on it, even though it does not — and he won’t bother to accept any musician who has their feet in both pools.
I’m not sure what that proves, but it certainly doesn’t prove that the model we’re discussing doesn’t work. We’ve already seen plenty of proof that it does.
Williams said: There have been no blockbuster successes that have come from, for example, Garageband availability. I don’t think you could even count more than a handful — if that — internet-based artists making a living from music.
Masnick says: Of course, that depends on how you define “blockbuster” success. Williams seems to define it narrowly to suit his purposes, and that completely undermines his argument. Bands like the Arctic Monkeys created the following that turned them into a huge success via the internet.
Williams’ Comment: The Arctic Monkeys do not fit the criteria, but not because they aren’t big enough, but because they aren’t an Internet band. I will happily concede that the Internet has been helpful to labels in discovering artists. In fact the the Internet is now a primary research tool for label A&R departments. And such is the case with The Arctic Monkeys. But all of The Arctic Monkeys’ major success, like best selling records, and major radio play, came after they signed with a label in 2005.
And if they were so successful without a label, why sign with one? Why not just keep that big pile of Internet cash to yourself? Even if you discount that the Arctic Monkeys are a label band,, and just accept Masnick’s contention that they are an Internet blockbuster, one single band does not make a movement. It doesn’t even qualify as a “handful”.
We’ve already discussed the strawman of Williams’ that somehow signing with a label disqualifies a band from gaining value from the internet or embracing free music. Instead, I’ll focus on the fact that Williams conveniently snips out the success stories of Maria Schneider and Flo Rida. I’m sure he has reasons why they, too, don’t qualify. However, when you spend so much time pointing out why every example “doesn’t qualify” for some arbitrary set of rules, at some point you’ll have to realize that all of those exceptions are the rule.
We never said that one business model (and certainly not the one Williams insists must be there) is the answer. We simply explained the basic economics and how to craft multiple business models that take advantage of those economics. You can build a strawman to argue against any single business model, but given that the overall economics are sound, and the increasing number of artists who are taking advantage of those economics (even if they don’t fit Williams’ narrow criteria) are doing a fine job of proving the point that Williams strawman won’t support. So, go ahead and knock over that strawman, Hank. The rest of us are focusing on the business models that work.
Update: A friend just alerted me to the most ridiculous contradiction in Williams’ post that was too good not to point out. As we noted above, in determining who “qualifies” as a success story with these non-copyright-focused business models, Williams’ says you can’t include anyone signed to a record label. Yet, in determining what qualifies as a “success” story with internet content, he mocks the Star Wars Kid: “Well, the last time I looked Star Wars Kid had neither a TV nor movie deal for his famous clip.” So, apparently, to be a success as an amateur, you need to sign a pro deal, but once you sign a pro deal, you no longer qualify to be considered a success as an amateur. This is positively brilliant. Williams has created a scenario where it’s simply impossible to qualify for his definition of success, because the second you qualify… you’re disqualified.