If Your Options Are To Change With The Times Or To Just Complain About Them, Which Is More Likely To Work?

from the just-wondering dept

Anthony Biedenkapp was the first of a few of you to send in a blog post from DJ Shadow where he complains about the state of the music industry. While I disagree with an awful lot of what he writes, it is worth reading. It is thoughtful and obviously from the heart. Unlike others, he doesn’t seem to blame others, or attack his fans — he basically just says he doesn’t like how things are going:

Specifically, when it comes to the wallet, everyone’s suffering….of that there can be no doubt. And what of the financial prospects for musicians and recording artists in the years to come? Shaky, at best. Unless you’re one of the grotesque ‘Idol’-type pop disasters in the top 5, you’re looking at getting a day job or finding other sources of income. Conventional wisdom amongst my peers has been remarkably short-sided over the last decade: “Yeah, CD sales are down, but all the money is in licensing.” Not anymore. “Yeah, licensing money is down, but the video game industry is killing it.” Less so these days, according to recent data. “Well, the real money is in touring.” Really? When was the last time you saw a ‘new,’ post-record company artist headline a major music festival? At this rate, we’ll be stuck with Coldplay for decades (no offense intended).

Fair enough, though I think it misses the point entirely. First, it’s true that anyone who thinks that there is one single silver bullet solution to the changing market is going to be disappointed. Rely too much on licensing? That’s going to be a problem. Rely too much on video games? Ditto. Part of the point that we’ve been raising here is that you need multiple revenue streams that work well together — and one thing that helps the most in making those revenue streams work is exposure and a larger audience. And I definitely disagree with the claim that “everyone” is suffering. That’s certainly not true. We’ve highlighted plenty of artists who are making a career in music who never would have made a living (let alone any money at all) under the old system. And, finally, it’s really odd to suggest that the only way touring can be shown as successful is if a new non-label artist headlines a major music festival. What sort of standard is that? Corey Smith netted over $2 million last year, mostly from touring. Is he not successful because he didn’t headline a major music festival? And who cares whether they have a label or not. The new business models don’t require you to go without a label, just like they don’t require you to go with a label.

Time for a little straight talk, from one reasonably intelligent human being to YOU, the reasonably intelligent reader. As distasteful as it may sound, the fact is that so many of our heroes: Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, The Beatles, whoever you care to name; generated much of their best art in return for financial compensation. If you take away the compensation, guess what… the art stops.

Except how many qualified musicians in the time of Hendrix, Coltrate and the Beatles didn’t make it because they didn’t win the golden lottery ticket from the labels? How many artists today have more control over charting their own course (again either on or off a label)? And, yes, plenty of them who are doing smart things, embracing multiple revenue streams, connecting with fans and offering them good scarce things to buy, are, in fact making money.

Every artist is entitled to their own price point, just as every consumer has a choice in what they purchase. Nobody puts a gun to someone’s head and says, “Hey, buy this Picasso for 20 million.” Likewise, if $9.99 is too much to spend for one of my albums, so be it, your choice. But if you’re holding your breath, waiting for me to boost my cool-quotient by giving my music away for free, it’s not going to happen. The fact is that I feel my music has value. You may disagree, and that’s fine. But I know how much energy I put into what I do, and how long it takes me to make something I’m satisfied with. Giving that away just feels wrong to me. It’s not about money per se; I can donate a large sum of money to charity and not think twice, but I won’t give my art away. I’d rather sell it to 100 people who value it as I do than give it away to 1000 who could care less. That’s MY choice.

And this, I believe, is the crux of the argument — and it’s the argument many artists have made over the years, but it’s flawed in a variety of ways. First, it confuses price with value. We all value the air we breathe very much, but we don’t pay for it. Price and value are not the same. Second, no one is suggesting he release music for free because it would increase his “cool-quotient,” but because, combined with other smart business models, it can help him make more money and reach a larger audience. In fact, as you read through the comments on his post, many of his fans point out that they first heard his music via file sharing. Third, he contradicts himself at the end of that paragraph. Above he talks about how we have to admit that making money really is the most important thing and that without it, people would make less music. But at the end of that paragraph above he says exactly the opposite: pointing out that he’d rather have a smaller audience and make less money if it meant people “valued” his music more. But, again, that’s mixing up price and value.

Again, he is, of course free to express his opinion and do whatever he wants. But I think he is looking at the issue from the wrong angle and making some assumptions that aren’t supported. There is a world of opportunity out there, and perhaps it’s not as easy as it once was, and perhaps it requires things he doesn’t like to do. And, yes, he can choose whatever business model he wants — but it’s the market who determines if it’s successful. And if the market is saying one thing, and he’s choosing to do something else, then he’s going to suffer — and that seems to go against the very point he was making at the beginning of the post about the importance of making money.

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Comments on “If Your Options Are To Change With The Times Or To Just Complain About Them, Which Is More Likely To Work?”

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Jake (user link) says:

I think he’s right about one thing. The days when you can record an album, tour for a few months to promote it and then just sit back and live off your royalties for a year or more are coming to an end, no matter how good you may be.
There’s so much competition in the market from the hundreds of artists who no longer need that “golden ticket” that getting rich off the back of your music is going to require a lot more work than it used to.
Merely turning a profit, however, is within the grasp of all but the most bland and forgettable artist. (Being hilariously awful is probably just as beneficial as being sublimely talented these days.) Enough web-space for a couple of dozen tracks at about 192kb/s, a list of tour dates and a link to your Cafepress page costs peanuts, and all you have to do to get the ball rolling is put a link to it in your signature on a few forums or the URL box on blog posts.

John Doe says:

Entitlement much?

I think if you read between the lines here, it isn’t that they can’t make money or even a living, its that they can’t make bags full of money like the good ole days. Just because some in the industry make a fortune doesn’t mean every artist should. Heck, most artists never even make a living much less a fortune and it has always been that way. Maybe the issue now is, there are so many people in the industry, there isn’t enough money to go around? You can’t afford to buy every song or album that comes along.

:) says:

He Forgot The Obvious.

Copyright annoys people and it is not funny.
Sell and ask what you think it is good for ya, good luck.

I can tell right now. If it hasn’t a liberal license I ain’t buying or even commenting about it now, even for free I don’t want that stuff(copyrighted) near me.

Copyright takes me to a horrible place in my head, one that is reserved to very bad people.

My new year resolution is to find copyleft products and don’t ever use copyrighted stuff again. One way or another copyright will not be part of my life.

By hook or by crook.

Richard says:

George Jetson

At one point in time, textile makers could sell their wares at exorbitant prices. Enter the industrial age, they become a commodity. They railed their powerful friends in government for protectionist laws that put tax on factory made textiles. Once their cronies left power those same taxes were levied against all textile manufactures.

My point is.. news,music,video … the Internet has changed everything. You may not make as much as you did at one point, but you do have a choice. You can figure out a new way to create value for your niche or keep pressing the same button over and over.

mike42 (profile) says:

Basic Economics

20 years ago, before CD’s became popular, I could buy new music for $8 and album. Once an album was out for a while, the price would drop to $5, $3, or even $1 if it was a one-hit wonder. Now, albums sell at $13 bucks a pop, regardless. If sales are down, shouldn’t the prices be going down?

I guess that’s what the anti-trust lawsuit is about…

RD says:

Re: Basic Economics

Mike42, you are absolutely right. In fact, I have a copy of an article from 1983-84 when CD’s were new. It was an overview of the tech, and had quotes from the labels about the marketing of them. There is one quote in particular that has stood out all these years. The label rep states that prices for the new CD’s would be much higher than albums, for a time. Albums then sold for $8.99-10.99 new. CD’s started at 12.99-15.99, being new tech and all. The key part of the quote was when the label rep said that the prices would likely come down “to 5 or 6 dollars” in time, IF, I say IF, the new CD caught on, as economies of scale would kick in, as CD’s were much cheaper to make than records.

So, what happened? Well thats easy. CD’s took off faster than ANY format or tech before it. Within 3 years, CD outsold vinyl. Within 6 years, vinyl was dead, as were cassettes. It was such a huge hit, that the labels decided they could make such obscene amounts of money, that they could go back on their promise of lowering the prices in line with the market and efficiency of scale. When market forces moved to do this anyway, they colluded to price-fix the market illegally, to maintain the obscene profit levels.

The RIAA and labels LIED. They RENEGED on their word. They do not deserve any sympathy or consideration. They are getting everything they deserve now.

SparePlanet (profile) says:

He assumes his product is “art”. That’s a very common misconception. There are tons of photographs out there. Some are art. Most aren’t. Likewise with songs.

Also assumes that anyone who wants should have a God-given right to make money in the music industry, yet calls American Idol successes “grotesque”. Talk about convoluted thinking! That is straight backwards! If anything, those AI kids who were born with baby faces and amazing voices have God’s blessing to choose music as a career.

On top of everything else (this time I am assuming) he calls himself “DJ” so perhaps his first foray into the music biz was trying to make money spinning other peoples, uhhmmm, “art”, without compensating them or even getting permission.

Ahhhh, humans. Thank you, Lord for giving me tolerance and a sense of humor.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Oh shut it. You sound like a pompous ass. I’m really glad someone like you, who thinks their tastes in art matter to society, doesn’t have any say in the issue.

But you do make one important point: a lot of Shadow’s art expands on other people’s copyrighted art. I’m quite surprised he took this stance.

herodotus (profile) says:

“If anything, those AI kids who were born with baby faces and amazing voices have God’s blessing to choose music as a career.”

I can’t help but notice that you mention their looks first and their musical ability second.

This is pretty much par for the course in celebrity ‘music’ culture. It is also why his assessment of American Idol as ‘grotesque’ was one of the few points that I agreed with.

SparePlanet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, it IS pretty sickening when they just take a good-looking kid, write her/him some songs, tweak their voice in the studio, and mass-market it like some kind of commodity.

My attempted point would have been better served by using perfomrers (“artists”) from the 60’s as examples. Aretha Franklin, John Paul Jones of Led Zepplin, Keith Emerson of ELP..

That was a day and age when you had to have extraordinary talent to even consider going into the music biz.

Now the entire studio is built into a notebook computer, the drummer is a sample loop, and anyone who can make words that rhyme (hint: which they already do, lol) thinks they are gifted.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I love how you just lump all music that isn’t what you like together. You realize there is actually *good* new music coming out amidst the crap, and that there was actually plenty crap coming out alongside all those great old artists back in the day?

If you think that every single song that uses computerized sounds, samples, drum loops and new types of vocals (I assume you are making a jab at rap vocals above) is terrible and that there is no legitimacy to those tools… well, then have fun alone on your lawn.

senshikaze (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

while i see your point, i have to say i am guilty of the same thing. I really like my music, and i feel disdain for music i don’t like the and the people that do like them. It is human nature.
i am not apologizing for him, i am just saying he isn’t alone in feeling that way about music he does and does not like.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

We all have a bit of that in us, and that’s totally fine. But keep it away from the debates about copyright law, file sharing, etc. – these problems require solutions that have society’s best interest in mind. As soon as someone shows that they are letting their own tastes override their objectivity, they lose all credibility on the issue.

SparePlanet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No, that wasn’t a rap attack. I think most “Alternative” is pretty unoriginal, too.

And some rap is quite clever.

I think the music industry in general has dumbed down the public in general by trying to force-feed us artists that they think will sell because they fit a certain “formula”.

I like the current industry offerings about as much as I like cable and phone promotions.

I agree there is good music out there, and astute, discerning listeners, as well.

But seriously, would you really compare the amount of mediocrity in the old-school music biz to that of today? It’s not even close.

Here’s a little history lesson for you:

Studio time cost a fortune back then. Only a handful could afford it. That’s how the title “Producer” gained so much status. A Producer was someone who already had a lot of money and used it, risked it, to create records, because of his/her passion for music. They booked studios, hired musicians, and writers, and arrangers. Producers had know their stuff because it was their money on the line.

Studio time is free now. So-called “producers” don’t need and don’t use money to make music, just the opposite..they are trying to use Music to make money. As far as talent and ability, there is no threshold, no innate filter, as there was in the past.

If you could eat a piece of apple pie or go out and pick apples and bake a pie, which would you do?

If you could sit by a fire and keep warm or go out and chop wood, which would you do?

There are a lot of people trying to eat the pie, feel the warmth (e.g. make money off music) without picking the apples, and developing the chops. Trying to be Master Electricians without going thru the apprenticeship phase.

Not everybody. But astronomically more people than before, because of the accessibility factor.

A simple analogy for yesterday’s vs. today’s music business:

From 1950 to 1980 a total of about 4,500 people went on professional singing auditions in Boston, MA. (a guess)

In 2009, over 5000 auditioned in a single two day period! (at American Idol tryouts)

And by rule, they had to be non-professionals!

Imagine having to sit thru all of those auditions…

..and that is what the music industry is like for me, nowadays. I get MySpace messages asking me to check stuff out. I get stopped walking along the beach. I don’t even want to be bothered anymore, because the odds of it being good are so miniscule.

I’m sure there’s good stuff out there, but I have no idea where to look.

SparePlanet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There is nothing in my post that even remotely suggests…

“every single song that uses computerized sounds, samples, drum loops and new types of vocals is terrible and there is no legitimacy to those tools”

Nor did I lump anything together.

Nor could I ever have fun alone on my lawn.

A crowd would gather and begin applauding.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Perhaps I have over-read your point, but as soon as someone starts rhyming off their list of golden-age artists, my eyes glaze over and I lose interest in what they have to say.

Yes: the industry has changed. But I think you ascribe undue benevolence to the magic producers of yore: it’s easy to remember only the music that has endured from then until now, and to forget that there were lots of get-rich-quick producers back then, and that they had MORE power as gatekeepers than they do now.

Here’s a history lesson for you: in 1979, Elvis Costello lost the Best New Artist Grammy to “A Taste of Honey”, a disco outfit. In 1966, the boring “let’s appeal to americans” Winchester Cathedral won best recording over the Beatles and the Beach Boys. There is also, of course, the classic story of the Beatles being turned down by their first label.

Yes: everything was smaller back then, and the power-balance was more extreme between supplicant-artists and gatekeeper-producers. But I’m not entirely convinced the situation was worse or better for music itself.

SparePlanet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Good data on the history. Elvis C losing out to TOH is definitely a crime! He is a master craftsman. I put him right up with S. Wonder in creating classic melodies that “sound like they were already there, and the artist just uncovered them”.

I also agree that today’s music biz “is what it is” ..not so much better or worse, just different.

If I were to gripe, I would be poster child for the title of the article. 🙂

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

And for the record (rimshot!) I should point out that in many ways I agree with your musical taste. There are few (not none, but few) artists around who compare to Wonder, Costello, Franklin, (not quite as sold on the Zep, but JPJ sure plays a mean bass) – and yet, I can’t help but feel like at the time those incredible artists would have seemed somewhat few and far between too.

Also, creme takes time to rise. Wonder was the immensely popular king of motown, which was itself popular — but only when motown faded and Stevie stuck around did he achieve “one of the greats” status. Only nowy does everyone know who his, including those who couldn’t name another motown artist.

I think we will see something similar in the future of hip-hop and today’s sickly pop music. A handful of artists will be recognized long after the fad has died out. Even if you hate them both, Jay-Z deserves a lot more respect than 50 Cent; Beyonce a lot more than Rihanna; MIA a lot more than Britney; Eminem a lot more than that little asshole with the song about how he loves college. It will take time for some of the noise to clear, but I think in the end this era will still have lots of music to be proud of.

herodotus (profile) says:

“But you do make one important point: a lot of Shadow’s art expands on other people’s copyrighted art. I’m quite surprised he took this stance.”

Sadly, it is all too common. Every new generation creates it’s own version of ‘but that’s cheating!!

Just go to any electronic music forum (e.g. Dogs on Acid, KVR) and ask people if they use drum loops. You might be shocked at the number of people who regard anyone who uses ‘prefab’ drum loops with contempt. It’s amazing to watch a bunch of trance kiddies, people who couldn’t make a single noise without a a step sequencer or a piano roll, heap contempt on mere ‘loopers’.

It’s been going on forever. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin are the favorite poster children for lost greatness, but let’s face it, compared to Andre Segovia, Jimmy Page and George Harrison were extremely sloppy players.

The level of musicianship expected of a popular band member in the US circa 1940 was much higher than the level of musicianship expected of almost any popular band of the 60’s. The guys in the Beatles or the Beach Boys would almost certainly have failed an audition with Benny Goodman’s band. They simply wouldn’t have had the chops or the reading skills.

What the conservatives of every generation miss is that the later musicians also had to do things that they didn’t. e.g. few of the great Jazz players were expected to be songwriters, and few of the old rockers knew anything about the recording process.

In the end, all that matters is the music that comes at the end of the process. And so far as I can tell, that has long stayed at a more or less constant ratio of 98% forgettable crap to 1.5% decent music to .5% truly great music.

rjk (profile) says:

DJ Shadow makes the same mistake that others (including Trent Reznor) have made. He talks about his music having value and that the price of a CD somehow reflects that value. But how much of that money actually pays of the music? Unless, you are a big name artist little money actually gets to the musician. At best the artist sees $1-2. It’s silly for any artist to think their music is worth $5, $10 or $13 when most of the money goes to pay for manufacturing, distribution, marketing plus girls (and/or boys), drugs, houses, vacations & boats for record execs.

Anonymous Coward says:

“As distasteful as it may sound, the fact is that so many of our heroes: Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, The Beatles, whoever you care to name; generated much of their best art in return for financial compensation.”
Complete bullshit. They generated their best art because they ENJOYED it. In the Beatles’ early days, they were playing in Hamburg 8 hours a day for little more than board, food and sex. Hendrix used to play concerts for nothing. God knows, if music could have been killed by removing financial incentives, the gramophone jockeys would have done it in the 1970s, when live gigging practically disappeared because DJs were cheaper. Fucking parasites.

Spanky says:


I’m probably unlike most who post here in that I don’t really care if the entertainment industry continues to exist or collapses of its own weight. If there’s no more music or movies, I’ll dig up something to pass the time. Entertainment is discretionary income for me, and if there isn’t any to buy, I’ll still eat. I might feel differently if there were something WORTH buying, but then there isn’t anymore, so why care?

That’s business too, and that’s the real meaning of business. If I don’t buy what the artist is selling, he can’t make a living. So he works at the 7/11. That’s no skin off my ass. For all the hot shit that guys like DJ Shadow think they are, they are ultimately beholden to the audience. If we don’t buy, how long do they eat?

What DJ Shadow has to recognize is this is not his choice. The market doesn’t care about his “art”, or who he wants to sell to. The market will become what it wants, and “DJ” will either adapt or die. Personally, I don’t care which.

Mike Milligan (profile) says:

No Money/No Art?

I know several guitar and bass players that they just want to get out and play in front of an audience. I myself would love to sing in front of a huge audience. When did making the art of music become all about money? Now days, the artist is in more control. What happen to play where ever you can, record a CD, sell it where every you play and if you are good your music gets around.

“Dude, you got to hear these guys, I’ll copy my cassette tape for you to listen to”

Now days it is more like. “Dude, listen to this file, I’ll e-mail it to you.” Music is viral and if it’s good it will be downloaded for free like it was recorded off the radio when I was young. I always had mix tapes of my favorite songs and when the artist came to town I went to their concert and bought their T-Shirts.

Ian Channing (profile) says:

Making money off music

It maybe the reality that music will become free and artists will have make money off the back with other scarce products. What’s clear from the last paragraph from DJ Shadow is that musicians want to make money from the music they make not derivatives, they don’t want to be t-shirt salesmen and don’t want to spend their lives touring. This is probably just artists holding onto their pride, but it should not be ignored when trying to get musicians to change their ideas.

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