Free Culture Is The Response To The Ethical Failings Of The Old Entertainment Industry

from the if-we're-going-to-talk-ethics... dept

I already posted the responses of a bunch of musicians and music industry folks to the whole David Lowery/Emily White kerfuffle, but there were two more responses that were so good and so thorough I wanted to cover them separately. The first is from Zac Shaw, a musician and indie label owner who argues that if there's any ethical argument at all, it's the one in favor of free culture.
Asking today’s music consumers to kindly start paying for recorded music again because it’s the ethical thing to do isn’t only unviable — it’s not the ethical thing to do anymore. Free Culture is an ethic, and I think I can speak for my generation when I say we believe it to be the high ground over the way the music industry used to be run.
Shaw talks about his own experiences as a musician, getting signed to a label, having a deal that was impossible to recoup, and then the realization that while they had a fanbase, it just wasn't big enough to keep the band going. Unlike Lowery, Shaw isn't upset about this. He notes that this is the reality of the market. But he looks around at what's available today and he sees all sorts of opportunity. As he notes the people who are complaining loudest all seem to be the folks who were some of the very, very, very few musicians who succeeded under the old system. They tend to ignore all those who failed, because they liked it when they had gatekeepers keeping out the competition and keeping prices artificially high. But that was all based on lies and questionable behavior by record labels to keep out most musicians:
I’m going to level with you. You and many other Free Culture detractors are people from social circles with musicians that did well in the past but whose revenue dropped dramatically along with industry profits. I think the driver behind this blithely unrealistic “let’s go back to the way things were in the 90s” movement is pretty straightforward — you tasted profits from a business model that is no longer sustainable. You want your industry back.

We don’t.

Consider for a moment how were the profits of the “old” music industry won: By subjecting listeners and musicians — and indeed, our very culture — to a laundry list of horrendous commercial exploitation. Price fixing, payola, unpaid royalties, market monopolies, ticket surcharges, obscenely exploitative record contracts, manufactured popularity, censorship, perpetual copyright and destruction of fair use and the public domain… the list goes on and on. In short, the old way of doing things sucked and we don’t care if a few of that era’s successful artists no longer get mailbox money for music they recorded decades ago. We certainly don’t care if the record industry, which enabled these injustices, dies a slow, public death.
Shaw points out that, if anything, this new generation actually has much greater respect for musicians. What they don't have time for are those labels that did all of those things to keep music away from the public and to keep musicians from getting paid in the past:
Today’s musicians are held in higher esteem by listeners than ever before, and it’s the industry that has lost their respect (and money), due to a history of unethical behavior.
And, in fact, the new tools of today are changing the balance of power, and enabling the artists who couldn't even get in the door before to now reach out directly to fans and to build support without having to hand everything over to the gatekeeper:
Free Culture opponents often suggest technology somehow caused our generation’s desire for compensating musicians to evaporate. But it was clearly the corruption and ineptitude of the industry itself that is to blame for this negative attitude toward paying for music. Digital music technology provided the opportunity musicians and listeners have been waiting decades for — to balance the industry’s unchecked power, and maybe eke out a more sustainable living in the process.

Fans formerly had no apparatus to directly compensate artists. Now that they have tools like Kickstarter and Bandcamp, we’re seeing millions of dollars pouring directly into musician’s pockets.
As Shaw points out, Lowery and his friends want the next generation to "fix" the industry -- but the only way they can think to do so is to try to go back in time and re-establish that old system. But they miss the fact that this generation is actually fixing the industry by providing the wonderful new tools and services to help musicians: helping them create, promote, distribute, connect and monetize. It's just that it's "different" than the old way:
That’s the thing about asking our generation to fix the record industry. We’re already doing it. We’re connecting artists directly to fans and bringing back patronage, a far less exploitative model that is emerging as the foundation of the new music career. We’re using crowdfunding to finance our work. We’re using digital tools to democratize distribution and licensing, with fairer publishing deals. Instead of basing our entire career on one album dropping or flopping huge, we’re ditching the LP in favor of a steady stream of singles, what fans really want. Apps are the new album. Production is going more lo-fi but is becoming more diverse and original in the process. These are the viable solutions I was talking about earlier. It’s all actually quite liberating because none of it involves being exploited by the music industry, and if it does, it’s certainly far less than in the past.

And yes, we’re selling T-shirts. I wouldn’t have to sell ‘em if I had a dollar for every time I heard, “your music is free, so what, you’re going to make a living selling T-shirts?” But the profit margin is good and they’re moving off the merch table like CDs used to. You have to realize that when the physical media that holds the music is no longer a profitable product, there are myriad replacements which tie the music to a physical product that can be profitably sold. The critical thing to realize here: the devaluation of the music recording increases the value of merch for the artist. Our fans are gonna spend $10 at our merch table anyway — should we sell them a T-shirt they will wear everywhere for a 150% markup, or should we sell them a CD they’ll burn and shelve for the statutory rate of 9.1 cents per song?
There's a lot more in Shaw's piece, and all of it is worth reading. Of all the responses to Lowery, Shaw's seems like the most comprehensive one I've seen and makes the point eloquently -- and shows how Lowery's distorted view of the world misses the bigger picture. Lowery is defending the 1%. The small group of musicians who were allowed through the gatekeeper system in the past, against what's actually best for the vast majority of musicians and fans. The new technologies and services that Lowery and his friends blame are actually enabling a great new world for all sorts of musicians who would have had no place in the world beforehand. Lowery's friends can insult those artists, and insinuate that a failure to go through the old system shows they're "untalented," but any real attempt to look around at the content being produced today would show you that's crazy. There's so much wonderful content being produced -- and much of it by artists who are embracing all of the amazing things that the internet allows.

The second post is by Dave Allen -- whom we've written about before. Allen, of course, was a member of one of the seminal post-punk bands, Gang of Four, and has been very involved in both the music and tech worlds for years. He's always fun to talk to, because he always makes me see the world differently than I did at the start of the conversation. So I knew I'd be interested in his take on the whole kerfuffle, and he does not disappoint. At all. Go read the whole thing, entitled: The Internet could care less about your mediocre band. In it, he makes a ton of good points, but it all comes back to two things: (1) the old system was horrible and corrupt and most artists never made much money at all and (2) the new system has tons and tons of opportunity, but not if you aren't very good or if you sit around complaining about people not buying music, rather than figuring out how to embrace all the amazing new opportunities. I know this post is already really long, but here are just a few snippets of Allen's writeup (though, again, read the whole damn thing):

I take issue with it in its entirety because Lowery is attempting to solve the wrong problem. He is attempting in the present to solve a problem of the past – lack of music sales; ergo, damage to musicians income levels or lack thereof since the advent of the Internet. (Oddly he doesn’t mention that the music industry is most likely the only industry to ever, ever, sue its own customers. An inconvenient truth.) He even lays out in fine detail how much Emily would owe if she’d paid for all of her music (most of which came from the labels as “promos”. Once again Lowery doesn’t mention how music writers and radio DJ’s sold those promos to record stores..just saying.) He then asks her to cough up the dough for starving musicians.

He also rather insensitively points out, while undermining his argument, that “the average income of a musician that files taxes is something like 35k a year w/o benefits.” That’s almost $10k more than the current US median wage. There are around 8 million unemployed people here in the USA, many without a place to call home, who would gladly take that income. I find him so condescending that I want to break something right now.

I also find it disgusting that Lowery conjoins the deaths by suicide of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous to this topic. He knows very well that those two brave artists, much braver than he, suffered through circumstances that were extremely personal and difficult to control. Had they been musicians or not, had nothing to do with the incredibly unfortunate outcome of their lives. It only goes to show how shallow and specious his entire argument is if he has to pivot it on their deaths.

He goes on to point out the flawed premise with not just Lowery's rant, but the very basis of Lowery's blog:

In what may, or may not, have been a misstep, Lowery posted his rant to The Trichordist blog whose tag line, Artists For An Ethical Internet, says it all. In using that tag line they show in brilliant light how much they misunderstand what the Internet is. And by doing so they undermine the very validity of their presence on the Internet. They can yell at the Internet into infinity and it will never blink.

The Internet can not be ethical. Only users of the Internet can be said to be ethical, moral, or philosophical; they may be terrorists, kidnappers, racists, deviants; they could also be atheists, religious zealots or spiritualists; they might be gay, straight, bi, married, divorced; employed, destitute…the list goes on. Whoever they may be they are users. The Internet is its own thing. The Internet doesn’t give a damn about musicians or your mediocre band.

And finally there’s this – Lowery writes about “immoral and unethical business models.” And includes this – “..they are “legitimate” companies like Google.” What’s with the quotes around “legitimate” does Lowery think Google is not legitimate? No, he thinks Google is the problem (read Devil..) because Google in his mind owns the “Unethical Internet” because of its advertising prowess. And I quote – “Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted.” Looted! Unbelievable.

He then rambles on about the “cost” of free music downloading – the $1000 laptop, the costly iPhone or Tablet, as if people only use these products to download music! He also falls into the same trap that U2′s manager, the ISP bully Paul McGuinness, falls into – blame the ISP’s for allowing access to the Internet, where as we know, people only go to steal music.. McGuinness is so well informed about the Internet that in the Billboard article I linked to he talks about the Googles! And he also said this about Apple and Google – “They didn’t invent the MP3, they just made the best one.” Erm.., what?

Clearly this a fool’s errand. At least we know who the fools are. They are what the economist Paul Krugman calls “Very Serious People,” for only they know how to fix things.

While my response to Lowery's original post was that there wasn't anything new about it, since the same arguments have been debunked repeatedly in the past, the acceptance by many that Lowery actually knew what he was talking about has made it worthwhile to respond. Lowery's piece has inspired lots of interesting commentary on the difference between looking backwards and moving towards future opportunity -- and that is worth discussing. And I'm glad people like Dave Allen and Zac Shaw decided to do so.

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  1. icon
    JMT (profile), 29 Jun 2012 @ 12:20am

    Re:

    ""Let the artist decide how he or she will make their money, if you don't like the way they do things don't listen to their music. It's that simple.

    One very obvious point. If I don't listen to their music, they'll NEVER, EVER get my money.

    As has point pointed out countless times, piracy is a far better option than obscurity. Fans will financially support artists, but to earn fans you have to make people like you and your music. Telling them to not listen to your music is the stupidest thing you could do. As you said, it's that simple.

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