Helene Lindvall is back, bringing with her one of the worst anti-piracy arguments ever crafted. You might remember her from such Techdirt posts as "You Can't Trust Anyone Who Gives Stuff Away But Still Makes Money" and "Not Wanting To Spend All Your Time Playing Pirate Whack-A-Mole Is Defeatist." She's topped herself this time, though, making the claim that piracy has started a "self-perpetuating conveyer belt of cookie-cutter pop stars."
Her post at the Guardian carries this provoking title: "Why piracy is perpetuating plastic pop," and it theorizes that piracy's ravaging of the music industry has resulted in a non-stop stream of ready-made pop stars, the likes of which has never been seen, except for pretty much the last 50 years of the recording industry. In her hurry to blame piracy for American Idol, Miley Cyrus and other artists who carry a hint of "assembly line" about their person, Lindvall blows right past the obvious fact that pre-made pop far precedes file sharing, and arrives at this bizarre conclusion:
Could it be that instead of creating a more level playing field and opportunities for, say, a new Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins to break through, piracy and the unwillingness to pay for music is creating a self-perpetuating conveyer belt of cookie-cutter pop stars?
Could it be? Could piracy have gutted the market so much that labels are forced to play it safe and only invest in pop stars? Really? Is it only NOW that the recording industry is shifting its gears towards "safer" music and "plastic pop" and that it has spent the last half-century-plus cultivating only the finest, deepest talent and rewarding listeners with act after virtuoso act?
Never mind the fact that pop music has existed (to some extent) since the 1940's (60 years BN*). Never mind the fact that Top 40 radio has been around since the early 1950s, a format based on teenage girls' interaction with jukeboxes (play the same handful of songs, over and over). Never mind the fact that bubblegum pop and the rise of pre-fab bands began in the mid-1960s. All of this predates the repeated killing of music by anything stronger than a cassette tape. Never mind the fact that one of the most hated of all pop entities, the Eurovision Song Contest, has been tormenting the ears of listeners since 1952. *Before Napster.
Never mind the fact that for every Nevermind, there are a million other weightless albums released into the Top 40 ether by major labels. Never mind the fact that Nirvana's success swept in a long string of much less talented grunge purveyors. Why? Because Nirvana sold albums. The Smashing Pumpkins were also beneficiaries of Nirvana's financial success. The major labels pick up acts if they think they'll sell
, not because they have a burning desire to only offer the best
music to the world. Hell, even Bob Dylan got dropped
from his original label for failing to push enough vinyl, and people consider him to be one of the finest songwriters of all time.
Basically, her whole argument boils down to good, old-fashioned elitism. Lindvall automatically assumes pop is a universally "bad" thing, presumably because it's popular, and points the finger at piracy. It's only slightly less insulting than saying that if the barriers to entry are removed then everything will suck. Instead, it lays the blame on the broad shoulders of John Q. Pirate, whose illegal efforts have "cheapened" quality, non-pop music .
Compare Lindvall's theory to Gavin Castleton, whose post for The Trichordist gets expounded on by David Newhoff
. Here's Newhoff's opening line:
Imagine your diet will henceforth be determined by the tastes of a majority of American ten-year-olds.
Sounds like "plastic pop," doesn't it? Newhoff's post deals mainly with the film industry, but he first takes a moment to bash all these new artists operating outside the established systems:
One assumption behind DIY culture seems to be that the best work is being systematically squashed by big media conglomerates, and that the level playing field of the Web will allow great art to emerge through the ultimate, democratic means - popularity supported by algorithms. This theory has proven generally untrue for journalism, music, and publishing; and we're now on the leading edge of its proving untrue for filmed entertainment.
Newhoff off-handedly insults DIYers here, tying them in with spam bots and other SEO gamers, while simultaneously making the implication that the industries value art over commerce. He quotes Castleton, who goes even further, hilariously suggesting that the labels and studios are actually well-designed filters, rather than commercial ventures:
"When you release the valve without well-tuned filters in place, you get what we have now: muddy waters (not the artist, the metaphor). You have tracks from seasoned artists like Radiohead distributed side by side with garbage (not the band, the metaphor), and you have transferred the burden and blessing of filtering from more official gatekeepers to the consumer..."
God forbid the consumer (you know, the one expected to reward every artist monetarily) have any control over the incoming stream of content. We simply can't have people
deciding who or what they want to throw money at. After all, they're only the public, an unwashed group of freeloaders who don't know what they want or how to show their appreciation when a label or studio hands it to them. Over in Lindvall's post, Noel Gallagher (the slightly less loutish
half of Oasis) spells out exactly
how the public should be treated by artists and their preferred gatekeepers:
[A]s I understand it the consumer didn't want Jimi Hendrix, but they got him - and it changed the world ... Fuck the customer. He doesn't know what he wants. You fucking give it to him and he likes it.
The consumer [says] 'Where's my free music on the internet? Is this a free download?' Fuck off! It cost me a quarter of a million pounds to make it, you're not getting it for nothing. I want my quarter of a million back, thank you very much. That's why we're rock stars.
Quarter of a million pounds to make a record. $250 million to make a movie. You'd think at some point someone would start dialing back the costs if they thought they had a very slim chance of recouping. But, no. These dollar figures are tossed around as some sort of anecdotal evidence that everything must return to the heyday of previous formats (CDs, DVDs, etc.). Here's the story, morning glory: Mr./Mrs. Consumer give not one single fook
how much you sunk into your last album or how long you had to tour to pay it off.
Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) also weighs in on Lindvall's post, decrying the fact that, as a musician, he's required to earn and cultivate his own audience:
"People like me used to be auteurs, saying 'I'm going to do whatever the fuck I want to do, you like it or you don't like it' and if you're really good they'll come," said Corgan. "Now I'm supposed to beg for attention. It's completely counterintuitive to why I became a musician in the first place and the personality of someone like me.
"I'm supposed to have enough of an ego to make my own world, my own music, my own artwork - everything - but then say, 'Please, please will you just fork out that $10, I know that's a really big decision'. What? When did that become such a big decision? Even if we could find the right price point the general person doesn't believe in making that purchase."
Billy, I hate to point this out, but musicians have always
had to ask customers to fork out money for their albums. The aspect you don't seem to like is the fact that there's not a gatekeeper between you and the audience, doing the dirty work like asking for money or shoving your CD into the New Releases rack. You had to beg for attention when you first started. Now, you're stuck with everyone else, Connecting With Fans. Attention is scarce. More scarce than money these days.
The processes have been democratized and that does nothing but ire those who used be safe inside the clubhouse
, occasionally flinging art in the direction of the general public with one hand out and the other flipping them the bird. Now that anyone
can get in the game and make their own fortune without
yoking themselves to gatekeepers, the club members have begun resorting to insulting everyone without a membership card. Back on Newhoff's blog:
No one can argue that the consumer isn't "getting what he wants, and for free," but the democratization of journalism has broadened the concept to include literally anyone with a computer. As with Caselton's Radiohead example, the best journalists in the world now swim in murky waters amid every crackpot, amateur netizen who considers himself a reporter.
That's the internet for you. Freeloaders. Crackpots. And saddest of all, the Club Members are now forced to share space with the General Population.
The digital-age conceit (because the Web is an egomaniac's paradise) is that the consumer always knows best; but this apparently fair and reasonable-sounding attitude may well be a greater culture killer than all the suits in Hollywood have ever been. Why? Because, just like solid news reporting, great art is not created by popular consent; to the contrary, it is often created in spite of it. When we shift the "burden and blessing" of gatekeeping from a finite number of professionals involved in the process to an infinite number of amateurs detached from the process, we are simultaneously creating work by committee in real-time while undermining the principle of investment in that work in the first place.
Between Newhoff and Lindvall (and Castleton), the general public is nothing more than a freeloading collective hellbent on destroying culture and rebuilding it via pre-fab pop stars and personal blogs. They decry the level playing field as harmful to the efforts of truly creative and talented artists, the likes of which will be buried by either (Lindvall) "assembly line artists" or (Newhoff) "crackpot bloggers."
All this faux concern for the outer limits of artistic expression completely ignores the fact that the fringe artists, the avant garde, the groundbreakers have as little use for these very same gatekeepers (that Lindvall and Newhoff hold in such high regard) as these gatekeepers had for them. It's been the independent artists, like Amanda Palmer
and Ok Go
that have ditched the label system and struck out on their own, and with great success
. Many, many artists over the years have divorced themselves from major labels and studios simply because of the limitations. Others have been cast off by these same labels and studios for a lack of commercial success.
Artists like Amanda Palmer and Ok Go aren't held back by the public, they're enabled by the public. Lindvall and Newhoff act as if these artists have to only produce content that will appeal to the widest possible audience -- those ugly "masses." But what the successful artists have shown is exactly the opposite
. Under the old system they were expected to do what Lindvall and Newhoff decry about the new system: dumb stuff down and produce something with a broad appeal. But under the new system, these artists have been able to find their niche
and create the art they
want to create. It's an upside-down world from the one that Lindvall and Newhoff see.
Yet somehow, Lindvall and Newhoff believe that scaling back the role of gatekeepers will somehow prevent artists like Billy Corgan or Noel Gallagher from ever succeeding again. And rather than distance themselves from the so-called "pop manufacturers," they attack the public, their own potential fanbase. There's always been a market for lowest-common-denominator pop culture, but lowered entry barriers are making it easier for even the most niche of artists to find an audience. This should be celebrated rather than mourned, but Lindvall and Newhoff seem to feel anything produced outside the "old" system is nothing but mediocrity.