Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In which I call BS on Internet media

Cheaper than everything but outright piracy
Internet era music consumership reminds me of this passage from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas:

The trunk of the car looked like a mobile police narcotics lab. We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug-collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

Like, everyone is sitting on mountains of free and illicit stuff they're never going to have the time to use, but they've gathered it because they can. Following are some thoughts on what this means to professional musicians, and the economy of our business:

Internet music is infinite, you are finite.
Wonderful, you have a couple of terabytes of music you got for free, and unlimited streaming of all the music in the world, for free or for a pittance. You're still one individual linear consciousness with 16-18 waking hours in a day, with a limited amount of time available for serious, focused listening. Professionals are focused listeners. You don't need all that, and you're never going to use it.

Streaming is not acceptable for professional musicians.
I don't care if you can pull up the entire Red Garland catalog instantly for no money on Spotify, you have to have a library. You can't have your library existing on a server somewhere, at the pleasure of whatever streaming service, who can change the rules any time they want, as can their licensors. If you've used Netflix streaming, you are aware that movies are pulled from circulation seemingly at random— either Netflix decided not to offer them any more, or a licensor pulled them, or a contract expired or fell through. An author who doesn't own any books, who just uses a Kindle, would be deeply suspect. You're supposed to be a serious musician, which means your studio is full of music stuff.

You have to pay. And you have to pay the right people. And as much as possible, that should be local people. Yes, you are a poor artist doing God's work by dedicating your life to music, but there is a cost of admission. And that cost is all your money during your youth— other than what you spend on food, beer, rudimentary body-coverings. You can put that money into your local economy, where it will get into the hands of people who may come to your shows, and talk about you, and it will mean something because you have a thriving local music scene, because you put your money into it... and so on. Or you can send your money, never to be seen again in your community, directly to some people in Sweden, or Seattle, or Denmark, or Silicone Valley— who may know/care jack squat about music, but who wrote some computer code. Meanwhile your local scene has starved to death, because the myriad small transactions that are its lifeblood have dried up— the people who used to have music-related jobs are all doing something else for a living, and don't have time hear music or talk to much of anyone any more.

Music costs money, but it doesn't cost that much money. I don't care how broke you are, you can afford all the CDs you will have time to listen to seriously. I bought a used LP of Nefertiti in 1983 for $3, and then this new CD of it in 2015 for $5. That's a pretty small price for something you're going to listen to for the rest of your life. A record store I frequent has hundreds of scuffed copies of great, essential CDs for $2-4 each. With the massive CD reissuing of the entire modern history of jazz over the last 25 years, you'll find just about everything you want sooner or later, if you adopt the scavenging, record store-loitering habits we all used to have.

What's really going on, part 1: selling at a loss to starve the competition 
What companies like Spotify are trying to do is drive the cost of recorded music down to near zero, to drive everyone else out of business, at which point they can charge you whatever they want. And their advertising revenue will skyrocket— you'll be paying to be advertised to, just like with cable TV. Which, if you haven't noticed, sucks. The clearest evidence of this is that, as successful as Spotify and Pandora have been, they are not making money. They're just trying to hold out selling music wildly below cost— they're undercharging the public, and underpaying artists— until everyone else dies.

What's really going on, part 2: no, spend all of your money on hardware!
Companies like Apple— which was always a hardware company— want media to be free, so you can spend all your money on their newest techno-bauble device every eight months. And, transfixed as everyone is by that little touch screen, they're doing it. Finding myself with time to kill in a shopping mall recently, I could not find a book or record store, but there was a bustling Apple store, full of diffused white light, and a lot of excited, energized people for whom this was clearly the best day of their year; when they can finally get a NEW DEVICE, which temporarily satisfies some non-specific desire to see MORE DAZZLING THINGS appear on the micro-fairyland of the touch screen.

The point here is not to demand that we go back to the golden age of my teenage years, when everything was great; it's to be thinking about what our real needs are as professional musicians; and to illustrate how the current thing is at odds with what serious musicians have always done; and to be thinking about economy of the business we're in, and about how we participate in it in a way that serves our interests. In these discussions people will say, as if on cue,  what tech companies are doing now = the future, and to be opposed to those companies means just absurdly trying to turn back the clock. That's untrue. These companies are just the latest iteration of a long history of self-interested people trying to grab other people's money. Some of them are making the world a better place, some of them are outright evil, none of them were anointed by God almighty to be the guaranteed future of everything.


  1. Anonymous7:28 AM

    Food for thought.

    Your friendly neighbor.

  2. Interesting article. We'll put him in the camp of writers boosting the idea that recorded music is now worth nothing (ignoring that a lot of people are making money off of it), and there's nothing anyone can do about it. The article is not a scientific study, it's one writer's opinion, based on very broad categories of statistics-- which it seems to me would be prone to distortion because of the vast amount of money concentrated at the top, say, 1% of the business. His conclusion "Consumers spend less for recorded music, but more for live." is indicative of that-- if revenues for middle class musicians fall off a cliff, well, hey, U2 is getting $500 a ticket, so that makes up for it. I don't see his conclusions borne out in the lives of the musicians I know, and clearly a lot of artists have been alarmed about the way things are going.

    And of course it doesn't address my major point about the way professional artists use recorded music. Internet media-- I'm thinking mainly streaming and YouTube-- is not worthless, but for anyone with ambitions of being a serious artist it is not a substitute for traditional recorded media.

  3. That article hasn't escaped someone else's notice-- running out to dentist and gig right now, but I'll take a look at it later. It looks like he's going to pretty much savage the author of the NYT piece for being a tech industry shill.

  4. Yeah, it's getting massacred. Here, and here, and here.

  5. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Dear Todd,

    I've been a professional musician for 25 years. To be honest, musicians have a serious lack of knowledge in the fields of Law, basic economic reasoning and History, their behaviour is not different from other rent seekers, Disney, the sugar industry or almost every union.

    Quite often musicians seem to know the price of everything (their work) and the value of nothing (marginal utility). Our profession would benefit greatly by studying the subject matter of Intellectual Property in detail. May I suggest Against Intellectual Monopoly by Boldrin and Levin to begin with.

    Do you pay any royalties to the musicians that created the grooves you transcribe? Any royalties for the images you use?

    Let's not forget that recorded music is just a small period in the history of music. Complains like yours have been heard before. Creative Destruction is the term that Joseph Schumpeter coined that explains the nature of your unease.

    Your friendly neighbor.

  6. I don't know how to respond to this collection of very oblique criticisms. If you want to respond directly to anything I've said, we can have a conversation about that. Telling me to read some things on the assumption that I will agree with you once I have, is not going to cut it-- that is not conversation. Telling me musicians are like "rent seekers, Disney, the sugar industry or almost every union" as if I should know what you are talking about is very strange, and makes you look like a bit of a kook. Please state your point directly.

  7. Anonymous7:45 AM


    I don't think there's such a thing as Intellectual Property, neither in theory or practice, the empirical evidence shows that it does not do what its defenders say it does. The technological change made all that more transparent. Those who support it are looking for a privilege granted by Government (rent-seeking). Have a look at this chart

    The reason why we have private property is in order to overcome the problem of scarcity. Music, like ideas, is not scarce, if I copy you Cd I don't take it away from you, you still have your copy. The fashion industry thrives in absence of intellectual property, why is that? The brands are protected, but not the designs.

    Your friendly neighbor

  8. In fact, we have laws, created to facilitate fair commerce, which say it does exist. If you're philosophically opposed to the concept, you will have to work to get the laws changed. As it stands, even laws you oppose are enforced, and are part of the terrain. With good reason, I think.

    Otherwise, sorry, I'm not really interested in a philosophical debate about our respective ideas of a morally perfect dream world. Copyright laws exist, in part, to insure against the exploitation of people who work very hard to create content of sufficient quality to be of commercial value-- which, in fact, is scarce. To the extent that the work is digitally copyable, you can make virtually unlimited copies of it, but to be created in the first place requires talent, time, money, and energy. If creators are not paid for their work, then they either do their work in between shifts at the cannery, to whatever extent they can afford it, or they have to be independently wealthy. If history is any indication, that latter will be the case, and the creative fields will be ceded to the idle rich, and the rest of us will be left doing folk art in our meager spare time. It's highly questionable whether work of sufficient quantity and quality to satisfy the desires of the public and the needs of business can be made under those conditions. I believe not.

    Finally, regarding your link, The American Enterprise Institute is not an impartial source. It is a political organization existing for the purpose of providing intellectual support for a certain, very conservative, political ideology.

  9. Anonymous11:00 AM


    "Copyright laws exist, in part, to insure against the exploitation of people who work very hard to create content of sufficient quality to be of commercial value-- which, in fact, is scarce."

    That's an empirical claim. Can you back it up? I ask because most of the time replies like that are based on intuition, not on actual data.

    Do you think that The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998, otherwise known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, insures "against the exploitation of people who work very hard to create content of sufficient quality to be of commercial value", that Disney's lobbying had nothing to do with looking for a privilege?

    Did you look at the source of AEI's claim?

  10. No, sorry, I don't have time to fact check every claim made by sources I consider to be fundamentally untrustworthy. That's life. If you have an argument to make, please make it.

    Re: my empirical claim, it's very straightforward. What part of it do you dispute, and why?

    Re: Disney and the CTEA, I have no doubt that their lobbying had an influence. So what?

  11. Anonymous11:48 AM


    You've expressed an opinion. An empirical claim is something else. You need to proof that musicians are being exploited. TV is better than ever, is way more expensive than making a record, people download popular programs all the time, yet creativity is thriving. How come?

  12. You called it an empirical claim. Right there, in the previous comment.

    But, lord, you want me to prove that musicians are being exploited? I will address that as soon as I and everyone else in the world pick ourselves up off the floor, and our collective case of "the giggles" subsides. It's rather self-evident through all of history that labor is exploited by the powerful to the full extent that they allowed. If you want to claim victory because I was unwilling to "prove" that, fine.

    This is getting extremely tiresome. I continue to wish you would just tell me what you think. If you have something to say about the business of television vs. that of music, or about Disney and the CTEA, or any of the other things you're demanding I comment upon, would you please say it?

  13. By the way, everyone, be sure to follow the continued savaging of the NYT Magazine piece this user referenced in his first comment. It's very entertaining.

  14. Anonymous6:06 PM


    Let's go back to the Red Garland example that you mentioned before. Why is it that people don't listen to him? There can be many explanations for that. To begin with, there's way more music available now that when he was alive. On top of that, there are more forms of entertainment, it's harder for his music to find a space. Taste in music changes as well, maybe people want to listen to something else.

    What about composers like Boulez or Stockhausen, their stuff is not heard at all. Their music was never hurt because people were downloading it. I even think they would not mind it at all as far as someone was listening to it.

    Years ago I read an interview with Gary Bartz where he said that jazz musicians sold their music at gigs. I friend of mine witness something like that at recent Mike Stern concert, he thinks he sold 100 Cds at least.

    Intellectual Property protects Madonna and Taylor Swift, not your average musician.

  15. I don't see how anything you've said supports your conclusion. Whether or not you suppose Mr. Boulez should be happy to have his work pirated, or whether he is significantly harmed by it, is irrelevant-- the point is that the choice of how to dispose of his work should be his-- as well as whatever entity is providing funding for getting his recordings produced, manufactured, and distributed. It may well be that people selling more CDs benefit from intellectual property laws more than those selling less; that doesn't mean the laws are wrong in principle.

  16. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Musicians don't have the right to dispose of their work once is out in the open, as simple as that. If you want to control it, don't show it. Coca Cola's formula is not registered, its an industrial secret. Until 1978, Switzerland had no Intellectual Property protection laws, its pharmaceutical industry thrived nonetheless. They changed that under heavy pressure from Anglo-Saxon corporations.

    There's a very strong case supporting that copyright laws exist, not to secure "against the exploitation of people who work very hard to create content of sufficient quality to be of commercial value", but to drive competition away. Quality and commercial value is a non sequitur, many things are of quality and have very commercial value. If you play Jazz, you should know that.

    Your position is very naive, based on intuition. What do you propose to enforce what you consider right? Would you support a state agency similar to the NSA in order to spy on people's computers?

    You're very naive as well regarding the nature of legislation. What about Prohibition, Gay rights, smoking marihuana, etc., does the State have right to impose those laws on the citizenship? Where do you draw the line regarding the private sphere of people?

    There's the extra problem of knowledge, the faith, and I repeat, the faith that Government can know all the relevant facts in order to come up with the right plan. Society is a complex phenomena, is an emergent order, bottom up, not top down, just as music.

  17. It's very difficult to get you to say anything that is not a rhetorical question or a random example of... something vaguely suggestive of your opinion.

    And here you've added the unsupported assertion that is 100% contrary to reality to the mix. Musicians do in fact retain rights over our work once is is "out in the open" (published or released, we say)-- Google "copyright law songwriters" for examples of the ways that is the case. I understand that you want those laws to not exist, but in fact, they do. If you want musicians to support those laws being changed, you need to give us some very good reasons why it is in our interest to do that.