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Lessons from the Music Industry: Should We Put Our Faith in Technology Companies?

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Camper Van Beethoven (album)Camper Van Beethoven (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who came of age in the post-punk musical era of the mid 1980′s, David Lowery holds a special significance. Lowery was (and remains) the leader of Camper Van Beethoven, a groundbreaking band that channeled the best of punk rock through an eclectic filter of ethnic folk music, ska, and country, all performed with humor, intelligence and exceptional musicianship. Through Camper Van Beethoven, and his later band Cracker, Lowery was a fierce critic of corruption in the music industry, from shady nightclub owners to perhaps 

 ever written.

Which is why it was surprising, if not downright shocking, to come across this recent piece by Lowery, “Meet the New Boss, Worse than the Old Boss?” which declares that musicians were better off under the thumbs of the RIAA than they are with their new taskmasters, digital technology companies:

I was like all of you. I believed in the promise of the Internet to liberate, empower and even enrich artists. I still do but I’m less sure of it than I once was. . . . I feel that what we artists were promised has not really panned out.  Yes in many ways we have more freedom. Artistically this is certainly true. But the music business never transformed into the vibrant marketplace where small stakeholders could compete with multinational conglomerates on an even playing field.

In the last few years it’s become apparent the music business, which was once dominated by six large and powerful music conglomerates, MTV, Clear Channel and a handful of other companies, is now dominated by a smaller set of larger even more powerful tech conglomerates.  And their hold on the business seems to be getting stronger. . . .

Everywhere I look artists seem to be working more for less money.

Before you dismiss Lowery’s complaints as the bitter tears of an aging hippie, take a moment to read through his qualifications as a musician, programmer, and entrepreneur, and note the 20 years he’s spent working with a “freemium” business model. His thesis is fairly straightforward — despite the poor way in which music labels treated musicians, they shared a common goal and offered at least some level of support and insulation from financial risk. The new landscape is instead dominated by technology companies who see all creative content as mere fodder for fueling their own business models (selling ads or devices for example) and they offer no support, no insulation:

Things are worse. This was not really what I was expecting.  I’d be very happy to be proved wrong. I mean it’s hard for me to sing the praises of the major labels. I’ve been in legal disputes with two of the three remaining major labels. But sadly I think I’m right. And the reason is quite unexpected.  It’s seems the Bad Old Major Record Labels “accidentally” shared  too much  revenue and capital through their system of advances.  Also the labels  ”accidentally” assumed most of the risk. This is contrasted with the new digital distribution system where some of the biggest players assume almost no risk and share zero capital.

The new bosses further cement their position by “waging a cynical PR campaign that equates the unauthorized use of other people’s property (artist’s songs) with freedom.” Through an army of “quasi-religious” surrogates (“freehadists”), the industry pushes for a “Cyber-Bolshevik campaign of mass collectivization,” where creative output is devalued. He sees it as particularly cynical because there’s one exception to this devaluation, one type of IP that is seen as sacrosanct — and that exception is software patents.

Lowery states that suggestions that artists simply need to find a new business model are a clear indication of awareness that artists are getting a raw deal. The new business model is already here, it’s been in place for over 10 years, and it’s making an enormous amount of money. But very little of that money goes to the creator.

At some point, one has to question whether it is still possible to earn a living as  a musician, or any type of creator. William Gibson, in a speech from 2003 makes the suggestion that those times are gone:

Prior to the technology of audio recording, there was relatively little one could do to make serious money with music. Musicians could perform for money, and the printing press had given rise to an industry in sheet music, but great fame, and wealth, tended to be a matter of patronage. The medium of the commercial audio recording changed that, and created an industry predicated on an inherent technological monopoly of the means of production. Ordinary citizens could neither make nor manufacture audio recordings. That monopoly has now ended. Some futurists, looking at the individual musician’s role in the realm of the digital, have suggested that we are in fact heading for a new version of the previous situation, one in which patronage (likely corporate and nonprofit) will eventually become a musician’s only potential ticket to relative fame and wealth. The window, then, in which one could become the Beatles, occupy that sort of market position, is seen to have been technologically determined. And technologically finite…It may well be that the digital will eventually negate the underlying business model of popular music entirely. If this happens, it will be a change which no one intended, and few anticipated, and not the result of any one emergent technology, but of a complex interaction among several.

Lowery offers no answers here, just a hope for an honest discussion of what’s going on that will possibly lead to new approaches. It’s a long piece, but one worth reading, filled with both humor and real-world numbers, and a particularly informative explanation of how Facebook and YouTube help garner attention for a musician, but ultimately steer their listeners away from the musicians themselves.

Cory Doctorow makes a related point about the publishing industry in a recent column, where he goes to great pains to contrast publishers, who he sees as virtuous, with other media companies.

In publishing, the publisher pays . . . expenses out of its pocket, and the author isn’t expected to pay it back. . . . Publishing doesn’t do debt slavery.

It’s true that very few writers get rich or even make a living off their book deals, but that’s because their books don’t sell very well. It’s not because publishers have stacked the deck against writers in the way that other entertainment bogeymen have for their creators . . . writers get square deals.

Doctorow thinks this is a key message for the survival of the publishing industry, that we can build support by making it clear that we’re, as he puts it, “on the side of the angels.” This was a continuous theme throughout the recent 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Annual Meeting — that we need to do a much better job explaining to the world just what it is that publishers actually do.

The scholarly community itself needs to understand the perils of the musician’s path. Would-be reformers are ready to tear down the publishing industry and replace it, often with the apparently not-so-benevolent rulers of Silicon Valley and other privately held for-profit start-ups. Publishers at least share common ground with the research community. Producing high-quality books, journals and other forms of content is the ultimate goal, not a step along the way toward selling user data to advertisers.

Even better for the researcher, much of what is seen as a monolithic, corporate industry is in fact owned and run by the academic community itself. Through not-for-profits, research societies, and university presses, researchers control their own destinies and can do what’s right for scholarship, rather than what’s needed to sell someone else’s unrelated product.

If your priority is the dissemination of knowledge, then partnering within your own community to further that goal makes a lot more sense than turning over the future of scholarship to those who see it as a means of selling Kindles or iPads. The “scorpion” at the very heart of a company like 23andMeultimately sets them at odds with the needs of the research community. Even a seemingly benign overlord can morph over time into something else in order to meet shareholder demands. Google’s recent acceptance of paid inclusion in search results, something they once declared “evil” and they swore they would never do, is a prime example.

So many of the current movements in the scholarly publishing space revolve around control — who holds the copyright, who gets to re-use the published material in new ways.

If the research community wants to reclaim the ownership of its output, then it would be wise to truly do that, and to not merely trade one set of commercial owners for another.

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