Thoughts on Musicians and the Internet part infinity

The root idea of disruptive innovation is that it is messy and it doesn’t have answers – Justin Spohn

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When Ryan Wines of Marmoset Music invited me to speak on a panel at the Portland TechFestNW conference I initially tried to squirrel my way out of it, because my first thought was – Internets. Music. End of the world. – are we still talking about this? Really? Well unfortunately yes we are. And being invited to speak on the subject is my own fault as I have one foot in each camp; as a professional musician and as a Digital Strategist. I have also spent a lot of words and energy on thinking and then writing about, the crushing blow that the Internet landed on the music industry “system.”

So I capitulated. And it’s an honor to be included in a lineup of such esteemed speakers.

Oh, and by the way; someone must be crazy to invite me back after my attempt at an interview last year…

I recently had a discussion about systems with my friend Justin Spohn, and later, I ended up with a McLuhan-esque thought that music streaming media and the inherent content therein are now the system. A system that we might call “the new music business,” but on reflection I realised this “new” business would just be a version of the old one with all of its inherent baggage – contracts, royalties, licenses, low payments to musicians etc. When the Internet arrives and smacks down your business you can’t backfill the holes that it leaves behind as it goes in search of the next one to crush. You must start from scratch.

Now of course this bedevils the labels, the musicians and, while we’re at it, creators of all stripes.

As an observer of the music industry’s digital whiplashing and not being a music insider, Justin Spohn’s perspective is always enlightening:

I think we forget now what genuine disruption actually is. It’s such the hot term these days and it gets thrown around to the point that it’s lost a lot of it’s meaning. But if you go back to the root idea of disruptive innovation, it’s messy and it doesn’t have answers, and it doesn’t make money, and it doesn’t look at all like the things we’ve come to understand as success: billion dollar IPOs, 100 million users, a book deal for your Tumblr.

Years ago Clay Shirky wrote a piece on disruption and the end of print journalism. In it he wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

And I think this is the scary/maddening thing for many people in the music/arts space. Digital has ended one era, but hasn’t given us a part for part replacement. In some ways, it hasn’t given us a replacement at all. But I think that’s okay, we’ve survived this far, and we’ll survive (and thrive) past this. Just because we don’t have all the answers right now, and just because the answers we do have don’t match the holes we’re left with, doesn’t make the future any less amazing.

It doesn’t make the future any less amazing – precisely.

The opportunities that the Internet and its disruption bring are boundless, but with those opportunities comes pain. Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi fame, wrote an op-ed piece for Pitchfork which begins like this:

I’m sure each generation of musicians feels they’ve lived through a time of tremendous change, but the shifts I’ve witnessed in my relatively short music career– from morphing formats to dissolving business models– do seem extraordinary. The first album I made was originally released on LP only, in 1988– and my next will likely only be pressed on LP again. But in between, the music industry seems to have done everything it could to screw up that simple model of exchange; today it is no longer possible for most of us to earn even a modest wage through our recordings.
Not that I am naively nostalgic for the old days– we weren’t paid for that first album, either. (The record label we were signed to at the time, Rough Trade, declared bankruptcy before cutting us even one royalty check.) But the ways in which musicians are screwed have changed qualitatively, from individualized swindles to systemic ones. And with those changes, a potential end-run around the industry’s problems seems less and less possible, even for bands who have managed to hold on to 100% of their rights and royalties, as we have.

I’m thankful that Damon points out that being paid for making music is difficult at best, as he acknowledges when he notes that Rough Trade flamed out before he received any royalties. That was the system letting him and his band members down. And he also notes that systemic swindles are the norm, but I would say the recording industry is one large systemic swindle, and it was set up that way to benefit the record labels, and it works well for them – as Justin has said, why would they change it? Krukowski also says that “a potential end-run around the industry’s problems seems less and less possible.” I have to disagree. The Internet provides a clear end run around the system and I think he contradicts his own position when he says later in the article – “Which is why we are streaming all of our recordings, completely free, on the Bandcamp sites we set up for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. Enjoy.” That seems like a good example of an end run around the “industry’s problems” to me.

Now some of you will surely point out the fact that Damon is streaming his music for free on Bandcamp, ie he and Naomi are not making money, but that’s not the point. He also has his music streaming in Spotify, a service he pays to use personally, so the stream of cents that roll in are his for the taking. He made a decision to create his own system-lite by getting his music into the hands of his fans for free using the Internet for distribution. He seized the opportunity. His actions fit neatly into Justin’s contention regarding entering the marketplace, that musicians have “a right to their art – beyond that it’s all up in the air.”

(A quick aside – Sasha Frere-Jones moderated an email discussion between me, Damon and Jace Clayton, for his column in the New Yorker, on how musicians might survive in the current Internet/streaming era. I believe we all found a lot of common ground and kicked around some great ideas, but finding solutions for “musicians survival” will be hard. Ultimately the tools are at hand, and musicians just need to experiment with them. The email go around with the three of us was Sasha’s partial response to his article about the “Thom Yorke leaves Spotify kerfuffle” – If You Care About Music, Should you Ditch Spotify? I say no, but more on that later.)

The thing is, it’s not just the music industry that’s being battered. Right now there are some interesting battles been fought around the future of television. Here’s the NY Times’ David Carr on the travails of television companies fighting off competition from Internet TV platforms:

… the legal cases also seem to defy a kind of common-sense logic: how can insurgents use programming created by someone else to their own ends without sharing revenue?

The answer could get very complicated, very fast, but let’s try to make it simple. The dawn of consumer-controlled television began with the clunky, whirring Sony Betamax in the 1970s. Networks and program providers didn’t like consumers making copies of their movies and TV shows, but a landmark Supreme Court case in 1984 held that taping and time-shifting on the part of viewers was “legitimate fair use.”

Everything we have seen since extends from that decision to let consumers into the driver’s seat. It helps to think of the digital video recorder as more of a capability than a device. Both Aereo, which uses antennas to record broadcast television, and Hopper, which records prime-time programming, can be considered DVRs in the cloud, and the cord going to each home happens to be very long (Aereo over the Internet) or comes via satellite signal (Dish).

In each instance, the courts have more or less held, the customers are doing the programming and recording, and as such, have the right to do so even if they are doing so remotely through a third party.

If a revolution is under way, it is happening in increments. The VCR in the corner gave way to the DVR on the set-top box, and now some of the recording lives in the cloud and is pulled down to a variety of devices, including televisions, tablets, computers and phones. [Article]

And Hollywood is going through its share of disruption too, as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pointed out recently: “It’s a mess, it’s total chaos,” said George Lucas, at the University of Southern California film forum. But he noted the opportunity for fresh talent to rise when “all the gatekeepers have been killed.”

Consumers, or users, are the one’s driving technological disruption through their demands for “always on” and “easy access” to all forms of media. Spotify and other competing streaming music services are just the contemporary end link in the long chain of record company exploitation of musician’s and their music – and exploitation is not meant as a bad term. If contracts have been signed, then the very substance of those contracts is to allow the labels to exploit the music they have legally acquired through those agreements. And through those agreements, that no one was forced to sign I presume, musicians find themselves in the marketplace. And, I would argue, many musicians don’t regret signing, they just don’t like the new marketplace. That’s why we often hear their plangent refrain – “it’s not fair!”

Regardless of how anyone spins all of this, one thing is very clear: the Internet does not care.

I look forward to discussing all of the above on the conference panel.