An ethical Internet and the future of music

An essay for the Oregon Humanities magazine.

Dave Allen: May 2013

As I begin to mull over what I might be discussing as a speaker at the upcoming SF Musictech Summit I thought I would post this essay, one that I contributed to the Fall/Winter edition of the Oregon Humanities magazine late last year.

It’s an exposition of my thinking around a very fraught topic, one that swirls endlessly around the tired argument that “everyone is stealing music on the Internet,” where ‘everyone’ is never clearly described. Today, with a clear shift in the social construct, we have to accept the notion that people no longer want to purchase music, they simply want convenient access to it wherever they may be.

The backbone of this essay is an attempt to untangle the idea of “an ethical Internet” and although I note that this is a provocative idea it is an idea that has to be approached with caution. I mention the website The Trichordist, a site where artists gather to show their support for, and read articles about how, as the site’s About page puts it, the organization is working to end “the unethical practices of corporations and companies profiting from the illegal exploitation of artists work without consent or compensation.”

Although one of that organization’s leading figures, David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame, and me, don’t see eye-to-eye on how to address those problems, I fully support their hard work in clamping down on the illegal use of musicians copyrights and their diligence in getting artists compensated.
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Opportunities and ethics in the age of Internet music streaming.
December 2012

I recently attended a talk by Ira Glass, host of This American Life on NPR, and he said something to the effect of “I try not to predict the future of the radio business, I can only tell you about how it is now.” I liked that as it was a perfect reminder that essaying about the future of music has had a bleak past, and I doubt that anyone in their right mind would care to predict where music is going to be, even by the end of this year. I can only tell you about how it is now.

Earlier this fall, I moderated a talk at the Portland Digital eXperience (PDX) conference between Jason LaCarrubba of Spotify and Peter Szabo of Shazam. LaCarrubba and Szabo were discussing how their companies were searching for and discovering new music. At some point, I had an epiphany. As our on-stage discussion continued, I began feeling a sense of dread as I realized that no one — not the executives at these companies, not the audience, not listeners — was truly interested in helping musicians become part of the daily financial transactions on the Internet.

We’ve all heard of the sharp decline of physical music sales and how digital sales do not fill the gap. Young people are the demographic that drives music sales, and, for the most part, they no longer want to own music. My insight at PDX only confirmed for me how quickly another societal shift has occurred. It’s not just young people: music fans of all ages have embraced the convenient access provided by music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, MOG, and Rdio.

With this shift in societal behavior comes many challenges for musicians, some of which I’ll address here. What intrigues me most is this: should we as a society be concerned about the state of the recorded music business, and if so, why?

Let’s begin with the Internet. Chris Anderson, a former executive editor of Wired magazine, calls it a once-in-a-hundred-years technology. It has powerfully disrupted society, culture, and business, as much as the locomotive, electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the jet plane—technologies that transformed the world. In the music industry, the Internet’s disruptive power manifests itself by providing a zero-barrier-to-entry model for budding entrepreneurs and creatives.

Therein lies a tension: because of the Internet, your teenage daughter could destroy my business overnight. How so? One word: Napster.

Napster was created in 1999 by two teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. It was a peer-to-peer platform built to share music across the web as MP3 files. Fanning and Parker were simply being creative in using the Internet’s power. Unlike legitimate online music companies, their company never considered spending millions of dollars on music licensing agreements with record labels and music publishers. Napster lacked the financial means until investors turned up on the scene. Instead, it just used the Internet’s zero-barrier-to-entry model. Napster attracted investment funds and tried to become a legal entity, but it was litigated into a corner by the Recording Industry Association of America. RIAA, which represents the record companies, made the rather puzzling decision to sue its clients’ customers—music fans—for using Napster and Napster-like services. That was probably a first in American business history. The recorded music business has never recovered from that public relations fiasco.

There have been other examples of industries and corporations that failed to keep up with changing technology. Consider Kodak, a company that steadfastly ignored consumer behavior and for its efforts recently went bankrupt. In Kodak’s case, what rocked its cozy institution was society’s embrace of the digital camera. Kodak’s executives apparently refused to believe that people would abandon film for the convenience of digital photography. They saw it as an inferior medium not worthy of their attention and wrongly thought Kodak was in the film business when it was really in the picture business. Executives were blind to what people wanted and what they were really doing. Whatever was going on internally at Kodak, it led them to miss out on a new market. The folks who created Flickr didn’t hesitate in creating a website for photo-sharing, an online ‘digital shoebox.’

This is an example of how executives can make the wrong decisions because of corporate culture and insularity. It was a case of “our executives know best.” In the case of Napster, record company executives fell foul of the same wrongheaded decision-making.

Looking for solutions in an ever-shifting musical landscape

What have musicians been doing about these shifts in the social construct over the last fifteen years? In short, they’ve done much soul-searching and complaining about the Internet “destroying careers” and how “everyone is stealing music.” Now, I don’t want to generalize here. Many young musicians and a small subset of popular musicians have long embraced the “container-less” Internet to distribute their music for free, often very successfully. They are seeking out, and in some cases creating, new markets.

The Internet provides untold opportunities for musicians, which is where I run in to trouble when trying to address these opportunities with musicians. I must apologize to the economist Paul Krugman here as I have repurposed one of his insights, posted to his New York Times blog, when I say that the Internet’s ultimate value to musicians offends musicians’ notions of how things are supposed to work in a capitalist society. They and their supporters reject this theory no matter how well it performs, and throw their support behind other views and other people, no matter how badly they get it wrong.

Once a musician moves from creating music to selling music she enters the world of commerce and partakes in its ups and downs. Those ups and downs begin with a simple fact: just because someone is capable of making music does not mean she will have a successful career in the music business. It has never been easy to build a music career that creates a steady level of income. It has always been an unfathomable mix of talent, luck, charisma, and hard work. Let’s be honest: musical talent is not genetically and democratically distributed. Those who paint the Internet as a sinister mystery, where “everyone” steals music and holds musicians back, cloud the debate. The Internet can have positive effects and opportunities for musicians. The argument that the Internet harms musicians only stands if it is implicitly true.

In a turbulent Internet era, musicians must create new markets. Musicians, unless they are very successful, struggle more than ever to make a living from selling music. This is a problem that can’t be fixed by attempting to have people buy more CDs or digital songs. If we agree that most fans now want to access not own music, then musicians and record labels need to take note of that shift and address it.

The musician Beck offers a good example. He is releasing his new “album” as a book of sheet music called Song Reader. According to the website of its publisher, McSweeney’s, where the ‘book’ is for sale, Beck’s latest project is “an experiment in what an album can be at the end of 2012 — an alternative that enlists the listener in the tone of every track, and that’s as visually absorbing as a dozen gatefold LPs put together.” Beck has created a new market for himself and his music.

Of course, Beck has had a decent and lengthy career in the music industry, so it’s easier for him to do that. This is an argument I hear often. But here’s another successful example of creativity in the music marketplace: twenty-two-year-old Abel Tesfaye, a formerly unknown artist known by his stage name The Weeknd, is a Canadian musician who gained success by releasing three “albums” for free through his website. Beginning in 2011, his releases were ostensibly mixtapes, a common way for hip hop and R&B artists to publicly show off their talents. Tesfaye’s releases won huge accolades from music critics and other artists, resulting in two of his mixtapes being shortlisted for the Canadian Polaris Music Prize Awards even though they weren’t official album releases. He released a debut album, Trilogy, in November, has worked as a co-songwriter with the hip hop star Drake, and has produced a song each for Lady Gaga and Florence and the Machine. He used YouTube to create a new market for himself and his music.

Both of these examples are responses to societal shifts. But there is no one-size-fits-all model. Beck and Tesfaye created models based not only on their audiences, but also on what people are actually doing online. For Beck, releasing sheet music responds to his sense of what his fans are going to do with his music: record their own versions and post them to YouTube or Soundcloud. For Tesfaye, he knows young people use YouTube to find new music, so he began his career by posting his music there.

And there’s nothing new here. Record labels have given away free music to FM radio stations and free videos to MTV for decades.

As recorded music gets reduced to an appropriate file size for delivery across mobile network services and the Web, it is clear that the days of music being enjoyed primarily as a tactile object (e.g., a vinyl album or CD) are behind us. It’s also worth noting that streaming music royalty payments to the majority of artists are ridiculously low. And music is available for free for a generation of young people who have grown up in an age of free: Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, MySpace, Flickr, Skype.

An ethical Internet

A group of musicians and their supporters have floated the idea of “an ethical Internet” on a website called The Trichordist. They want the Internet to be a place where people and companies act in a certain way. This will be quite a challenge. Through my work as a digital strategist, I have long known that people online will not change their behavior because they are asked to do so. Still, it is a provocative idea.

Can the Internet be said to have moral and ethical properties? In Moralizing Technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek, professor of philosophy of technology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, writes, “Some roles played by technology can be called ‘good’ and others ‘bad’—even if it is not possible to blame technologies for the ‘bad.’”

Verbeek mentions Bruno Latour, a French sociologist and anthropologist, who argues that speed bumps in the road outside schools help us make a moral decision not to drive too fast near a school. Verbeek goes on to say the following:

“Ethics is commonly considered to be an exclusively human affair. The claim that technological artifacts can have morality immediately raises the suspicion that one adheres to a backward form of animism, which equips things with spirit. Material objects do not have minds or consciousness, they lack free will and intentionality and cannot be held responsible for their actions; therefore they cannot be fully fledged parts of the moral community, the argument goes. At the same time though, technologies do help to shape our existence and the moral decisions we take, which undeniably gives them a moral dimension.”

Perhaps, then, by using the Internet, people can make moral decisions. The Internet leaves it up to us to decide how to behave morally, just as speed bumps in the road do. As a construct, the Internet is not ethical. As a technology it cannot be. As a social organization principle, maybe it can, in the same way a government can be ethical.

The folks at The Trichordist are working to help musicians maintain control of their work online, but there are many pitfalls to avoid. One cul-de-sac they entered was the “Google argument.” They accuse Google of making money off the backs of musicians because Google ads appear on infringing websites. I strongly believe this is a huge stretch. Google is not set up to be the Web Police. In fact, Google’s success is a result of the fact that advertising is popular across the Web.

As my friend David Ewald of Uncorked Studios says, “Very few people really take a step back and look at all our parts in the system. Banner ads are only there because people have clicked them in the past. Advertising itself only exists because people buy the stuff advertisers push.”

“While it is just a nugget of a thought,” he continues, “I think there’s something to a reminder that we created the system. Not just technology, not just artists, not just Google or advertising — the interconnectivity of all of us created this ecosystem. Each lever that gets pulled/pushed has an effect on other areas. In the music debate, access/convenience (in current forms anyway) means artists aren’t getting paid.”

This creates a challenge to the idea of an ethical Internet.

The future of music

At the end of 2012, after decades of consolidation, three major record labels remain: Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Entertainment. For each, its executives’ duty, on behalf of shareholders, is to maximize profit. There are also many large independent record labels that tend to be privately held and operate in niche areas. When musicians sign contracts with any label entity, their fortunes are intertwined. By contract, their businesses are inseparable, and making money becomes a necessary part of every equation.

Is society responsible for ensuring musicians have successful careers? Should we be supporting the recorded music business in a time when the desire for music ownership is so low? Perhaps not. But we do have an ethical decision to make: should we support music and musicians by purchasing more music, or should we accept the new social construct wherein most music fans don’t want to own music, only gain free access to it through convenient streaming music services?

The answers to those questions may point to the future of music. Musicians meanwhile need to consider what business they are in.