Category Archives: Activism

Goodbye to the Biz (again)

About half a year ago, with the pending handover of ccMixter, it became a very real possibility that I might end up working for a commercial music company by the end of this year. I felt it would be prudent for me to re-educate myself in the comings and goings of the mainstream music industry. I’ve been ignoring the old music business for years while I worked for a non-profit and position myself as somewhat of an activist in the Open Music music. I subscribed to several blogs devoted to industry news and opinions and have been following them daily for the last six months.

Well, earlier today I unsubscribed from all of them. It may be prudent to know about what’s going with EMI, BestBuy, Napster, Sony, etc. but it now seems my psyche can’t afford that kind of prudence over extended periods of time. I’m not saying they are comparable but as far as my day-to-day routine goes, I finally felt like I might as well be subscribed to the tobacco lobby blogs or the Gambino family feeds. (A more accurate analogy would probably be tracking the inner-industry activities of US health insurance companies but it’s not as dramatic.) What is comparable is the level of denial and rationale (the impolite word is ‘spin’) going on in this world.

Look, of course there will always be money in celebrity, of course there will always be blockbuster hits and huge music memes that transcends music culture into the broader meme-pool. And I know that few human endeavors are as adaptive as corruption. I’m not so naive as to think that today’s version of corruption in the music industry will not seek out the deepest pool of money no matter what shape the product distribution chain takes and wherever the collection streams flow to and from. I just can’t read another word about what it will take to “save” the current four mega-labels from themselves which is really a nice of way of saying: flailing around looking for the new places to put the squeeze on customers, artists and any new suckers that feel like lining up for a beating like ISPs. Even when the right question is initially posed as here about fan-funded sites it quickly spirals into

The leading question though, is can traditional record labels compete with these types of revenue splits and copyright reverting back to the artist?

Really? Is that the “leading question?” Er, I guess. But that presupposes that you give a shit.

My leading question is “How can a musician make a living?” As the brilliant Danny O’Brien post “Window Taxes” pionts out, we aren’t even talking about it correctly yet. We are stuck in a 100 year old vernacular of the music racket as we have known it.

I’m not impressed with all the stats that make the current racketeers feel good about their future. It has taken 15 years for the Web and open source (along with a monopoly threat from Google) to finally take on Microsoft’s core Windows and Office assets. It might take another 10 years for the new shape of the music business to take hold and provide a real alternative to artists and fans but it is, shots at “Long Tail” notwithstanding: INEVITABLE. Sorry. It just is.

See you on the other side.

I Got Your Long Tail Swinging!

A few years ago a guy from WIRED named Chris Anderson wrote a thesis and basically bet his life (or blog anyway) on something called “The Long Tail.” Given the distribution model of the Internet, compared to real world stores, the theory is that more people will be buying niche items because those items will be available in ways never seen before in mankind. A breakthrough worthy of Magellan sharing noodles and ice cream and Toyota Hybrids from halfway across the world (or something like that). Anderson, I’m assuming, makes a handsome supplement touring the world as the darling of the Kool-Aid swilling Wide Eyed Web crowd with his fancy talk about the how this “revolutionizes” everything.

A few weeks ago a friend of Chris’ from Harvard Business School named Anita Elberse wrote a paper called “Should You Invest in the Long Tail?” in which she used sales data she got from some online music and video retailers which proves, without a shadow of doubt, that the whole long tail theory is dead. Deader than dead.

Now along comes folks like Glenn Peoples from coolfer.com — a darling apologist for the Big Media record industry with a reasonable tone (most of the time) — to pile on with a paper called “Rethink the Long Tail” (you know it’s important because he put it into a PDF) in which he offers between zero and no new extrapolation on Elberse’s work, but instead gives us a joyous celebration of it. Long tail isn’t just deader than dead, it’s fucked in the head. “The implications for businesses are profound.” Get it? Elberse’s findings at Soundscan and Rhapsody proves that Magellan was an idiot for thinking that worldwide trade would somehow pan out because, you know, 20 years after his first round trip people were still buying cow’s brains locally culled. Hey, the numbers don’t lie.

Along the way, everybody’s got advice for the record industry. Anderson says lower your costs and get everything out there, let the market decide. Elberse says you post your niche material at your own risk, because it’s guaranteed a waste of money. The numbers, the numbers, oh those wicked numbers.

Peoples has advice too and you know what? I agree 100% with it. Peoples and my advice to the established record industry is this:

KEEP DOING WHAT YOUR DOING! DON’T CHANGE A THING!

If losing ~15-30% each year from the year before is working for you then it’s certainly working for me! Don’t pay any attention to any of the smoke and mirrors wishful thinking about this Internet thing or let it get in the way of business as usual.

Peoples points out that only 2% of the respondents of a supporting Pew poll said they share music online and “[t]he habits of younger music buyers are probably more heavily skewed toward the Internet.” You shouldn’t make too much of a fuss about that. Sure, he said “probably” in there but fuck it. Keep looking at the buying and sharing habits of 43 year olds because after all “this report is not about future trends and the habits of the youth generation.”

Fuckin’ A right. Whatever you do, don’t look to the future. Keep your head out of the clouds and keep your eye firmly on 1982 when mobbed up “radio promoters” fixed what was on the air with cocaine and beatings (Eliot who??? whatever happened to him??). Keep suing everybody, keep DRM‘ing, (btw I miss root-kits, bring those back), keep fleecing your successful artists with opaque accounting and keep all your signed artists un-unionized and below the poverty line. Above all, keep all the rights to your signed artists music. Forever.

Do not, under any circumstances, invest one copper penny in this Jetsonian vision of online taste-makers opening up consumer’s options. It hasn’t happened yet, it’s just not going to. Ever. That’s just freaky hippie talk. Soundscape told you so, so did Pew. Do not, for heaven’s sake, look at fan funded artists like Brad Sucks or Norine Braun or geeky fringe labels, especially if they are profitable like Magnatune for any indicator of an alternative way for artists and consumers to hook up and completely cut your fucking ass out of the picture. Ignore that. Now and forever.

Let the back-peddling begin…

Norine Raises $4,200 from Fans (!)

On our way to waiting for the first open music artist to actually quit their day job folks like Norine Braun are out there with overflowing tip jars paying for their music habits. I’m not a music mogul or entrepreneur visionary type but it seems like $4,280 sure goes a long way in a DIY world. (And if that’s Canadian Dollars it goes even farther!)

I am so, so psyched for Norine – and really, for all of us.

The Collective is the “Label”

But seriously and on a more positive note…

Lucas’ conversation brings up the idea of the collective (A. K. A. musicians’ community sites, net labels, etc.) acting as the new version of a recording label. Not a full replacement in terms of what a label does today, like Amazon replacing brick and mortar book stores, but more like blogging, which has parallels in the pre-Web world but is a service industry born of the Web itself.

The musicians’ collective and it’s implications, commercially and otherwise, are not new ideas to me. After all, I run one for Creative Commons called ccMixter. Unfortunately with the confidential nature of the way the ccMixter RFP was held under wraps for 18 months I chose the better part of valor (for once) and did not discuss these things in public because I was scared out of my mind that CC’s tax exempt status could be hurt if the ccM hand-over was screwed up. This, of course, turned out to be one lawyer’s opinion but it was the only information I had at the time.

The business opportunity implications lurking around ccM would take more than a blog post to relay but here’s one highlight that makes the ccM collective even more interesting than other sites that pool album shopping carts and other resources.

Lucas and Neeru’s original vision for the site was a re-use model obvious to them, new to musicians. They saw the site laid out as:

a) source material
b) remixes
c) recursion

From day one of my involvement I felt that with a few additions (e.g. giving a cappellas a top-tier status, creating a Sample Pool larger than just the one site, focusing on quality via the Editors’ Picks) that we could help propel the concepts into a model musicians could wrap their heads around. This combined vision has given ccM a unique process for creating really good music that, like blogging, has parallels in the pre-Web days but has grown into something different.

Somehow, unlike hiring a producer (A.K.A. your boyfriend) to create an album based on a singer/songwriter’s material and unlike collaborating with other band members to jam together until a vocal and instrumental work as a unit, the act of tossing things into a sample pool with no fixed objective or assignments has yielded some fantastic music. When I say “no fixed objective” I mean we even stopped having remix contests over a year ago and the music only got better. It got better because the thing drawing in better singers was better producers. And the thing drawing in better producers was better singers. There’s the recursion thing writ large in real terms.

fwiw I walk around these days thinking “I can’t believe it fucking worked!” because maybe Lucas and Neeru and folks at CC are used to having their visions pan out in the real world but this is new to me. I tried for years to convince singers and musicians that open music was good for their careers and the world and exposure through sharing was the sane route, not the inverted distortion field of handing over 100% of your rights to a huge corporation in return for financial debt you can never repay. Of course, all of those are still true and certainly part of the attraction, but it wasn’t until this recursion-in-the-pool thing starting taking off that all of a sudden the best musicians I know are forking over stems and pells without blinking. I look up now and I realize in two years I’ve gone from nearly full-time evangelism to nearly none.

Now, maybe the CD is dead. Maybe a ccM model isn’t amenable to selling songs at $0.99 a pop.

But how could this thing not be marketable? Especially if we’re talking about, like blogging, a new type of service, born of the Web. Assuming all the other fundamentals of business skills are in place (clever marketing, good people connections, profit oriented bookkeeping, etc.) I would say it’s worth a shot to go after the huge B2B music consuming marketplace.

You vs. The (Elite) Sharing Ecomony

I don’t claim the right to pontificate but if you indulge me I will. It’s in that spirit that I share my evolving thoughts on the open music scene because I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. I’ve been led to notice a potentially large shift in open music. This shift seems to be inspired by the You-ification of the Web (see Time Person of the Year for the mainstream media’s interpretation).

Professor Lessig’s talk in Germany last week discusses the dearth (if not death) of the participatory aspect of music forecast by J. P. Sousa (the guy who wrote the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus) at the turn of the 20th century and facilitated by the industrialization and commidization of music. The introduction of technology such as the phonograph and radio was a fundamental shift in way humans thought about music — the idea of music had suddenly shifted after tens of thousands of years from participation to mass consumption. Note that we are talking about very recent events. I doubt either the term ‘music business’ or ‘music industry’ were in wide use when my father was born in 1916.

While Professor Lessig is careful not to predict or even express a desire to return to a participatory era I can’t help thinking that sites like Splice Music and Jam Glue, by capitalizing on Flash ™ plus broadband ubiquity, reverberate with echoes of the pre-phonograph era. Instead of sitting around the parlor piano or on the porch with a banjo, jug and washboard, the modern day “musician” is parked in the campus cafeteria with a wireless laptop and headphones using audio samples (made by folks they’ve never met and know nothing about) into their own creative works and by default posting the results back into the community. Of course the result is, in turn, available for reuse both others.

I put the word musician in quotes above because the people participating at these sites do not meet our definition of the term in the post industrial sense. We’ve come to think of musicians as people who take lessons, own an instrument, spent money on (or stole) music software or a DJ mixer and turntable. But I suspect that a lot of the people congregating at Jam Glue and Splice Music do not have any those materials or have invested any money or time in activity we used to call ‘playing music.’ At the very least these sites make this scenario possible and I guarantee these sites pitched their investors on the hopes of attracting people exactly in that category.

At this point it is worth mentioning (and to slide in a plug of my benefactors) Flash and broadband are not the only tools that make these community online remix sites possible. They both heavily rely on Creative Commons licenses to free everybody involved from the nightmare that is ‘fair use’ and other irrelevant legal instruments. (To be honest I just take that for granted at this point because I don’t know of a music site that has started up in the last year or two that doesn’t employ CC. So we are all benefactors from a really wonderful idea.)

On the other side of the open music world, we have Magnatune. The key to their success has been the discretion involved in hand picking a tiny fraction of the the submissions. The result is a far cry from Splice Music and Jam Glue where the emphasis is on the righteous goals of spreading community and commodization of the tools, not necessarily a source of reliably world-class quality music.

Having laid out this landscape I’ll say loudly it is very important that commodity remix sites exists and I’m grateful for CC making them possible. I would love to see a world where everybody tries their hand at music and remixing samples in a Flash web page is a glorious way to get that to happen. But that alone is not what gets me up in the morning and it’s not why I wanted to get involved with CC and the open music movement.

My focus has been and will continue to be to enable folks who have the right combination of talent, passion and discipline to make a living making music, because for some reason we’ve all accepted it is impossible to do so without selling your soul for the chance.

I take it for granted that anybody who wants to make and share music for fun and community (you know, cultcha stuff) will find ways in the next 100 years to readily do so. What I’m waiting for is a community of CC musicians to quit their day jobs because they are each making $40,000 a year in online sales and licensing. (Group health insurance to come in phase two.)

I believe there is a viable argument to make that the participatory You-culture and Magnatune style sharing ecomony are not mutually exclusive. And perhaps ccMixter is the start of the thing that sits in the middle. A hybrid, or more precisely a bridge: A community site where quality is emphasized. Two shining examples of the results are the Lisa remix album and Colin’s PreMixed. Both of these represent what can happen when a community of quality musicians hang out and trade talents.

I could easily imagine the site following the Motown model. In the early 1960’s Barry Gordy conceived of a music label that worked like a movie studio in which a pool of songwriters, producers, studio musicians and performers all used each other’s services producing only winning combinations. In an even more organic way, the ccM community has proven, without a doubt, that by emphasizing a cappellas by talented singers and songwriters, we have attracted some of the best producer talents on the Web, which, in turn, attract great singers, on and on. producing some great, some would say winning combinations. All of which feeds the reputation of the site as being a reliable source of good music.

At ccM we have always emphasized quality over quantity and that, like Magnatune, combined with the openness of a community oriented site will be the key to the success moving forward.

Two Sides of a Non-existent Coin

Eric Kleptone may not know it (Hectic City – The Kleptones » Blog Archiv » We’re on the road to paradise, here we go, here we go…) but he seems to love EFF’s music collective proposal:

As David Bowie quipped in 2002, “music will soon become like running water”. Turn the tap on. Have a drink. Have another one. No need to keep big buckets of the stuff around, just pay your water charges.

Lucas, er, not so much.

Google + YouTube = Biggest Artist Scam Yet

Yup it’s been a while. But enough of that.

While I was away some Internet search company seems to have bought a big popular bootleg video website for a trillion (or more) dollars. The supposedly inside story however reveals how the video site and the search engine colluded with the big media companies (who sue everybody and their dead grandmothers over file sharing in the name of protecting artists’ rights) to allow the deal to go forward — are you ready? — only if the artists could be screwed out of 100s of millions of dollars of licensing revenue:

The media companies had their typical challenges. Specifically, how to get money from Youtube without being required to give any to the talent (musicians and actors)? If monies were received as part of a license to Youtube then they would contractually obligated to share a substantial portion of the proceeds with others. For example most record label contracts call for artists to get 50% of all license deals. It was decided the media companies would receive an equity position as an investor in Youtube which Google would buy from them. This shelters all the up front monies from any royalty demands by allowing them to classify it as gains from an investment position.

Now I don’t know if any of this true. Only a very few people know the truth is. Personally I suspect the truth is much worse.

Save Steve!

Steve screwed up. We all screw up. The difference is the RIAA decided to make an example out of him. Hopefully Steve, and the rest of us, will ignore anything to do with RIAA from now on.

[link disabled because it led to bogus ads]