H II Regions, 20 June 2012

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Digital Art and Physical Money

This past weekend, the NPR music intern Emily White posted a short blog about how she loves streaming music and has only ever bought a handful of CDs. A couple days later, indie rock veteran David Lowery (of Camper van Beethoven and Cracker) posted a lengthy reply, in which he illuminated various aspects of the realities of working musicians. There have since been counter replies and more besides, and the discussion has many useful veins for us writers to mine.

Lowery has good points (and bad points) and he lets record labels virtually off the hook while railing against Google. My feelings can be summed up by the Lefsetz response to Lowery:

I believe artists should be paid. But that does not mean they should be paid the same way they used to be.

Digital technologies have altered the manufaction, dispersal, and reception of media–be it music, art, prose, film, games, what have you. Frankly I think it’s a good thing because it removes control from media conglomerates. I’d rather have to hunt out good music than be given a slurry of pop rock and dance rap. But of course, creators deserve something for their work–and I think the audience should decide that something.

Generally, people like Lowery are stuck in the old ways, and people like White are too unimaginative to create new payment models. Fortunately for us, the realities of the Internet insist that neither of them are right. Numerous ways to compensate artists arrive each year. “A livable wage” is what most artists want, a reasonable desire but one they seek with little input from the audience–they who will be paying that wage.

The audience wants as many pieces of art as possible, as fast as possible. There are limits on a creator’s artistic abilities, but a new CD of 10 songs every two years is probably not cracking those limits. Many small-label bands release an album a year, plus extra songs on singles, compilations, and free outtakes online. They still don’t make a livable wage. But it at least represents a capitulation to the desires of the audience–a smaller focus on perfection and a bigger focus on forward progression.

Writers even more so than musicians focus on perfection–tightly edited sentences within pruned paragraphs within modest page counts. For sure, editing is necessary. But there is such a thing as too much.

As the Internet loosens controls on information flow, and allows for direct payments to artists, so too should our concepts of “artistic compensation” loosen. Entirely new models of creation/transmission are possible. Commissioned art became an endangered species with the rise of industry and capitalism; and now commercial art will become an endangered species under the rise of information and open access.

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3 thoughts on “H II Regions, 20 June 2012

  1. Great post, man. I definitely agree that Lowery is stuck in the old ways, and whining about the technology progression.

    Also, Ben Sisario – http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/npr-intern-gets-an-earful-after-blogging-about-11000-songs-almost-none-paid-for/ – makes a good point here where he brings out that “heavy-handed moral arguments” typically never help someone’s cause find footing.

    Then Leigh over at TD summed up Lowery’s skewed viewpoint on making money from the labels in the Tech Dirt article you linked by saying –

    “Oh please. Do you really think that Lowery gets anything right? If so, you have been thoroughly brainwashed.

    Here’s a direct quote from Lowery’s extensive “old boss new boss” ramblings (emphasis mine):

    This is what people do not understand. When they look at the royalties that the record labels paid artists it doesn’t seem like a lot. It seems unfair. Until you consider the guaranteed advances. Let’s say the artist was to be paid a lowly 12% royalty by contract. That compares unfavorably to the 61% of revenue that the independent artist gets from iTunes. But the artist is always given an advance and usually the advance assumes moderate success. But 9 of those 10 bands did not achieve great success even moderate success. It was never expected that all 10 would be successful. So the result was that the record label artist actually received a lot more than that contractual 12%. The unsuccessful artist may have received an advance that was equal to 90% of the gross revenue generated by that recording. And most artists were unsuccessful. So your average record label artist was actually receiving way more than 12%. The artist royalty rate is actually the floor. It’s the minimum share of revenue the artist will receive.

    (I know this is probably really confusing to you civilians. Am I really saying it’s better to be un-recouped as an artist? Yes it is. Quantitative finance geeks will see this as selling a series of juicy “covered calls”. Being un-recouped means you took in more money than you were due by contract. You took in more money than your sales warranted. And there was a sweet spot, being un-recouped but not too un-recouped. For instance I estimate that over my 15 year career at Virgin/EMi we took in advances and royalties equivalent to about 40% of our gross sales. In other words we had an effective royalty rate of 40%, despite the fact that by contract our rate was much lower).

    Yes. He just explicitly argued that it’s better to be a crappy, unpopular band that sells no albums because apparently all he cares about is scamming the system for the maximum possible percentage of sales. Indeed, by his logic, if you got a $1 advance and sold zero albums, you’d be doing great: after all, you just got an infinity per cent portion of sales!

    This is the guy you are looking to for insight into the industry? The guy who thinks that bands shouldn’t care about having fans – they should just care about getting a good advance then not even worry if anyone likes their album? That they should declare victory if they only sell a handful of copies, just because they got some cash upfront? Those are not the motivations of any musician I know, even the ones who very much want to make money with their music. Those are not the motivations of any musician I care to listen to, either.

    No wonder Lowery can’t understand or compete in the new landscape – he doesn’t even think bands should have to be good, or that anyone should want to listen to them.”

    Sorry for the wall of text, I just think this is all so interesting to see play out.

    • No problem on the wall of text, it is a fascinating discussion. I appreciate the NYT link too, another rational voice in what can easily become irrational. To me the most galling idea from Lowery is that somehow what White wants doesn’t align with morality. As the NYT blog points out, she wants legitimacy too. It’s not her fault the options are terrible. The pressure is on the digital media world to cultivate better options.

      (I also find it entirely ironic that Lowery warns us off buying from technology corporations–as opposed to media corporations? Man he has a biased worldview.)

      • I agree, I’ve seen a number of comments from people who do wish for legitimate options for music, some of them don’t have anything available in their country of residence, which is why they end up turning to piracy.

        As for Emily White, from what I’ve been reading on other’s blogs they seem pretty quick to paint her as a criminal, even though the music she has came from friends and borrowed CDs and was not shared through a network to millions of people (sans the few Kazaa songs for which she’d probably be charged 500,000 each by the RIAA). Last time I checked, burning a CD was not illegal.

        Lowery also has a big agenda against tech companies. I’m not even sure where that stems from, but he doesn’t even go to great lengths to hide that in his posts.

        Even in a prior post, he was using stats about Spotify that were debunked here – http://www.spotidj.com/spotifyroyalties.htm

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