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The saddest, stupidest sentence I've ever read

March 23, 2008

It comes late in Mike Arrington's loutish attack on Billy Bragg's modest suggestion that we need to start thinking seriously about creating a system to compensate musicians and other artists for the commercial use of their works online. Here's what Arrington writes:

"Recorded music is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist."

I had to read that a few times to convince myself that he was serious. Here it is again:

"Recorded music is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist."

As a printed poem, one assumes, is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of a poet. As a sculpture is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of a sculptor. As a film is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of a director.

In the fallen world of the social network, "awareness" is the highest, most noble accomplishment that anyone could possibly aspire to. Because, you see, "awareness" is a monetizable commodity.


I want to compensate the artist who creates something of value, be it a novel, album, film or whatever. Such creation inevitably takes time and effort, almost always involving more than one person. All that time and effort comes at a cost; the artist is clearly entitled to direct compensation for that expense, plus whatever profit the market will bear. Getting revenue through advertising may work for commentators whose work is ephemeral, with value that diminishes almost immediately to nothing. Assuming that all digital content available over the Internet must be "free", with the producers surviving on advertising revenue, is naive in the extreme. The creators of substantial works must receive a sufficient income to encourage them to continue producing; direct payment—real money for real product—is a time-tried model that doesn't have to die in the online world.

Posted by: Jason Etheridge [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 06:45 PM

Would it have made any difference if he would have said, "Recorded music, like it or not, has become to a large degree nothing more than a marketing tool for young or new artists"?

It appears to me you are getting a bit myopic about one overreaching sentence and not seeing the larger point(s).

Bragg has a nanny state mentality he needs to shake when he says that "no one is looking out for" the ones who post their music to a social networking site. Um, aren't they big enough to look out for themselves? I mean we are not talking about someones tune showing up in a Ford commercial here and a kid not getting paid for it. If something like that had actually happened with myspace because of some small print that said in essence 'you post it, we own it', we all know that would have gotten slapped down in a heartbeat by the most basic of copyright laws.

I think you are distorting the issue by painting Bragg's argument as being a concern about the 'commercial use of [artist's] works online'. Again, we are not talking about Ford Motors. We are talking about a guy (Birch) creating a platform where an artist can get his music heard, KNOWING he will not be directly compensated for it. The fact that hundreds or thousands of people get to hear his/her song is pretty darn exciting to an aspiring songwriter and can be a path to greater things. And the bottom line is if Mr. Ford wants to use it in a commercial, he is going to pay for the right to do so.

Mr.Bebo made a giant sandbox for all the kids in town to come share their scribbles. He then sold the sandbox. Mr bragg wants 'someone' to step in and make sure all the kids get paid. Mr. Bragg, we are not children, do not need a supervisor and if I become the most popular scribbler in the sand box I will damn well sure I make good of it. And please don't kick Mr. Bebo for being a smart businessman and consequently discourage another Mr. Bebo from coming along and making another sandbox that lots of kids would GLADLY come and play in.

Posted by: kickstar1 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 06:55 PM

I can see your point, but the flip side of the argument is that art is often given to the public for free, to be enjoyed by all, not just those who could afford to pay for such works. You may have to pay a small fee for admission to a museum, but you still get to see it.
A picture of a statue is nothing like seeing it up close and personal. Just like an mp3 is nothing like seeing a band up close and personal. In my opinion, the guys who create bands and stars should focus less on engineering a recording, and more on propagating artists that can deliver on something that can't be effectively pirated, a kick ass live show.

Posted by: Badger [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 07:03 PM

Perhaps Arrington should have said:

"Recorded music, willingly uploaded by artist or his label to a social networking site, that explicitly states that no compensation is forthcoming , is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist."

Sorry, but after reading TC article I have to side with Michael Arrington here

Posted by: Staska [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 08:31 PM

Bravo. You put it quite well. Unfortunately - and this one eludes me - Tech Crunch and Arrington have achieved industry notariety far out of proportion to the quality of the work. Best as I can gauge, they excel in the category of click trolling. ie: provocative albeit silly & content-free posts where they simply play to their audience.

in time, though, quality always wins out. and when the ninnies finally see through TC, sites such as yours, which offer true insight, will remain as the must-reads they've always been.

give em hell, harry, er, nick :)

Posted by: caddidy66 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 09:17 PM

The thing is, the music industry is changing dramatically. (I should know, I'm a musician :) Sales of CDs are being replaced with online sales. Except online, you can more easily rip copies of pretty much any songs, which presents a major complication.

I'd say this was inevitable. Napster was at the start of the revolution, and iTunes pretty much changed the playing field. Just read this: http://www.applematters.com/index.php/section/comments/itunes-inspires-changes-in-music-industry/

So the model is not so clear. Artists do make more money from concerts than record sales. In fact, many record studios had pretty draconian policies when it came to compensating artists and binding them contractually. A record company could literally KILL awareness of an artist and their music after signing them, by simply refusing to release their music!

If anything, I think this revolution will free musicians/artists from record companies. This is something the record companies should definitely fear.

Check out some never-released artist music :)

Posted by: EGreg [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 09:34 PM

"Artists do make more money from concerts than record sales."

Absolutely not true. Just because fans spend more on a concert ticket than a CD does not mean the artist makes more on a show.

The fact is, shows are the marketing activity that drive CD sales, and touring is often written off as a loss leader.

As a prior record label owner, I can also share the hidden fact that only 1 in 10 label artists ever turn a profit. Pretty much the same odds that VCs take with startups and also the reason why the returns of 1 must be milked to recoup the losses of the other 9.

Posted by: Mike Leach [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 11:15 PM

You should suggest that Mike ought to consider that opinions are the are nothing but the marketing material to drive awareness of A--holes...

One need only tune into any Clear-channel station to hear evidence of that being monetized.


The Point: aside from being crass, (which is I believe parrots your point, Nick, but put, uh... more crassly) is that any jackass can devalue the product of someone else's creativity while remaining incapable of producing a creative product anyone would actually pay for.

What is interesting, is that in our "new-new media" I don't think it will be artists who suffer. I think the traditional distribution channels are facing a wholesale apocalypse.

One need only look to Trent Reznor (of Nine Inch Nails fame), who not only gave away an album, but released the studio tracks in Garage Band format so fans could produce their own remixes, to Paulo Coelho who (often against the wishes of some of his pubishers) seeds copies of his books on ThePirateBay).

the thing is, that for an artist (or lets say creative professional so we can include Britteny, and Cristina), the real trick is to create an audience. If you've got an audience, like that baseball field in Iowa, they (and their money) will come...

Posted by: Leigh McMullen [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 23, 2008 11:24 PM

I happen to disagree - for once - with Uncle Nick. Speaking as a composer/performer there seems to be little to stop the free-fall of the value of online recorded music all the way to zero, when viewed as a commodity.

This point is argued well, in my view, by Chris Anderson in "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business" in this month's [March '08] WIRED


Much as we value art, we value artists more - partly because there can only be one of them, and they're only available offline as it were. They and not their internet-distributable work will continue to obey the economic laws of scarcity. Meanwhile, affronting as it may appear, a different economy of abundance seems destined to rule the net.

Posted by: Noach [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 12:08 AM

"Perhaps Arrington should have said: .."

Damn right, he should have said something else, because what he did say was stupid.

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 01:59 AM

David Bowie addressed this issue in an article published in 2002:David Bowie, 21st-Century Entrepreneur

His insights are down right creepy. Here are some highlights:

"I don't even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don't think it's going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way. The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing."

He even seems to have beaten Nick to the utility model for IT services as applied to music:

"Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen."

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 02:15 AM

And "a book is nothing else but marketing material to drive awareness of a writer."[?!] It is very sad indeed that amateurs are providing ideological leverage to a model of distribution of cultural properties [yes, they are properties and they do belong to artists!] that will make artistic creation financially unsustainable with a visible risk to drive our societies into a new dark age, in the not so distant future... Perhaps a close read of Jared Diamond's works will help -- an excellent source for case studies on disruptive stupidity.

Posted by: MadNihilist [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 04:53 AM

While artists deserve to be compensated, I believe the point Arrington was making is that in the current industry, artists are not compensated well for thier music. The radio / internet play equates to advertising for thier name as a brand. In todays music industry the goal is to create your name as a brand where you will gain revenue from your name. Unfortunatly, that is where the artists will make their money and not from the actual music they put down on an album. Because of that model, it is easy to equate to Arrington's point. Look at the pop music industry today and you can see that the wealthy artists have made their riches from branding and the likes and not from the actual songs. The song is what get's the name out to the public.

Posted by: YoYo-Pete [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 08:59 AM

I think the original statement might have been slanted by a super-node blogger mindset. Blog posts or essays, for some people, really are about driving awareness of the author and not really about the written content. Generalizing that to art forms is a fallacy.

Also, poems are so completely un-monetizable these days that you'd have been better of using an example like novel ;-)

I need to post my essay on why writing poems is very similar to writing software requirements.

Posted by: Justin D-Z [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 09:06 AM

Because, you see, "awareness" is a monetizable commodity.

It is any less monetizable than a few megabytes of data?

Which is worth more: Money from 100,000 paid downloads, or half the internet thinking you're a great artist?

Posted by: James Andrix [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 11:20 AM

Surely Tech Crunch has more important people to attack than Billy Bragg? Poor guy just wants a little equality in the world. Using bebo as a example may not have been the smartest thing to do though...

On the bigger point, people have been attacking the music industry for its out of date reponse to online music distribution for years. They have been out of touch with the reality of how people buy, listen and share music for years. However, the argument that a recorded song is always just a marketing asset is based on an out of date view of the economics of the music industry. The Tech Crunch idiots think all music is guitar led rock music whose fans pay to see their favored bands play their back cataolgue mixed with the new dross they put together. This is an alien world to an electronica artist whose model is to produce a song or two, get them played in clubs and online, and then get payed to produce more in the hope of selling a CD or get royalties from a mix CD.

I love the irony of internet commentators such as Tech Crunch becoming the crusty old out of touch industry mainstream.

Posted by: coffee & TV [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 11:31 AM

Awareness is probably better stated as controlling attention or interest.

Attention is a limited quantity. Someone consuming your material is very unlikely to be consuming someone else's at the same time.

I like I assume most other people am interested in consuming the *best* (to me) material that is out there. Our problem isn't finding *something* to consume it is finding the *best* thing. This is ever harder problem as the ocean of things I can chose from is increasingly large thanks to the ever lower cost of distribution and storage.

The point here (I think) is that attention/awareness is an ever shrinking quantity relative to the amount of possible things to consume. If you want to become known and followed as someone who is a producer of *new* good things then creating barriers to people experiencing your product probably isn't your friend.

Frankly, I don't even think it matters if you are the best (from a financial as opposed to self worth perspective). If no one notices or is aware, I think you have problems. I think this has always been true. What we hold up as great probably is not the *best* from any point in time. It is most likely just what has become the established best.

Yeah, this is a slightly different take on the whole being an artist. If it helps think about it that this is the easiest point in time to be able to play to the whole world or planet. Conversely though that means the competition amongst artists to be that controller of interest/attention/awareness is far more intense.

Posted by: mrbuckaroo [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 12:39 PM

The kicker for me is that the sentiment was put out there on a blog; I mean, you can't make up that kind of free-range irony.

I'm glad you responded to the idea, as it is a poorly formed one, but I wish I could un-read it and un-live having to wonder if music had really become that, even for a millisecond.

Posted by: Todd Sieling [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 09:38 PM

"A blog is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of a book." Oops, sorry.

Posted by: Mike O [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 24, 2008 10:31 PM

My preferred model is to watch the live show and the performer. Paying at the door or at the ticketmaster industrial complex.


I've never paid to watch a painter, paint.
I've never paid to watch a sculptor, sculpt.
I've never paid to watch a poet, uhm, poetize.
I've never paid to watch a director, direct.

That's just me though.

However, I will aways put my money down to watch a musician make their music in real time with an audience.

Posted by: qthrul [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2008 03:07 AM

If this trend continues - that of seeing a piece of creative work as marketing and not a commodity in itself - I really fear for the future of our creative industries.

Most of us don't live in a utopia where we can create work for the fun of it - we live in capitalist societies where we need to use our time to earn money.

Would most people turn up to the office and work for free every day? No, of course not. Yet that's what we are in effect saying to those who create recorded or written work.

And not every one performs their work - think of novelists or those who write electronic music, so no - the artifact is NOT marketing - it is an end in itself.

And if it gets to the point where it's simply not worth it for a lot of artists to invest all their time in creating work for which they will not get paid, we really run the risk of eroding our culture.

In our culture's enthusiasm for the web, I think that we all too often ignore the destructive side of it - and to me, this side is an extremely negative, dangerous and destructive thing.

Posted by: Simon [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2008 08:59 AM

Harlan Ellison, the Dark Prince of American Letters, who successfully sued AOL for complacency in Internet piracy, has this to say bout artists working for free:
Harlan Ellison -- Pay the Writer

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2008 11:27 AM

Arrington and Bragg are both wrong on this one.

More here:


Posted by: Matt Mason [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2008 02:27 PM

I have guitars, I've paid to have others record in a professional studio, I like music.

I write software for a living. My work is bits on the Ether. I expect to get paid for my work. I expect to honor others who make bits for my use.

The record big Five record labels, and their front the RIAA, do not care about musicians, composers, recording engineers, or anyone else. They care about money in their bank. That they exist at all is an accident of mid-20th Century American technology. Its gone.

Technology has killed the flat plastic music disk. Musicians will still get paid, but the business model behind it has changed, and is likely to change more.

It was only 100 years ago that most musicians made their living by carrying their guitar to a town and entertaining.

Posted by: fishtoprecords [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 25, 2008 09:27 PM

Your article hit the simple truth of the situation. While the industry scrambles to find a new profit model, it forgets what attracted people to its product in the first place. The art is appealing; the product is the conveyance (CD, book, DVD).

The music industry needs to recognize that the days of easy massive profits are over. They're going to have to work for a living again. The same people who used to buy CDs still buy them, but the people who bought frivolous music because they had nothing better to do are now getting it for free. Maybe they picked a bad customer base to target for their revenue stream.

Posted by: Technical Writing Geek [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 10:01 AM

I stopped reading TechCrunch months ago. I had originally subscribed because it seemed like everyone around me read it. A pattern became apparent: it exists to rip others apart. There's a pseudo intellectual smugness to the writing. Maybe it began life with more innocent and honest goals, but it's quickly devolved into some kind of reductionist theater of the absurd. My suggestion: turn the tv off; unsubscribe.

Posted by: jsilvers [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 28, 2008 01:26 PM

Thanks, Nick, for standing up for the artist. You're one of the few in the tech community to do so.

I'm not surprised that Arrington is so dismissive of a musician's work, but I am surprised that so many throughout the tech community agree with him. It's probably just another symptom of how little the creative community is valued.

It's not hard to understand where Arrington and his legions are coming from: they want high-quality recorded music from talented artists, and they don't want to pay for it. But they'll soon find that musicians are not recording as much, and that the quality of their output has declined. There's some crazy musicians out there, but none of them are willing to work indefinitely without some sort of financial reward.

I spent several years as a working musician, but more importantly, I've spent my whole life as a music fan. The variety and quality of the music that's been available during my lifetime has been fantastically enriching. Most of the music I listen to is outside of the mainstream, and most of the artists I listen to have only barely been able to make a living.

Unfortunately, some of my favorite artists have recently been openly discussing the financial difficulties that they're now facing. They're making a loss on their recordings, and only breaking even on their tours. They can make a lot more money as session musicians or doing soundtrack work. I wish them all the best if that's what they choose to do, but as a music fan, it's pretty devastating.

What's more, Arrington's assertion that the talented will find some way to make a living is astonishingly naive. Corporations still dominate our cultural landscape, in spite of exaggerated reports about the "death" of the major labels. Pop music sung by pretty faces will always find a financial backer. It's the creative musicians who are pushing the envelope who are most likely to get squeezed.

There's no turning back the clock, so musicians will have to accept their fate. But Arrington will have to accept his fate as well: if he's not willing to pay for high-quality recorded music, he'll have to settle for poor-quality promotional crap. Of course, he probably doesn't know the difference.

Posted by: refugee [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 29, 2008 11:19 PM

I think the issue brought up by Billy Bragg is wider and it can expanded to all the user generated content applications.

We are in the process of launching a new street fashion & lifestyle social networking application and we are trying to figure out a fair way to compensate the active user with a future option schema.

Posted by: Piero Rivizzigno [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 31, 2008 05:38 AM

Maybe Bragg should pay Bebo for all the free exposure.

Posted by: Charlie [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 1, 2008 02:10 AM

Arrington, as usual, misses the point entirely. Real music lovers will always be happy to pay real musicians for their work. That will never change.

Posted by: Ashley Morgan [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 25, 2008 08:38 AM

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