Screenage wasteland

In 1993, the band Cracker released a terrific album called Kerosene Hat – the opening track, “Low,” was an alternative radio staple – and I became a fan. I remember checking out the group’s message board on America Online at the time and being pleasantly surprised to find the two founding members – David Lowery and Johnny Hickman – making frequent postings. Lowery, who had earlier been in Camper Van Beethoven, turned out to be one of the more tech-savvy rock musicians. He’d been trained as a mathematician and was as adept with computers as he was with guitars. When the Web came along, he and his bands soon had a fairly sophisticated network of sites, hosting fan conversations, selling music, promoting gigs. In addition to playing, Lowery runs an indie label, operates a recording studio, produces records for other bands, teaches music finance at the University of Georgia, and is married to a concert promoter. He knows the business, and much of his career has been spent fighting with traditional record companies.

That’s all by way of background to a remarkable talk that Lowery gave in February at the SF MusicTech Summit, a transcript of which has been posted at The Trichordist (thanks to Slashdot for the pointer). Lowery offers a heartfelt and incisive critique of the effects of the internet and, in particular, the big tech companies that now act as aggregators and mediators of music, a critique that dismantles the starry-eyed assumption that the net has liberated musicians from servitude to record companies. The net, he argues, has merely replaced the Old Boss with a New Boss, and, as it turns out, the New Boss is happy to skim money from the music business without investing any capital or sharing any risk with musicians. The starving artist is hungrier than ever.

When Napster came along, Lowery says, he immediately understood that bands would “lose sales to large-scale sharing” but he was nevertheless optimistic that “through more efficient distribution systems and disintermediation we artists would net more”:

So like many other artists I embraced the new paradigm and waited for the flow of revenue to the artists to increase. It never did. In fact everywhere I look the trend seemed to be negative. Less money for touring. Less money for recording. Less money for promotion and publicity. The old days of the evil record labels started to seem less bad. It started to seem downright rosy …

Was the old record label system better? Sadly I think the answer turns out to be yes. Things are worse. This was not really what I was expecting. I’d be very happy to be proved wrong. I mean it’s hard for me to sing the praises of the major labels. I’ve been in legal disputes with two of the three remaining major labels. But sadly I think I’m right. And the reason is quite unexpected. It’s seems the Bad Old Major Record Labels “accidentally” shared too much revenue and capital through their system of advances. Also the labels ”accidentally” assumed most of the risk. This is contrasted with the new digital distribution system where some of the biggest players assume almost no risk and share zero capital.

Lowery also points out how the centralization of traffic at massive sites like Facebook and YouTube has in recent years made it even harder for musicians to make a living. The big sites have actually been a force for re-intermediation, stealing visitors (and sales) away from band sites:

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter ate our web traffic. It started with Myspace and got worse when Facebook added band pages. Somewhere around 2008 every artist I know experienced a dramatic collapse in traffic to their websites. The Internet seems to have a tendency towards monopoly. All those social interactions that were happening on artists’ websites aggregated on Facebook. Facebook pages made many bands’ community pages irrelevant. …

Most artists I know now mostly use their websites to manage their Facebook and Twitter presence. There are band-oriented [content management] services that automatically integrate with Facebook and Twitter. They turn your website news, tour dates and blog posts into Facebook events, Facebook posts and Tweets. Most websites function more as a backend control panel for your web presence. Yes, some of us sell swag and downloads on our websites but unless you are a really really popular band, or you have a major record label that can help you promote your website, it’s generally a few hundred of the most ardent fans that ever spend anytime on a band’s website …

A similar situation occurs with the process of selling music online. Our fans already have an iTunes account. They already have a credit card on file with Amazon. That small hassle of getting your credit card out of your wallet to buy music directly from the artist website is a giant hurdle that most people will not jump over.

It’s a long piece, and if you’re interested in the unexpected economic effects of the net on creative professions, you owe it to yourself to read it in full, whatever your views are. I’ll just share a little bit more from the end:

I think I’ve demonstrated how important it was to the old system that record labels shared risk and invested capital in the creation of music. And that by doing this the record labels “accidentally” shared more revenue with the artists. But I’ve yet to explain why it is that The New Boss refuses to share risk and invest in content creation. I mean the old record labels eventually saw that it was in their long-term interest to do so.

My only explanation is that there is just something fundamentally wrong with how many in the tech industry look at the world. They are deluded somehow. Freaks. Taking no risk and paying nothing to the content creators is built into the collective psyche of the Tech industry. They do not value content. They only see THEIR services as valuable. They are the Masters of the Universe. They bring all that is good. Content magically appears on their blessed networks. …

Not only is the New Boss worse than the Old Boss. The New Boss creeps me out.

13 thoughts on “Screenage wasteland

  1. Dan Miller

    I read the article, and it was quite interesting–thanks for the link. But it left unanswered a big question–what exactly is the problem here? Let me lay out a few propositions that illustrate what I’m getting at here.

    1. Music is now much, much cheaper than it used to be. Let’s use me as an example. I was a big fan of Bush when I was in middle school–I would wait for their songs to come on the radio, and their “Razorblade Suitcase” was the first album I ever bought. I don’t remember how much I paid, but the RIAA says that the average album cost $12.75 back them. That’s $17.53 in today’s dollars. By comparison, you can get today’s #1 album, “Trespass” by Adam Lambert, for $11.99 on Amazon. Or you can just download Spotify for free and listen to any song you want, whenever you want, while hearing many fewer ads than I did listening to alternative rock radio in the ’90s. By any reasonable metric, there’s never been a better time to be a music listener.

    2. The supply of music is effectively infinite. There are a ton of people who do it for free, willingly, because they enjoy it; and society attaches a lot of cachet to rock stars over and above the financial compensation they get. Even if it meant guaranteed poverty, there are a lot of people who would gladly become touring and recording musicians full-time. Over and above this constant supply of new entrants, we currently have extremely cheap and easy access to the entire output of the past 50 years at least (see point 1).

    Given these two points, is it really surprising that artists don’t get paid much? That’s a shame for them, I suppose, but from my perspective as a music listener things are better than ever. Am I supposed to go back to the bad old days of paying $20 for an entire album (no singles!) and waiting for my song to come on the radio, assuming that a local radio station plays it at all? After all, there will always be a ton of music–more music than any one person could listen to. So the ability to get it for cheaper seems like a win to me. And yeah, rock bands won’t get rich playing music, and most won’t even earn a solid living. But “I should be able to earn a solid living while doing what I love” is a pretty big ask. Most people don’t get that. So I’m not sure why rock musicians failing to attain it is a pressing public problem that requires drastic action that makes consumers worse off.

  2. Nick Carr


    I get your point, and, yes, I agree that the situation appears to be “a win” for you, particularly if you look at music as a fungible commodity (I suspect that explains your fondness for Bush*), but if I accept your utilitarian argument, then I’d be a fool to ever pay for music again. Since the supply of music is and will always be essentially unlimited (according to you), regardless of its price, then it would be in my interest to download everything free, either through p-to-p networks or Megaupload-like sites. That would be the biggest win for me – music for nothin’! – and indeed for all listeners. And there’s essentially no downside, from a market view: musicians would continue to flood the market with new works without regard to compensation, since they’re doing it for love (or groupies or whatever) and will happily cover the necessary costs – for equipment, studio time and personnel, drugs, etc. – out of their own pockets.

    Now, maybe you’ll say that that’s not what you really meant and that I’m pushing your point to a crazy extreme and in fact the supply of good music isn’t entirely disconnected from the compensation that musicians receive for that music. If you did say that (and I apologize for filling your mouth with words), then I think we could both agree that it’s important to examine the structure of the industry and how it has evolved and how money and investment flow through it and how that affects incentives and what that means for both production and consumption (i.e., playing and listening) over the long run. And at that point we’d be wise to pay attention to Lowery’s argument, not as the last word but as an important contribution to understanding the dynamics of the current market. Because maybe there actually is a problem here, at least for some part of the public, even if it’s one that isn’t going to be solved, given the power relationships at work.

    But if you really do mean that the supply of music is independent of the compensation the artists receive, then, yeah, sure: screw the piano player.


    * :-)

  3. Haikujaguar

    I suppose if you treat all artists as interchangeable, then not compensating them sufficiently so that they can produce the work you enjoy is fine–and really, there are people for whom one band is very much like another, and if their “favorite” vanished, they’d just buy music by someone else. But if you enjoy a particular artist’s work, then paying them so that they can concentrate on producing it will usually result in… more of their work for you to enjoy.

    As with many things in life, you get what you pay for. So if you pay a buck for a song from a band that year, you shouldn’t be surprised if next year they have no more songs for you because they were busy flipping burgers to put a roof over their heads.


  4. Dan Miller

    In my defense, I was in middle school. But yeah, you’ve basically captured my argument. I do pay for a lot of music, especially of artists that I really like; but I see it more as a donation to a charity or a tip for a job well done, and I don’t attach much moral oppobrium to music pirates (I also pay to attend concerts frequently, but that’s a separate experience from just getting an MP3). I don’t pirate music myself, but that’s mostly because it’s easier to use Spotify or buy from Amazon.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s ZERO connection between music revenue and quantity/quality of music produced each year; but I’d bet it’s a pretty attenuated relationship. And I think for society overall that’s a good thing.

  5. Dan Miller

    Also, both Nick and Haikujaguar have raised the question of whether artists are fungible or interchangable. I don’t think that’s true for individuals–but for society as a whole, I’d say it is. After all, most people’s favorite music is “whatever they were listening to from approximately ages 15-25”. There’s no objective outside standard that necessarily makes one song better than another; instead, the meaning and experience of music is constructed by each individual listener based partially on what they associate with a given song. I love Josh Ritter. Part of it is because of his music; but in part because I first heard Golden Age of Radio while I was 20 years old, driving around lost with my girlfriend and listening to NPR while pretending to be an adult.

    Additionally, here’s a return question–should I feel guilty about linking to that video? It’s on Youtube and I’m guessing Ritter isn’t getting paid for it; but I’m also guessing that given the context, he would not be mad at me for the link if it were brought to his attention.

  6. Haikujaguar

    I don’t know… these days you can’t really count on knowing how the relationship works, between money and productivity. In my case, money dropped in my tip jar directly affects whether I can afford to continue working on certain projects; I’ve used the tip method to fund four different web serials, and when no money arrives, there’s no content that week. It’s hard to understate how important even that single tip is because so many people enjoy the art, but don’t throw in their dollar. If I had that dollar for every one person who did enjoy my work, I’d probably have more time to do more of it. :)

    As for feeling guilt about linking the Youtube video… I sometimes wonder if that hasn’t become a personal question that differs from artist to artist. Obscurity can be a far bigger problem than piracy for most of us.

    I will say that in my experience people can become habituated to treating art online (of any kind, visual, literary, musical, etc) as a museum experience, rather than a shopping experience. You pay admission or a donation to a museum in order to maintain the museum and pay for new exhibits, but that money pays only for your admission. You walk out of the museum with nothing tangible except the experience of having enjoyed something. (If you choose to buy a souvenir afterwards, you pay extra.) When I explain online consumption of art in this way to people, I think something clicks for a lot of them: “This art makes my day better; this web comic is part of my daily bookmarks and I would miss having it; this story I’m reading for free online enriched or amused me… so I’ll show my appreciation by buying the maker a cup of coffee.”

    It reminds me a lot of how people have to learn why original artwork is more valuable than reproductions. You can tell them it is categorically, but until you explain to them what it feels like, what it smells like, how the light hits it differently, how the artist touched it, the process that created it… then people don’t necessarily know what it’s valuable.

    I think it’s one of our duties–and imperatives–as artists to explain these things. To make it clear why art matters, and why our art in particular matters, and what we need to continue making it. Otherwise, we will deserve an audience that treats us as interchangeable widgets, because we will have treated them exactly the same way. :,

  7. wanderingstan

    Nice post. I’m a Cracker fan as well. “Eurotrash” girl is a classic. :)

    1) As Haikujaguar points out, people are generally not dicks and do want to support artists they enjoy. Nick is correct that the “rational” move is to take everything for free, but thank god people don’t always behave rationally. As Courtney Love wrote thirteen years ago about Napster, “Music is a service to its consumers, not a product. I live on tips.”

    2) Lowery claims that the internet has been a net negative for artists. But there is extreme selection bias in counting the artists. Before the internet you had to jump high hurdles to even be counted as an “artist” — it was expensive and difficult to even record and mix a song, let alone distribute it. Thousands would-be artists who were making zero money (or negative, if you consider their time and equipment investment) can now make some money, and have a more egalitarian shot at hitting it big.

    3) Excellent point that YouTube, Twitter, etc have become the gravitational centers for music fans. But it is wrong to attribute this to “freaks” of tech industry and their collective psyche. Have you visited any band websites lately? They are typically awful: buggy, disorganized, un-navigable. You can’t blame fans for preferring clean and organized sites any more than you can blame artists for not making killer websites.

  8. Nick Carr


    Nick is correct that the “rational” move is to take everything for free

    Just to be clear, I only think that’s the rational move if you believe songs are fungible and their supply is not connected to artists’ compensation. I don’t believe that (I’m more in Haikujaguar’s camp).

    Re your second point about lowered barriers to distributing music: That’s an important point, and it’s too bad Lowery didn’t take it up (though God knows his talk was long enough).

    You can’t blame fans for preferring clean and organized sites

    That’s basically the story of mass media in general: the amateurs get pushed to the side because people end up being attracted to professional productions (and network effects and lock-in then take over). The difference today, as Lowery points out, is that most of the big controlling companies (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) make no investments in the creation of the content that they aggregate and distribute.

  9. Haikujaguar

    I think it’s entirely rational to want to close the circuit with someone whose work has changed us or enriched us. I think it might be more rational than trying to take it without making an effort at that communion. I wonder a little at a society that would call a behavior rational that is self-destructive to one’s ties in the community: you might get something for free, but you’ll become known as a mooch. Eventually no one will want to share anything with or around you, and your process of isolation from human company will become complete. :,

    Saving money is not the only act beneficial to a person. Strengthening your ties to other people is also a rational act. And giving an artist $5 instead of spending that $5 at Starbucks seems pretty rational to me… I get a lot more out of a book than I do a burnt cup of espresso. :,

  10. Helen Gammons

    I’d like to add a few other points for consideration, I think Nick has spoken well on the topic with other interesting points raised. However we aren’t just talking rock and pop music we are talking about all genres of music. I felt some comments were seeking to trivialise the talents of a musician where you wouldn’t do the same to an author or sculpture for instance. No matter what form of work you do, or what talent you have if you provide a service or a product on which OTHERS are making a lot of money, you should expect a reasonable return. Don’t penalise someone for enjoying their work! You should consider that not all composers are Artists and therefore touring and earning other incomes. Composers who are now a real dying breed (lyricists have all but gone), need to make money from performance income (plays on tv, radio, streaming) and from sales or if not sales ‘access’. The problem is the tech companies are making substantial incomes and the creatives are not making enough to live on, let alone support anyone else. It is a very serious problem and one that will permeate right the way through our industry. If the music industry can’t make enough money to invest in talent and the talent can’t make the new digital landscape pay even when going direct we will start to lose important music and new composers and artists across all genres of music. Is this really what we want?

    Will we allow the film industry, tv industry, authors and all other creative industry sectors to befall the same fate?

    I know what enriches my life, as soon as I wake up, and its not listening to news about JP Morgan or the next Euro crash. The only thing that gets me through the day is listening to music from the moment I wake to my drive home at night. Whether its on a CD, or in a movie or the music to an advert, it captures an emotion, a moment , a memory. We need to fight to keep investment in music alive and well!

  11. Matthew Dovell

    Interesting topic, I would like to add a few things.

    Years ago I had a anthropology class and the professor mentioned that on a historical basis those that entertain were not exactly rich people. Adding that there’s never going to be another band as big as the Beatles or Michael Jackson..heck or even Back Street Boys back in the late 1990’s.

    There’s a radio show host on WBAI that basically said eventually in life you stop wanting to be entertained and just want to be informed. Judging how much information is on the internet I would argue this correct.

    To be fair I know people that have been in bands but generally it was more of a hobby. Personally I a few ideas for some novels, shows and maybe even a sitcom but I doubt it would make a fair amount of money. I was thinking of standup but these days why bother when there is so many free humor sites on the web. In academia one professor admitted to me she publishes just for activity, she only made $500 off of publishing one book.

    There is a large tendency fueled by the internet to dramatically lower the prices to nearly free of a fair amount of products (mostly books,newspapers, magazines movies, video games and music). Borders is gone, Electronic Boutique, Babbages, Software Etc and Funcoland are now Gamestop etc. I received a FYE gift card for Christmas and I struggle trying to find something to buy. I can get anything there cheaper online.

    There is a blurring of the lines between what is seen as legal vs illegal businesses. Megaupload and youtube are nearly the same thing. There are countless full movies and albums that can be found on youtube but they require google search to find them. Add in some plugins to download video to mp4/avi/mpeg and audio to mp3 and it pretty much might replace someone’s cable.

    In addition is that not everything within the arts can be deemed to be creative. Much of the time what happens is ideas simply come out later or come out from another country and are presented as new. Early 1980’s BBC TV series the Young Ones was largely copied off of the Monkees that came out in the USA twenty years prior. West Side Story was really Romeo and Juliet which was really Greek mythology (Pyramus and Thisbe), Star Wars was Magnificent Seven which was the Seven Samurai. It even gets to the point that you can hear a influence or see it the older you get. The band Brazilian Girls had a album produced by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. In “Loosing Myself” I could make out specifically what lyrics were probably written by Byrne. It gets even worse if the music is sampled. Much of 80’s and 90’s rap/hiphop took from German band Kraftwerk, in fact I heard one of their tracks on a rap station!

    Lastly one might argue that much of this was predicted back in the 1970’s when Future Shock came out. The abundance of choice means that popularity is less. What has been mentioned has largely been the viability of the profession of being an artist but the social ramifications also exist. Here’s a link to the death of mass culture. The argument is that there is now less of a connection with the abundance of choice. I get hundreds of tv channels not five, millions of websites not a few bbs’s, listen to bands that have never set foot in my country or have been dead for decades etc. It is no longer attached to a physical place and time.

  12. thinkaboutit

    David Lowery’s points are completely accurate and impossible to argue with. And yet, that’s exactly what happens whenever someone goes to bat for hard working, wage-earner artists. Would we hear the same anti-fair-pay arguments if we were talking about poor, migrant tomato farmers earning $1 an hour? I don’t think so. That’s even more income that most artists can realistically earn in today’s climate.

    What’s this senility I hear about “no singles” in the past prior to crappy grade mps downloads?! What rock are you people living under? The music industry was BUILT on the strength and sales of the single! The majority of music consumers ONLY had 45 singles and never bought an album because they only wanted the hits in their collection and couldn’t afford to buy full LPs (children, in particular). I used to buy 45s at the supermarket off the shelf along with a loaf of bread. And wow those the days when you could buy a great sounding vinyl 45 from a cream of the crop artist who recorded in a top notch studio with a team of professionals making it sound like heaven on earth.

    And then came the cassette single and later the CD single to replace it. No, you couldn’t have it ALL your way in those days. If you wanted a free copy, you had to walk or drive over to your friend’s house who had the record and tape it from him. You had to work for “free” back then. And blank cassettes were not cheap either.

    If your favorite song was an album filler, there wouldn’t likely be a single, so you had to buy the album. Sorry. You can’t always get what you want. Sometimes you just have to do without or WAIT. Patience is another virtue almost completely lost in this narcissistic era of entitlement.

    I can’t stand people trying to re-write history. We’re heading into a very Orwellian future where the truth with have little value up against all the conflicting claims posing as historical fact.

    Complaining about the cost of buying music is proof positive that many of today’s consumers have no value for the labor and expense that goes into the creation of music in all its many phases. That’s why it’s always been a tough market to crack. To sell music successfully in the past, you had to be REALLY REALLY GREAT, otherwise no one would spend their hard earned money to buy your record instead of a new pair of jeans. It’s always been like that and that’s why we had such great music in the past and nothing a fraction as good in the charts today. Today, most of our jeans are made abroad with slave wages and are “artificially” cheap. I think all of this ties in together. What we used to consider “luxury items” are now cheap all the while the basics of life –food, housing, medical, etc have never been more expensive relative to income levels.

    This cost issue is like people complaining about normal tax rates when those tax rates have always been directly linked to the collective prosperity.

    Clearly, this issue of the music business is much more extensive in nature, tying into a new world order that is not sustainable for people nor the ecosystem. The internet is a great resource, much like the library, but it’s not a magic bullet. It’s now threatening our lives, privacy and incomes despite all the advantages we reap from it.

    Time to “grow up” and face our adulthood as individuals and as a global community. Coming soon to a bumper sticker near you: “Kill Your Internet.” It’s going to replace the old sticker that read “Kill Your TV.” We’ll all be looking back at a lot of this period 20 years from now the same way we look back at big hair rock bands in the 80s. Eventually, we’ll all be caught with our pants down.

  13. coffeefrog

    Could it be that the new bosses are actually not in the music business at all? They are in the delivery/selling stuff business and just happen to handle music these days, it could be movies or books or pictures of Queen Victoria for all they care. The old bosses do not HAVE to be replaced by new ones.

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