The streets are paved with pyrite

David Lowery wrote a fascinating article about the music business, and it got me thinking.

I met Mr. Lowery right when Cracker was new (right after Camper van Beethoven broke up) – they played a little show in the University of Utah student union building. That was the first time I was start-to-finish responsible for running sound (such as it was – it was a mostly acoustic show, with vocal and acoustic guitar reinforcement). I’m still mystified that “Low” became the big radio hit rather than “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, but hey, you can’t understand them all.

I was pretty happy with how nice he was to me – I was the 18-year-old student promoter who thought I was all worldly, and he humored me and was both professional and charming.

Now, on to the essay – I think he’s on to something: that while the de jure royalties and margins nowadays look better for artists, de facto they are not, and the reason is that we no longer have labels making bets on bands (where the bands fundamentally keep the bet if it’s a loser).

However, I’m not sure that a single variable is the way to view this. Start by imagining sales as a curve, where some bands are ultra-mega-sellers, some are in the middle, going all the way to the band who sold 11 copies to friends whom they dragooned into buying it (no, I don’t resemble that at all). Then it becomes clear that (as he says) the folks in the middle (the “unrecouped”) benefited tremendously from the old system, and pretty much get the shaft in the new one. The ultra-mega-stars? They’re making boatloads of cash either way, and their attorneys can fight it out. However, there are some winners in the new system: the long tail bands (like mine) – these are bands who aren’t doing this for their primary living, and yet can make some music that (a small number of) people like. The new system lowered the barrier to entry to the point that you don’t have to be able to convince a label to fund you – you can save up and record your own album.

This is a pretty nice thing – I’ve encountered some bands who came nowhere near a label, and yet made music which is on my top rated list (ADHD, Hudson River School, Welbilt (cheating slightly – Virgin records did fund a demo of theirs, but then passed on it), and of course my hero Jonathan Coulton) – each of these are bands I never would have heard of had it not been the random drift, and they’ve all had the option of making some money from me. Other little bands like Dayglow and Grandma’s Mini I discovered (and fell in love with) due to playing shows with them.

I do think Lowery is right on the money in one sense, though – the folks advocating for “free stuff” and thinking that creators shouldn’t get paid for stuff they create are behaving in a jerky manner.


About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

3 Responses to The streets are paved with pyrite

  1. Foxfier says:

    1) of course people claiming they should get someone else’s work for free are asses. Some people always want something for nothing.
    2) this line: Surely you all can see Malthusian trajectory? makes me question his reasoning ability– Malthus’ theories are eternally popular among a self-privileged group, and just as often wrong. It assumes that this time, unlike every single prior time, people won’t change their behavior in response to a change in the situation, and Someone needs to take the situation in hand. Miraculously, the person urging the action knows just who should take charge!

    I’m unsympathetic to the argument that it’s inherently bad to enrich Amazon but inherently good to enrich record labels, and declaring the EFF is their secret arm is…in need of some support.

    I am disinclined to take at face value his assertion that midlevel artists benefited disproportionately from the old system, given that I’ve had my ear talked off by a bunch of midlevel artists about how screwy the Old System accounting was and how shocked they are at the level of income they get without the big records– and then there are the little bands that I half-way know who couldn’t get a contract, and now make a decent amount. The Chris Ledoux types that didn’t get mentioned by a Chosen One. (Yes, that means I’m agreeing with you about a group of “winners,” even while disagreeing with his claim about midlisters being abandoned now.)

    Seeing as my computer is one of those hacked by the Sony malware scandal, I’m not very sympathetic to the more outrageous notions; the infamous legal actions around suspected piracy of music rather kill off the sympathy I may have had as someone who thinks intellectual rights are warranted in many cases. (How long it should go is a whole ‘nother argument!)

    He offers nothing but a claim that “they” want to collectivize music. Somehow, name calling and unsupported assertions several paragraphs into an article make me disinclined to waste any more time.

    The idea that a company that “profits from distributing” music that the artist already sold should give the artist more money is silly. That’s like charging Walkman because, if not for songs on tapes, who would use one? Or the legal fights they already had about making copies of the tape/record you bought on to a spare cassette. Does he also want second hand stores to start collecting royalties on the used CDs, records and tapes?

  2. thegameiam says:

    2) I’d look at that as rhetoric rather than reasoning…

    I guess it depends on where you draw the “midlevel artist” line – I suspect that the old success-curve was of the x^3 + y/x^2 variety – a lot of folks did “better” than they should have, and then there were diminishing returns, and only after passing another inflection point would success really take off.

    Lowery isn’t wrong about the collectivist arguments – that was the whole napster line back in the day, and there’s a strong “what, pay?” meme among some of the more radical libertarian types on the ‘net.

    • Foxfier says:

      Sure there are folks online insisting they should get stuff for free. However, since he sets up “Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google” as the new boss, that doesn’t matter.

      There is someone who wants redistribution, but it seems to be him– what with thinking that sites which are secondarily used with previously sold music should pay for that privilege.

      Do people steal music? Yes. That’s been true for ages. Already fought that battle, and lost, with tapes.

      That he is more about rhetoric than reasoning just makes me less inclined to sympathy.

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