How (Not) to Win Musicians and Influence Songwriters

catoutofbagIf you’d told me three hours ago that I’d ever write a post defending in any way the sorry state of affairs in the music industry or criticizing someone’s idea of how to reform it, I’d have laughed in your face.  Literally.

But I guess you never know. . .

I saw a link on Twitter to this post, in which a partner at a venture capital firm waxes philosophical about the music industry.  You know it’s a serious post because it uses the word “paradigm” in the title and nine more times in the post itself.  Now that we’ve conquered Earth Hour, maybe we could plan Paradigm Day?

Fancy words aside, the author (in a nod to Cher and both Madonnas he goes by the mononomial Albert on his blog, but being a completist with a mouse, I know his full name to be Albert Wenger) makes a couple of good points.  He also makes a really, really bad point, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

There is no disputing the fact the the more immediate and direct distribution channel provided by the internet has the music industry (and the newspaper industry, among others) all twisted up.  And while I don’t know about profitable, I agree that many of the smaller, more creative music services are probably unlawful, at least under the current pre-shift paradigm (I feel smarter, having just typed that word).  All of this means, of course, that something has to change.  Either the technology has to change or be restricted to conform to the old ways of selling music (very unlikely, having been unsuccessfully tried) or the laws and licensing practices have to change to adapt to the technology (the industry isn’t happy about it, but this is already happening).

I have long said that the cat is out of the bag, and that all the lawsuits in the world against grannies and dead people are not going to get the cat to jump back in the bag.  I have also said that I think shutting down these new music services is bad for artists and songwriters.  Recall that I am a songwriter who gets an occasional check from BMI, so unlike 95% of the people who chime in on this issue, I actually have a little skin in the game.

Having said that, there is nothing appealing to me about the three “experimental” services that Albert mentions.  For one thing, artists can always make their music available, via their web site, MySpace or any of a countless number of other online services.  The difficulty is getting enough buzz to make people listen to it.  And, of course, paying those who help create it.  Secondly, I have no desire whatsoever to get “scenes which play differently each time based on your interaction with them via external sounds, touching and moving the [iPhone].”  I just want to queue up a record and listen to it, using technology that makes that more portable and convenient.

Dressing up the experience with smoke and mirrors like faux interactivity will neither placate the empty bag holding record labels nor improve the experience of the listener, who just wants to hear the music.

The reason a lot of music should be accessible over the internet, via some of these new music services, is simply because it helps generate a buzz that will cause people to want to hear more music by the artist.  Which increases sales at Amazon or iTunes, and attendance at concerts.  No one is going to use as a substitute for a music collection, but lots of people may add songs to their collection they hear at  Give away some goods to sell more.  That’s the ticket.  And if you need to add some Web 2.0 flavor, pay a percentage of the ad sales in lieu of royalties.

The best way to tell someone what they don’t want to hear is to just put it out there, without beating around the bush.  Albert uses that most hated four letter word.  You know, the one that begins with an f:

I believe these experiments point to the future of online music which will be a paradigm shift in why music is distributed (and how it is licensed) and how we consume music, in which a lot of music will be free and will be experienced interactively!

Again, the only interaction I want it to click the play button, but I don’t quarrel with the concept that people should and will be able to hear lots of music without paying for the privilege of hearing it.

Then, the train falls horribly off the tracks.  Recall that Albert is a partner at a venture capital firm, which assumedly means he invests in new products to make. . . money.  Cash, dollars.  Probably millions of them.

With that in mind, this little gem:

Of course one immediate question about such a new paradigm is how artists will make money.  I think it would be a grave mistake to be caught up in that question.  For starters, it seems to me that over the course of history very little of what we now think of as great music was produced specifically because the people making it were concerned about making the music a commercial success (I was reminded of that this morning listening to “Breakfast with the Beatles”).  Here too is a parallel with “The Invention of Air” – Priestly and many other scientists were and are not motivated by making a lot of money.  On top of that we may finally be entering an age of post-materialism.

Where to start?

For one, it’s epically ironic that a venture capitalist is preaching to starving artists and songwriters about entering an age of post-materialism.

I guess what he’s saying is that if you focus on the music, the money will take care of itself.  Of course, musicians have been doing that for centuries, and it hasn’t worked so far.

Second, if you don’t convince a critical mass of artists and songwriters that the monetization of their art will put food on their table and money in their savings account, there will be no good art to monetize.  Is Albert suggesting that people make music at nights and on weekends, after working at a real job?  There are many reasonably successful musicians and recording artists who have to work at real jobs to support their music under the existing system, which at least gives a nod towards getting them paid.  It is, at least, naive to ask these people, many of whom have already been sold down the river by the music industry, to trust a bunch of developers and venture capitalists to take care of them.

And, finally, to say that much art was made for the love of art and not for money is so completely beside the point and devaluing that it’s hard to respond logically.  Other than the alarming number of made for TV acts, just about every musician begins with a calling to the music, not just to get paid.  What starts out as a form of self-expression sometimes turns into a career.  To say that artists who become successful should not worry about getting paid is like saying that some chef who used to make brownies with her mom for fun should let diners eat at her five star restaurant for free.  It also says a lot about the value placed on the music, as opposed to the web applications and capital that promise to turn that music in
to money.  To value the store more than the good sold is backwards and dangerous.

Look, blog posts don’t have to be footnoted dissertations.  And Albert has some good points hidden beneath the smart talk (that’s a reference to one of my favorite movies).  But to say we shouldn’t worry about how the artists get paid is not the way to start the ol’ paradigm a shiftin’.