Jonathan Taplin
Aug 21, 2015 · 3 min read

Steven Johnson Strikes Again

Whenever the technology industry comes under criticism, they can always rely on the epic logroller Steven Johnson to roll out a book or article that “proves” that everything you are observing is actually wrong. In the Post Columbine Massacre era, when serious social scientists were pointing out that teenagers spending 6 hours a day killing people on video games tended to have a casual regard towards real violence, Johnson trotted out Everything Bad is Good For You. It was the ultimate defense of video games, which essentially asserted that mom didn’t need to worry that little Jimmy was addicted to Call of Duty, because it was really making him smarter and might even lead to employment in the Air Force raining laser bombs from drones over Pakistani villages.

This week’s apology episode from Johnson is entitled The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t — and its one of the most brain dead pieces that the New York Times Magazine has ever published. I’m shocked the Public Editor has not already taken Johnson to task. I won’t go into all the details because David Newhoff has already destroyed most of Johnson’s argument that the Internet monopolies have actually been a boon to the average artist. This is total nonsense as this chart shows.

Here is Johnson’s core argument which he gleans, not from talking to musicians but from geeking out in US Census data..

In 2012, musical groups and artists reported only 25 percent more in revenue than they did in 2002, which is basically treading water when you factor in inflation. And yet collectively, the figures seem to suggest that music, the creative field that has been most threatened by technological change, has become more profitable in the post-­Napster era — not for the music industry, of course, but for musicians themselves.

As we have pointed out before, the recorded music business is a winner take all business in which 80% of the revenue flows to 1% of the artists. So the fact that Beyonce and Jay Z are making more money today that in 2002 does not have anything to do with the lives of the average musician. If you average in the incomes of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, it looks like the median income is rising. Bullshit.

Then Johnson pivots to why he really thinks everything is wonderful in the music business: “Part of the answer is that the decline in recorded-­music revenue has been accompanied by an increase in revenues from live music.” This is the same argument that our other great techno-apologist Bob Lefsetz has been making.

It’s 2015 and not only have recording revenues declined, the whole world of music has gone topsy-turvy. Yes, there are a few superstars who base their careers on successful recordings, but everybody else is now a player, destined to a life on stage. This ain’t gonna change, this is the new reality. You can make an album, have fun, but don’t expect people to buy it or listen to it. The audience wants an experience. You’re better off honing your presentation than getting a good drum sound on hard drive. Your patter is more important than the vocal effects achieved in the studio. You’re back to where you once belonged, a performer. Be ready for a life on the road. Look for places to play. People love a good time. If you deliver one, you’ll get more work.

So what these two techno-determists are saying is “Technology will not make you any money, so you have to depend on the same business model Mozart used. Rent a hall, lock the doors, charge admission.” So if my recordings won’t make me any money, why am I doing it? To support Spotify’s $10 billion valuation? To support YouTube’s $5.6 billion yearly revenue?

Don’t think so.

Jonathan Taplin

Written by

Director Emeritus, USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Author, “Move Fast and Break Things”. Producer, “Mean Streets”, “The Last Waltz”, “Until the End Of the World”

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