Dissonant Intervals & Bittersweet Symphonies: Music’s Past, Present & Future

by Neil Turkewitz

As advocacy by artists for the digital future of the arts becomes more and more common and articulate, making it somewhat more difficult for copyright skeptics to play artists and labels against each other (although not for want of trying), I see more and more suggestions that these artists are somehow anti-technology and that they are trying to turn back the clocks to the “good old days” rather than to embrace the opportunities of the present and future. I am in constant communication with artists, and must observe that I don’t hear too many artists romanticizing the past. One, it wasn’t that great. But more importantly, they tend to be less concerned about themselves and more focused on creating the conditions for the next generation of artists to prosper and to own their own futures. No one wants to return to the past. They are not ruing the intersection of commerce and culture — they are railing against a framework that denies them the right to determine the contours of their careers.

Some organizations and observers seek to portray labels AND artists as greedy and proceeding on the assumption that they are “owed,” at a bare minimum, the financial success of 1999. Again, untrue. The value of the recorded music market in 1999/2000 before Napster introduced the notion that music should be free and available regardless of the consent of the artist is relevant in understanding the commercial value of recorded music in a transactional setting that was less dysfunctional than the present one, and is an important reference point. But no one thinks that maintaining 1999 revenue represents some form of entitlement. Indeed, the 1999 recorded music market was itself not without dysfunction, and music futurists at the time were in general agreement that $40 billion was only a sliver of the potential value of recorded music in the digital era. Thinking the music industry was a “$100 billion industry in $40 billion clothes” was commonplace given the expected explosion in licensing opportunities and the public’s increased appetite for the consumption of recorded music.

In some ways, the turn of the millennium futurists were fairly accurate — digital technologies, both on the service and hardware side, greatly expanded the amount of time that people spent listening to music. Mobility and ubiquity changed the music listening landscape. Sadly, that wasn’t the most dominant change in the environment — that honor would go the explosion in unauthorized access to music and the growing expectation that music was, and should be, free. Artists don’t think that 1999 was some kind of high point that should have been maintained, and their references to 1999 numbers shouldn’t be understood as a reference to default assumptions about current expectations. But the numbers are relevant in providing a reference point about the willingness of the public to pay for music when paying isn’t purely voluntary.

Artists and labels have embraced technology and their advocacy focuses on addressing abusive business practices, and not attacking streaming or other technology as such. On a personal level, many of us do indeed have concerns about the very notion of abandoning ownership in favor of access and the effects on appreciation of art/culture, but that is part of a much broader discussion about how to achieve happiness and maintain cultural diversity and individuality in the digital age. The central concern is that streaming is not taking place on market conditions rooted in consent, but instead in a music marketplace distorted by the effects of legislation that has failed to adequately address piracy and which has given certain platforms a competitive advantage in which they can rely on infringing content. The internet had, and has, the potential to expand choice for artists and instead it has largely constrained it. But this is not a natural consequence of the technology itself.

I am mindful that I am purporting to speak for the artist community, and that “artists” as such don’t have a single voice, nor have they elected or paid me to speak for them. There are as many disparate views within the artist community as there are outside of it. Some artists do indeed view digital technology, per se, as a negative force regardless of the issue of monetization. Others think we live in the best of times and that the ability to connect to global audiences directly outweighs any negative effects. Some dream of blockchain while others deride it as the newest flavor of snake oil. In writing this piece, I do not mean to suggest that all artists view the world in the same way, and there will doubtless be some that disagree with the views expressed here. My goal here is to capture what I perceive as the dominant thinking within the artist community — a community that I tend to inhabit notwithstanding my lack of musicality. And while not necessarily representative, I did speak to a few prominent artist advocates to double check my instincts here. A few of the responses were so clear and articulate that they demand being recited here:

Maria Schneider, composer and Grammy® winning jazz orchestra leader:

“I was the first artist (2003) to choose to take my recordings out of the brick and mortar stores, to sell directly to fans on the internet through the innovative company, ArtistShare, and to crowdfund my project (before the word was even invented), and to win a GRAMMY with that recording, Concert in the Garden. It was a hugely successful project, and I fully covered my $160,000 budget, because I was able to set my own price based on my knowledge of my audience and assessing my expenses. YouTube and a host of other parasitic companies hadn’t yet sprouted up, taking advantage of the outdated DMCA laws. Considering the budgets of my recordings are now around $200,000, I know that if I’m forced into any other method of funding my music, I’ll have to stop recording. Niche genres like jazz, classical, folk and world music cannot possibly recover a financial overhead like mine with the meager payments coming through even the highest paying streaming sites. And to ask me to cover recording budgets by touring a big band? Are you kidding me?? When I tour my band, I’m lucky if I’m not losing money. What I worry about, is that if no one will purchase downloads and CDs anymore because one-size-fits-all streaming sites offer music for free or nearly free, then I’m forced into extinction. I would never, and could never, put up that kind of money just so the world can listen conveniently for free. It’s absurd. Copyright was created to incentivize creation. Clearly, we’re seeing what the destruction of copyright has created. After all, Spotify was Ek’s supposed answer to piracy. Unless something happens and there’s a streaming platform where we can all set our own price based on our own budgets and audience size, I’ll be priced out of existence. As I see it, therefore, I probably have one more album in me, and I’m done.”

David Lowery, Cracker and Camper van Beethoven frontman, wrote:

“Artists were some of the earliest adopters of the Internet technology. Many early listserv and Usenet groups were run by musicians and their fans. Need I mention The Grateful Dead and The Well? AOL dial up (you laugh now) had many artists moderated bulletin boards.

At every turn, artists were in the vanguard. Artist had full blown websites long before mainstream stream brands like Coca Cola and Ford. Musicians were first to embrace the power of social media. First repurposing Friendster for band fan interaction, bands then drove MySpace, then Facebook to adopt band friendly pages.

Musicians/artists have remade themselves as internet-enabled businesses since 1992. We pioneered social marketing. I know. I was there. Virtually every interaction (aside from live performance) with fans had migrated online by 1999.

Most of the people calling artists Luddites are ignorant of the history. A history -I might add- that is easily web searchable.”

Miranda Mulholland, Artist, Advocate, Label Owner, Music Festival Founder:

“I have been thinking a lot about consent lately — consent in all kinds of different contexts. I think many of us have. The definition of consent is “Permission for something to happen.” There is also “Informed consent” which is permission granted with full knowledge of the consequences”.

None of us gave our informed consent about what was going to happen to our work, our businesses, our industry twenty years ago due to gaps in legislation that removed our effective ability to determine our own futures. We do however have the ability to inform policies moving forward.

We are not asking Governments to turn the clock backwards. We’re asking them to turn it forward and to catch up. To create conditions for commerce based on consent. We want a functioning marketplace.”

East Bay Ray, Dead Kennedys guitarist, songwriter:

“It’s the internet corporations that need a new business model, not artists.

The internet does not eliminate the middlemen. Big tech (Google, Facebook, etc) are the new middleman. Vast sums of money are exploited from music, art, photos, videos, writing, etc by these new middlemen webmasters who get rich off of advertising. With little of it going to the creators.

Without consent, there can be no liberty. That’s as true for your digital personal data as it is for an artist’s digital files. They’re the same on the internet.

The internet is not like the weather, it was created by humans and can be changed by humans.”

And legendary guitarist, Marc Ribot, sent me something so on point and articulate that I include it in full, notwithstanding the fact that it could stand as an article by itself:

“No one owes me or any other musician a living. But we and the businesses that pay us should have the same right as any other American: to earn our livings through a fair market, one based on the consent of the seller and the willingness of the buyer. As anyone Googling our work can see: that is not the case now. I’m not “anti-technology”: I’ve been running pro-tools and EmagicLogic since the early 90’s, and remember when my CompuServe address was a number. My latest release streams on Spotify, and I do roughly the same online marketing and distribution as other contemporary artists.

But the oft repeated myth that bands can now produce recordings on “no budget” (and therefore somehow don’t need to get paid) is… bullshit.

The computer itself, software, mics, mic-pre’s, compressors, A to D coverters, etc cost money. Composing, rehearsing, recording, overdubbing, mixing, editing, sequencing, mastering, designing, marketing, and promoting all take time. Farmers deduct what it costs to feed and house their animals during the time it takes to bring them to market. Surely, even those who don’t believe we deserve minimum wage should grant us the same economic consideration as a cow.

I’ve personally witnessed the worst of both indie and major label behavior. In fact, I’ve participated in indie musicians’ collective action to fight record company rip-offs. But even the worst of them understood that not paying us for our work WAS a rip-off. Google et al are attempting to normalize the worst practices of the past: on a scale that Leonard Chess couldn’t even imagine.

While record companies have certainly robbed many artists — and Artists of Color in particular — celebrating their collapse makes as much sense as celebrating a mass eviction because the building had cockroaches.

If Silicon Valley apologists now claim we should pay for our record budgets through touring income: well exactly which new artists, who by definition must make a recording BEFORE touring, are likely to have $5–15 grand sitting around to self finance years of self recording and poorly paid promotional touring?

Are we really SO besotted with our new streaming toys that we can’t recognize the institutionally racist consequences of what amounts to a new exclusionary entrance fee… (not to mention the less visible but equally destructive damage to music’s working class base)? Telling young musicians that they must fund their own recordings is the redlining of the new millennium. To the great extent that race and class are intertwined, it is racist. It’s unfair to talented working class kids of all races, and will create a homogenous culture of the privileged as surely as post-war red-lining created the lily white suburbs of the past.

If all this was really “technological unemployment” due to “creative destruction,” then we could — and would have to — accept it. But these terms refer to improvements in the technologies of production replacing less efficient technologies. This is not what is going on.

Musicians still make the music people listen to today, using technology roughly similar to what we used 20 years ago. Our music is producing more profit than ever: just not for us. This isn’t “disruptive innovation”, it is exploitation pure and simple, and it needs to stop.

The simple fact is this: our budgets collapsed post Napster, and although the effects of streaming are uneven, they will not and cannot repair the damage done as long as major online corporations enjoy a special privilege exemption from the normal obligation of businesses to obey the law. Until the “Safe Harbors” are limited for corporations which fail to use the available technology to stop mass infringement on their premises, there will be no economic justice for working musicians.

All the rest is hype.”

In short, putting aside for the time being the broader cultural/artistic concerns about the implications of abandoning ownership in favor of access, most artists want Spotify et al to be their allies as fully and fairly licensed partners in an environment that expands choices and consumer access. And Spotify, Deezer et al are working in tandem with the creative sector in the EU in trying to address the distorting impact of safe harbors. That’s a critical step in restoring consent as the foundation of the music marketplace that will help to allow artists to share financially in the success of their works. Hopefully the EU will take steps to address current imbalances and the US and other countries will follow suit. And next time someone refers to artists’ attempts to create the conditions that will allow them to fairly share in the revenue generated by demand of their works as “trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” please know that we are not trying to recreate the past, but to pave the way for a more diverse and colorful future.