The Business Model is Broken. Pay for Stuff Anyway.

Warning: there are a lot of words to read in this post. The good news is that relatively few of them are mine.

Second Warning: I may get a little preachy here. I don't mean to preach so much as to testify. This is my story about how I walk the line between supporting a broken model and looting from artists.

Caveat: While I end up disagreeing with David Lowery's stance, I own (have purchased) the complete Cracker back catalog complete from Cracker through Countrysides.

The Business Model is Broken. Pay for Stuff Anyway.


An NPR All Songs Considered intern Emily White wrote an online essay about the born-digital experience of being separated from the physicality of music. One of my favorite musicians, David Lowery, who also happens to lecture in music business at the University of Georgia, wrote an eloquent reply about the right of artists to get paid for their craft.

Some salient extracts:

Emily White:

What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded, and performance royalties would be distributed based on play counts (hopefully with more money going back to the artist than the present model). All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?"

David Lowery:

The existential questions that your generation gets to answer are these:

Why do we value the network and hardware that delivers music but not the music itself?

Why are we willing to pay for computers, iPods, smartphones, data plans, and high speed internet access but not the music itself?

Why do we gladly give our money to some of the largest richest corporations in the world but not the companies and individuals who create and sell music?

This is a bit of hyperbole to emphasize the point. But it’s as if:

Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!

Congratulations, your generation is the first generation in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo freak musicians!

I am genuinely stunned by this. Since you appear to love first generation Indie Rock, and as a founding member of a first generation Indie Rock band I am now legally obligated to issue this order: kids, lawn, vacate.

You are doing it wrong.

Other voices weigh in:

This would make a great leaping off point for a blog post. People smarter, more eloquent, and more informed than I have also thought this. So, I'll just point you to Mike Doughty's post about how the romantic ideal about indie musicians touring in a van costs about $280,000. And Jonathon Coulton's post about how, as a person who pays the rent by selling songs, he agrees with almost everything Lowery says; except that it is lacking a vision of the future.

Mike Doughty: (full post)

For a band of Radiohead’s ilk—five people, each an equal member, who need to make a living, after covering huge transportation, personnel (sound guy, tour manager) and production expenses—to put album after album out, year after year, for almost two decades, you need a sizable touring base.

I estimate that it costs $3,000 to $6,000 a week for a bare-bones tour—yes, very bare-bones. You need to be out hustling on the road maybe 20 to 30 weeks per year, and it takes two or three or four years to develop a viable touring base. (I hate that kind of music-biz jargon, I avoid it whenever I can—please forgive me for not having more elegant terms)

Averaging those numbers, an absolutely new band needs about $280,000—for very scrappy, uncomfortable touring.

With this budget, you’ll still need a job when you get home. One that doesn’t mind you only working a month at a time, then vanishing for seven weeks, then returning—repeatedly. For years. By nature, that’ll probably be a shitty job.

Jonathan Coulton: (full post)

This is my bias: the decline of scarcity seems inevitable to me. I have no doubt that this fight over mp3s is just the first of many fights we're going to have about this stuff. Our laws and ethics already fail to match up with our behaviors, and for my money, those are the things we should be trying to fix. The change is already happening to us, and it's a change that WE ARE CHOOSING. It's too late to stop it, because we actually kind of like a lot of the things that we're getting out of it.

I don't know how to get all that artist money back, and I don't know if we ever will. I don't much like that Spotify pays out so little to me when their service is siphoning directly out of the gas tank of my mp3 sales. But I sure do love having Spotify here on this computer I keep in my pocket. The flood comes and it doesn't matter if the water is right or wrong - you get in the boat, you stack sandbags, you climb on the roof and wait for a helicopter, and sometime later the water is calm and the world looks different.

So What?

Now that I've had you all do a lot of homework and read a lot of words written on the subject, what next? (I hope you have read all of the linked posts, my snippets, while much bigger than I like to post fully, do not make the full arguments of their authors. There is a lot of nuance and recognition of the complexity of the subject that can't be captured by a pull quote. Even by a pull quote that is too big to really be a pull quote.)

What is next, as far as I can see is two revelations that are equally important but semi-contradictory. The first is that the major label system for distributing music is broken. (Read the great post by Tim Quirk, former frontman for Too Much Joy as one anecdote explaining this. Pull quote: "10,000 dollars is nothing." Emily White grasps this intuitively, JoCo explains it well. I get the sense that David Lowery understands this, but he isn't willing to give up income from a broken system in exchange for idealism and enriching different corporations. He wants a working replacement in place before he abandons the broken old system. This seems reasonable from a business standpoint, but I'm highly doubtful things will happen in that order. (Buzzword watch: disruptive change.) So, moving forward, I have two rules that I think will help pay artists what they deserve without standing in the way of our shiny digital utopian future.

Rule number one: Whenever possible, buy directly from the artist. When not possible, buy it anyway.

After Emily White's essay went viral, All Songs Considered ran this story on how to buy music that sends the most money to the artists. The best way is to buy it directly from the artist. Buy a CD from the table at the back of the club where they are playing or order it from their website. When you do this, more money goes to the creator than if you buy it through iTunes, Amazon, or a brick-and-mortar storefront. Amanda Palmer seems to have figured out how to generate the start up capital Doughty referenced without major label investment (although it can be argued that major label investment generated her following in the first place) but Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are two examples of ways that fans can help offset creation costs without requiring artists to sell their souls to the labels/publishers/studios.

Even if publishers, labels, and studios are evil exploiters, buy your content anyway. Pretending that stealing content is a political statement is a particular brand of horse-shit that only sounds reasonable in the idealistic glow of youth. (Kids, lawn, vacate.) In the past, I've advanced such arguments and upon reflection, sounded pretty stupid doing so. (*Note: this does not mean we must be slavish adherents to a broken copyright system. Read on for more.) This is not to say that we must be slavish adherents to a broken distribution system. We don't have to put up with stupid restrictions, but the tools that empower us to cut through the unnecessary restrictions also empower us to steal. I like to believe that it isn't just locks that keep us from robbing our neighbor's houses. Rule number one trumps rule number two and rule number one says pay for stuff.

Rule Number Two: Inform yourself with the law. Empower yourself with technology.

Our copyright law is behind the technology curve. While there are efforts to make the law fit with the current technological reality, the core of our law was written when printing presses and vinyl record presses were the dominant forms of reproducing content. Content came in physical forms that could be bought and sold. Digital media is different. To be a reasonable and responsible consumer of digital media, one must know what one's right are. Learn about fair use. Learn about the DMCA. Know, as much as possible, what the law is. Then, when you discover that some perfectly reasonable activity is technically in violation of the law, empower yourself with technology to do the reasonable thing anyway.

I said above that we should pay for content and I stand by that. However, I don't feel that we should passively accept restrictions on the use of that content. For example: I have a large collections of Kindle books that I have purchased from Amazon. While breaking technological protection measures is technically a violation of the DMCA, I've learned how to break those measures and I've learned how convert my kindle format books to .epub (an open ebook standard) that will work on other devices. Also, while I pay a ton of money each month for a TV package with many premium channels, if the DVR metadata is screwed up (it often is) and my shows don't record; I've learned how to find the .torrent files for these shows and download them.

Respecting the creator's right to make a living off of their work is not the same thing as passively accepting the restrictions put in place by Big Content. For example, region restrictions on DVD/Bluray discs are stupid. If I want to buy British TV shows, they should allow me to. Back in the day, I bought a DVD player and hacked it to be region agnostic. Then I could buy my Spaced, Black Books, and Long Way Round episodes from and watch them. I've decided to empower myself to choose when and how I access my media and content. One legitimate use of region codes is to allow content to be sold at different prices in different markets. So I don't choose to buy cheap discs from the third world to play on my region-agnostic player. I've decided to draw the line at using this power to cut through silly restrictions, but not to do an end run around paying the creators for their work. Now, I don't set up my personal line as some sort of standard to judge others by. There are reasonable arguments that are both more liberal and more restrictive than where I've decided to draw the line. I do think that we all are forced to make choices and there aren't any easy default options.

What makes this decision fundamentally different than other kind of ethical decisions is that the social norms, laws, and manners surrounding the digital distribution of content are well and truly broken. In other contexts, we could reliable take the conservative approach of following the social norms, regulations, and legislation. When in doubt, follow the law. In this case however, the norms haven't developed yet and the regulations and legislation is either broken or non-existent. (Note: in my professional work as a librarian I have a responsibility to follow the law as interpreted by the state Attorney General. In my personal choices, I have more leeway.) Following the status-quo is a political act and I do not choose to support that particular political position.

What to do when the law is broken:

In conclusion, I just want to repeat that locks aren't what keeps us from robbing our neighbors. Police aren't what keeps us from looting the local grocery store. Thus, DRM shouldn't be what is keeping us from taking stuff without paying for it. We should make informed decisions about how we consume our media and make informed decisions about which business models we support. Obviously, business models that rely on supply and demand are broken by digital media. We don't need to pay distributors. This doesn't mean we don't need to pay anybody. A metaphor I'm fond of (possibly taken from Amanda Palmer) is that digital media has turned all performing artists into buskers (street musicians). They play to the public and we decide how much the performance is worth. So listen, enjoy, and collect their work. Just throw some fair recompense in their hat. A little something for the effort, so to speak.

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