November 19, 2014

Dear Cory Doctorow: Please Shut The Fuck Up About Music...

by Chris Randall

Cory Doctorow portrait by Jonathan Worth, altered by me for comedic effect.

Cory Doctorow did a Q&A on iO9 today, wherein he provided everything you need to know about making a living in the arts in the Internet Age. Naturally, he was talking out his ass, like he does. The problem is he was talking mostly about the music industry, a subject of which he demonstrably knows very little, despite his protestations. Since his comments are so brazenly misinformed, I thought a line-by-line breakdown was in order, in the hopes that people will understand how little this dude knows about our business.

It's always been all but impossible for individuals to earn a living from the arts!

No. It hasn't. Hundreds of thousands of people do it every day, and have for centuries.

Nearly everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts lost money in the bargain. Of those who made money, almost all made very little. Of those who made a lot of money, most stopped making money quickly.

Where's your proof of this? Did you just make these "facts" up? My own experience in the arts, going on 30 years now, is that it's actually fairly easy to make a living, as long as you are better-than-mediocre at your job of choice (and even that isn't a deal-breaker. For instance, you have a career writing science fiction.) Aiming to be the next Mick Jagger is most likely going to lead to disappointment, sure.

Success in the arts has always been a six-sigma event, a huge rarity. It's only because we apply survivor-bias to our perception of the arts (only considering the successes, because by definition we never even hear about the failures) that we think of the arts as a business, instead of lotto.

Hardly. Success is a largely a function of perseverance, practice, and ability. Pick two.

And survivor bias? Well, every single comment you've made here is a result of your own survivor bias. You're overlooking the hundreds of thousands of working musicians that do totally fine, everywhere. All the members of every orchestra in the world (and any city of a reasonable size has at least two) and their understudies all make fine livings. Every pit player in every live musical or stage production can make their mortgage every year. Every employee of every record label in this country, and the employees of all the music publishing houses, library companies, game music studios, TV and film scoring shops, commercial/industrial music companies... they all do just fine. Every venue that plays live music has bouncers, bartenders, managers, DJs, and never mind the bands. All these people are making a living in the arts. And that's just music.

Survivor bias, my hairy white nuts.

Every single person who's ever pursued a career in the arts without a plan B was doing something insanely risky, and most of them had a diastrous [sic] outcome as a result.

Do you have numbers to back this statement up? In my experience, anyone who's pursued a career in anything without a plan B was doing something risky. But insanely risky? How do you figure? What's insane about risk?

"He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That dares not put it to the touch
To gain or lose it all."
-James Graham

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, buster. And define "diastrous" [sic]. Did they die? Lose a limb? Grow a third nipple? Or did they only find out that perhaps their talents didn't run to the arts? I don't think that qualifies as "diastrous."[sic]

When we try to defend certain kinds of professional artists, we always end up doing so at the cost of other artists. For example, before the advent of the record and the radio, it was inconceivable to ponder a musical performer who loved to perform, whose performances would please millions, but who didn't want to perform in front of an audience. This was as weird an idea as a notional champion swimmer who just didn't like water.

Is Frederic Chopin inconceivable? How about Beethoven? Barbara Streisand has a notorious case of stage fright. Is her career somehow inconceivable to you? Ditto Andy Partridge of XTC. If you have ever had to get up on stage and sing, which you obviously haven't, you'd know that it's difficult. This is why success is largely a function of skill, not magic internet dust.

The live performers hated and feared the radio/record performers. ASCAP boycotted radio for years (opening the way for "hillbilly" and "race" music to rise to prominence in America).

Hated? Feared? How so? Where's your proof? Did you just make that up? Aside from that, your premise is wrong. Radio stations boycotted ASCAP from 1931 to 1939. Not the other way around. How the ever-loving fuck would ASCAP boycott radio? I've seen you mention ASCAP many times over the years, and it's pretty obvious that you don't really have a clear understanding of what they do. And you never mention BMI or SESAC. Why is that? ASCAP is a fucking non-profit, for all love, and its sole purpose is to make sure musicians get paid for their work. Unlike the other two. Seriously, dude.

Today, the people who succeeded at recording careers rebel at the idea of being live performers.

Really? Where did you find this out? Proof? Or is this another fact you just pulled out of your ass? Also, you're mixing verb tenses. You're a professional writer, for the love of Christ.

But the technical reality that changed how the tiny minority of successful artists got their income has a much wider effect than artists' income -- radio didn't mostly affect music, it changed every fact about the world. The Internet, too.

I don't think you fully understand what the phrase "successful artists" means. Or "fact," for that matter. But that aside, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever, so I have nothing to rebut.

The biggest challenge to the incomes of the tiny minority of artists who do succeed today is the fact that there is a highly concentrated entertainment industry (five publishers, four labels, five studios) and they have incrediby abusive, one-sided standard contracts.

Again, define "success" before you build an argument based upon it. There isn't some "success" benchmark, below which is non-success, and above which is Easy Streetâ„¢. Do you mean "I can pay my rent"? Because that's not that difficult. Or do you mean "I have a house in the Hills / Overlookin' the sea / It's worth eight but I only paid five point three." Because those are two very different things. Even your precious Amanda Palmer, who is successful by any reasonable benchmark, can't roll with Dre. In my opinion, I'm quite successful. I have an income that is twice the median, own a house, have a two-car garage and a swimming pool, but compared to Ms. Palmer or Dre, I've barely moved the needle in my career. Back to your lottery analogy, you imply that Dre's success is the result, for all intents and purposes, of hitting five digits plus the Powerball. News flash: Dre didn't win the lottery. He made the fucking Chronic.

And "incrediby [sic] abusive, one-sided standard contracts..." Have you ever even seen a recording contract? Record labels are essentially very specialized banks. If you've ever bought a new car or a house, this is pretty much the same thing. "We'll buy this thing for you, and then you'll owe us all the money we spent, plus some more to pay for our time and expenses and effort." It's really not complicated. You act like a dick and snort your advance off the tits of a Sunset Strip hooker, you're gonna have trouble. You act like a professional and do your fucking job, and happen to make some music that people like, you're in pretty good shape. It's not fucking magic.

The real fix for this is to eliminate the de facto subsidies to giant multinational corporations (lobbying priveleges [sic], legalized tax-cheating, etc). (This would also fix pretty much everything else!).

Really. Will it fix the fact that some people just aren't good at making music people want to hear or pictures people want to look at or books people want to read? Because those are pretty important factors in your mystical "success." Also, there are about 5 logical fallacies in this one single paragraph. That has to be some kind of record.

But in the meantime, we can encourage the 'competitor of last resort' - the Internet and all the services that allow artists to opt out of the big five/four and go on their own. That means not imposing enormous copyright liabilities on them (to found Youtube today, you don't just need a garage full of hard-drives, you also need a $300M Content ID system, which means we aren't going to see a lot of Youtube competitors any time soon).

Ah, here's the source of all magic and unicorns, at last. The Internet. The Great Arbitratorâ„¢. Finally, I can leave this life of poverty and hardship. Man, you need to get the fuck out of your house once in a while. I strongly suggest you come down to NAMM, and see what the real music industry looks like. At the risk of going all ad-hominem on your Canadian ass, it's a very different beast than this YouTube-based morass of Ukulele covers by quirky beflanneled Millennials that you've concocted in your head.

And there are like 60 YouTube competitors. At least.

The existence of an alternative to the big companies puts a floor on the worst offer they can make to artists -- it has to be better than the best deal we can get for ourselves, outside of their walls.

There was _always_ an alternative to "the big companies." It was the small companies. Your precious internet made getting a nice deal with a middle-sized indie really fucking hard, though. So thanks for that. I never used to blame you directly, Cory, but I think I'm going to start.

But here's the onion: the ability to put up a YouTube video (or a Bandcamp album page, or populate the upload fields on TuneCore ingestion) doesn't mean an audience will appear out of thin air. And while you've never straight-out defined it, I'm pretty sure your definition of "success" isn't "can pay my bills," but rather "has an audience." Because that's the coin you trade in.

Let me ask you this: if I paid the appropriate amount of money, and sent you some records to listen to, would it ensure a nice above-the-fold article on the front page of Boing Boing? Just curious. Hope my Bandcamp records move enough units this week to cover that.


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Nov.19.2014 @ 9:19 PM
Apart from his mediocre sci-fi, his copyright rantings usually misrepresent: a.) basic U.S. copyright laws and the history of said laws, and b.) the nature of copyright law in the digital age, wherein the cost of copying is effectively zero. Doctorow fails to value the generative aspect of copyright law, while protesting the consumer cost, which in his view should be nominal. Doctorow conflates the value generated for artists with the value generated for studios, producers, corporations, etc. to the extent that he can no longer maintain a distinction between the two. It's unfortunate that he fails to advocate for the artist due to his railings against the "system" that generates new media.

Nov.19.2014 @ 9:23 PM
Chris Randall
Exactly that. And it drives me batty. The difference between Dr. Dre and $RANDOM_INTERNET_UKELELE_PLAYER is that Dr. Dre made the motherfucking Chronic. He blames people that are able to work with the system for the fact that those that make music that people just don't want to fucking hear have to blanch fries.


Nov.19.2014 @ 10:16 PM
the internet blog/news treadmill invites so much demagoguery on every subject. the pressure to produce bullshit must be overwhelming.

"i'll just come up w/some scraps and fill the plate with parsley and enough people will confuse it with a meal and think i'm a chef"

i don't get it. there are enough people who actually know something about the music industry that no one needs to invent shit. why not talk to a few of them and then write an article.. or just post an interview?

Nov.19.2014 @ 10:57 PM
Read one of his once. Thinly disguised rant about how 3D printed toy figurines would reboot the economy (by undercutting the Green Army Men cartel?). Skipped over where stuff like food and electricity would come from. Just a bunch of 1D characters saying, 'hey kids, let's do the show here and stick it to the man!'

I'm guessing he doesn't drive a crowd- funded open-source. 3D-printed car.

Nov.19.2014 @ 11:03 PM
These 'futurologists' can't tell the difference between data and love. They're stunted emotionally. Their measure of desire is statistics, and their enthusiasm is measured in likes. Maybe it's a phase we have to go through, but the nerd autistocracy is really wearing out their welcome.

Nov.19.2014 @ 11:04 PM
Chris Randall
I think "autistocracy" is the best word I've ever seen.


Nov.20.2014 @ 12:05 AM
I'm with boobs.

Nov.20.2014 @ 3:08 AM
I've read his novels, and since I read novels like chewing gum, I'd rate him Juicy Fruit. Nothing you'd chew if there was Beemans or even Double Mint available.

I have never paid for his books since he gives them away, so there is that. And both my parents made their livings as musicians. I don't think it's as easy to make a living at it as it used to be, but that's true of all jobs now in the McOligarchy.

The hard part of making it as a musician is being any good. And hey some of those ukulele manic pixie dream girls aren't bad. And that guy who forced his kids to play Are Friends Electric, he's pretty rad too.

Nov.20.2014 @ 4:20 AM
Wow. Without your comments, I was able to figure out how much this guy is not able to stop writing science fiction when he talks about something.

What is funny here is that I have read today an article today about the music industry, because a friend sent me the link before I read Doctor Cow's one :

link []

That's not the same level indeed.

Nov.20.2014 @ 6:12 AM
What everyone else said...but "Little Brother" was quite good... meanwhile:

"you also need a $300M Content ID system"

Yet more of what he doesnt know, I work days for a company that builds these things, FOR some of those 60 YourTube-competitor-companies he cant seem to see..and they dont cost even 1% of what he suggests.....

Patience = empty , with this guy.

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