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.


Page 2 of 3

Nov.20.2014 @ 3:49 PM
I've ranted before here, many years ago, about being sick of Doctorow's 'free culture' yadda yadda. At that time it was about DRM, a thing I normally think is annoying and a fools errand. But the sense of entitlement w/ which he railed about it, and tacitly gave a pass to pirates, made me want take the side of fuckin' corporations. It's like he takes a position based a set of circumstances and applies it to everything with no sense of scale or nuance.

Also, that Albini thing. Tho' I haven't fully read it, these mofo's who had the benefit of a pre-internet systems to get an international audience need to be a bit more humble about how good we have it as musicians these days. I understand that Albini, being a beacon of indie cred, and speaking truth to the lie of recording contracts *in 1993* isn't quite the same as dudes who hit the major label jackpot preaching the virtues of bit torrent. At the same time, Big Black & Shellac were on indie labels that had a lot of juice behind them; he wasn't self-pressing his records. He may not have made much profit from Homestead or Touch and Go (at the time). But he wasn't scraping together the several thousand dollars to press his precious vinyl, spending time stuffing mailers and calling radio stations to get the name of program directors. He used those channels for distribution and publicity that benefited, say, the Spin Doctors or whatever. Yeah, those gatekeepers were corrupt and short-sighted and greedy, but they weren't entirely without function. Now bands and musicians are largely paying for the recordings, dumping it into the howling void of the internet, hoping that someone, somewhere will notice. Sure some rise above the din, rise above their circumstance, and scrape together a career as a working musician. But it probably averages about the same of those that landed a good record deal that allowed them to make some coin touring.

It's not better or worse, Steve. It's just different.

Nov.20.2014 @ 7:10 PM
I'm not with boobs.

Kidding... I am glad I don't care much about any of this, though.

I also agree about "autistocracy."

Great rebuttals!

I guess I prefer reading about genius rather than idiocy.

Next time, pick on someone your size.

This one was way too easy.

Nov.20.2014 @ 8:34 PM
(All right. Now that I've digested Albini's talk some more -- and I'll read, listen to it again -- I see his thesis is more ranging and personal than I was framing it. For me it's a bit muddled, and conflates a bunch of arguments, and mistakes subjective experience for the greater reality of the rest of us. But he also makes some smart points, is being encouraging. And who am I, really?

I do stand by my point: the system, deeply flawed though it was, did serve some function not replaced by the DIY WWW: not better, worse, just different. But this is something I'll work out in another form.)

Nov.20.2014 @ 8:46 PM
Cory Doctorow could type words all day, but you're not going to trick me into reading them.

The somewhat related Spotify issue does interest me, however. Mostly because I believe that Spotify is full of a bunch of programmers that love music and do believe that streaming helps combat piracy and gets musicians paid for recordings when otherwise they'd get nothing. I'm sure that's true to some extent, however, it also, obviously, cuts into download sales. The question becomes, in aggregate does the money earned by offsetting potential piracy outweigh the money lost by offsetting potential sales. Based on some back of the envelope calculations for their current payment rate it would seem that you'd need to get 5 or 6 pirates to stream for every lost iTunes download. I doubt that's happening, and if I'm right, than it is a net negative for artists. But more to the point, this is something which should be provably true or not, with access to the numbers.

Nov.20.2014 @ 9:25 PM
Chris Randall
The famous quote from Martin Atkins applies here:

"You shouldn't be mad that 20,000 people are downloading your song. You should be mad that they _aren't._"

Seriously, if you have enough plays and sales where you can do that math, you're in good shape.


Nov.21.2014 @ 12:51 AM
Re: Spotify

I'm of the opinion that large artists would be much better off thinking of Spotify as a promotional tool rather than a source of revenue, which it obviously isn't. People come to shows because they listened to music on whatever platform they chose. Taytor Swift only got paid fourteen cents because some 16 year old listened to seventy hours of her music on Spotify? Who cares! Did that seventy hours of listening prompt the 16 year old girl to then spend eighty bucks out of her first-ever paycheck on a ticket to come see Swift at her local arena? That's what matters.

Nov.22.2014 @ 4:56 AM
Thanks Chris, two words for this "expert" : get your facts straight...

BTW there are two kinds of economists, those who can count and those who cannot.

Nov.22.2014 @ 8:33 AM
I should have written there are three kind of economists, those who can count and those who cannot...

That's life for posting before being totally awake...

Nov.22.2014 @ 9:46 AM
Yet, there are infinite sleepy "false economists" these days.

Here's my math: I made a really good living for a long time from royalties, etc.

Now, I don't... even with tens of thousands of streams per month and the like.

Luckily, I put a lot of the those nuts away, directly and indirectly, along with ones earned as an audio worker.

So, my personal work actually carries on pretty much as before.

But, 1 - 1 = 0.

Nov.22.2014 @ 11:08 AM
Chris Randall
Yeah. My performance royalties have pretty much dried up entirely. On the other hand, I haven't bothered to submit anything for television shows or movies in years, and that was the source of the lion's share of my ASCAP checks.

An untended garden leads to weeds. If I still made music for a living entirely, I'd pay much more attention to it. But I don't, so I don't.


Page 2 of 3



Sorry, commenting is closed for this blog entry.