Chris Randall: Musician, Writer, User Interface Designer, Inventor, Photographer, Complainer. Not necessarily in that order.
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 Street™. 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 Arbitrator™. 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.

November 14, 2014

It's Gettin' Hot In Herre...

by Chris Randall

So, a glance at the calendar (well, a glance at, which is the functional equivalent) shows that NAMM 2015 is just around the corner. It seems like only 10 months ago I was at NAMM 2014, trying to keep the secret of this massive sequencer we were about to make. How time flies!

Anyhow, I'm pleased to report, for those of you that attend this heady event, that Audio Damage will have a booth for the 2015 show. Or, rather, we'll be part of the WMD "Manufacturer's Booth." Which is conveniently chock full of all your favorite Euro guys, along with some other various things. (Let's just say that Audio Damage will be the only ones there with software.) The WMD booth backs up to the Schneidersbureau booth, so that whole neighborhood in Hall A is gonna have some ridiculous bleepings and bloopings going on.

Adam and I will both be attending the entire show, as well as our little booth betty, Jeremy Highhouse. Jeremy is picking out his outfit now. I personally lobbied for "Naughty Elf," but I think he's leaning towards "Naughty Leprechaun."

My next task, which will hopefully not prove too monumental, is to design our little mini-booth so that it looks cooler than the other mini-booths, since that's important to me. Cutting of aluminum will be involved.

Which brings me to the actual point of this post: I'd just like to mention that I am extremely grateful for the support of this community of musicians that allows me to do cool shit like having lasers blasted at a sheet of metal until a robot appears, instead of having to go to an office every day and do stupid shit for other people that I hate. I honestly love everything about my job, and am incredibly lucky that it pays the mortgage. I don't think I say that often enough, so I'm saying it now.

November 7, 2014

All That Jazz...

by Chris Randall

It's official. I've reached peak Number Of Projects I Can Do At One Time. Which is, as it turns out, almost entirely, but not completely, unlike Peak Oil.

First, as many of you know, I'm in the process of making a new Sister Machine Gun EP. It is named The Future Unformed, and will be released in the Spring of next year on WTII Records, as is right and proper with the world. (WTII is owned by the former Wax Trax! office manager; he and I have had a working relationship for going on two decades now.) As to whether this was a wise decision or not, only time will tell.

Next, on to Audio Damage stuff. Sequencer 1 has been distributed and is in stock to all the retailers that wanted units; it is also in stock at the Audio Damage site. We still have some units left from the first run, so get 'em while the getting is good. We'll be working on the first major software update for the next while; keep an eye on my Twitter (@chris_randall) and Instagram (@chris.randall) feeds for teasers and progress updates.

We'll also have a little Eurorack Surprise just in time for Christmas. Not a word about it until release, but it's cool and useful, and should be ready to ship by the end of the month.

And in other Audio Damage news, we have put all the hardware products for sale on Amazon. There is hardly ever any Euro stuff on Amazon, except for the ubiquitous Pittsburgh Modular, who occasionally make an appearance via a 3rd party seller. I was thinking though that I use the Amazon ecosystem heavily myself; it is the way I buy most everything that isn't groceries. (I like their 6 months same-as-cash store card, and I like Amazon Prime's various features.) My thinking is that people often get Amazon gift cards as gifts, and it'd be nice to be able to use those to buy Audio Damage hardware.

So now you can.

Anyhow, that link above goes to our Amazon Storefront, which I am in the process of filling out. If you could do a brother a solid and write a short review if you own one of the hardware products, that would be cool.

And finally, in mid-December I'm going to host a Nerd Herd gathering at my house for all the Sandland AD/AI folks. (Unless I get, like, a million RSVPs or the weather is terrible, in which case I'll move it to a larger facility.) Bring some gear or your lappy, hang out, talk nerdy, try (and fail) to beat my high score on my Tempest machine. Good times. If you're in the Phoenix area and want to attend, drop me a line. Saturday, December 13th.

So, I guess that's about it for now. What are you up to?

October 25, 2014

On Working In The Creative Industries...

by Chris Randall

(Sorry for embedding this from Daum, and the inevitable confusion that will cause, but two things: first, I'm a shareholder, so fucking take your Korean YouTube and like it, and second, the Paley Center, for reasons known only to them, removed this talk from YouTube, but left it on Daum. *shrug*)

When I give my talks at colleges or whatever, someone always, 100% of the time, asks this exact same question, and I used to give a similar, albeit less well-formed, answer to what Louis CK gives here. I first saw this a couple years ago, and ever since, I've been giving more or less this exact answer, lifted wholesale.

Every word of his answer is absolutely true and perfect, for any of the creative industries. If you're of the n00b persuasion, and are thinking of coming in to this business, you should memorize his answer, and make it your holy scripture. If you're attending one of my talks or booking me for same, or planning on meeting me in real life and asking me this question, prepare yourself to hear this more or less verbatim.

(In point of fact, the entire talk is illuminating, and 55 minutes well-spent; a lot of inside baseball that is television-specific, but most of it translates to our business quite well.)

October 23, 2014

On Creativity...

by Chris Randall

Long-time readers will know my fascination with the discussion of creativity, and its care and feeding; in point of fact, many of you come here specifically for that discussion when it rears its head, and not (evidence to the contrary) to make snarky comments about silly synth-nerd gear.

I've been at this (for values of "this" that equal working in the creative fields) for long enough now to recognize my own limitations and strengths vis-a-vis the creative energy, and in general, to know when I'm "in the mood" and can be productive, without having to go full Barton Fink. (There is a time and a place for that, though, it must be said.) In fact, my general impression of the matter is that I'm so good at recognizing that flow-state, or the beginnings of it, that I actually miss out on a lot of good ideas because I don't bother even attempting a creative endeavor if I'm not "feeling it" or whatever. And I can trigger it at will with a couple simple methods, but I don't feel that the flow-state that I purposefully trigger is as productive as one entered in to unwarranted, or even unwanted.

That's my own personal opinion and experience. In this, as all things, your mileage may (and most likely will) vary.

The reason I put that picture of Jackson Pollack up top: he was one of those lucky son--of-bitches that was the recipient of the Bolt Of Lightning. The Mack Daddy of inspiration flow-states. One of those that changes everything. Whether you like his work or not is beside the point. There was before he made Full Fathom Five, and then there was everything after. His bolt was so powerful it touched other forms of art, and it's not often we get a heavy cross-polination. That's something to remark on.

Anyhow, on to the purpose of this post. In Slate this morning, they published a long-forgotten essay from Isaac Asimov entitled On Creativity. It is an excellent read, given in Asimov's usual conversational style. The purpose of the essay is to provide a framework by which a group of scientists may do research for the government, but it easily translates to "band" or any of the other expression forms we're familiar with. It is, it seems to me, largely concerned with control of the flow-state, mostly in the manner I do myself. I came about my method through trial and error, and it's nice to see it codified and given credence by such a luminary.

If you know Jackson Pollock's history, you'll know that he didn't really just happen on Full Fathom Five by accident. In much the same way as Asimov describes the Theory Of Evolution in the preamble to his essay, Pollock attended workshops with other experimental painters, and was actively searching for a new method of expression to convey to the world what was in his mind. He wasn't gifted this method out of whole cloth; it was the result of taking in other people's work, and talking to other people that were also actively searching for new methods of expression. In the same way, Sgt. Pepper's didn't just happen one day. It was the result of heavy competition, both within the Beatles, and with other bands of the day, like the Beach Boys, and actively searching with an open, experimental bent, for a new way of expressing old ideas, by a group of highly skilled musicians.

In short, a nice gift from beyond the grave Dr. Asimov left us today, and some food for thought. Comments? Criticism? Disagreement?

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