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Published: 2012/05/24
by David Steinberg

Featured Column: Our Problem Right Here

Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven front man David Lowery wrote a very long yet fascinating article about the nature of the music business in the 21st century. Written from the perspective of the musician who is trying to get money from the system, it’s a pretty devastating breakdown. All of the ways of making money are getting blocked off one by one. Even touring musicians are as likely to lose money from the experience as to make some. Between downloading music, Spotify paying insanely low royalties, and the iTunes store putting additional obstacles in their way, things are hard enough, but there also are subtle problems like people preferring to see videos on YouTube and go to the FaceBook web page instead of the band having their own site that they could use to drive additional revenues. At every step there’s a hand out, so the only people who are really making any money are those who own a file sharing service or Apple. It’s not that it’s much harder to become a millionaire, but that it’s no longer easy to be able to afford to stay in a fleabag hotel while on tour. You can hate the rock star mansions but still understand that if artists can’t make a real living at this, it’ll become more like a hobby. Songs won’t be polished. Bands won’t practice. Both albums and performances will suffer as a result.

What caught my eye about this is that this is another one of the battles that we’re seeing these days. It always seems to be the tech world vs. everyone. Lowery did everything to make his point in a tech friendly way, and how did the programmers on Slashdot react?

“Then maybe you should pick a different career where you CAN make money.”

“The Internet is so, so sorry if you are having a harder time because it exists.”

It’s the same old Libertarian argument that loves to exist on the net, a classic reduction of everything to a simplistic understanding of supply and demand without any thought of a long term. If the new Beatles suddenly existed tomorrow, they wouldn’t stand a chance in this environment. Who would fund a band that produces masterpieces in the studio but have no interest in ever playing a concert, especially when you factor in just how much studio time they needed? Albums now exist to promote concert tours which exist to try to sell t-shirts. Instead of getting the bridge just exactly perfect, songwriters have to focus on their marketing strategy.

Unfortunately, as easy as it would be to say otherwise, the slashdotters are also correct. The conditions that led to the explosion of rock and roll no longer exist. Once the downloading genie has been released, it’s impossible to get rid of it short of blocking the entire Internet. Close down a site and another will pop up. Block a URL and people will discover proxy servers. The only reason to buy songs is because you feel that it’s important to support artists [1].

In defining the problem though, Lowry pointed towards a potential solution. Spotify isn’t paying royalties that aren’t needed. Moreover, they really aren’t adding much to the equation per se. The one thing that they have going for them to differentiate themselves from any potential competitor is that they have major artists on their site. The power here is with the musicians. If you can’t make money with what they’re paying, remove your songs. You won’t be losing much money, but if enough people do that, Spotify will be in danger. I know we’re not supposed to suggest this idea in the 21st century, but workers have power when they unite their forces. If you think you’re being ripped off by a service, get together and decide to not help them out until they change their terms. They don’t show any interest in changing? Well there’s not much stopping anyone from forming a fairer service. Bring the battle to them. Occupy Spotify!

[1] Oddly enough, one side effect of downloading is that small artists have an advantage. Supply and demand are inverted when products are free and there’s no obvious cap. It’s a lot easier to find a free download of the Beatles than it is of Greensky Bluegrass and it’s even harder to find illegal version of the new Creeping Time album. It’s not enough to make a difference, but it’s nice to have some sort of leveling effect. If you want that album from your local band, you’ll probably have to buy it.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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