Monday, October 14, 2013

That David Byrne article about the Internet

Over the last few days the email inbox has been filling up with references to, or comments on, a piece written by David Byrne in The Guardian. The headline pulled no punches. "The internet will suck all creative content out of the world", Byrne contends in the piece. As we approach the 14th anniversary of peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster, we have unprecedented access -- legal and illegal -- to pretty much every piece of content that can be digitized. We also have a music industry that is worth approximately half of what it was in 2000. In the place of the old system of labels with A&R departments and marketing priorities, physical products in record stores, and radio stations with playlists, we have streaming services such as Rdio, Pandora, Spotify, and Rhapsody, and online retail outlets such as iTunes and Amazon. Those are the legal options. We also have the less than legal options, such as Pirate Bay, MegaUpload (RIP), and similar torrent sites, which are so popular they're said to be responsible for 40% of the Internet's traffic. Maybe that makes it less surprising to learn that as recently as 2009, 95% of music downloaded was done so illegally. The only thing that stemmed the tide, it turns out, was the rise of legal streaming services. The problem there is that they pay out miniscule sums to artists, fractions of pennies per stream, and hence all the debate. On the other hand, we went from zero to something; cold comfort perhaps, but at least it's a little bit of something.

From David Byrne's article:

As people know I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of Internet economics, I received numerous emails on the Byrne article, and with the permission of those with whom I exchanged comments, I include them here (in other words, I'm not wiki-leaking).

First, from the producer of a successfully syndicated reality TV show.  He sent me the link to the article and I wrote:

i think people need to give up the ghost that things are going back to how they were in the 'good old days'. for better or for worse, they're not. low to barriers to entry, abundance of content (much of which is bad, but that's the nature of volume), and distribution systems made up of both market and increasingly non market actors. there will always be an 'industry' and there will always be things that are bona fide hits but i think that outside of that corner the systems and rules are just starting to be figured out, if not rewritten. time will tell i guess.

His response:

I think it's too easy to dismiss this as wanting to go back to the "good old days". It's like people realizing that they can't make any real money on youtube and trying to do "conventional" tv deals. I bet most of what's listened to on spotify was created under the "old" system. I don't mind "giving away" old episodes of my shows for cheap streaming because I've long since monetized them and at this point it's just gravy. Am I interested in creating more eps for youtube to make a thousand bucks? nope. It's easy to run netflix when there is a bunch of stuff that you can license cheaply but what if it's not being created any more? You going to want to subscribe to see old reality shows? Where are the new Beatles?

And back to me:  

it's a huge topic, obviously...and no easy answers. who knows...maybe we'll go back to  some combo of the mainstream industry as it stands, patrons of the arts, like they had in renaissance florence, people kicking in for kickstarter type things because they get special perks and limited edition things, and overall fewer people making big money and more people making less money.

And then...

do you really think the thrift shop guy or psy are going to leave the same kind of legacy as bob dylan? neil young? both of the latter required a huge investment of time, expertise and money to develop. it's not happening any more. what are people listening to on spotify? especially over a life time...seems to me they keep going back to the stuff from the "old system". My kids have recently discovered Floyd, the Stones and the Beatles and it had zero to do with me.

And back to me, one more time:

artist development takes time, and money, and expertise...whether it's in publishing or painting or music or wherever. i think one of the things we've been seeing is that the desire/impulse to be creative is so strong that millions are happy (enough) to participate either for free or for a little. i never would have predicted that. i never thought wikipedia would work as the world's greatest encyclopedia, written by nobody in particular. interestingly the ratio of crap to non-crap / hit to non-hit is about the same on platforms like youtube as it with labels, publishers, etc...i.e. at best in the low single digits. and even psy was not an overnight sensation. he'd been making albums for 10 years, as had macklemore. i don't think virality = success. in fact i think virality often means you can only do it once. and you can't build a career on doing it once. what interests me is the ways in which new systems can co-exist, with various levels of success (some are admittedly slim), in the same world as blockbusters and bruno mars. that's what's new and different and that's why i'm chronicling it.

And then from another friend, a veteran of the broadcasting industry, who also sent me the article. My response:

whether right or wrong i don't think it's going to change much. there has been a huge shift in where the value resides and i just don't see it going back to the 'old days'....content now equals marketing. the value of it has sunk to a fraction of what it once was and that's because you can't control bits and that it's better for bits to circulate as they then reach more people. so i'm kind of torn on the sucks that the $ have been drained from the content businesses (and repositioned with aggregators...a future blog post i'm working on), but stamping our feet and pounding our fists isn't going to change it as far as i can see.  what do you think?

I agree with you.  It seems useless to call for a return to the good old days because they're gone.  I also don't think it will kill creativity. Culture has always been 99.5 percent crap anyway, but somehow the good stuff always gets out. Plus it seems like most semi-successful musicians have horror stories about getting ripped off by record companies. Maybe there are positives to all this.  You should try to find footage of Roger McGuinn testifying in hearings about file sharing and talking about how he never made more than 10 thousand dollars on any of the Byrds albums.

Having talked to people about this topic over the years I'm more interested than ever in collecting more viewpoints, or data points, as researchers like to call them. Whether you're a musician or fan or just a vaguely interested civilian, do chime in. I think the situation we have, whether it's a question of music or podcasting or blogging or whatever the creative pursuit may be, is one in which so many people want in and it's never been easier to get in. That's both the reality and the problem. Or is it a problem? Will that which has some inherent quality make its way through the flotsam? And/or are we looking at a situation in which value has been radically that what has been considered the locus of value for hundred of years i.e. the piece of work and the right to reproduce it, has been replaced in this next phase of evolution by distribution and aggregation functions? Just as sites like Craigslist have had their effect on the business models of newspapers, perhaps the creative industries are being similarly, permanently, reconfigured, with the closest thing to an 'answer' being crowdfunding one year, some sort of group investor model the next, maybe throw in some patrons of the arts. More questions than answers, for sure, but to blame the Internet and think that we're somehow going to be able to go back to how things were seems like a waste of everyone's creative talents.


  1. bill m (via facebook) the old model is dead. any art form that can be compressed to electronic file and shared via download is dead as commodity. which means that creators of such stuff now need to get their money up front, or else they're working for the love of it. but options such as kickstarter and indiegogo do allow for remuneration up front, which suggests a new paradigm. We all just need to remove these boxes we're wearing.

  2. mark m (via facebook) There are many things that retain their commodity status that can be compressed and shared. Font foundries still exist for one.

  3. bill m (via facebook) To be clear. Most of my thinking on this tangent is informed by what I've seen happen to music ... and movies and publishing to a lesser extent. But it does feel fundamental. It takes less energy to make an economy work based on stuff being freely available versus controlling availability (enforcing scarcity).

  4. mark m (via facebook) and eventually that economy doesn't work. unless the idea extends to food and housing and healthcare etc.

  5. peter k (via facebook) Well, I think he has a point about the economics of the new aggregators. It's a little ironic to see a reference to the good old days of the record company fairness, since they were the posterboys of IP robber baronism.

    Now, it's the tech aggregators turn. It may be an even less fair arrangement, due to a confluence of factors. It may depend on whether the winner-take-all model topples, or whether it stands.

    Also it's probably more accurate to say sucking the economic sustainability out of the middle and bottom rungs of a professional art form. Whether that translates to the "life" or not is in question.

    Of course, both of the above questions are linked. Do new disintermediation models spring up to get around the reintermediation™ of Amazon and Pandora? Jeff Goldblum would say that life will find a way.

  6. peter k (via facebook) As with many people in the tech world, he seems to ignore the fact that there is no one single natural order of things. The rules (laws) governing business practices set the playing field.

    When radio was new technology, for instance, payola was outlawed. This law was instrumental in the development of music businesses in the radio age.

    Monopolies deform the marketplace, generally to the detriment all outside stakeholders. Disintermediation is undermining the power of the existing content oligarchies, but it's also on track to make an even greater concentration of wealth and power into fewer hands.

    Along the way, these companies will work to bend the rules in their own favor. So I don't think that stakeholders outside the new oligarchy should simply "get used to it." Our laws are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the digital age. And we should not leave the law-writing only to those with the highest concentration of wealth and power. History teaches us that they will try to increase their power by tilting the playing field.

    It's possible that these companies will be prevented from becoming true monopolies through some market-based limiting factor, such as hubris, incompetence or outside competition. But it's also possible that they win the winner-take-all game.

    In that case, as with the monopolies of the last century, it may fall to governments to limit the power of these companies.

  7. geof b (via facebook) The answer is very clear: The money in the entertainment budget of households has been transferred to the Internet Service Providers. Hey! Pay me 60 bucks/month and you get all this entertainment for free! Make Ted Rogers and Shaw et. al pay creators royalties for what goes through their pipes. They already know what's going through them. The government has the power to do this tomorrow. Creators' groups have been demanding this for 10 years. Right now we have a massive transferrance of wealth from the creative class to a handful of cable and phone companies. No head-scratcher here.