Michael Arrington is NOT an idiot

money for music

You may have encountered talk online about Billy Bragg complaining that musicians aren’t getting money from the $850m Bebo payday. If so, the talk you’ve most likely encountered is that of TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington, who pretty much denounces Bragg and barely stops short of calling him a greedy and deluded fool for wanting artists to earn money for the inclusion of their work on social networks.

It’s quite easy, from the perspective of a musician or the music industries to dismiss Arrington as an idiot on this basis. Not only is he morally and ethically in the wrong for supporting the idea of Bebo making millions without compensating the artists whose work drove so much traffic to the site in the first place, he’s actually opposed to artists making money from their recordings at all.

On the other hand, Bragg is going around saying things like ‘social networks are stealing from artists in the same way that music fans are‘. Which, if you’ve ever encountered this blog before (or, actually, if you’ve ever encountered common sense about music online before), you’ll know I consider to be an outrageously ignorant thing to assert.

Arrington’s post on the subject is entitled ‘These Crazy Musicians Still Think They Should Get Paid For Recorded Music‘ – which is obviously both (succesful) linkbait and fairly tongue-in-cheek, but the provocation it contains raises a really interesting question.

The worldview problem
Billy Bragg is working from the presupposition that musicians should get paid for the use of their recorded music on social networks. He asserts this as a moral and natural right and a self-evident truth. But of course, this is a socially negotiated construct that has its roots in a completely different media environment.

Arrington, on the other hand, inhabits a world of information technology. Seemingly moral and natural rights have more to do with the idea that information wants to be free, open source software is a more ethical framework than corporate development and supply always outstrips demand.

From their particular perspectives, their logic is unassailable. And this is, I think, always true. Whenever these positions are put, the problem is never one of logic. Neither side is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they are both internally consistent.

Both appeal to the logic of markets
Bragg, because there is an investment in a capital good. Arrington, because there are no marginal costs and a complete lack of scarcity. Again, both are consistent.

But if we’re going to construct a framework that we can move forward and make a living from music in the online environment, we need to sidestep this sort of positionality altogether – and try and find the ground within which musicians and technologists can work together toward a common and mutually beneficial goal.

Because after all, this is a technological ecology, and these industries are organisms within that ecology. The music industries certainly have far more adaptation to go through, but equally, technological institutions need to be aware of and accommodate other organisms within that ecology in order to adapt and thrive. Otherwise each will forever view the other as a parasite, and we’ll never get anywhere.

Michael Arrington is NOT an idiot – and nor is Billy Bragg. They are both absolutely right about their position, except for the fact that neither is looking beyond that position. They both believe the way they see the world to be the way the world is, which is, of course, nonsense.

And this is why I started this year looking at first principles. We should assume nothing. Not that musicians should earn from their work. Not that recordings should be products. Not even that capitalism is the model on which value should be measured and rewarded. We may arrive at these conclusions, but with provocations like Arrington’s, at least hopefully we’ll get the opportunity to be smart enough to ask the questions.

Should artists make money from their recordings?
Before you answer ‘Of course! What a stupid question!’ – at least ask yourself ‘Why do I think that?’

And then we might be able to have a conversation between the two worldviews.

19 thoughts on “Michael Arrington is NOT an idiot

  1. Sylvain says:

    I am in:
    – Broadcast business through my (paid) work in audio/video encoding for IPTV and mobile.
    – IT with NeoMusicStore/NeoPodcast and previous works in websites hosting (such as Universal/Vivendi and many other CAC40 companies)
    – Music with my relatives being artists, label managers or recording studio managers.

    And I don’t think he’s an idiot. Because he knows how to bring a lot of traffic to his website hence get a lot of money through ads.

    He simply want to get credit for its vision (unfortunately he doesn’t have any, as music won’t be free. It is, it even has been for more than a decade on Internet. It doesn’t mean that the music controlled by musicians (and not funds) will go in this direction.

  2. When I found out that “publishing” was about collecting incrementally tiny micropayments for radio play for artists, it seemed insane. Liscensing content to a TV show or movie makes sense…but billing radio for playing your songs?

    Radio provides audience and exposure, artists provide content. I think artists are making out pretty well in that bargain and there’s no need for further accounting or money here.

    I feel the same way about podcasting and social networking. If someone is putting in the work to promote their service and generate traffic, and that traffic involves a lot of potential audience for my material, I’m winning. I have no complaints about MySpace aside from the miserably bad coding and non-existent customer service — otherwise it’s been a huge boon to me as an artist and a business.

    I’m not surprised to find myself disagreeing with Billy Bragg, though…he is the same guy who misunderstood myspace’s terms of use 2-3 years ago and made an ass of himself warning everyone that Rupert Murdoch was “stealing their music.”

    I think he just needs someone to explain the new landscape to him. Like one of his grandkids, perhaps.

  3. Gary Judge says:

    I believe that artists should be payed in proportion to the traffic that they generate. This isn’t charity, but paying fairly for the added value that they bring to a website. I wonder how long it is before google have an adsense / adwords equivalent for tracking and paying artists / labels?

  4. I agree with Justin to an extent.

    These social networks do provide a great space loaded with potential music fans ready to enjoy musicians recordings. However, the reality is many of these fans will enjoy the music, seek to attain it free and move on to the next artist with hot tracks only to return when they are again offered new material for free. Sure in the long run you maybe building a few loyal fans who will attend your shows but again we have to speak to reality. Reality is, out of the thousands of artist that are on social networks the majority of them do not have the connections or know how to even attain live show opportunities for themselves. So we must ask ourselves, who is really winning here?

    It is also important to take into consideration the fact that many of these social networks would be fairly bland if it weren’t for the plethora of artists that make their music freely available on them.

    So in conclusion, I do think that the same way radio is required to compensate the artists for the usage of their music so to should social networks be involved in some sort of compensation package for the artists who provide content to their network.

    And for artists in the Hip Hop R&B and Reggae genres looking to reach a wider audience via an internationally distributed and promoted album plus be compensated – visit http://rap.jairdynast.com and sign up it is free to enter.

  5. Robert Baum says:

    Step 1: The labels should cut a deal with Bebo as they did iMeem and collect ad-revenue.

  6. How refreshing to hear it stated as an axiom that: “Recorded music is nothing but marketing material to drive awareness of an artist.” Thank you Michael Arrington.

    The record is a marketing tool…and the Internet is killing it.

    While today’s music listening public might still feel habitually inclined, even morally obligated, to buy music, the coming, digital generation of music listeners will spend money on recorded music only with extreme reluctance. They will eventually be put off listening to the record altogether (and I mean the record, not music) by the fact that it is available for free, prone as the average consumer is to consider everything he can get for free as valueless and, by extension: meaningless.

    In light of this, it is no surprise that the live music industry is in better shape than ever. If you want to see a gig, luckily it is still going to cost you, in some cases even astronomical amounts. It does not take a genius to predict that artists will increasingly rely on live performance as their source of income.

    Record companies will be replaced by live companies: companies who invest in and guide artists through the process of developing their live act. These companies will run their own venues, where they promote gigs for their own acts: low-key gigs for their new signings and big gigs for their established artists. The revenue generated by the big gigs will in part be invested into the development of the new signings. Songs will have to become more direct. The song must entertain right there and then, rather than give up its meaning after repeated listening. Obscurity in lyric writing will die out. Narrative will become paramount. Standards will rise. Face it: without the record Milli Vanilli would never have happened.

    The record industry is not changing: it is dying. Instant delivery of uncompressed audio files over the Internet will be the final nail in its coffin.

    Sebastiaan Elsenburg.

  7. Bruce Warila says:

    I just wrote about this last night… I think the market is going to sort this out. It’s painfully obvious that money flows where artists and their fans go. The next naturally competitive thing for some of these sites and services to do is to find a way to pay every artist for the fans he/she attracts.

    Paying for the gravity artists bring to the table is the next logical competitive move that one of these sites or services can make. I will even go out on a limb and say that one of the big Point of Sale providers will go commission free within twelve months.

    Competition is a powerful force…

  8. Hi Andrew,
    Great to catch up with the Bragg and Arrington story here. I strongly agree that there should be a common ground for social media technology, music industry as well as artists to work together in mutual fashion. This no gain no game ideology in the music industry has to change, and already we’re seeing it happening to music labels. In technology assisted online environments we can all profit from the music, whether it’s coming from production, distribution or advertising and promotion.
    And I sincerely hope that We7 can bring that healthy balance to the music ecology.
    Steve Purdham – CEO of We7

  9. Yes. Micro payments, its the future. Read the long tail everyone….

  10. I hadn’t heard of this particular controversy (chalk it up to living on the fringe of civilisation ;) ) so thaks for posting this here, Andrew.

    This is exactly what I’ve been ranting about in the comments for the past couple of months. To answer your questions, Andrew: yes, musicians should make money from recordings, for two reasons.

    One is that recording anything is (still) an expensive exercise. Furthermore, the amount of work that goes into preparing for recording (including learning to play – or sing, composing the material, preproduciton etc.) is inestimable. Based on a broad idea of fairness, if someone is then to profit from another’s work (by using it as bait to draw a clientele, as in this case), he should compensate them.

    The other reason is that, fairness aside, if recording ceases to be an economically viable activity, people will either stop doing it, or put much less effort into it.

    Personally, I hate it when anyone says: “Do this for free, because it will give you exposure.” while they’re raking in the dough. It usually means “You are an easily cowed moron, who will allow me to exploit your work for my gain, without any thought to how you are actually going to profit from this ‘exposure’.” Previously it used to be the typical line of the club owner and you could only hope that at least you would sell some demos at the gig.

    What surprises me is that many independent musicians are fooled into thinking that they can somehow profit from this. When the new ecosystem – as you put it, Andrew – stabilizes, the big players are going to have more influence than ever, simply because they’ll be the only ones with the clout to negotiate decent terms with the technology companies and enough marketing dollars to break through the Internet noise.

  11. musictech says:

    That’s a valid point – a decent recording of a decent song requires a whole lot of talent, expertise, equipment and work to create it. It’s always difficult to assign monetary ‘value’ to music, but the key to making money from music is not how talented a musician you are, but how talented a marketer you are. Marketers trump musicians any day in any economy; what we need is a system where marketers are partners of the creators, rather than simply exploiting them.

  12. Joel says:

    @Justin Boland: the “exposure” thing is overrated. Musicians are always expected to write a song and hand it over in exchange for “exposure” – something that really, a musician can create much better on their own if they work hard enough, because the radio play and three second mention of your name that is subsequently forgotten doesn’t happen until you’ve got the audience and exposure happening on your own.

    There are two issues here:

    1. If everything is about exposure, when do artists get paid? Apparently, we shouldn’t get paid for our recorded music, because that only exists to promote gigs. Also ‘apparently’, our gigs are there to promote albums. Somewhere in the middle is the fact that most beginning artists have to spend money to both gig and record (though recording runs into tens or hundreds of thousands, so gigging is obviously cheaper) rather than make money doing those things. The money to feed our family comes from where, then?

    2. Of course radio should pay artists. Not for the reason that most artists, either famous or completely unknown, are poor. This is based on pure logic: radio requires content. That content is music. They pay musicians to deliver the content, otherwise nobody would listen to the radio. If nobody listens to radio, nobody buys ads on radio. The business model is based on advertising and the music is content that, like newspapers paying journalists for their work, is a business expense. Radio is not some kind of service where musicians pay to promote their work. In this fantasy world, radio stations don’t have any expenses; they get paid by advertisers and musicians hand over their music for this “exposure” myth.

    We supply the content so the ads get heard. We’re a service to radio.

  13. I’m astonished that anyone would say “exposure is over-rated.”

    What else do you expect to build a career on? How else do you expect to reach new fans?

  14. Joel says:

    Justin, exposure is important. The point I’m trying to make is that everyone tries to trade with you for this ‘exposure’ like it’s god’s gift, and nobody wants to pay money for anything. Exposure won’t feed your family, money does. I’ve had this experience with people who wanted me to do free live gigs (even in coffee shops… what exposure?), albums, radio. Even a company I licensed a song to wanted it for free, in exchange for ‘exposure’ – of course they flopped and $10 would’ve been more valuable than this exposure they claimed they could heap upon me.

    In fact I remember people asking for a t-shirt so they could give ‘exposure’ when in fact all they wanted was a free shirt, though that’s more a funny anecdote than a big industry-wide problem. But then again we’re not t-shirt manufacturers, we’re musicians – we shouldn’t have to turn to creating, marketing and selling merchandise to make a living while all the music is free.

    I agree with giving music away. I don’t think I’d give away all the tracks on the album, because then there’s no incentive to buy a copy at all; you rely on charity cases. But the point is you cannot make a living trading everything for exposure. Something needs to be traded for money.

    The best exposure is created through a well-thought out marketing campaign that you push yourself. Radio play and other things may help too, but you need to get decent exposure to get on there in the first place anyway. So, get exposure through planning and guerrilla marketing, but trade _real products_ for money just like you trade a few dollars for a roll of toilet paper at the grocery store.

  15. Hurray for Joel:

    “…we shouldn’t have to turn to creating, marketing and selling merchandise to make a living while all the music is free.”

    I should have honed my skills in the noble art of selling T-shirts instead.

  16. Hurray for Joel!

    Twenty years of hard graft learning to write and produce records…

    I should have honed my skills in the noble art of selling T-shirts instead.

  17. Rick Krizman says:

    “Should artists make money from their recordings?”

    Of course, what a stupid question.

    The real quesion is why should they be the only ones not to?

  18. The Hitmaker says:

    Great column. And Billy Bragg is a capitalist pig.

  19. Dubber says:

    Seems a rather bizarre observation given the man’s clearly stated politics over the past 25 years, give or take…