Monday, June 18, 2012

Emily White vs. David Lowery - Today is Today


I saw two interesting blogs today.  One was by a woman named Emily White, an intern at National Public Radio, outlining an accurate portrait of today's music consumption among a younger demographic - namely, not paying a dime for it.

The second was a lengthy reply by a professor from the University of Georgia named David Lowery stating the case that they should, in fact, pay many, many dimes.

I encourage you to read both posts, and arrive at your own conclusions.  

Here's what I've got.

David says:  Musicians on average make 35 grand a year without benefits.  

Emily says:  I've only bought 15 CDs in my life.  

David makes the case: that if musicians actually got paid for their tunes, this would be better.  

Emily says:  Nobody is ever going to do that.  

I agree with David's numbers.  They paint an accurate, if grim, picture.  Album sales are down, artists are starving, and things are not looking good.  It's darn hard to make a buck in the industry.

Emily wins the argument hands down, however.  David's numbers prove her right.  People generally don't buy stuff when they can get it for free - as much.  If they didn't at all, iTunes would collapse tomorrow.  So people still pay - they just pay a lot less.  I don't buy music, either, and I'm a musician!

What strikes me is this:  Emily is stating how things are, David is stating how things were.  It's very understandable, especially when there's data to back it up.  However, upon closer inspection, they're really comparing apples and oranges.

The debate is framed as a moral one.  However, the train has left the station, and it won't be coming back.  It should be instead - what the heck are we going to do to survive?

Sure, it would be great to have a musician's utopia where artists are paid based on merit, and if people actually paid their dues.  

Will a girl please get me a sandwich?

Oh wait, back to reality.  The business model doesn't apply any more.  If musicians are making 35k a year on average - doubling album sales (with the simplistic math of it doubling our income) only puts us at 70k.  Now, I'd love to be making a cool 70 g's by playing my guitar, but here's the thing - I think we can do better.  I don't know about you, but if I have to convince the human race of fairness, not only do I want to be paid a heck of a lot more, but I'd rather end war or solve hunger first.  Maybe we should stop looking so closely at what the numbers are, and start envisioning what they could be with a good bit of self and industry re-invention.

Perhaps us musicians live in an entitlement culture.  Every time I turn around I hear someone wishing they got paid for what they were worth.  "Oh, nobody appreciates the arts."  Actually, all you hipsters who say this - my grandmother has been saying this for as long as I can remember.  Famous painters have had to burn their paintings to keep warm.  This isn't a new blight on our artistic society.  This isn't a problem that sailed into Pirate Bay.  And this isn't a problem that the tech world seems to have.  

Perhaps we should concentrate on service, and bringing the coolest thing ever to town.  
Maybe an album is the just the beginning of a participatory experience that immerses the fan in a new world. (Trans-Siberian Orchestra magic, anyone?)  If reality TV can thrive, why shouldn't we be able to?  There's photos, there's YouTube, there's blogs, there's fan remixes, there's international concerts over video chats (Daria, anyone?), there's weird music videos (OK Go), and so much!  

I was thinking about this blog on my drive home today.  I saw a guy in front of me bobbing and dancing in his car so much, that the whole vehicle was moving.  If we can gain access to people's minds and nervous systems, I think we can monetize it with very little trouble.  

The point is - If musicians have only $35,000 a year to aspire to when people are moving thousand-pound chunks of metal because they want to, there is a disconnect, something is wrong, something is broken, and it's up to us to fix it.  I'll venture to say that we can make more money while moving more people with a reinvented industry.

Maybe it's power.  
Don Corelone, granting a favor to kill two guys (who really had it coming) to an angry father, tells the man "Someday, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me.  But until that day - accept this justice as a gift."  Ol' pops didn't worry about a fee, but his power and influence grew even more that day.  That's intriguing, and some darn good networking.  As music seems to shift from a revenue-based model (pay for music) to a traffic-based model (hits and views), how can we apply the lessons of the Don and the usefulness of power?  I could see an old school musician in that room:  "OK, we'll take care of one guy for $10, and we'll throw in a T-shirt and the second for $25."  Somehow, I think the Family would have been far less effective.  

In closing:  

I am very, very excited at the possibilities of the challenges that are staring us in the face.  Yes, they're grim, yes, things look bleak - but you know what - an empty canvas could be described as bleak, too!

I'd like to thank both Emily for pointing out how things are, and David for verifying it.  I think with all of the talent, creativity, and hard workers in this field - we'll be able to build an even better future than we had imagined.  I look forward to working with both of your viewpoints.  By the way, I'd like to take both you out to coffee in DC.  My treat.  We will, however, be paying for the drinks, regardless of what I think about business models.

Rock on!
- Josh


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