If nobody is willing to pay you to do something, then it isn’t as valuable to the world as it is to you

David Lowery of Cracker has been getting lots of attention for his long verbal kicking of an idiot. The short version: a girl boasted about never paying for music, and Lowery basically told her that when you download, you’re forcing musicians to kill themselves.

I think both sides are rather overwrought here, so hurrah for legendary producer Steve Albini, who takes issue with the idea that musicians – almost uniquely among artistic fields – somehow deserve to be paid lots of money for what they do:

If nobody is willing to pay you to do something, then it isn’t as valuable to the world as it is to you. You then decide if it’s worth doing for its own sake. If it isn’t, quit. If it is, carry on and who knows, maybe people will see value in it later and reward you. If not, you’re still doing something you want to do.

Albini’s argument is that the war on free is over, and free won. No amount of arguing on the internet is going to change that, so you either need to adapt to the new realities or get out.

my point is that there’s no return in trying to enforce these rights once they die a natural death, but there’s plenty of return in building a new paradigm that embraces the free sharing of music. The old way of monetizing recordings is over, and an industry still clinging to it is doomed.

Albini isn’t saying that’s a good thing (or a bad thing). It’s just a a thing:

Why is there no booming sculpture industry? Why are there no help wanted ads for mimes? Some creative work is valued more than the rest, and which art is so beknighted changes over time. In the near future you’ll see a lot of work for phone ap design, much less for magazine layout.

Creative work is not primarily work, it’s primarily creative, and people do it because that’s how they want to spend their time. Its a rare confluence of circumstances that makes money change hands for it, and players in the game need to have quick feet.

One of the arguments used in these debates is that it’s all very well saying artists need to tour, but what if they can’t or won’t?

If your music/art is not making money in the commercial sphere and you’re not willing to perform live, then the only ways you can make a living would be through the generosity of a patron, academia or grantsmanship. Those avenues are unaffected by content being available for free on the internet.

Downloads have changed the industry. Of course they have. But the truth about music is, like most creative arts, the overwhelming majority of people who do it aren’t financially rewarded for doing it. Even the really successful artists were a minority. Creative industries are famously low-paid: the majority of novelists, for example, earn a pittance – and those are the supposedly successful ones. Most don’t earn anything at all.

As Mick Jagger put it back in 2010:

people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!

Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.

So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

This is not unique to music. Technology destroys industries. Check out the Yellow Pages next time it falls through your letter box, reduced from A4 to A5, hundreds of pages to a handful. Check out the state of high street retail, or travel agents, or Blockbuster video, or anything else whose business model disappeared overnight.

The boom in recorded music was due to control and scarcity: the only way to get music was to buy it on a physical disc or cassette, and the people who made the discs and cassettes controlled supply. That’s gone, and you can mourn its departure all you like, but no amount of online censorship or tracking is going to make it come back again. The kids value videogames and internet connections and iPhones more than they do music.

Recorded music is no longer special. The money has moved, and if your motivation is money then you need to move with it.

16 thoughts on “If nobody is willing to pay you to do something, then it isn’t as valuable to the world as it is to you

  1. rutty says:

    *bullseye*

    It’s almost like it’s becoming a free market economy. The artificial barriers are falling to the wayside and we’re discovering the true value of music.

    For me, I’m happy to pay £7.99 for a new album. I appreciate that others are not. Adjust to the new reality or die.

  2. Gary says:

    I need to stress that I’m no “all music must be free!” fundamentalist: I download the odd thing illegally, but in the last fortnight alone I’ve bought three CDs and a bunch of legal downloads. But that’s not where the money is any more: it’s in the related stuff, whether it’s shows or merchandise.

    I understand Lowery’s anger, I really do, but the reason people buy iPhones and not music isn’t because they support The Man; it’s because you can’t download an iPhone.

    Things change, even without tech. It wasn’t that long ago that poets were the rock stars. I don’t think anybody’s writing poems and expecting to become rich now.

  3. rutty says:

    Same here – generally wouldn’t dream of downloading music/films but have occasionally borrowed a CD and ripped it. It’s important to support the artists you like otherwise they might not create anything else.

    You can see that those artists more willing to take up a modern approach are doing well (Amanda Palmer is a prime example but there are others). Get people involved in the process and money will come. To some.

    There are plenty of free-loaders out there but I do think that these people should be ignored – you won’t make any money out of them anyway. Concentrate on ways to create interesting content that people might want to buy or is interesting to yourself. For some the money will come, for the rest, well, at least you’ve created something

  4. Gary says:

    > There are plenty of free-loaders out there but I do think that these people should be ignored

    I think it depends on the freeloader. Not everyone using the torrents is doing so because they want free music. Off the top of my head supposed freeloaders can include impatient fans who need the new stuff now, people who want stuff that’s no longer legally available, people who will pay but not at the prices currently being demanded, and so on. Those people can be reached – impatient fans by releasing faster, collectors by not deleting records they want to buy, cheapskates with things such as Spotify and so on.

    The problem is there’s still serious tension between things as they are, and things as the industry wants them to be. So for example there’s a serious “Spotify doesn’t pay us enough!” thing going on. Maybe it’s true, but if the alternative is no Spotify-style services then you’re just helping the pirate sites again.

    A great example of the problem is FLAC. Look how many people are downloading FLAC stuff, and then look how few places sell FLAC (or equivalent) files. Classic supply and demand: if the mainstream industry won’t supply it, the pirates will – and in many cases, they’ll make money from doing so.

    The rights and wrongs don’t really matter, because to most people copyright is akin to the legislation that sets speed limits: laws for other people.

  5. Hunnymonster says:

    >>For me, I’m happy to pay £7.99 for a new album. I appreciate that others are not. Adjust to the new reality or die.

    Likewise – I’m even open to paying a modest premium to be able to pick it up in a shop (that I have to make an effort to go to) but not the £15.99/£16.99 that HMV seem to think I should.

    I’ll download or stream an album to see if it’s worth spending any money at all on it – if it’s mince, I won’t.

    I’m beyond the point in my life where “zOMG!!!!111eleven there’s a new album by out and I have to have it NOW!!” – just checked my online order history and so far this year I’ve bought 21 CDs (14 of them are classical and 6 of those 14 are different performances of pieces I already have) – drives the long-haired general nuts when I do that :)

  6. Squander Two says:

    I don’t see why the record industry should have their temporary technological monopoly extended indefinitely, as they are convinced it should be. But I still think Lowery was right for two reasons. Firstly, because he was addressing a girl who wants to work in the music industry, who claims she wants to work with professional musicians. Secondly, because he was mainly highlighting the ethical hypocrisy rather than calling for stupid laws.

  7. Craig Pulsar says:

    Did poets *ever* expect to get paid? Hasn’t that always been an area of art where it has been expected that you will do something else as a day job?

  8. Gary says:

    Pretty much, yes, but in terms of profile there was a long period where the poets were the ones getting the attention that musicians get today. Musician as worth paying attention to is a fairly recent development.

  9. Gary says:

    I think there was more to it than that, and in particular he misrepresented the free culture movement.

  10. Gary says:

    This is quite interesting: Capitalists Who Fear Change:

    http://lfb.org/today/capitalists-who-fear-change/

    “There is a pattern here. Every new technology that becomes profitable causes people to scream about the plight of existing producers. Then it turns out over time that the sector itself thrives as never before but in ways that no one really expected.”

  11. Gary says:

    Hunnymonster, you’re buying many, many more CDs than the average punter, but you’ve admitted to downloading so you are THE ENEMY OF MUSIC.

  12. rutty says:

    I’ve covered some of this stuff during my OU studies. I’m doing a couple of systems thinking modules and the first one covered Amazon and its disruptive technology, first mover advantage and such stuff.

    The thing is, no-one is ever really sure what’s going to happen when a company like Amazon (or Apple, or Google etc) emerges. Old businesses using old models are often (VERY) slow to change and flail about like angry baboons. Slow, angry, fatally-wounded baboons.

    When a system changes in such a drastic fashion the emergent properties of the system may be very different to those expected. Not everyone is going to like it and it’s not automatically “good”. It just is what it is.

    Systems thinking teaches us that every system is deeply affected by its environment. In the music industry’s case the Internet was an ENORMOUS change to its environment, short-circuiting its existing delivery systems and giving more power to the consumers of music. Rather than adapt to the change they’ve attempted to shackle the environment itself – not a very clever move.

    I should probably write a blog post about this at some point…

  13. Squander Two says:

    Oh, it wasn’t perfect and I don’t agree with all of it. But this was spot-on:

    Networks: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

    Hardware: Giant mega corporations. Cool! have some money!

    Artists: 99.9 % lower middle class. Screw you, you greedy bastards!

    I work with lots of well-paid whippersnappers and that is exactly their attitude. If you suggest to them that they might pay for a record, their reaction is just utter incredulity — and they have oodles of spare cash. And that’s why I liked Lowery’s article: he perfectly skewered the way a basic bit of morality has been changed between generations.

    Incidentally, you linked to the wrong Lowery piece.

  14. Zoso says:

    seriously missing the point with a cheap shot. if new models are actually innovative why do they need to steal old media to work?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *