Old Politics, New Technologies, and the Price of Mac&Cheese

A Beginners’ Guide to the New Music Business
by Don Skoog

Part 1. How the internet is redefining the way music is made and sold, and why it’s really important to you.

     I put kids into music school. I’ve been doing this long enough that many of my older students now have successful careers. But every teacher knows that some won’t make it––you warn them about this before they apply to college––yet every time I hear about one of my ex-students driving a cab or working construction I feel like a doctor who’s lost another patient. Even though I’ve handed them off to other teachers, I still feel responsible for them (and to their parents) long after they are in college. Did I train them well enough? Did I help them get into the right school? Is the college preparing them to make a living with their hands?
     In the twenty years I’ve been doing this, the answer, more often than not, was yes. But lately, it seems like graduating music majors are having more trouble making the transition into the professional world. Every year, more kids with degrees from good schools are working at Starbucks or cooking eggs in a diner. Don’t get me wrong, it’s honest labor, but these were not the kids’ dream jobs going into college, or the end result their parents envisioned when they sold the summer cottage to pay the tuition. What happened?

     When I started in the business I was apprenticed into it by my teachers. They showed me how to make a living and passed along the extra gigs they couldn’t do. And there were lots of gigs: jobbing dates, club dates, recording sessions, shows, and teaching jobs, among others. While all these venues still exist today there are simply fewer of them. And, especially with club dates, they don’t pay as well as they did twenty years ago. There is a glut of bands swamping recording companies with demos (The Problem With Music), playing clubs almost for free, and paying high fees to dishonest booking agents in the hope of getting a break.
     Colleges are graduating more and better-trained musicians into a business where there are fewer jobs. But when I ask young musicians about their survival strategies, I get a lot of blank stares. When I ask their teachers, I get a sense that they don’t grasp the new political and technological realities which are fundamentally reshaping the industry. Every college has a Business of Music 101 course that covers copyright, recording contracts, and mechanization royalties. These courses were innovative when they first appeared (and are still a good idea) but they’ve become institutionalized. Often taught by faculty who are no longer in the trenches, the syllabus has fallen behind the times, and so have many teachers. Because the old system worked for them, they think it will work for their students. But it probably won’t.
     When the earth moves below ground, surface life seems normal until everything begins to shake apart. That’s what is happening in the music business, but most people––musicians, teachers, and fans––don’t know why the ground is moving. There are fewer places to play and many gigs don’t pay as well as they used to. Record companies are producing fewer CDs and artist royalties are declining. Mainstream pop music has become nauseatingly bland and so cookie-cutter that it’s hard to tell one singer from another. Even worse, the audio quality of both commercial and independent recordings is deteriorating. In short, the music industry has problems.
     Yet this is happening at a time when there are more well-trained musicians than ever before. It is happening when new technologies allow independent artists to create their work unhindered by money-concious producers. It is happening although the potential market for music has never been larger or more diverse. What went wrong?
     In the last three decades, digital technology has changed the way music is made, who makes it, and how it is recorded. Now the internet comes along and is changing the way it’s distributed. These changes have created a new class of music producer while setting in motion a movement that may eventually break the record companies’ monopoly on the music market.
     This, in turn, has ignited a legislative and litigative backlash. Media networks are funding those legislators who vote to help them consolidate their control over radio airplay and music distribution by extending copyright terms, eliminating FCC restrictions on station ownership, and restricting community access to low-power FM radio. Large companies (affectionately known as Big Media) sue the creators of independent technologies, and their users, while developing its own technologies intended to control access to internet content. The goals of this backlash are to muzzle alternative creativity, eliminate independent competitors and competitive technologies, and return market control to Big Media who see independent music production and distribution as a threat. In short, there is a war on. Why is this important to you?
     Because politics and technology are fundamentally redefining how musicians make a living––or not. Will you buy your Mac&Cheese with money you made as a musician, or with money you made stocking shelves at Borders? That depends on you. If you embrace the new technological opportunities while joining others in using the political process to stem the monopolist-wannabe backlash, you will help your own career while defending everyone’s right to create and distribute independent Art. I can’t guarantee you an easy, successful career just because you embrace the internet and politics, but I can predict a difficult, unsuccessful career if you trained to work in a music business that’s no longer there and have made no effort to keep up with events.
     The saddest aspect of this struggle is that many musicians, the people most affected, are completely oblivious to it. Start talking about copyright and their eyes glaze over. Like those who bitch about politicians but don’t vote, musicians who don’t do their homework don’t have the right to complain. However, for those looking to get into (or stay) in the music business, there are many internet and print resources, people and organizations, and yes, even politicians, to help you.
      So here is a primer on the interrelated developments in technology, business, and politics. Pull your head out of the sand and get involved. Your future, and that of music itself, are at stake, and once the war is lost, whining won’t do any good.

New Technologies

1) Digital Audio

     Back in the Stone Age, computers actually ran on stacks of cards with holes punched in them (scout’s honor), and analog synthesizers used vacuum tubes to modify acoustic wave forms, creating new sounds. These toys, while interesting, had little impact on music creation or sound engineering. But with the advent of true digital technology––and the invention of the MIDI interface––sequencers and synthesizers could plug right into the computer, completely eliminating the need for acoustic instruments, the musicians who play them, and the engineers who record them.
     Well, sort of. People soon discovered that a steady diet of digitally created music is . . . how can I put this . . . boring. So the synthesists began sampling acoustic sounds in the hope that that could replace real musicians. Their results were, at best, a fair imitation of the real thing and, at worst, pretty cheesy. But many musicians thought that if digital sampling was able to successfully replicate the sounds of acoustic instruments it would have put most musicians out of work simply because it was cheaper. This turned out to be untrue. Sampling technology has continued to evolve, but rather than putting musicians out of work it has developed into an art form of its own and a useful tool for more traditional musicians.
     At about the time the limits of first-generation sampling were being realized, the first professional digital recording systems were being marketed to studios. Despite what the purists said, digital recording was not the end of civilization as we know it. In the hands of a professional recording engineer, a digitally produced tune could sound pretty damn good. And more importantly, it would be compatible with the internet technologies that would soon change the information world forever.
     The descent down the slippery slope really began with the first consumer digital recording packages. While access to digital audio technology has enabled thousands of musicians to take greater control over their artistic output, it has altered the business and the art of recording, creating both opportunities and dangers.
     The movement into do-it-yourself audio actually began in the pre-digital era. Musicians have recorded themselves long before the invention of audio tape. It was a great way to learn the ropes, but few went on to release their homemade recordings commercially because high-quality recordings required expensive equipment and hard-earned expertise to produce.
     Consumer digital audio has changed this by making user-friendly software and inexpensive hardware available to anyone with a computer. Apps like Garageband are great for hobbyists, students learning the basics of recording, and as working tools for professionals, but they are being disingenuously marketed to consumers as a good alternative to the recording studio. (If you don’t believe me, check out the Apple web site where Sheryl Crow stops just short of saying she uses Garageband to record her CDs.)
     The more expensive systems, like Pro Tools and Nuendo, are an even bigger problem. These are useful components in a professional studio. But as the synthesists discovered, being able reproduce the sound of a grand piano doesn’t make you a concert pianist. So buying a ProTools setup doesn’t make you a recording engineer. A good engineer has years of experience, access to state-of-the-art equipment, and most importantly, a finely-tuned ear. A fussy engineer is a good engineer. I’m not saying that all the old-time recordings were good and all the new stuff is trash––there was a lot of crap released before digital audio––but with the invention of wiz-bang do-it-yourself home recording, combined with almost instantaneous posting to the internet, we’re being swamped in a sea of bad recordings.
     Normally, I’m all for giving people the chance to express themselves even when they’re still in process (after all, that’s how you learn) but the problem is that we now have a whole generation whose ears are becoming accustomed to bad audio. It’s no wonder that many think all music should be free––so much of it’s not worth paying for. This loss of standards has infected the corporate sector. As both musicians and audiences adjusted to lower standards, the record labels discovered they could save money by releasing mediocre sounding recordings. After all, who can tell? That, combined with an aversion to releasing music which is unusual or creative, sums up the recording industry’s new policy: spend as little as possible on releasing music with a proven earnings record. It’s more profitable.
     That’s the theory, but the reality is that CD sales are way down. The major labels blame it on internet piracy but the fact that a lot of the recordings they release are dreck has something to do with it. Consumers may not know the reason why CDs don’t sound good anymore, but they know crap when they hear it. (Maybe the Music's Just Lousy)
     But fact is, good recordings are still being made and there are still people who know the difference. Moral of the story: know the difference between do-it-yourself and professional audio. If you want others to take your music seriously, you have to take it seriously first.

2) The Internet

     Combined with digital audio, the internet has rewritten the rules for making and distributing music. These new technologies have created big problems for the record industry and presented fans with some ethical issues to consider. The bottom line is access: the same access that allows you to connect with a global network of creative musicians also allows you to steal from them. This new access is a revolution that creates both possibilities and problems that we are only beginning to understand.

The Brightside

     Thanks to the internet, I can write articles on any subject and post them to my web site where fifty- to one-hundred people will browse them each day. On a good month my site gets three-thousand hits, or more. There are no disapproving adults to tell me what to write, so I can voice my ideas by reaching others through a technology with no intermediaries. And if I connect my site to groups of other like-minded people, I become part of a community, and my voice becomes magnified. As a writer, I want to be paid for my work, and when I write for magazines I am, but I write far more than I can publish, partly because I don’t tailor all my work to fit their formats and because I write about issues they’re not interested in. The internet lets me write as I see fit, creating a reading audience for what I have to say, and connecting to article buyers who are now sending me assignments based on what they’ve seen on my site.
     It works similarly for my music. I can post my tunes on the internet and eventually thousands of people will listen to them. If I get involved in internet radio, I can reach hundreds of thousands, and by connecting with on-line communities of musicians, my music is heard worldwide by players and fans. By selling my CDs through my site and on CD Baby (more on them later) I can reach a huge market without ever signing a recording contract. In the end, if I’m not successful it’s because music buyers aren’t interested, not because some moron A&R guy doesn’t think he can make money off me. I’ve bypassed the gatekeepers.
     And so can you. The internet is a powerful tool for reaching your audience, if you use it well. In fact, it’s essential. Even though the traditional paths to a music career as still there, they’re not feeling too well, so you need to find alternate ways to create and distribute your music. Take more control over your career if you want to continue to have one. The internet is one avenue of control. We’ll discuss strategies for using it later, but now let’s look at

The Darkside

     File Sharing technology allows you to upload or download music, books, photos, and movies on the internet. FS is inherently neither good or bad. It is simply a tool. Its impact depends on how, and in what context, it is used. But this tool has created a fire storm of litigation and legislation, raised concerns about our civil rights, and started a dirty, secret war online. The whole issue can be summed up in one question, “Who controls access to the internet?”
     The discussion about FS has become so polarized because there are some very extreme voices out there fanning the online flames for their own benefit. On one side are the Art Anarchists who, for ideological reasons, want to make all music free (as in gratis)––thereby dooming professional musicians and engineers to the status of dodos. On the other side is Big Media which is using FS as an excuse to gain control over intellectual property by limiting independent access to the internet, and by relegating millions of public-domain songs, books, and films to copyright purgatory where no one else can use them (more on this later).
     The proponents of these two viewpoints are deliberately intensifying the conflict by pretending there’s no middle ground, but there are compromise solutions we can achieve if we muffle the extremists and allow rationality to prevail. Let’s look at the basics.

      A server is a piece of machinary that connects a computer to the internet. Most people rent internet access through an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like Earthlink or MSN but you can buy your own and access the net yourself. Companies that do a lot of online business often run their own servers, as do individuals and groups who don’t want the surrogate mothers at AOL censoring what they upload to the web.
     File Sharing can be either server-based or Person-to-Person (P2P). Server-based FS (like Napster) can be controlled (which is why Napster was shut down), allowing copyright holders to decide what to make available and how much to charge. This has spawned a belated but gigantic corporate push into legal music downloads. Led by ITunes and RealNetworks, there are now a host of download sites. Even Walmart has a properly cleansed and scrupulously family-friendly selection of tunes for purchase online.
     There are several advantages to sanctioned downloading. They are higher quality and virus free, but more importantly, the artist receives a royalty. The disadvantages are that independent artists are still under-represented, and the downloads come with copy protection encoded into the file (more on this later). But the real darkside is that, since server-based download companies a have invested millions in these ventures, they’re doing everything they can to shut down any and all independent competition.
      The most dangerous being:

     P2P networks, like the infamous Kazaa, that allow their users to share files with other computers linked together by software. The genius of P2P is that it doesn’t need a central server so it’s free to use and difficult to control––although Big Media is really trying. The Open P2P movement is at the center of the fight. This coalition of groups see it not only as an ideological issue but also as good for business and, in fact, there are a number of forward-looking companies which structure themselves around the P2P model.
     But as the attacks escalate, both online and in court, some P2P networks are reorganizing as Darknets––underground systems accessable only to members. While most do run on servers, Darknets are hard to detect and even harder to shut down. As closed systems, they self-regulate and, unless infiltrated, they run in secret. This can have a cool, outlaw vibe to it, or be really creepy––as in child porn or Al Queda. Needless to say, Darknets are attracting the attention of various law enforcement entities.
     However, P2P is still a symbol of Democracy in Action or The Socialist Ideal, depending on your viewpoint. But whether seen from The Left or The Right, it creates big problems for businesses who are trying to control access to internet content.
     One side says downloading copyrighted music is stealinging, hurting the music industry by lowering CD sales. The other says people should be free to create and distribute art as they see fit, without having to use internet portals owned by people trying to make a profit. Both sides are right, but both have their own agenda, and while there is truth in both arguments, there are other influences at work as well.
     Lawrence Lessig, in his book, Free Culture, lists four kinds of file sharing:

     A) as a substitute for buying music.
     B) to sample music before buying it.
     C) to access copyrighted but commercially unavailable music.
     D) to access public-domain or free music the artist wishes to share.

Since Lessig is a law professor, I’ll translate his ideas into English (and add a few thoughts of my own––sorry Larry).

     A) Is just plain wrong. You might as well go over to the artist’s house and steal his lawnmower from the garage. Musicians make a royalty on every CD sold: when you burn a CD from a friend or download a tune off Kazaa you’re taking that money out of their pocket. Period. If you really like a band, why rip them off? Not every band with a record contract is rich. When you steal from other musicians you damage them, the industry you work in, your own career, and the Art of music itself.
     B) Probably impacts sales most when the music is crap. If you listen to a downloaded tune thinking, “I’ll buy this junk when hell freezes over,” you’re doing music a favor and saving yourself $18 at the same time. A few superstars are riding on their reputations, using their name recognition to foist some real mierda on their fans. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a new CD and thought, “This will make a good doorstop.”
     I buy a lot of CDs. If I were to sample them first (I don’t but if I were to) I’d be doing music a service by putting my money into the good ones and leaving the poo poo on the store shelf where it belongs. On the other hand, fans are more likely to buy CDs when they’ve pre-heard the music and discovered new bands they really like.
     C) is where I really part ways with the copyright holders. If you own the rights to an older tune but refuse to re-release it because you can’t make a killing, then to hell with you. Legally you have the right to withhold that tune from the world, but ethically you’re a pig who deserves to lose control over the treasure that you’re hoarding for your own benefit. As Lessig points out, you’re not losing money on this type of download because you’re not making money anyway, so don’t expect any sympathy from others.
     D) is both a blessing to the freedom of Art and a great way for musicians to promote their work to others. Simply put, the internet gives us inexpensive access to millions of songs, books, poems, photos, and films, while being a research tool of immense power. FS allows us to study, collect, reuse, and recreate the entire history of Art; it allows us to add to that history by serving as an archive for our new works; it enables people all over the world to come together in groups of thousands, or millions, and contribute to new kinds of projects that are redefining how knowledge is shared and how Art is made. It is, indeed, a revolution.
     As this powerful tool develops, and access continues unchecked, large media companies are losing their control over internet content, and their ability to sell it to you without competition. This is what drives them to sue children for millions of dollars. This is what drives them to vandalize those P2P networks they can get to. And some say, this is what drives them to add viruses to MP3s that will turn your computer into a pile of goo.
     If a free internet fundamentally changes the way art and knowledge are created and archived––and makes it accessible to you––it will become a grave danger to those who want you to buy all your art and knowledge from them. They are fighting to eliminate independent internet access, but their backlash has spawned a variety of artistic and political movements which are organizing to defend the internet and your right to use it freely.

     In Part 2 we’ll look at the Big Media Backlash, its impact on our political system, and how musicians, technologists, and lawyers are organizing to fight it. We’ll also explore how musicians and software developers are forming into online communities that are creating new technologies you can use to make some money to buy your Mac&Cheese.

Readers Respond

Hi Don,

     Good article, especially the summation of Lessig’s P2P points. After getting to the end I wondered if you thought about the next logical step in the discussion, which is the notion of how to monetize P2P filesharing without compromising its unique architecture.  There are a number of different proposals about “alternative compensation systems” that have been floated by various academics (William Terry Fisher, Jessica Litman, Neil Netanel, EFF).  Excellent ideas and, in Fisher’s case in particular, very thoughtfully presented (see his recent book “Promises to Keep”) but all have significant policy-related barriers that may doom the idea to obscurity.  I’ll list them quickly:

     1. Congress would need to pass a compulsory license.  This means the major labels and the RIAA would need to embrace the idea and, to this point, they have not been interested.
     2. Congress and the technology industry/ISPs would need to be willing to install some sort of user end tax.  
     3. A collection agency somewhat like ASCAP or SoundExchange would need to be set up to distribute the money to the artists (Fisher proposes the US Copyright Office do this but, as far as I’ve heard, they are not interested)
     4. Artists would need to also embrace the idea and “register” their songs into an authenticating database so that all songs could be tracked.  Huge amount of education needed to get this done.

     Without this discussion, I wonder if you think P2P can exist alongside legal downloading systems in a workable way?  I’m not against P2P filesharing personally since I do think it’s got some promotional and cultural benefits, though I find it sad and depressing to run across friends who think it’s okay to fill their computer hard drives with free music. How do we take advantage of these benefits without compensating the creators?  I know it’s impossible to ask but that’s what I’m left thinking in my head at the end of your article.


Kristin Thomson
Future of Music Coalition

     Thanks for your thoughts on legitimizing P2P. I've worried about it too but didn't realize there already was a discussion about alternative compensation in P2P as well. While I doubt that there's any way to bring the darknets into compliance, fairly monetized P2P could bring extra income to people like me who see their work listed on Kaazaa while they’re trying to figure out how to pay the rent.
     Let me do some research (starting with the resources you've listed) and I'll try to
present the various options in the second half of the article.



Intellectual Property Resources

Common Content

Creative Commons

Center for the Public Domain

Electronic Frontier



Muscians' Resources


American Music Center

The Future of Music Coalition

CD Baby

Internet Archives


Sound Exchange


Open Music Resource Library

Open Source Software

Open Source

Fink(Linux to Mac)


Open P2P


The Other Side

Music United

What's the Download

Keep the Music Coming