New Technologies, and the Price of Mac&Cheese
A Beginners’ Guide to the New Music Business
by Don Skoog
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
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
Don’t get me wrong, it’s honest labor, but these were not the
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
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
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
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)
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.
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,
know why the ground is moving. There are fewer places to play and many gigs
pay as well as they used to. Record companies are producing fewer CDs and
artist royalties are declining. Mainstream pop music has become nauseatingly
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
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
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
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
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
do any good.
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.
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
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
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
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
of musicians to take greater control over their artistic output, it has
altered the business and the art of recording, creating both opportunities
The movement into do-it-yourself audio actually began in the pre-digital
era. Musicians have recorded themselves long before the invention of audio
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
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
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
global network of creative musicians also allows you to steal from them.
This new access is a revolution that creates both possibilities and problems
we are only beginning to understand.
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
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
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
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
Sharing technology allows you to upload or download music, books, photos,
and movies on the internet. FS is inherently
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
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
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
FS as an
excuse to gain control over intellectual property by limiting
independent access to the internet, and by relegating millions
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
(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
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.
P2P networks, like the infamous Kazaa, that allow their users
to share files with other computers linked together by software.
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
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
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
it creates big problems for businesses who are trying to control
access to internet
One side says downloading copyrighted music is stealinging,
hurting the music industry by lowering CD sales. The other
says people should be free
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
organizing to defend the internet and your right to use it
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.
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
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.
Future of Music Coalition
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
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