Should Amanda Palmer pay her musos?

The debate about Amanda Palmer’s money and volunteers

No week would be complete without a music biz storm in a teacup and this week we saw an open letter from Amy Vaillancourt-Sals protesting Amanda’s request for classical musicians to play live for the fun of it.

The media and commentards chipped in copiously of course: On Amanda Palmer’s unpaid orchestra: A DIY-crowd-sourcer’s take

Everyone makes good points but their generalities and over-statements quickly swamped the specific case.

  • Should pro musicians be paid? It is blindingly obvious they should.
  • Will pro musicians be paid every time they play? It is equally obvious they won’t.

I could make 83 points about this too but let’s stick with two or three.

Amy raised the question of Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter $1 million and the media churned out this nonsense: The kickstart millionaire singer who won’t pay her musicians. Most global albums cost well over £2 million these days. Amanda Palmer is not a millionaire—that Kickstarter money has to pay for pledgers’ goodies (see Where All This Kickstarter Money Is Going by Amanda Palmer) and a lot of globetrotting. There is no more $1 million. Trust me, it’s been spent. In fact AFP has raised additional money from investors just to keep going. When she flies her band to Japan, Australia and Europe it costs money.

So how about the full time band? Of course they get paid, and AFP’s inner circle—I don’t pretend to know the details but she has a permanent staff and they too get paid. Forget the social media wankistas, this is DIY. It’s not about doing every last thing yourself on a shoestring, it’s about running your own show and it takes a team to launch a global release with a D2F campaign and world tour. That doesn’t come free.

(There are undoubtedly solitary social media junkies working 24 hours a day in a garret stubbornly in pursuit of their artistic dream with no help from anybody and no funding. When the first example from their ranks sells 1,000 albums let me know.)

Finally there’s the question of AFP’s fans. I did some quick arithmetic on her social media audience, I’m not talking about the headline numbers, just the 1 in 20 who are real fans. The ones who buy her records, attend her gigs, submit artwork, post ideas and feedback—the audience and friends who helped her over the past decade. When she asks for volunteers she’s talking to these people who care enough to chip in and go out of their way for her. It’s preposterous to imagine professional musicians without that commitment would give their time and skills for free.

So it all boils down to this. Should Amy get paid? She’s a pro musician, yes she should be paid for her work. Should everyone who works with Amanda Palmer get paid? Not if they volunteer. Should Amy work with Amanda? Obviously not. Should Amy be offended Amanda even asked? Getting offended by people is not their problem, it’s yours.

Storm in a tea cup

Storm In A Teacup Bemuso BlogI was mildly surprised so many music biz liggers got overexcited about the NPR article by Emily White and the predictable but largely wrong riposte from David Lowery. They should all know better than anyone music biz insiders don’t pay for music. Emily White interns at NPR and manages a college radio station, there’s no reason on Earth why she should pay for her iTunes library unless she wants to. And since she’s an intern we can guess her disposable income is somewhat less than Doug Morris’ or Rob Wells’.

She admits she has swapped music with friends and family but she says:

During my first semester at college, my music library more than tripled. I spent hours sitting on the floor of my college radio station, ripping music onto my laptop. The walls were lined with hundreds of albums sent by promo companies and labels to our station over the years.

Two thirds of her collection was sent to the station free by record labels. Where’s the outrage about the contents of Jimmy Iovine’s iPod?

Apart from the promo angle, which is old news, I really can’t see how this got to be such a big deal. Everyone borrows stuff from each other and passes on newspapers, magazines and books when they’re finished with them but nobody ever got hysterical about it like the record industry.

I always borrowed and swapped records when I was young, and taped them off the radio later. I bought them when I could, sometimes I had money sometimes I didn’t. Like today’s youth I went to work when there was almost none, in the early 1970s. And I always listened to music for free—that’s what radio is, free music. That was the golden age of the record industry when they had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it. Heck, they even raised The Beatles’ royalty from 1.2% to around 20%, eventually.

I’m not a huge collector but now I own over a thousand CDs and I probably bought the same again in other formats. That’s the way it goes. I don’t often quote Lefsetz but he is dead right when he says: the big problem for artists is not being shared, it’s being ignored.

But somehow this debate is only ever about two sides of the story: the web industry which allows people to share stuff and big middle men who don’t like it. Pundits praise or denigrate music fans on behalf of one vested interest or the other. The real content providers and consumers rarely get a look in.

So Emily White shouldn’t feel bad about the fracas, it’s not about her. I’m sure very few of the men with throbbing temples even read her article. Besides, judging by this sample most people are sympathetic.

  1. Drowned In Sound Thoughts On The NPR Intern, The Value of Music and The Music Businesses Unspoken Secret
  2. Jay Frank Is stealing music really the problem?
  3. Wesley Verhoeve Music industry quixotism (or why Emily White is right, and David Lowery is wrong)
  4. Wes Davenport Music Without Barriers: Emily White & David Lowery Edition
  5. Travis Morrison Hey Dude From Cracker, I’m Sorry, I Stole Music Like These Damned Kids When I Was A Kid
  6. Laura Snapes Don’t “my peers” me
  7. Techdirt David Lowery Wants A Pony
  8. Bob Lefsetz The David Lowery Screed
  9. Blackbook Why we’re still paying for music

But just in case David Lowery’s reply was insufficiently out of proportion:

Digital Music News Our Digital Innocence Just Died. And David Lowery Killed It…

No it didn’t, and no he didn’t. But this was never about the facts, was it?

UPDATE:

Although the original spat seemed hardly worth the effort it continues to provoke some interesting articles, here are a few more.

  1. Pop Dose Tower Records: It was more than music
  2. Evolver David Lowery Might Be Right About Some Things, But He’s Wrong About Streaming, Money, and Artists
  3. Music Industry Blog The Tale of Emily White, Scarcity and the Future of Music Products
  4. Tunecore The Intern, The Artist & The Internet
  5. NYT Media Decoder NPR Intern Gets an Earful After Blogging About 11,000 Songs, Almost None Paid For

UPDATE 2:

A latecomer but well worth waiting for… Dave Allen (Gang Of Four) The Internet could not care less about your mediocre band

UPDATE 3:

I won’t include every blog or article I’ve read because many of them are not so good. The links I’m posting here reflect both sides of the debate and add something to the discussion, probably leaning somewhat towards my own view and away from David Lowery.

  1. Jonathan Coulton Emily White, David Lowery and Legos: Can’t We Get Along?
  2. Ethan Kaplan Are We Really Still Discussing This? – Or: My Response to David Lowery
  3. Gordon Withers Reflections on White/Lowery and a Way Forward
  4. Jim Donio NARM’s Response to the Emily White Controversy
  5. Dave Allen (Gang Of Four) again We Never Read: a postscript to the Emily White fracas

UPDATE 4:

Zac Shaw In Defense of Free Music: A Generational, Ethical High Road Over the Industry’s Corruption and Exploitation

DIY doesn’t mean “do everything”

DIY doesn't mean do everything Bemuso BlogAmanda Palmer has announced Cooking Vinyl will handle European distribution and marketing for her Kickstarter album Theatre Is Evil.

Unhappy people criticised her fund-raising (how dare she ask for money?) and her short-lived record deal (obviously responsible for her entire career) now they complain she’s not really DIY because she’s using a distributor.

I first saw uncertainty about the meaning of DIY when I started this site in 2002, and I covered it in several places. But many music biz commentators and people in the industry appear not to know what DIY is about.

DIY music dates back to punk and probably before that. It’s all about record labels. A DIY label is one you do yourself. It doesn’t mean you must press the CDs, drive the delivery van and work behind the shop counter. And it doesn’t mean you work entirely alone. It simply means you run your own label—just like any other but yours. All the big record labels use other big labels and distributors when it makes sense. Most indies use big label distribution somewhere.

You provide the music and own the label, everything else can be done by others (design, pressing, marketing, distribution, fulfilment, retail, etc.). In fact, as long as you can afford anything someone can do better than you it should be bought-in, sub-contracted, outsourced or licensed.

So, you own all the rights and owe nothing unless you choose to pay for it. Nobody else dictates the lyrics, the song selection, the running order, the producer, the studio, your image, the sleeve design, the launch, the gigs. You decide, that is DIY.

The point was never to “do everything yourself” it was always to avoid “getting signed”, and the Pitchfork interview with Amanda Palmer linked above demonstrates why that can be a very good idea indeed.

A bunch of music biz links

 9 music biz stories from the past week…

The Recording: It's Been Losing Its Value Since 1962...

Big Four Music Labels Hire Students To Chase File-Sharers

Why are The Sex Pistols still the voice of anarchy in the UK?

A Record Label With A Midas Touch

When iTunes Becomes Obsolete

Map of the World’s Most Dominant Websites: Who Rules Asia?

Can Artists Get Rich In A Streaming Music Industry?

Recap: “The Future of Audio” Congressional Subcommittee Hearing

Did an Indie Band Inspire a Volkswagen Ad?

The tyranny of sameness

The mainstream is all about lots of people liking the same thing. People who like other things are just as curious and commercially active, probably even more so, but they are less easy for the mass media to serve.

I never liked the mainstream much. I grew up with pirate radio during secondary school. At break we would head up the field with our transistors and catch a couple of tracks, just half a dozen of us. We rarely liked the same thing with the same passion, instead we shared our enthusiasm for different things.

So the mainstream has always baffled me. There are some benefits in making, storing, promoting, and selling several million of one CD rather than “only” 50,000 of 60 others. And traditional radio and TV finds it easier to feature a few acts rather than many. But all that is for the convenience of middlemen, not artists or consumers.

We are encouraged through charts and so-called talent shows to pick winners. Winners, of course, are also easy for mass media to mass market, it’s much harder to promote diversity and difference. It’s impossible to feature everything people like and pick winners at the same time.

That’s why even BBC 6Music (the UK national “new music” station) conforms to the post-pirate popular radio template: label-driven playlists and prime time personality presenters, with eclectic music shows relegated to off-peak hours. When the BBC launched Radio One in 1967 it didn’t just make pop radio legal it also made it safe for the masses.

Under its charter the BBC should be “distinctive”, but it isn’t. A distinctive new music radio station would be manned round the clock by music DJs reflecting the true diversity of world (and indeed World) music.

Instead the mass audience has the comfort of experiencing and buying the same stuff as everybody else, and record labels—even though the benefits of mass producing a limited number of titles are much diminished with digital—still sell a very small range. What we don’t know is how many of that mass audience will buy more when they can see and hear it, but it’s my guess we’ll find out in our lifetime.

History repeats… a bit

There was a gold rush in new music media—new startups appeared almost weekly and patent disputes broke out. Even though the new kid in town spent more time in court than developing the product buyers couldn’t get enough music players and content. This was before World War One—the flat disc was replacing the recordable cylinder.

Berlinner accumulated many patents but history suggests his success was down to ease of manufacture (stamping), flat storage, and louder playback without amplification. (Amplification didn’t hit the mainstream until 1925, the disc was launched 30 years earlier.)

The current music format upheaval is different and although history doesn’t repeat exactly it probably has something to tell us. When Berlinner launched the disc in 1895 he laid the foundations for today’s record industry and defeated the incumbent. Edison made his cylinders until 1929 but never came close to retaking the recorded music industry he had started. Perhaps he hoped amplification would redress the balance but in the 1930s half of all American record production went into jukeboxes where once again discs ruled. However, there is a more important winner in this story—the customer.

The cylinder was perhaps more capable than the early disc, it was recordable and Edison had the resources, a killer brand and marketing power. Nevertheless customers chose the disc, decisively. It’s futile to second-guess the customer, they choose what they want.

In the late 1990s, faced with a new format (MP3) they didn’t control, Berlinner’s descendants made a series of attempts to regain the upper hand. But customers didn’t like what was offered. DRM on downloads, DRM on CDs, Major label web stores, subscription streaming… the verdict of the public has been decisive. Music distribution today can be summed up under 4  headings—CD sales, download sales, file sharing and radio. Overwhelmingly that’s what people want. Of the 2 billion online we know around 1 billion will be music customers. 900 million of them don’t use a big label streaming service and of the 100 million who do less than a quarter pay.

The evangelists of music streaming commerce—who have flogged this particular horse for over a decade—have made little headway. They tell us people “prefer access to ownership”, but quite clearly they don’t. We are told it’s early days but it isn’t—it was early days in 1995 when MP3 became available to everyone with a telephone line. There must be a point when it’s obvious streaming doesn’t sell. For me it was iTunes outselling all the streaming services overnight… in 2003. The Major labels will catch up one day, maybe.

Good singles sell—make more

Mark Mulligan posted a useful article on 29 Feb Is the UK Music Industry Sleepwalking into a CD Crisis? He classifies buyers in the usual way and explores possible industry-centred solutions. But things look very different from the artist’s point of view.

First of all the CD collapse is not a UK music industry problem, it’s a Major record label problem, and there’s no guarantee their traditional cash cow will ever come back in any form. I have written about that before.

But something else changed profoundly in the world of megastar albums. As deals got better they stopped making two a year, and as labels’ PR got better they filled albums with tracks nobody really wanted. As soon as the fans had an alternative they went for it. That’s why single sales are up and album sales are down.

So maybe this isn’t a problem about digital formats—maybe it’s a problem with quality and quantity of music. If megastars made more and better singles perhaps the problem would disappear. After all, fans used to buy more tracks.

There are two examples which suggest this might be true. Rihanna is one of the few current megastars who stepped up production. Her team saw the move away from albums and switched emphasis—with Rihanna’s fans—to singles. That has undoubtedly worked. (Of course, the blame for infrequent releases doesn’t lie entirely with artists—managers at big labels think and work in years rather than weeks.)

Then there’s the DIY and indie sector where we also see growth. These acts never had the luxury of big venues and a big record every three years, so they are ideally suited to a world where fans have access and work-rate means income.

Maybe the answer is music streaming into every living room but I don’t see that happening.  I don’t see people asking for that. I see them supporting artists who gig regularly and make more great tracks worth buying. That is what’s happening.