BBC Introducing Masterclass

BBC logoBBC Introducing Musicians’ Masterclass was held in London, Salford, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast on 21st March. Take a look at the sessions here.

Maida Vale






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?


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


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


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


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

There is no new boss

Google sucks, but stay calm

A couple of months ago David Lowery posted Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss? on The Trichordist. A lot of what he says is undoubtedly true but it doesn’t add up to a persuasive argument. As a general proposition it lacks focus (was Atlantic better than Spotify? quite possibly) and who is the “new boss” anyway? This is my take on the angles that don’t quite hang together.

Lowery’s premise is he was promised the Internet would liberate, empower and enrich him. I’m surprised anyone would think that—I didn’t hear that promise and it’s hardly likely to happen. And he is disappointed…

…the music business never transformed into the vibrant marketplace where small stakeholders could compete with multinational conglomerates on an even playing field.

Again, that Internet Santa Claus idea isn’t serious, surely? I know a lot of musicians, some signed to big labels and publishers, some independent, others semi-pro and many amateurs (like me). To my knowledge none of them expected that.

His next argument is the music business, once dominated by broadcasters and others,  is now dominated by tech conglomerates. He calls Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google “the new boss” and he’s disturbed how dependent he is on them. If that’s true for him fair enough, but it’s not generally true. I don’t know a single artist whose craft or business is dependent on them, or who thinks that way.

We’re addressing the music business here. Apple and Amazon are big music retailers but nobody has to use them. Facebook and Google give access to two large audiences but frankly only YouTube is a unique music business asset. Otherwise I don’t use Google, or Facebook (although I have a zombie page there). Lowery’s concern seems to be more about their lobby against copyright but that doesn’t make anyone dependent on them. It’s just what big business does, especially in the USA and increasingly here too. The Google lobby has undermined WIPO but copyright is still enshrined in human rights law, their lobbying may well come to nothing.

Last, he argues disintermediation promised artists a bigger cut and that hasn’t happened. This is tied to the Santa Claus delusion: he liked big label advances but expected more when the labels were swept away. Not very likely. In fact the big labels are now half the size they were and the Internet has significantly increased competition in the independent sector. Disintermediation was never going to give everyone a windfall but it does mean some small acts can make a living where they previously couldn’t. If they don’t sell 100k singles or 500k albums they won’t be signed by a Major today. Would they be better off signed, with a multi-million advance? Stupid question.

So I don’t buy his general argument. The Internet was never going to be the promised land, that’s simply a straw man (his article is full of them). Under the old boss, for every 100 acts signed only 10 released a record and only one made money. Sure, the 99 still had their advances if they were lucky (today advances are rare) but the successful one had to pay the 99. And the new boss? Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google aren’t anyone’s boss, least of all Facebook.

Along the way Lowery makes many points I agree with. I won’t list them—there are far too many. But wherever he leans his main argument there is invariably a crumbling factoid failing to support it.

Just say no

He talks down the power of the old labels: if you don’t want to do something you just say no—that is the most unbelievable piffle. Just read a book about Motown for God’s sake. But we needn’t to go back that far because yesterday Alison Moyet revealed her new record deal just collapsed, why? She refused to appear on a reality TV show. Just say no my arse.

Artists losing money

He quotes a lot of today’s acts losing money on records and losing money on the road but a lot of artists always lost a lot of money. That doesn’t mean it never happened under the old boss or that the Internet has failed. Is this what he means about the Internet enriching people? That artists should always make money?

The FMC are Google’s poodle

I have no idea where this one comes from. I’ve followed the FMC for years and they have done nothing but campaign tirelessly for musicians. Maybe Kristin Thomson (co-author of the seminal guide to running your own label, before the web happened) trod on Lowery’s toe once or something. Or perhaps he’s just phobic about anyone who suggests his beloved old Major labels might be left behind by technology.

Apple, Amazon and risk

He spends some time on the economic theory of risk and reward although it’s way off his path from the pipedream he was promised to the harsh reality of, well, reality. His analysis of income from online sales shows Apple and Amazon take a cut (and aggregators take a cut). They are distributors and retailers like Pinnacle and HMV, or Our Price, in old money. But he wants them to reward the artist because they don’t take enough risk. Well, distributors and retailers never did anything for the artist apart from a bit of advertising and of course getting money from customers. Pete Townsend came out with the same daft idea in the BBC 6Music lecture. Apple is not a record label, they are a shop.

Record labels and risk

But when he looks at the old boss he finds evidence for investment and risk. He puts a lot of expenses in the label column that labels never paid (recording, promotion, breakages, advertising, publicity). Everything the label used to shell out was recoupable, so they added it to the sum they could take direct from sales before the artist saw any royalties. For 9 out 10 artists that was a risk that didn’t pay off but the label got it all back from the one hit. When you control TV and radio I wouldn’t say that’s much of a risk. No record label audit has ever found the artist was overpaid but they have frequently found the opposite, to the tune of millions.

So to sum up, what he really liked about the old boss was the advances and how nice they were, and what he doesn’t like about the Internet is Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook being the new boss. Well they aren’t.

There is a lot to dislike about Google: they facilitate copyright infringement; they commit copyright infringement and drag their feet over DMCAs; they lobby against copyright; they facilitate access to infringing material and earn money on advertising for it; their search results are cooked; etc; etc. But that doesn’t make them the new boss and it doesn’t make the old boss suddenly look attractive. Lowery seems to hate Google so much it triggered latent Stockholm Syndrome.

With a different sense of perspective I think it’s possible to repudiate both Google and the Majors. Who needs a boss anyway?

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.