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?