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Friday, 22 June 2012


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I've heard of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. I also have well over 100GB of music, the vast amount of which I've paid for, in some cases several times.

I sometimes run up against the dichotomy of which you write when it comes to record collecting: is it the music, or the thing, that I want? Do I want to hear "Down Where the Drunkards Roll", or do I want a nice clean pressing of I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight? Or both? For that matter, why not just watch Richard and Linda Thompson perform it live on Youtube? What creates the value?

In the book business, getting on the New York Times bestseller list is important not for the ego boost, but for the exposure and awareness. If you write an excellent book that doesn't get an overwhelming boost from a major publisher, then every other Barnes and Noble will carry one copy, and it'll go into the regular shelves spine out and very few people will even have a chance to see it. If it gets good word of mouth, it'll slowly sell...and slow sales means that it'll never make the NYT list. To get on the list, you need two things: lots of books available and lots of sales velocity, which is the reason so many writers go on book tours -- touring gives you the velocity to make the list. And the thing about the list is, your books go to the front of the store, on special stands, face out so that people can actually see them. Getting on the list means that you have a good chance to get on the list again, because your next book, instead of going in the stacks, will go in the "new arrivals," face out.

The problem with digital books is that there are no face-out displays, there's no way for a potential reader to see the cues that suggest a particular book might be worth reading. Those cues are things like face-out display, foiled covers, and number of copies available. Displays on the 'net homogenize everything. Further, ratings systems (like the stars system on Amazon) are routinely manipulated by authors and their fans. Some authors have actually made public appeals for their fans to go on Amazon and give them a five-star ranking, for books that have generally failed to get a legitimately good ranking. And, they've been successful in doing that. One thing about paper publishing -- if you see a lot of copies of a particular book, that means that several experienced book publishing people have read the book and decided that it could sell. The fact that they're willing to risk a good deal of their own money to publish the book is at least a minimal guarantee of quality. So far, nothing in the Amazon model has come along to replace that.

Generally, in my opinion, the same applies to music. Despite what people may like to think, music that sells well is generally, and really, popular with the masses of buyers. It's not really the case that big evil music execs promote some talentless lout who then becomes a billionaire; they can sometimes do that for a short time, but the fans always find out (Milli-Vanilli, the Monkees, Village People, etc.) What digital has done with music is, in a sense, the same thing that photo sites have done with photography -- not just leveled the laying field, but destroyed it. There are enormous numbers of bad songs on the 'net, enormous numbers of self-published bad books, probably billions of "art" photos. The sheer weight of the product makes it nearly impossible to separate the good from the bad.

So what do you do? We've gone back to a more primitive system -- the bands go on the road, and you get the size of audience you deserve, and maybe you sell a lot of recordings -- but the money comes from the road. Your photos are sold through galleries, which become the gate-keepers, and if you can't get in a gallery, you're done (which is why some people have started their own galleries.) As far as books go, for the time being the paper segment is still more important than the digital segment (digital is something like 25% of sales, now, and the increase is slowing.) As long as that paper segment is important, then it's possible to get exposure and awareness. But, what is needed is some way to get exposure and awareness for electronic books, as well. That's much tougher, because as soon as somebody comes up with an electronic marketing plan, everybody jumps on it, and then you're right back in the chaos.

The fundamental problem of the net is that it's free, and open to anyone. That's also, of course, its fundamental strength. But we have not yet worked out the implications of all that free-ness.


"Major labels have figured out that the game is about exposure and awareness...". It reminds me of the myriad offers to use my photography for the "exposure". As though page views pay the rent. Well, maybe in TOP's case. :)

Of ten requests to use a photo for "exposure" I get one willing to pay. (Which is not a bad ratio for a small time operation and every check is a big boost for the spirit if not the bank account.) As more and more people approach me to commission shoots, the more I feel the endless posting of my work on the Internet is not giving away the milk for free, but a genuine marketing initiative. I can hope so, anyway.

The last quote gets at the heart of the issue.

As the number of people on the planet grows, the harder it is for one person to stand out, and the harder it is to make anyone care.

Regardless of how bad the competition is though, there will always be lots of artists. For most, art is something fun to produce and brings intrinsic rewards.

And that's what should be important about art - not fame or money.

If you want fame or money, learn to do something no one else can do.

Thanks Mike,

Definitely one of your better explications of something complex, multi-dimensional and divisive. I love it when someone manages to step back, out of the war in the forest, and describe the nature of the forest.

I have heard, don't recall where, or from whom, that most bands short of big stardom no longer make much, or any money from their recorded work, but need the recorded work to build ticket sales for the tours that support them.

I wonder if one part of the decline in the music distribution business may be its increased bandwidth. There is clearly a huge amount of newer music out there; I personally hear a lot on movie and TV soundtracks. And some of it appeals to me.

But when I go to investigate, I discover a vast sea of relatively similar sounding groups and individuals. Generally, nothing stands out as especially engaging before my ears get tired.

One consequence is that I acquire, in whatever form, at any price, free or not, very little music, nor have I for some years.

I wonder if my musician friend who rants fiercely that recording has ruined music, that only live music really performs its deep emotional functions for humans, may be right.

Perhaps instead of looking for the 'right' recorded performers, I should be listening to those available to me live? (If you can't be with the one you love ...)

I do have to admit that in the classical realm, where I have a large recorded collection, that my most recent live experience, George Lopez' live performance of the Goldberg Variations, engaged me more than any recording I've heard of that music - and he doesn't talk while he plays.

Should I put away my cameras, and just enjoy the world as it is in the moment? Is the act of photographing one of engaging more fully, or less fully, with the world? I know I generally feel that carrying a camera tends to help me see more of what is around me, not less, pulling me out of my head and into my eyes, so to speak.

Should I just leave the film or cards at home?

Random Musings Moose

I don't think this is what you were thinking when you wrote this blog post, but most of what you wrote evoked my memories of this:


In particular, this often used quote:

"There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."

I prefer to pay musicians for music. That said, I despise giving anything to the leeches between the musicians and me. I only buy discs at shows if I can get them directly from the musicians. As for anything else, I'll plead the fifth.

I feel a little sorry for the generation (genertions?) who aren't going to enjoy the little ritual of pulling a record out of it's sleeve, putting it on the turntable and browsing the album cover while enjoying the music.

I have loads of mp3 files on my computer, many from my old CD's, some from library CD's (probably not legal there) and many from Emusic and itunes and Amazon, almost all in album format except for the few random tracks my daughter has purchased. But I don't really listen to those files anymore, at least not very much. Instead, I listen to them on Rhapsody, which for $15 a month allows unlimited high quality downloads on 3 devices, plus streaming on my home stereo through a slipstream device. As you said, you stream a little, then move on. It can lead to someone like me becoming extremely picky having such a huge quantity of past and new music available. I only purchase music that I really, really want that isn't available on Rhapsody. I make an exception for Greg Brown, who I like enough to buy in the CD format still.

I think photographers will have to be satisfied with their art and how it is consumed, at least for a while. Then again, some kind of general internet consumption tax might not be a bad idea. Might get some of us out of the house more, and I'd have no objections to the proceeds going to "content creators," including photographers.

I have read your remarks and probably heard all the arguments... We can rationalize all we want but at the end of the day, theft is theft. It doesn't really matter from whom one is stealing, does it? (i.e. whether you steal from the content carrier or directly from the artist doesn't change the equation: theft is still theft.) Everything else rings hollow, even if it is just the way it is. Sigh.

re: l'Affaire Emily White

And she is not alone. Kids all over the world have "free" music on their mp3 players.

For good or worse, this is a phenemenon that is not about to go away. Whatever measure or coercition the music has taken have simply not worked.

Who's to blame? I used to think that I knew. Now, I'm no longer sure.

I get paid for what I do in my day job. I feel that a reciprocal arrangement is appropriate in the acquisition of things I enjoy. I do buy used books and cds to obtain items that may not be "worth" their full price for my use. I subscribe to RDIO and have been amazed at the wealth of music I can listen to and would otherwise be without. I even contribute annually to TOP. Not out of guilt but out of respect to the value I receive. Its a bargain!

I appreciate your summation of the situation - we talk about the content, but it has always really been the delivery of the carrier. However, I think you missed one point - the cost of duplicating the carrier has also gone to effectively zero with the shift to digital, and this has effectively put the focus back to the content, whilst at the same time invalidating an enormous part of the infrastructure.

I think John Camp's comment is also relevant - and I think the value of the gatekeepers in the past has been in curating the content (whether it be music, books, news, or even blogs...) the plethora on stuff available makes it very hard to winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Geez, Mike, I was hoping for a night's sleep. But no, now I must think.

I haven't followed this carefully. Of the pieces I have read, I like the economist Dean Baker's best:


I'm not that enamored of Baker's specific solution, but at least he's proposing one. As he emphasizes, telling people to shape up and fly right is not a solution. The question needs to be how we are going to reward creative people for their work. Lecturing consumers about morality is a sure loser. (Please note that that's not taking any position on what the morally correct view is.)

Mike, I'm not sure what you're getting at with this: "I just wonder what photography might be like if, by some happenstance, the carrier medium for a photographic picture were less like what it is, and more like, say, a 45 rpm single record in 1966." We've had such a "carrier medium" for decades. It's called a "print". As you know, making a living by selling them is very, very hard. So... did I miss something? Of course these days people can view lots of images online for free, but the problem is not the lack of a suitable medium. Twenty years ago, those people would not have been buying prints.

I've been a fan of Cracker and CVB for 20 years and am on the mailing list for both. This is the first I've heard of this. It's strange when worlds collide.

Cracker had huge problems with Virgin Records so it is a sign of level-headedness that he defends music labels in the piece. Mr. Lowery was not so kind in the song Ain't Gonna Suck Itself, though (warning - the song will start playing when you click the link).

I guess he was following Neil Gaiman's advice (from the future) to Make Good Art.

So, if the lady in question had to pay for all those tracks, she would not have bothered, so the musicians would be no better off.

Look at it this way, the internet exposes people who would not normally have got exposure in the old days without a record contract. The reason for the exposure is the fact that it is tweeted, facebooked and otherwise shared at zero cost. When the band tours, they may well get a decent income from performing.

But they can hardly complain that the only avenue that made them famous (at no cost) does not also bring massive revenues. There is no value on art other than what people are happy to pay for it.

Same for any job.

I guess I'm not sure why there's a "furor" about Ms. White's article. It's not as if her story is unusual; in the small circle of twenty-somethings I know, most have thousands of songs on their Ipods and several have tens of thousands. When I mention buying music to them, they universally ask, "Why would you do that?" and point me to one of the online sources of "free" music.

That said, I'm not as much involved with music as I once was. I have a small collection of classical, jazz, and 60s/70s rock. I haven't heard much lately that's interesting. My kids try to introduce me to "modern" music, but to me it mostly sounds like 4 guys who don't play very well, led by a whiney voiced other guy, singing about sneakers.

(Yes, I'm aware I sound like my father.)

I read Ms. White's story and I have to say the the image of her sitting on the floor of the studio and ripping thousands of songs looks more like a species of hoarding than like music appreciation.

The basic issue is that we are dealing with public goods. The production take money and the producer need food. However, the goods itself has marginal minimum costs (or zero) to produce one additional copy.

Traditional economic theory is very hard to deal with it (and in fact the very textbook one seems to say that you should get it free). Quite a number of Noble Prize winner (and Noble Prize itself) were given to solution like property right approach (your carrier), Club approach etc. Some use other approach like copyright (which is broken due to Micky Mouse in US), trademark, patent etc. Some use open source/community source and recoup using maintenance (in music term free download but come to my concert). Some recoup using searching costs (google live in this model).

Still, the fundamental is that it should be free ultimately and given it back as it is economic inefficient to charge. Any temporary measure to recoup investment (time to write a novel when you are on social security and silly enough to write a book on o level exam i.e. Harry Potter), enough to cover the searching costs etc.

Human knowledge (including music) is typical of human culture, many of which can transform into public goods. In fact, no public goods e.g. reading your email does not costs anything to the email itself (until fish eaten) is the key to our human culture.

To say the least, deal with it whatever way but do not lock forever these by paying $1 per reading forever. It would destroy human culture which is based on public goods (including language itself).

"cluttering up their hard drives."

Yeah, 'cuz hard drive space is SO precious, and we want to keep it as well organized as we can.

Having dabbled in the music, photography and writing arenas I can say that it is getting harder and harder to make money. While it is true that the classical modes of distribution are finding it difficult to compete in the digital age I think that the greatest problem is sheer the quantity of content available now. The democratisation of the creative industries has in many ways been been good as it has enabled artistic boundaries to be pushed as never before. The down side is that has made it very difficult to monetize those artistic endeavours.

"Art is a popularity contest, not a democracy" - Ctein

I'd like to take those words further, and add that everything, including democracy itself, seems a popularity contest. And the one with the most money and influence, generally, wins.

..and it only seems more and more true with each passing day.

The sales of Art have, and will, suffer from two inescapable problems.

1. Product to market mismatch. Artist works very hard to make a wonderful work - which no one cares about at all, or which most people will not pay $0.01 for. The fact that some number of people "stole" your work does NOT mean that if you had some magic enforcement scheme you'd get money, it means that many of them would just ignore your work entirely rather than pay 1 cent for it.

2. Supply and demand versus huge competition. Much discussed above and elsewhere - and very real.

Mose Allison once said that a record was nothing but a calling card for a jazz musician. Take out the word "jazz" and he looks like a prophet now.

"I prefer to pay musicians for music. That said, I despise giving anything to the leeches between the musicians and me. I only buy discs at shows if I can get them directly from the musicians. As for anything else, I'll plead the fifth."

I think William Barnett-Lewis' comment offers a clue on the direction the arts should evolve. Art needs to return to its roots as a service rather than as a product. When you buy a CD you're really purchasing a license to listen to the music based on how well the service was rendered in a live setting. If you appreciate the service you could purchase perhaps a subscription directly from the artist rather than a buying mostly a manufactoring or distributing process through a third party.

Purchasing decisions based on performance rather than marketing process, and dealing directly with the artist.

I must be too old. I can't buy music or videos from iTunes or the like because they don't allow people like me to do so. You see I live in a land of pirates and thieves - or Hong Kong as we call it. I wouldn't have a clue where to go for free downloads so guess what I have very little music on my iPhone. I can't even download stuff rom Amazon UK on to my iPad or Kindle. If the guys want to make money then sort of what appears to be a copyright and/or piracy issue in Asia and I'll happily pay my way. I wrote to Steve Jobs about this ages ago but he hasn't replied yet.

Seems to me that this problem of paying rights holders for music has largely been solved:


As far as discovery of music and books in stores is concerned, I'd consider that method to be dead. I don't mean just independent stores, but chain after chain is going away. Even the local Costco has shrunk the book (and music, and DVD) section and moved it off to the side behind the phone kiosk.

And the last time I had the urge to buy a specific disk I went to the trouble of going to the nearest music store and trying to find exactly what I was looking for. And when that failed iTunes got my money, because my time has value. Amazon gets my money for Kindle books for the same reason. And Netflix gets its money for movies.

And how do I find what to try next? I listen to podcasts, I've pared my twitter feed down to people I find interesting, and I read blogs. I've had better luck with those than going to a bookstore looking for a good read and finding shelf after shelf filled with vampire romance.

Haven't you heard? Making money is for the 1%. The rest of us can expect to be crushed down to serfdom by our "free" markets. Musicians, writers, photographers and jugglers? Don't make me laugh-at the most, they can expect a loaf of bread from our masters when they perform well.

(Sorry, its been a bad morning...been paying those infernal bills...)

I think the main reason there is such anger and debate on this issue is because we have come to accept that "artists" can be professional. That is, that their only way of making money is by being an artist.

I think professionalism has ruined the art world, damaged literature and sports. Artists would be far healthier and less prone to egotism, depression and drug taking if it was realised that art is something everyone can do and not the exclusive realm of a professional.

Art is democratic and human, it is intrinsic to our very lives: to everyone's life. Like healthcare, I think it is too fundamental to pay for.

I wonder if Emily is a paid intern or working for the experience.

On a less serious note, she should do life plus fifty in some privitized joint for theft. And we should all experience the joy of real music on wax cylinders.

Fine article Mike. One to make a person sit back, sip some coffee and think. Hidden in the corner of your article is perhaps the future of the intelligent property world. And right now maybe Facebook, or Google are poised to profit and create this new world. Micro-payments have been tried in past years but the infrastructure just didn't exist. Now a tap on a cell phone could pay a few pennies for a photo, a song, an app, etc. An amount small enough that that 90 percent of the populace would pay, rather than take. Maybe we'll look back to this post in five years Mike. Maybe we just watched the seeds of a trillion dollar industry being sown.

"I personally have a curious relationship to these issues, as I used to work in magazines and now deliver content to an audience without needing to pay overhead."

So... your time is free? And your internet access and webhosting costs zero?

"Overhead expenses are all costs on the income statement except for direct labor, direct materials & direct expenses" (Wikipedia definition, italics mine).

And while my Internet access and webhosting doesn't cost zero, it might as well. The cost is trivial compared to the costs of producing a magazine.


I enjoy the "we can only look backwards with any clarity, and the future is only a guess" attitude of Mike's post. Perhaps because I agree with it. (Sorry, Mike, for the over-simplification, but that's the biggest take-away for me.)

There is some solace to be had by accepting that our intelligence allows us to analyze all the facets of this intriguingly complicated situation. That is, essentially, a delusion.

Mike began his post using words like "upswell" and "roiling waters", so I toss in "uncharted waters". Lest we become too metaphorically hydrated to the point of sinking, perhaps this ancient adage provides guidance: "In chaos lies opportunity." Keep looking for it.

Smart lady, she has $16.5bn device in her purse, an it cost her only $500 or so to get. What an investment!

>"Art is democratic and human, it is intrinsic to our very lives: to everyone's life. Like healthcare, I think it is too fundamental to pay for."

If healthcare was "free," how would you expect the doctors and nurses to eat or pay their bills? Who pays for the hospital cleaning supplies, maintenance or surgical tools? Or does that not matter to you as long as you get yours 'free'?

There is no such thing as free - in art or healthcare - it is only a matter of who pays. In the case of supposedly "free" healthcare, taxpayers pay for healthcare (and, no not everyone pays taxes - or pays taxes equally, so the burden is never shared equally - ever). In the case of "free" art, the artists or creators unwittingly subsidize your enjoyment when you don't pay them.

The most shocking aspect of this story is that someone has 11,000 songs on her iPod. As I see, that is a form of hoarding, although it does have the advantage of taking up less space than saving mountains of string or magazines.

That aside, there is the reality that only a handful of musicians make money from the sale of CDs. All the others must pay the costs of production, while the record company keeps almost all of the profits that might accrue. This was true even before the advent of file sharing. My son, who tried to make it in a rock band, has no sympathy for the recording industry, and he almost never pays for any of the music that he downloads. As he sees it, bands should earn their living mainly through live performances, as musicians have traditionally done throughout most of human history.

I have a pretty good music collection that started with $3.99 LPs too. They edged up to almost double that as I remember when CDs became an option. CDs were immediately priced near $20. The excuse for the price was the cost of the medium. The price did not drift down even when CD blanks plunged to a fraction of a dollar. So a new medium that became as cheap as LPs cost 3 times as much. Nice profit.

Almost every conversion of medium has been accompanied by greed and dishonesty. Newspapers always raised their prices citing increasing newsprint and ink costs, but now they want the same subscription price for a digital edition saying there is no saving in printing costs, warehousing and distribution over a paper edition. Same with books. Frequently paperbacks sell for less than the digital edition.

The sellers love to cite thievery as they lobby for more laws that will extract more money from their customers, and there is always an Emily White anecdote to provide "proof", but I just don't buy it. In a mostly aging population I think that people just buy these things with abandon anymore. I don't. It is a young person's activity to accumulate things while the rest of us try to get rid of stuff. There are not as many of those young people as there used to be and just because book sellers, newspapers and music merchandisers don't sell as much anymore it does not mean that everyone is a thief..

I cannot even remember the name of the legal "content provider" I paid $1 each for approximately 300 60s and 70s oldies song singles, to fill in my collection on my PCs Windows Media Player.
2 new iterations of the Media Player and the original content provider being purchased by AOL, I somehow lost my all the licenses and rights to play them even though they were backed up. I was locked out of the songs I had legitimately and willingly paid for.
After fruitless attempts to contact AOL and Microsoft to try and retrieve those licenses, I wound up deleting all the songs in question so I would no longer get error messages when I had the player set to shuffle.
I wont ever pay for online content again!

11,000 songs? It got me thinking about something I read back in 1980. In Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabakov talked about what his idea of a well read person should be.
His contention was that such a person did not need to consume an entire library but rather should really know about twelve great books.
How do you do more than skip through 11,000 songs? Records aren't quite the same as novels but looking through the house I suppose I have about 800 LP's and maybe 300 CD's. Of those I suppose I really know (note for note) about fifty.
The net allows us to accumulate a lot of material for little or no cost. Does that mean we don't appreciate it in the same way we would have if it had taken some effort and treasure to acquire it?
Beats me but I'm old.
Nabakov also said the role of a novelist is to be an "enchanter". Love that.

Per comments of Mike Plews referencing Vladimir Nabakov...

Nabakov also advised writers: "Throw away nothing!" I used to hold this advice up as partial explanation for my tendency towards hoarding. Now this advice seems outdated. Like Freud's early advice to his fiancee to take a pinch of cocaine now and then, "to put a blush in the cheeks."

How OT is that? Hey, it's Sunday...

@ Rob L,

That kickstarter thing's a great thing. It's often painted as desperate act - artists, cap in hand, begging for money, asking for charity, because they couldn't hack it in the "real" business world.

On the contrary, I see it as a wonderful thing, catering to tastes that have been deemed "irrelevant" by the the gatekeepers - the carriers Mike talks about.

The argy-bargy going at the moment is a direct response to the power of the internet; as Mike mentioned, you used to *need* a record company, or gallery, or film studio, publisher, whatever, to get your art out there. Now, the internet has undermined that, and the threat their business model is what this is really about - not piracy (really, the music industry survived home cassette recording, TV survived the VCR, cinema survived TV, etc, etc...and I've yet to see record company CEO or similar applying for a job a McDonalds to make ends meet).

What they don't mention is that getting a recording contract, publishing deal, etc, etc, is that you're probably not gonna be that well off. The music industry does well to keep a lid on it, but things leak out - your average band's income probably earns as much as a register jockey at a supermarket, per annum. Sure, there are few exceptions, Judas goats, as it were, that make it big time - Metallica, The Rolling Stones - but those are the exceptions.

What they really don't like is that the internet not only represents just an alternate path, but a more profitable path. With the middlemen gone, you can sell your work for a lot cheaper - and attract more customers - but also make more money. A 99c song on iTunes will probably earn more money for the people that deserve it - the artists - than the same song on a $25 album.

Artists, in whatever media, are slowly realising this, and so are the suits. And they're fighting back.

This Baffler article by Steve Albini (its excerpt in the link below), widely circulated among members of the independent music industry and its listeners, has probably had a large effect on certain music listeners' behavior in that they might just throw up their hands and pirate "whatever."


Things aren't that way because Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu didn't turn into the web. Xanadu had a business model built in from the beginning, but was deliberately built to favor actual content producers, doing micro-payments for each page of a document you looked at.

But they were tied up in development issues and internal politics, and Tim Berners-Lee invented the web we know instead (I have not information on whether he knew about Xanadu; I certainly did at the time he was inventing the web). Among other things, this is a victory of the good-enough over the best; people didn't see flaws, especially initially, and went for what there was, which was extremely cool. Which choked off the more sophisticated, more thoughtful, plan. (I don't actually know how the Xanadu plan would have worked out if exposed to cold reality either, of course.)

John Camp is right about the process of becoming a New York Times bestseller -- see another recent take, from a player at a lower level, in John Scalzi's blog; and I've also had the explanation from editors at Tor and other publishers, and they all pretty much agree.

Now, John Camp is looking at that process from "above" -- making the Times List seems to be the standard he looks for and aspires to (and I'm reading Storm Prey currently and like it a lot). But the vast majority of the books I read, and especially the books I re-read frequently, never were New York Times bestsellers, and never would be.

I see the ways that Internet distribution will interfere with the Times List as being largely a good thing. The midlist is the most important part of the list, to me; the most important part artistically, and also the part that most of the writers I know personally depend on for their incomes. I think the same thing is at least as true in music, too.

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