In The Garden of Money
In the garden of money
In the jazz music world there has been a steady deterioration of the artist’s economy for at least forty years. This decline began with desegregation and rising real estate costs. The traditional Black communities where jazz began, developed and flourished got colonized and absorbed into the wider marketplace. Just as it became more and more expensive to keep a neighborhood club open, it became more and more difficult to integrate what will never be a ‘popular’ music into the mainstream economy. With the advent of the internet, the physical product of LPs and CDs virtually disappeared. 10 years ago I was talking to the brilliant composer and musician George Lewis about the exciting possibilities of internet distribution. He said, “Yes, but the problem will be the same. How will people know about me?”
The scale and nature of internet distribution means that with services like Spotify and Pandora, etc., musicians must accumulate 100,000 hits before any meaningful compensation arrives. That is just not realistic for most jazz professionals. In a report release today (10/15/13) Spotify revealed that in a (reported) catalog of 20 million songs, 4 million have never been played once. Gizmodo reported this claim by saying that this was “music that nobody wants to listen to.” This kind of equation that says that because something isn’t racking up numbers on Spotify means that nobody wants to listen to it is not only wrong, it’s insulting. More and more musicians are pulling their work from those services, most saying that they can’t make any money there and that free data devalues the market overall.
I have seen this steady decline in the opportunities for both performance and payment over the years give rise to no small amount of bitterness and resentment among some professionals. They see vast fortunes being made by a small number of performers and middlemen selling what most regard as mediocre, often clownish entertainment, while skilled artists of what is often called (unfortunately, to my mind) America’s Classical Music are so marginalized that few actually make a living with the music itself. Most rely on teaching or working in the regular, wage-slave economy. Again, this has been a long and drawn out process for musicians. The same process is now happening (or has been for about 10 years) for writers and photographers who used to work as journalists.
I have no solution to this problem. We are in the midst of a vast cultural shift and no one really knows, nor can they know, what the landscape will look like once it settles down.
It has also been my experience with musicians that, in general, they are not what we would call ‘early adopters’. In fact the force of tradition in the musical community is a very powerful one. Most musicians and composers of the avant-garde spend a good part of their lifetimes as exiles from the traditional community. In a regular industry, the avant-garde are called the innovators and are generally recognized and rewarded for their positive, creative work. Not so in the music world. The strength of conservatism tends to carry over to technology. It took two decades and the passing of a generation for computer-based equipment to enter the realm of acceptable instrumentation, regardless of its apparent ubiquity now.
When I attempt to discuss what may be new, or actually renewed approaches to creative work, I’m often met with appeals to ‘what should be’ and ‘how it used to be.’ And to be fair, sometimes I’m simply talking about technological systems that are unfamiliar, unknown, and/or untested in the creative community. However, there are aspects of this that are interesting, having to do with technology and cultural behavior.
First and least interesting is the process of lowering expectations. Most serious musicians have already undergone this process and have been forced to accept the reality that it is next to impossible to support oneself as a creative artist in the United States. This is not new. But the rise of the superstar in the mass-market music industry and the gross misapplication of wealth have nevertheless produced a veiled jealousy among some who work in the creative fields and are effectively locked out of that industrial process. Where money is, resentment blooms. And I have no solution to this problem either. I have written elsewhere that Music is Worthless.
But I think it is becoming clear that for both creative musicians and now also for journalists the phenomenon of the aggregator, the principle threat to the legacy industries, as an honest and fair intermediary is not going to work, if for no other reason than that it is part of that industrial mass-market system itself. For musicians, this means streamers like Spotify, Pandora and others are useless as direct generators of revenue. For journalists, this means that, as it is, there will be no added revenue regardless of how many times your work is repeated by any number of other aggregators. I run a small aggregator myself with the Paper.li technology (http://paper.li/paxlupo) and currently there is no way for the original authors to be paid for the redistribution of their work.
But there can be, and the technology does exist in nascent form with micropayments made possible by using Bitcoin itself or with a platform such as Flattr.com. Now I want to say very clearly that I have some issues with Flattr and it is far from perfect, but I do think it is moving in the right direction. That direction is one that encourages voluntary contributions made directly to creators. Using Bitcoin, the whole problem of an intermediary service like Flattr is eliminated because Bitcoin is both the platform and the currency. For musicians it is a simple matter of putting a bitcoin address on your website, Bandcamp, Soundcloud or other hosting service where you already post your work and probably receive nothing for it; you consider it advertising. In performance it means simply posting or projecting a QR code at the gig. For the journalist it is simply a matter of including your Bitcoin address (or QR code) along with your by-line in such a way that it stays with your work no matter how many times it gets bounced; in fact the more bounces the better. But Bitcoin is currently not very user-friendly, though that’s changing. It still has very marginal use and must be converted to fiat currency for any practical purpose. When the day arrives that you can pay your electric bill with Bitcoin that will be great, but we’re not there yet. Flattr on the other hand deals in standard national currencies as well as Bitcoin, but as it is implemented now the main drawbacks are its service fees, its inability to designate specific amounts to specific artists, and its poor adoption in the US. It also has an added technical difficulty for writers of incorporating the Flattr button code on to the originator’s blog or website and it is unclear to me if that code will survive the aggregation process. Nevertheless, the technology is there, at least in basic form, to enable micropayments directly from users to creators.
This brings us to the cultural aspect of the process. The current model has creators negotiating or otherwise determining the cost to the consumer up front. Money is exchanged before the product or performance is delivered. But in free data world, almost no one will pay anymore for music they haven’t heard. For journalists, this is the problem with paywalls. Internet consumers are reluctant to pay for what might be behind that wall. I recently saw speculation that a mass layoff of writers and photographers at the Palm Beach Post was not because of the internet, but because of a paywall recently put up by the newspaper in an attempt to generate revenue. The argument was that by putting up a paywall and shutting people out, they lost click-through ad revenue. Who knows? But it’s pretty clear that unless you’re the New York Times, Washington Post or Bloomberg Financial, paywalls don’t work. Even if they manage to work for the company, content creators are still looking at a legacy industry with a collapsing workforce.
But given that all real artists of any discipline do what they do by nature, meaning that they must create to be who they are, then it is incumbent on the culture to find a way of rewarding them, rather than it being the artists responsibility to figure out how to get paid. Let me repeat that: it is the responsibility of the people to reward the artist, not the responsibility of the artist to coerce the people. In short, I believe it is imperative that the relationship between artist and populace be returned to one of mutual respect. This is definitely not what we have today. What we have today is widespread disrespect of artists as creators, and disrespect of audiences as intelligent, aware beings who are our neighbors. So what I am suggesting is that we need to move toward a culture that says “thank you” rather than a culture that says “fuck you.”
How do we do that? We see in our culture already that for some, like food servers, cabbies, valets, porters, barbers, and it was recently pointed out to me, strippers, it is customary for an individual and personal exchange of money called a tip to occur. This seems to occur with occupations where it is known that both the wage system isn’t fair and a personal service is performed. What makes some professions fall into this category and other not, I don’t know. But it is obvious that for creative artists, the wage system is not in operation and yet a valuable personal (and social) service is being done. I’ve seen audiences paste money on a sweating King Sunny Ade. Nusrat Fatah Ali Kahn had a dedicated person on stage during the performance to collect the freely given tribute to a great master. In some cultures, this expression of “thank you” still exists for artists.
While I do not know how we get to that ‘thank you’ mode in our society, I do think it is necessary for artists to help create that environment through the use of the dignified request. They must help with the process of asking. And they must investigate the methodologies to make voluntary giving possible by experimenting with and adopting developing micropayment systems like Bitcoin and Flattr, or with more large scale up-front models like Kickstarter or Indigogo, which are appropriate for defined projects with specific objectives. In either case, it is on the foundation of mutual respect that this new economy must be built. Nobody is going to get rich this way. We won’t get to the Promised Land, but we just might get somewhere more comfortable than where we are now.
Thank You for your consideration.
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