The Snuggie thing

edited May 2011 in Music Industry 2.0
(On the off chance you don't know what I'm talking about, read this post on JoCo's blog. I'll wait.)

When I listened to the NPR Planet Money podcast last week, I was not outraged over the "Snuggie" comparison--I mostly thought that was funny. I was, however, irked that the cohosts seemed to entirely miss the point of new model music industry, and professed complete ignorance of any artists who are succeeding without labels in this era.

Jonathan's excellent blog post has been stirring up a furor--I have seen it gaining him new fans, as well as raising support from his faithful followers. I was delighted to see another of my musical idols, Zoe Keating, weighing in on the debate and posting about it to her legions of Twitter followers.

I don't find blog comment threads to be ideal places for true discussion, but I'm interested in talking about some of the issues raised by Jonathan and the ensuing commentary. Anyone want to join?


  • edited May 2011
    At the risk of slightly thread-jacking out of the gate, I feel I need to comment on NPR's consistent lack of social and technological savvy. It's as if they remain stuck 10-15 years behind current media trends. Their dismissal of "alternate" (though increasingly popular) forms of musical distribution is an obvious symptom of this.

    Yesterday they aired a review of the LA Noire video game and spent most of the segment joking about how silly it was they were reviewing a game, how difficult it was to turn on a Playstation (incredibly, they employed the phrase "how to turn the darn thing on"), how no one they brought along to review the game had ever played a video game before, and ultimately threw in the towel altogether by employing the skills of a 15 year old to help them navigate the rocky shoals of a controller with more than four buttons on it. The review of actual game content was about 30 seconds of the 4 minute segment.

    They simply should not report on media. They continually demonstrate a deep ignorance and fear of the new, with derision their chosen defense mechanism. Yes, their target audience skews older, but many more of us young-uns (and I use that term with a looseness bordering on the ridiculous) have turned to NPR for our primary news and don't appreciate being marginalized. Whether they learn this lesson or appreciate its value is unknowable, but I have little hope.
  • At the risk of slightly thread-jacking out of the gate, I feel I need to comment on NPR's consistent lack of social and technological savvy
    I would hardly call that a threadjack. I think it goes to the core of the problem. They use definitions of success in music from 10 years ago. I think it is very telling that they are unable to even figure out how to play a modern video game on something as simple as a console.

    To me, it boils down to this: JoCo is making a comfortable living doing something he loves. How can this not be considered an outstanding success?
  • edited May 2011
    At the risk of slightly thread-jacking out of the gate, I feel I need to comment on NPR's consistent lack of social and technological savvy. It's as if they remain stuck 10-15 years behind current media trends
    "My name is Peter Sagal and I cling to an early-20th-century technology."
  • SemiEvolvedSimian >> I actually disagree on one point with you. I entirely agree that they have no freaken idea what they're doing, however I think that that means they SHOULD do more reporting on New Media (if, indeed, a PS3 can still be called "new media"), because having to do that style of reporting is the one and only way they'll ever grow a clue what any of it is about (or be motivated to hire someone who's already got one), and that's what we'd all ultimately benefit the most from .

    Grimoire >> Someone on Twitter pointed out that "successful musician" in recent years has apparently come to apply only to someone who sells a hundred million albums and regularly fills stadiums - and I think that's what had the NPR Clueless Brigade confused; JoCo is someone who does not at all conform to the definition of "success" as set in the era of giant, monopolistic record-labels and pre-digital distribution.
  • edited May 2011
    I entirely agree that they have no freaken idea what they're doing, however I think that that means they SHOULD do more reporting on New Media
    I see your point, but I disagree that the LA Noire story was a step forward in their evolution (or that this is the engine for change they should be employing). The piece they produced spent more time deriding the existence of video games than discussing the game itself. That's an editorial choice. Anyone who knows anything about actual reporting will tell you that reporters are trained to become credible-sounding experts on any subject in 10 minutes. This reporter chose not to do any research beforehand because that was the editorially pre-ordained angle on the story. Such a point of view comes from seriously outmoded opinions on media, including video games as "legitimate" entertainment or (getting back to the original point) independent digital distribution as a viable business model.

    I agree that they need to work harder on understanding and reporting "new" media, but serious reporting needs to be an editorial priority. Their lazy preparation for these pieces bespeaks a lack of respect as much as a lack of understanding, and it's the lack of respect that I find most frustrating.
  • edited May 2011
    Such a point of view comes from seriously outmoded opinions on media, including video games as "legitimate" entertainment or (getting back to the original point) independent digital distribution as a viable business model.
    Possibly relevant to forming new opinions and generally understanding "new" media (especially seeing video games as "legitimate entertainment") is this quote from an interview with Stephen Merchant, (Portal 2 spoilers on that page, but not copied below) who voiced the character of Wheatley in Portal 2 (and is thus tangentially JoCo related as well, since he wrote the credits song). I think this does an excellent job of describing that first "A-ha!" moment where you realize that new media is still media (emphasis mine):
    "But now I've been very pleased by the response people have had to [Portal 2]. What I was really pleased by how people seemed to respond to it in the way they do with a movie they've enjoyed, or a TV show they've enjoyed. They seemed to respond to it as entertainment. It never occurred to me that people would respond to it in the way they do with other stuff I've done. I felt like, Oh, actually this is a really legitimate, creative art form now. Video games have expanded and developed and are so sophisticated right now that, yes, of course, they rank alongside movies and whatever else people really take to their hearts."
  • I recently had a conversation with my dad about this, I was explaining that as technology becomes more ubiquitous, media will be less focused on immediate profits and more on advertising. I estimated that in about 20 years, no-one would buy any media at all, it would just be free. Like a CD in a cereal packet, it's main purpose is to get you to buy the cereal. We can already see this in big label music: you can go to youtube and find high quality music videos for most major artists, uploaded by themselves! It's a combination of generating publicity and advertising revenue from Google. If you have unfiltered internet, why bother buying and downloading music when you can get it all on Grooveshark? And that's paid for by just one banner ad and optional premium features!

    Dad was adamant that the new, decentralised media would be of a lower quality than that controlled by big corporations, but I replied that, in effect, it would still be funded by them, as they would pay for the advertising. And decentralisation allowed for easier entry into the media, giving consumers greater choice and having more competition in the business. Best of all, the consumer would not have to pay directly, instead they would be spend more, generally, which would improve their living standard and the economy.

    I hope that's relevant.
  • I said I wanted a discussion, and I haven't had time to discuss anything! Hopefully everyone else hasn't gotten bored yet, because I still haven't managed to work my thoughts on the issue into something coherent.

    The definition of "success" is one of the unaddressed questions that interested me in this episode. Jonathan implied in his post that the oft-evaded income figure was released in the hopes of proving that success via the internet can mean more than "starving artist." There is never going to be only one bar for success--some people are content with the not-quite-starving artist role--but how prevalent is it really to believe that one is only a success after acquiring a private jet and Tom Cruise levels of fame? @Grimoire, skyen: you're right that Frannie and Jacob were using a poor yardstick for success in this podcast, but are they in the majority or are we?

    I don't listen to NPR, but I believe CBC Radio is a close approximate. Over the past few years I've listened with a kind of amused tolerance to CBCr2's attempts to embrace new media, with attitudes often similar to the NPR music bloggers. It's sadly easy to tell the difference between enthusiastic early adopters and those who are being told to evolve. I do not celebrate the demise of "old media" because I still see the value of infrastructure and budget in disseminating ideas, but in retrospect it amazes me that it took so many industries so long to see how the tides were changing. I think there's a natural human tendency to believe that one's personal experiences represent The Way Things Always Were and Always WIll Be. If you look at history, the economic climate and the specifics of how to succeed never remain constant; there is always going to be a New Model, and it will likely always be dismissed by those who are doing well the old way.

    Probably my favourite comment on the blog was this one from Tori Adams, an economist:
    Historically most musicians never made much money — music was “free”. Anyone with talent that knew a song could sing it and try to get paid. People probably didn’t have all the music they wanted – most of it was probably pretty bad and unless you happened to have a talented musician in your community you could call on whenever you wanted, you didn’t get enough of it. Only when a rich patron or large music hall appeared could musicians make big money and only the very rich got all the music they wanted (e.g., Louis XVII could listen to a string quartet in perfect fidelity at any time).

    Then technology changed and music (along with a lot of things) became industrialized and was pumped out to mass audiences. People could afford a lot more music and musicians that were popular could earn a lot of money (they did loose variety as they did with other industrialized products but the quality/quantity issues made the trade worth it). Furthermore, the industrialized producers of music (i.e., the labels) made a ton of money too. Ultimately the drive to meet the demand for music meant that the cost fell effectively to zero – when a little extra bit of technology came in and supplies could no longer enforce their property rights, the industrial model collapsed.

    At this point, musicians and labels found their monopolistic, rent-seeking model didn’t work. What was actually happening was that music was becoming pre-industrial again. The only way to make big bucks is a big concert hall or a rich patron. What Jonathan and others found were a series of little patrons – for the privilege of being given tremendous access and enjoying his music, we are prepared to pay him to do whatever he likes in the hope that it turns out to be something we like (just like Mozart in Vienna).

    Seen from this perspective, industrialized music was a roughly 100 year phenomena that started with the phonograph and entered with digital revolution. The label had their day and are on their way out.
    (The original comment is even longer and more interesting, but I'm already going ridiculously long with this. I suggest reading the whole thing, especially if the concept of economic rents is confusing out of context.)

    (This will apparently be several posts. I am 4153 characters too long.)
  • Continuing...

    While doing some reading on all this I came across a great article by Mike Masnick that champions new model artists like JoCo (and says some of the exact things that Jonathan and Zoe Keating have been saying over the past week about what their business model actually is.) The article is more than a year old but is still garnering comments, many of which make interesting points as well. From the article:
    stop worrying and learn to embrace the business models that are already helping musicians make plenty of money and use file sharing to their advantage, even in the absence of licensing or copyright enforcement.

    In simplest terms, the model can be defined as:

    Connect with Fans (CwF) + Reason to Buy (RtB) = The Business Model
    Most of us probably know that this discussion is old, old news; most of the outrage is that for every Mike Masnick there seems to be an old media NPR blogger who doesn't "get it," leaving Jonathan to answer the same old questions about why his success isn't just a one-time lucky break. That said...

    @hammil: your comment is absolutely relevant. There's a lot of interesting issues that come out of this situation: if labels go extinct, who is going to filter the "good" artists out from the rest? Few people have time to troll the internet for hours to find new music. Who's going to pay for the expensive production techniques we're used to hearing in professional music? If the corporations are still going to fund music, how are they getting paid? Frannie and Jacob from NPR did a terrible job of arguing that the internet was bad for musicians, but it's clearly bad for labels--but what about artists who want labels to shoulder some of the work? Can they benefit as much as JoCo? The technofuturists often ignore the fact that there is collateral damage in this revolution; JoCo's example won't work for every artist. As our own SRDownie commented:
    Now is a better time to be a musician, or a fan of music, than any other time in all of human history. Discuss…

    It depends on the type of music and the type of musician. For symphony orchestra players who have to keep their chops razor sharp to perform the “classical” literature, probably not. Contributions are down and grants are disappearing. Worse, “classical” players now have to “compete” with decades of recordings of the “classical” literature.

    For jazzers, probably not, particularly for larger ensembles. The more people involved, the more difficult it becomes. Sure you can record jazz, but at its best, jazz is an interaction between the players, the audience, and its environment. Since venues that primarily feature jazz are disappearing, the jazz scene is no longer a thriving one.

    For individuals and small groups who aim to play easily accessible, relatively straightforward short pieces for an audience whose musical tastes are generally “unrefined” and whose attention spans are short, then this is most likely a better time to be a musician.
    Additionally, I'm a little disappointed that so few people--in comments, on Twitter, anywhere I could find--addressed the very interesting questions Jonathan posed near the end of his post. (Formatting added to improve readability)
    [...] before we decide if the internet is “good or bad,” there are some really important questions we should try to answer first. I don’t know the answer to any of these, but I sure am curious to find out.
    1. How much money is actually being made in this space that never gets tracked as part of the music industry?
    2. What percentage of full time professional artists are making a living, and how does that compare to the old record biz?
    3. From an economist’s perspective, is filesharing/piracy hurting artists, or just labels (or is it hurting anyone)?
    4. How can the people who used to work at labels continue to have careers bringing valuable services to artists now that the landscape has changed?
    5. What are the efficiency breakthroughs that we have yet to discover, who’s going to figure out how to profit from this shakeup?
    6. How can we rethink antiquated intellectual property laws in a way that continues to “promote the progress of science and useful arts?”
    I am excited to see the the Future of Music Coalition is looking into some of these.

    Ok. Those are a few of the things I've been thinking about. Discuss...
  • I was reading one of my webcomics, PvP online today and Scott Kurtz had some interesting things to say that parallel this discussion from the point of view of Webcomics vs. published comics. This year he and a few other web based cartoonists were invited to take part in the National Cartoonist Society’s annual Reuben Awards. Most of the published cartoonists there can see the writing on the wall for their medium and were eager to see and hear things from a different perspective.
    The models are so traditional that they are universally understood. Ours….not so much. Everyone who approached me about the webcomics panel asked why they didn’t talk more about how they make money. “Everyone wants to know how you guys make your money.” During the Reuben Award ceremony, I overheard a couple discussing the panel at our table. “Someone asked them how they build their readership and they said ‘word of mouth’ which means they don’t even know.”

    Ostensibly we do the same thing. We’re all cartoonists. But watching the NCS members in attendance at the Webcomics Seminar listening to Randall Munroe talk about how XKCD started, no wonder they don’t understand us. I don’t understand it myself. Randall is someone who accidentally became a cartoonist. During the panel Randall stated that he didn’t even know the doodles he was posting were comics until he started drawing boxes around them and people started identifying them that way.
    Obviously the interwebs are a game changer for many different mediums. It's interesting to see other artists dealing with the same situation.
  • Just an FYI, I actually did a couple posts on my blog providing my own thoughts on the 6 questions posed, and plan to do a third with a compare and contrast between Jonathan's model and the traditional model highlighting the similarities and key differences. They probably aren't particularly insightful, but you're welcome to check them out.
  • I notice that Kim Boekbinder has started preselling concerts so she can play where people want her. Basically, she doesn't book the venue till she has a good idea how many people are committed to coming to the show. Perhaps this is an idea JoCo could use for some of those scary areas in the midwest.
  • isn't that basically what JoCo does via eventful...?
  • Pretty much. This is probably why he doesn't come to my town :).
  • Eventful is more along the lines of "if I were to put on a show here, this is how many people would come"; it acts as a measuring stick to help determine where to go and what venue size would be needed, but nothing gets sold until something is booked. Kim's approach is more along the lines of crowd-funding; tickets are sold, and then the arrangements are made. Both have their merits, though I personally feel like Eventful is a better middle ground.
  • Yeah, definitely check out her Kickstarter page. In her video she explains how the whole thing works. In a smart move she is starting in New York. But Jonathan already knows he can fill a venue there. He could range out to like Omaha Nebraska or Salt Lake City, Utah. Places like that.
  • This touches on the old snuggie debate:

    Perhaps there's more to novelty artists They Might Be Giants, "Weird Al" Yankovic and Jonathan Coulton than just LOLs
  • Friend of mine writes fantasy novels full-time. Lots of titles in print, huge backlist. A few years back, one of her publishers (Baen) tried an experiment: put e-book versions in several formats of select backlist stories online for free (typically, these would be the first book in a trilogy/series). There were also CD-ROMs bundled with new hardcover books that had e-book versions of even more stories, with a sort of Creative Commons sharing license encouraging people to share the e-books with their friends, just don't charge for them.

    There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth that this was going to destroy publishing as the industry knew it, lead to rampant piracy (neat trick: pirate something that was released for free in the first place), etc.

    What's funny, though, is that my friend started checking her royalty statements, and she noticed that whenever she released a title into the Baen Free Library, hardcopy sales of that title (and both hardcopy and e-book sales of the rest of the series it was associated with) would increase. The other authors, as far as I know with very limited exception, noticed the same thing.

    Same with some musicians. Zoe Keating, Marian Call, MC Frontalot all use BandCamp or similar services to allow listeners to stream whole songs for free... but charge for the download. BandCamp uses an interesting "minimum price or more" setup -- you can pay the bare-bones minimum the artist selects, but you can also become a bit of Le Patron and pay *more* for it if you want. I know Zoe said she's had people pay $100 or more for an album download.

    Marian set up a Donor's Circle (sort of a home-brewed Kickstarter) to fund the recording and initial production of her upcoming (Real Soon Now!) double album "Something Fierce". The folks who donated at various levels got increasing perks as donation level went up, but more to the point, we got to see some music we really like from an artist we really like evolve from scratch demos to finished tracks to an entire album. And yeah, we knew up front that some of the money we donated would be going to things like food & shelter (necessary if the artist is going to be able to produce anything, after all), car repairs on her 49>50 Tour, health insurance (I know of a few folks who contributed specifically for that reason!) and the occasional visit to Waffle House (for extra Kid Rock ambiance). But here's the point: NONE, as far as I know, of the Donor's Circle contributors were surprised or even remotely offended by this. Want art? Gotta feed the artist. It's not like she's living in a mansion -- she shares a small rented (and barely insulated) cottage in Anchorage with a roommate and drives a Subaru that's on its 3rd or 4th windshield and has done the AlCan Highway (twice!!).

    But the point -- and even Amanda Palmer has been saying this -- is that art is worth compensation to the artist. The "New Model" of the independent artist, like Jonathan, Frontalot, Marian, Zoe, Paul & Storm, AFP, and others too numerous to mention, is using the near-universal reach of the internet to find people who enjoy and appreciate the art you produce, and are willing to part with some variable amount of money for it. Will it sell out Wembley Stadium? Probably not. But I've seen w00tstock 2.10 put a few hundred in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Zoe Keating fill up the House of Blues Houston's Bronze Peacock Room, and Marian's filled many a coffee shop, comics store, recital hall, small club, or even a living room or back yard for a house concert. And, most importantly, it's a model that works for these artists. They're able to make a living making art, without the overhead or constraint of a corporate record label.

    As patrons of these artists, I'm sure that many, like me, are working stiffs, not trust-fund babies, and the *directness* of our contributions allows us to see that our small contributions are efficiently used to fund the art, not lost in a maze of accountants, A&R types, ad campaigns, etc. that comes with conventional-business-model music and contributes little to the quality of the end product. It's that efficiency -- and okay, maybe a little "sticking it to The Man" -- that allows us to feel like we're contributing to something valuable and worthwhile.

    I don't care that Jonathan grossed $500K last year. I'm sure his net was not much more than 20% of that (and very probably less than 20%) after travel, recording expense, overhead for merch, taxes, etc. I know how small mom & pop businesses work and how slim the margins are, and what we're talking about here is the musical equivalent of the corner mom & pop store. It's an entrepreneurial model. What you hope for in this kind of business is a steady stream of repeat customers and a small but steady growth of new customers, and you try to keep your overhead low-low-low. And a lot of times, after you pay everyone who needs to be paid, there's little to nothing left to pay yourself. Seen it. Hell, lived it. But you keep doing it because people like it, and your customers keep coming back for more.
  • At PAX Jonathan specified that the net was a much, much different number from that $500K gross but didn't go into detail.
  • I'm glad he grossed 500K last year and I'm glad that my going to a bunch of his shows and buying a bunch of CDs helped make that possible. And I hope he makes a million dollars in 2011. 
  • Hmph.  Well, at least this time the backhanded compliments (or even outright snide remarks) were left out.  Alex strikes me as a pretty cool guy; Jacob and Frannie can still go suck a lemon.
  • Love the shout out to Level 4. We are so $100k.
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