Pi­rated mu­sic is free, but artists pay a price


The In­ter­net rev­o­lu­tion has a hu­man cost. A case in point: Levon Helm was a mem­ber of the Band, a coun­try­rock group that played with Bob Dy­lan. He once made a good in­come from roy­al­ties, but then the money dried up. Peo­ple still liked his mu­sic, but now they lis­tened to it on the In­ter­net. Af­ter Helm was di­ag­nosed with throat cancer, he strug­gled to pay his med­i­cal bills. When he died in 2012, his friends held a ben­e­fit con­cert so his wife wouldn’t lose their house.

Jonathan Taplin tells this story in his im­pas­sioned new book, “Move Fast and Break Things.” Taplin is a for­mer tour man­ager for Dy­lan and the Band as well as a film pro­ducer. He has had a front-row seat to the dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion of the mu­sic and film in­dus­tries, and he is fu­ri­ous about it.

A few years ago, Taplin had a pub­lic de­bate with Red­dit founder Alexis Oha­nian, ap­par­ently a proud down­loader of free mu­sic and movies. Oha­nian said mu­si­cians like Helm should make money from tour­ing, not old record­ings. Taplin was ap­palled. In an at­tempt to make amends, the Red­dit founder wrote an open let­ter to Taplin, of­fer­ing to “make right what the mu­sic in­dus­try did to mem­bers of The Band.” Oha­nian sug­gested hon­or­ing Helm with a new al­bum that would be funded on Kick­starter and launched on Red­dit.

Taplin did not like this idea, to put it mildly. In an open let­ter of his own, he ac­cused Oha­nian of cel­e­brat­ing the blood­suck­ing pi­rates who made mil­lions off of mu­si­cians’ la­bor. He called Kick­starter a “vir­tual beg­ging bowl.” Taplin con­cluded: “Take your char­ity and shove it. Just let us get paid for our work and stop de­cid­ing that you can uni­lat­er­ally make it free.” Oha­nian did not re­spond.

This ex­change, de­tailed in Taplin’s book, pro­vides a good il­lus­tra­tion of the au­thor’s ar­gu­ing style. His prose is bold, en­ter­tain­ing and oc­ca­sion­ally over the top. But his over­all point is an im­por­tant one. Many hoped that the In­ter­net would have a de­moc­ra­tiz­ing and de­cen­tral­iz­ing ef­fect. In­stead, Taplin ar­gues, power be­came con­cen­trated in a small num­ber of dig­i­tal giants, such as Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Be­zos, owns The Wash­ing­ton Post), Face­book and Google.

This “win­ner take all” sce­nario also ap­plies to artists. Peo­ple may be con­sum­ing more con­tent than ever, but most cre­ators aren’t reap­ing the gains. Part of the prob­lem is piracy, but the stream­ing mu­sic busi­ness isn’t help­ing much, ei­ther. Spo­tify, for ex­am­ple, doesn’t pay artists very much. In 2015, Taplin notes, “vinyl record sales gen­er­ated more in­come for mu­sic cre­ators than the bil­lions of mu­sic streams on YouTube and its ad-sup­ported com­peti­tors.”

Not ev­ery­one would agree with Taplin’s gloomy as­sess­ment. In a re­cent New York Times ar­ti­cle, tech­nol­ogy colum­nist Farhad Man­joo ar­gued that the In­ter­net is sav­ing cul­ture, not killing it. “Dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy is let­ting in new voices, cre­at­ing new for­mats for ex­plo­ration, and al­low­ing fans and other cre- ators to par­tic­i­pate in a glo­ri­ous remix­ing of the work,” Man­joo wrote. Peo­ple are start­ing to pay for mu­sic, movies and even news. Man­joo ac­knowl­edged that it has been hard to make a liv­ing off of stream­ing, but some artists are find­ing a work­around. “Thanks to Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter, artists can now es­tab­lish close re­la­tion­ships with their fans. They can sell mer­chan­dise and of­fer spe­cial fan-only pro­mo­tions and con­tent,” Man­joo wrote. They can use sites like Pa­treon, which al­low fans to di­rectly sub­scribe to artists.

Taplin paints a far more dystopian pic­ture of tech­nol­ogy’s ef­fect on cul­ture. The In­ter­net might cre­ate break­out stars, but they are far from the norm. In some cases, we’d be bet­ter off with­out them. Taplin points to PewDiePie, a since-dis­graced YouTube celebrity who racked up bil­lions of views with posts of him­self play­ing video games. “The In­ter­net rev­o­lu­tion was sup­posed to usher in a new age of dig­i­tal democ­racy, open­ing up dis­tri­bu­tion pipe­lines to any­one with tal­ent,” Taplin ar­gues. “But what are we to make of a teenage phe­nom whose sole tal­ent is play­ing a video game? . . . Have the four hun­dred hours of video up­loaded to YouTube ev­ery minute pro­duced the new Scors­ese or Cop­pola? Could it be that the eco­nomics of ‘more’ is drown­ing us in a sea of medi­ocrity?”

Taplin of­fers var­i­ous pre­scrip­tions to help artists sur­vive in the In­ter­net age. Right now, it’s too easy for peo­ple to post pi­rated clips on YouTube. Taplin rec­om­mends that the Li­brary of Congress is­sue a pre­cise def­i­ni­tion of fair use, and YouTube clips that do not fit this def­i­ni­tion should stay blocked. He sug­gests that artists run a video and au­dio stream­ing site as a non­profit co­op­er­a­tive, giv­ing artists a lion’s share of the rev­enue. He also ad­vo­cates for the cre­ation of a good pub­lic me­dia sys­tem, in part to be­come less de­pen­dent on ad­ver­tis­ers that avoid edgy ma­te­rial. As Taplin writes, “Imag­ine Pi­casso hav­ing to per­suade an ex­ec­u­tive at Pernod to sup­port his ear­li­est cu­bist paint­ings.” He of­fers other rec­om­men­da­tions as well.

“Move Fast and Break Things” aims to be a cor­rec­tive to the techno-utopian be­lief that the In­ter­net is fun­da­men­tally a lib­er­at­ing and de­moc­ra­tiz­ing force. But if the techno-utopi­ans get car­ried away in their ex­u­ber­ance, Taplin some­times veers too far in the other di­rec­tion.

He is at his strong­est when he pulls back the cur­tain on vague and lofty terms such as “dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion” to re­veal the ef­fects on in­di­vid­ual artists. Let’s hope this book makes peo­ple think twice about how their be­hav­ior shapes dig­i­tal cul­ture. We don’t have to click on click­bait. We can choose not to down­load pi­rated con­tent, and we can choose to buy mu­sic from sites that pay artists fairly. The In­ter­net is not in­her­ently good or bad. The In­ter­net is us. Emily Parker, a Fu­ture Tense fel­low at New Amer­ica, is the au­thor of “Now I Know Who My Com­rades Are: Voices From the In­ter­net Un­der­ground.”


Levon Helm, with his band in 2009, saw his roy­alty in­come drop as fans turned to free mu­sic on­line.

By Jonathan Taplin Lit­tle, Brown. 308 pp. $29

MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS How Face­book, Google, and Amazon Cor­nered Cul­ture and Un­der­mined Democ­racy

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