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.
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