In most fields of human endeavor, increasing computerization has been accompanied by some kind of critical evaluation of the possibilities that technology affords and those that it forecloses, of the potential good or harm that attends technological mediation. But in music, arguably the field of human experience most profoundly transformed by the new digital technologies, this type of examination has yet to take place. Rather, it seems that if the technology provides a specific capability, it is inherently good, or it must become the new standard. I am not suggesting that there is nothing worthwhile in the new musical situation – it would be difficult, having worked in the music business for many years, to mourn a system that limited the range of music possibilities that reached the market or that routinely denied creative artists the financial rewards of their work. But to claim that new developments are inherently democratic or that they constitute a form of freedom obscures, rather than illuminates, the underlying social conditions and aesthetic ramifications. Music’s material integration with the new technology has been largely accomplished. The question is whether or not technological mastery itself is becoming the dominant criterion of aesthetic value.
Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently appeared on CounterSpin (1/6/12) to talk about SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). In the course of her remarks, she made a concise statement of the prevailing common sense:
“… what’s also troubling is this claim that you hear over and over, that in our brave new world, artists can no longer survive. And that’s empirically untrue. In fact what we are seeing is that more people are more able to get their creative expression out to a broader public than ever before. And the artists that are taking advantage of new technologies are doing just fine. The folks that aren’t doing as well are the old media companies that are committed to an old business model…. that’s organized around finding the next Lady Gaga and the next Britney Spears. But if you are in fact an artist or if you’re a musician you have all kinds of new ways to reach out directly to your public and you don’t need a production company to do that anymore. And that’s fantastic for artists.”
Talking to musicians presents a much more complex picture of their changing conditions of work, one that challenges the happy narrative of artistic freedom and democratic access projected onto new technological means.
Contrary to McSherry, most of the creative musicians I know are not “surviving” if that means being able to make a modest living from their work, while the big media companies seem to be doing “just fine.” For musicians, there is less work and the work that is available doesn’t pay well.
While concert tours may still be lucrative for those at the very top of the pay scale, a well-known Latin and jazz drummer told me that the going rate for club dates in Manhattan has dropped steadily over the last few years and is now less than half of what it used to be. The painful joke among established alternative-rock musicians in Washington, DC is that playing music is becoming a hobby rather than a profession. Touring opportunities are shrinking, as ticket prices soar, and other sources of funding for music festivals have almost disappeared in Europe and elsewhere.
According to a prominent producer of jazz, Latin and world music, 80% of the professional recording studios in NYC have closed, as musicians are expected to produce music on home computers, shrinking their potential income from studio work of all kinds, including commercial jingles and sound-track recordings. These sources of income for individual musicians are not replaced by online sales of music or the exploitation of licenses for performing rights, and it’s only going to get worse. The song you downloaded on iTunes for $.99 nets $.70 for the record company, much less for the artist (unless s/he owns both the song and the recording). Streaming the same song from a service like Spotify generates only a fraction of a penny in revenue. And of course, a great deal of music online is free.
What the Internet has afforded the big media companies, on the other hand, is the minimization of risk. Major record companies used to produce hundreds of albums a year in the hope that 2 or 3 would be hits. Now, they simply pick up bands that already have a proven, indeed quantifiable, audience. What’s more, they have outsourced their Artist and Repertoire (A&R) departments, which used to be responsible for recruiting, developing and investing in new talent. So of course they’re still looking for the next Lady Gaga, but rather than taking the trouble to troll the clubs and listen for something fresh or exciting, they’ll find her pre-packaged and risk-free online. A&R decisions at most major companies were often terribly constrained, but at least there was room for a different kind of judgment than the unforgiving quantization of the Internet.
In addition, while the major companies have lost sales of material product and direct sales to consumers, they have now more than made up for it in business to business licensing, primarily in advertising and other forms of sponsorship. The Performing Rights Society for Music in the UK claimed that “non-physical” earnings represented 41% of music company revenues last year. The effort to control copyright is linked to this growing profitability. But arguments that the elimination of copyright is somehow an inevitable outgrowth of the kinds of artistic freedoms afforded by the Internet, or that it would wrest control from the major companies without consequences to artists, are deeply flawed.
For instance, Vince Carducci wrote here:
“The objection to all of this, of course, is the claim that to allow unfettered access to the creative productions of others is to prevent them from realizing their right to the fruits of their labor. The functionalist reply is that in fact very few creators actually own the right to profit from their work, which instead is usually held by the distributors.”
If Carducci means distributors proper, as in companies that buy music from producers and sell them to retailers, then the claim is patently false – the only rights distributors have to the product is the right to sell it.
If he’s using “distributors” in a more general sense of “producers” or anyone who is not the artist, per se, then the claim is wrong on other grounds. To the extent that the big media companies represent only a small fraction of the (most profitable) musical groups and more and more musicians are self-produced, they most often retain the rights to their work.
But if we go back to the subtext of McSherry’s remarks, something besides accuracy is at stake. What does it mean for an artist to be doing “just fine”? Making a living? Making good art? Or is it a function solely of a deployment of specific technical means? And how shall we categorize musicians: according to their aesthetic aspirations or their ability to realize them, or based on whether or not they have mastered the new technology? What if their art requires different technical capabilities, ones not afforded by cheap digital sound recording in a DIY basement studio? Further, is immediacy, the ability to reach one’s public directly, an inherent social or aesthetic good? Or does it privilege those with technological competency over others whose primary skill is making music?
In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that in a technological society, the traditional link between art, philosophy and science is severed. Art becomes subordinated to technics, “beautifying its business and its misery.” (239) The more our “common sense” associates artistic success not with aesthetic criteria but with the utilization of specific technical means, the harder it will become to reverse this relationship and, as Marcuse suggests, use art in the scientific and technological transformation of the world.