Atlas Shrugged

Before we start, Objectivists will find this blog irrelevant.

At this years Canadian Music Week, I attended a panel that featured a speech by my friend Graham Henderson, a well respected member of the music community. He started out as a entertainment attorney, spent some time at Universal Music and has been the head of Music Canada for several years. Graham was my lawyer for many years and is a kind and generous man and also extremely intelligent.

The panel began with Graham giving a passionate talk about the present inequity of the music business with the technology companies in the hot seat as the new villains. Graham used Ayn Rand’s classic novel The Fountainhead as the example of the sort of unregulated capitalism that You Tube et al demonstrate with their business practices. The artist is in the familiar position of being the cattle lead to slaughter by the boss man. At a time when artists are fighting over pennies while You Tube and Spotify and other social media/streaming sites are raking in billions, I suppose one could invoke the kind of Darwinian capitalism Ayn Rand espoused.

What I believe the panel, which also included Songwriters Association of Canada President, Eddie Schwartz,  was telling me was that the industry cut a bunch of bad deals with technology companies, post-Napster, to keep them semi-afloat that, as usual, kept the musicians and songwriters at the bottom of the heap. Now, people like Graham are lobbying to sweeten these deals so that artists will get two crumbs instead of one. A solution to a crisis.

Except that the story is much older than that. The misunderstanding of who creates the wealth in the music business is as old as popular music and the recording industry. The music business has long been in denial as to which side their bread has been buttered. Think of the music business as a fridge. While no one doubts the value of the refrigerator, it’s utility depends on whether you have any food you need to keep cold. Otherwise, its a big clunky thing taking up space in your kitchen. I’ve often described someone in the music business with no music to sell as a food-less fridge. If there wasn’t any music to sell, what would they do? Stare at a phone, sharpen their pencils, go for lunch with people who aren’t musicians? Without musicians and songwriters, there is no business-none. Artists have never figured this out and since the supply of artists has always been plentiful, most have felt grateful to have their 15 minutes of fame, which for most of them, is all they get. The music industry happily cashed in on this renewable resource for 3/4 of a century until Napster changed the game.

The goal, expressed or unexpressed, of almost every artist I’ve ever met is to get signed. Get a record deal, a publishing deal, a manager, an agent, a number one record etc. When your goals are business goals, it puts the business people in the drivers seat. So no wonder they believe they are running things. And they are. The point remains, the artist can survive without the business but the business cannot survive without the artist. So how can artists use this to their advantage?

Today’s world, the world that Graham was railing against, works on the concept of exposure. That if someone can bring what you do to some kind of major attention, then and only then are you able to make money. Which is to say, your content has no intrinsic value, your song, your video, your article for Huff Post or your speech at any number of conferences being held daily across North America. This is something different than the old model which was, we can take your raw (quantifiable) potential, invest in it, market it, then when we find an audience for it, we can take most of the money. The good thing about that was, the artist almost always got something good in that deal. And while the artist has also largely been judged by the marketplace, there has always been an idea of something being of the highest quality even if it wasn’t the most popular thing. But in the world of social media your status is completely measured by clicks, likes, subscribers, views.  In fact, many of the people making it on You Tube are largely the mutant offspring of Seinfeld’s fictional show about nothing.

I should say that I think You Tube is awesome. Not just awesome, incredibly awesome. It has given many people a voice who wouldn’t have one. It contains a staggering amount of useful information.  I can now fix my fridge. Mrs. Berg has a very successful You Tube channel that has allowed her to get her message to the world and pursue a lifestyle of her choice. The democratization of culture that You Tube allows has been liberating. This is in addition to all the great music on it. But the new exposure culture has also done a slight of hand with things of value. Its idea of free and freedom doesn’t apply to itself. While the exposure culture leaders are trying to convince creators their content has little monetary value, they are getting fabulously wealthy.

The Fountainhead reference made me think of the next Ayn Rand novel, which is Atlas Shrugged. For those who may have waded through it’s 1000+ pages, it involves the ‘great minds’ of the world going on strike. Based on what I was hearing at this panel, I started thinking, this was a great idea. What if all the musical artists stopped supplying content to the technology companies. What if they told their audience, the only way you can hear our music is to come and see us perform it live? They would not be releasing any new music to any technology or streaming sites. Of course, the only way this works is if everybody does it. So Radiohead and Chance The Rapper and Beyonce and every other band that could make these companies hurt would have to join the revolution. Then anyone who is able to would take down any of their pre existing content.

The best thing is that I believe the fans would buy in. They would see this as their heroes’ struggle and they would want to join the cause. And, most artists have already discovered that playing live is the only real way to make money anyhow.

Both Graham and Eddie Schwartz assured me that it couldn’t happen because of the binding agreements artists and record companies have signed with streaming and other social media sites. I didn’t really know what they were talking about but I couldn’t help but wonder what artists/record companies got from these agreements. Deals in the main make sense when everyone gets something. Even in the old days of the record company Camelot, often an artist would get a bit rich along side their bosses. But a deal where the artist gets nothing sounds like indentured servitude.

So based on what I heard that day artists, or their rights holders, the labels/publishers, have forsaken all the of the gains artists made in the ’70’s and we are back in the ’50’s again. This is why the strike makes sense. Maybe some of the rights and money can be clawed back through political means but most people who are making music today might be past their prime by then. Would the artists have to break the law or risk being sued for this to work? Maybe. Revolutions often involve a bit of blood. But I have a feeling a strike wouldn’t take long to change things. Faced with an empty fridge, the technology companies might throw a few pennies at the content providers to keep the food supply plentiful.

Nice to think about but I know this idea is bizarre, fantasy. Just like an Ayn Rand novel.

 


2 Responses to “Atlas Shrugged”

Leave a Reply