Three years into the adventure that is Bollocks!, I feel like I’m pretty good at finding things to write about. But I also love it when people hand me things, perhaps with the knowledge that I will either bury those things in a molten sauce of disdain or raise them up on an uncomfortably high pillar of praise. Sure, it strokes my (perhaps too-healthy) ego to discover that some twisted souls out there actually want to know what I think about certain albums or developments in the music industry, but I also enjoy the challenge of articulating precisely why something pisses me off (or why something makes me want to jump up and down a lot).
My friend Maximillian tipped me off to this Planet Money podcast about Jonathan Coulton. The podcast features regular Planet Money host Alex Bloomberg gamely trying to convince NPR Music people Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelley that Coulton’s success is not a fluke but a sort of harbinger of a new way for artists to put their music out in the 21st century. Bloomberg apparently fails, for Kelley ends the podcast by comparing Coulton to a Snuggie.
Coulton has expertly handled a lot of this on his own blog in a response that is far more intelligent than the analysis of his career was on Planet Money. I’m not going to try to defend Coulton better than he did himself (honestly, it’s not possible), but Ganz and Kelley’s lame defense of the major label model got my dander up.
They began the podcast from the perspective that the internet was “bad” for artists and then they conveniently never stated exactly how it’s bad for artists. They trotted out the old chestnut about how nobody will buy albums now because they can steal them for free, and they repeated it in the face of the fact that people pay good fucking money for Jonathan Coulton’s music! I think Ganz and Kelley are making two very bad assumptions about people who make music and about people who listen to it.
First off, they define success in terms of things like “selling out Madison Square Garden” and getting songs on the radio. They somewhat snarkily mention so-called “middle-class” musicians who make a living but aren’t mega-stars like Justin Bieber. They seriously suggest that Justin Bieber is a better internet success story than Jonathan Coulton because a movie was made about his rise from the bacon-paved streets of Canada to selling out Madison Square Garden. They don’t discuss the possibility that, when Bieber and his fans pass through the acne-crusted crucible of adolescence and he can no longer hit the notes that made him rich, Coulton will still have a loyal fan base and make a comfortable living. Ganz and Kelley seem to assume that making a shitload of money is (and should be) the first priority of anyone who makes music. Contrast that with Coulton’s point of view: “Know only this: to do this you need to work extremely hard, make music that is great, and find people to buy it from you.” To be fair, I think Ganz and Kelley have a valid point that the major label system is a good way to become a megastar, but not everyone likes megastars.
The second assumption I hear in Ganz and Kelley’s foolish argument that the internet is bad for artists is that people will automatically buy something if they can’t get it for free. I keep waiting for this misguided notion to disappear and and it keeps not doing it, largely because people keep repeating it with no evidence to back it up (this is probably due to the fact that there is no evidence to back it up). While it might be true that some kids out there might purchase a Lady Gaga record if they couldn’t pirate it, there are plenty of folks who have an entire tier of their music collections that you could label “Shit I Wouldn’t Own in a Million Years if I Didn’t Get It for Free.” I’m not gonna moralize about this position, but I know that it exists. For my part, I could have easily downloaded the last two Radiohead albums but I purchased them to reward Radiohead for the way in which they’ve chosen to distribute their music. I buy albums from artists I like, especially if they’re on a label that tends to be more artist-friendly (I would sign to Kill Rock Stars today, by the way, but I don’t think they’re at all interested in putting out an album of weird folk songs inspired by Finnegans Wake). I think a lot of music fans are interested in putting money in a musician’s pocket but not necessarily in the pockets of major labels and I really don’t blame them – labels used to basically make indentured servants of their artists (read Return of the Last Gang in Town for a good discussion of how badly the Clash got fucked by their label in the beginning; or read Lowside of the Road to learn about how Elektra sent Tom Waits on tour playing two shows a night in front of hostile crowds) in order to make money.
In listening to the Planet Money podcast, I kept waiting for Ganz and Kelley to talk about the effect that legal downloading has on artist income. When they finally got around to it, all I heard was the brief mention that somehow, the ability to purchase songs for ninety-nine cents (“or forty-nine cents,” gasped Kelley, who might have been remembering the long-dead pricing model that briefly made e-Music awesome) is just as bad for artists as the ability to illegally download the album for free. So wait -if it’s bad to steal it and it’s bad to pay for it, what would Ganz and Kelley have us do? They offer no solutions, and their argument ends up being basically, “The internet is bad for artists because the internet is bad for artists.” This reminds me of a favorite XKCD comic of mine.
Given that the Planet Money podcast isn’t quite half an hour, I don’t blame Ganz and Kelley for coming without a twelve-point plan for how artists can use the internet to their advantage. But their arguments were laughably unsupported, they spoke about the internet the way I imagine some people spoke about those “confounded horseless carriages” back in the early 20th century, and their dismissive attitude toward Jonathan Coulton (who is less a nerdcore niche artist and more a nerdcore Woody Guthrie – history will bear me out on this point) comes off as petty and elitist. On his blog, which you should fucking well read, Coulton summed it up thusly: “I truly believe that the sooner we all acknowledge the internet is not actually killing art, the sooner we can get back to making things that are awesome.”
In closing, I’ve linked to this article before, but I’m going to link to it again until everyone reads it and shuts the fuck up: This is a piece David Byrne wrote for Wired four fucking years ago that breaks down the state of things succinctly and intelligently. Please disseminate it widely.