Count Breaks Down Tough Music Industry Issues
[This transcript is excerpted from a special edition of Art of the Song entitled The State of the Music Biz. Click here to listen to the complete program as broadcast on Public Radio.]
John: Now we’ll hear from San Francisco Bay area engineer, producer, and filmmaker Count. Count is in the process of making a documentary film on the music business called “Unsound“. Here’s what he has to say about music in the digital age.
Count: Well, the interesting thing is that the shift, like you mentioned, there are these two major inflection points and one is when people stopped buying CDs and started buying digital downloads, mostly through iTunes. That was a monopoly that was the first sort of inflection point and, I think I should be pointing out that, although iTunes is this giant monopoly, it was a good thing for the music business and it sort of stopped the bleeding from piracy because we have to remember that it was almost four years since Napster started to the point where iTunes store launched. So people didn’t have a legal way to download and buy music. That seems insane today that that even existed. So that first major inflection point was a big one, but now we’ve moved to the second point where now we’re changing, transitioning from purchasing music to streaming music and I think it’s really important to mention that these transitions, these technological transitions, are great. It’s often confused or conflated by the media that artists, or the “industry” is against downloading initially and now against streaming. Nobody’s against these technologies. We’re against being exploited, right? The problems are economic, they’re not technological. They’re certainly not creative. Let’s point that out as well. I don’t think you’ll find an artist on the planet who has a problem with how the music industry has changed on a creative level. There’s never been more music being created and there’s never been an opportunity to be more creative in that music, not just the technologies that exist to enable artists, but also the fact that even if you’re not using these technologies while creating, you have the freedom to make whatever kind of music you want. This is undoubtedly one of the biggest positives in the internet revolution. But ironically, at the same time that this sort of creative liberation is happening, the economic collapse is happening right alongside it. So we have these up and coming artists who are now able to have the freedom to make their greatest works but with no economic incentive to continue making them. This is a very important point that oftentimes people bring up around this time in the conversation, around this moment is where you often hear the response “Well, wait a minute, artists don’t do this for the money!” I mean I don’t know any musicians that got in this for the money. The backlash we’re starting to see now, they’re not complaints about “Hey, we need money in order to want to do this in the first place.” The problem is that artists need money to continue doing the things that we all love. So it’s never the initial catalyst for why musicians make music in the first place. What happens is that artists make music. They’re compelled to do so. It has nothing to do with money. But then they make this piece of art, this thing that people eventually hear and they love and it becomes popular and then everyone wants more of it. And how is more of it going to get created if those artists don’t have the support to make it and they have day jobs? Free music doesn’t pay the bills. That’s the issue we’re talking about. It’s not an issue of money motivation. It’s an issue of being able to continue to create without having to have a day job doing something else. Or it takes ten years in between albums. Or, even worse, people just give up altogether.
John: Is the problem that, with the streaming free music model, is it set up in such a way that it takes way, way, way too many plays to earn a decent paycheck?
Count: Yeah, and that’s essentially the primary problem right there. The iTunes store, just from an economic standpoint, whether you like it or not, it was set up much the same way as a traditional retail store. iTunes essentially got 30% and the rights holder, whether it be a record company, or independent artists got the other 70% and that seemed about fair to us. Although I will point out that in a digital model of distribution you don’t have overhead like stores and warehousing and shipping and packaging and all that so, honestly, it should have been more like 80/20. Or 90/10. Because there was no overhead there. But, we were all just happy that there was a store that came out because remember, at this point, there was Napster, and then no legal way to purchase a download. So we were happy to take the 70/30 split. But now the situation with internet radio streaming services is for the first year and a half, on Spotify’s launch, we didn’t even know how we were getting paid and how much we were getting paid. Now, Spotify would argue that they just did a poor job of explaining that to us. I’m a bit less naive and a little more cynical, especially having spent three years researching this. I don’t think Spotify wanted artists to know the tiny payments that they were making otherwise they never would have had anyone sign on to the service in the first place. They wouldn’t have been able to license the music. Now that people are finding out what they’re getting paid, naturally artists starting speaking out. Lo and behold, we saw the same sort of behavior that we saw during the Napster days when Lars Ulrich spoke out and said “Hey, you know what, this whole taking stuff without consent is kind of bullsh*t”. And his argument actually wasn’t even economic. It was about consent and control over his work. And, love him or hate him, Lars was right about all of this. He essentially was saying “Look, you guys who are touting this as sort of a Robin Hood scenario. It’s not that at all. These guys at Napster aren’t trying to create some ‘community of sharing’.” That was a narrative that they really loved that caught on in the media, it was not what they were doing at all. They were building a business off the backs of creators and getting rich off of it. That was their plan and that’s what happened. Now here we are fifteen years later and look who was right? Lars was right. Sean Parker is a billionaire. He walks around San Francisco. I see him all the time. And his wealth is off the backs of creators. The same creators who now can’t even afford to live in San Francisco. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. We can turn this ship around, even though it will be slow. We have to start now. That won’t happen until people understand what’s really happening. That was the point of me making this documentary Unsound. Is to show people it’s the creators who worked their butts off to get where they are whether they’re filmmakers or musicians or producers that deserved the chance to make a living and here they are now, their work is more widely consumed then ever before. They’ve achieved massive popularity in many cases yet aren’t able to make a living at it.