I know the tech sector loves Google, automated curation, and algorithm-driven content aggregation. But essentially, the message to artists is: screw you. This is said in rather more appealing terms, of course. Witness Google’s launch of its music service:
We are open to discussion, as long as those discussions are aimed at creating a product and service for end-users that is on a sustainable set of business terms which represents a good value for users
– Jamie Rosenberg, director of digital content for Android
My uncharitable translation would be this: Our business is the automated aggregation of huge volumes of small advertising fees. So screw you, artists. We need your content for peanuts, because the creative process is too inefficient for our highly optimised, number crunching machine. With a market cap of only $178bn, Larry feels a bit tight for cash. We need to make every cent we can.
There’s a lot of people caught up in the excitement of the internet and fighting the big bad record labels. I don’t think they realise that the new business models they are infatuated with reduce artists to merchandisers and advertising agencies. They will be valued not by the quality and effort of their composition, but by their ability to sell T-shirts, hot dogs and sugary drinks.
A lot of young artists without financial commitments think the idea of free music and online exposure is great. A young audience tells itself that it’s all OK. Artists can make money from live performance, so recorded music should be just marketing material. Meanwhile, anyone that aspires to a normal life and family will give up. A profession where simply being talented and creative and hard-working isn’t enough holds no future for them.
The likes of the Open Rights Group will slice and dice industry data to prove to you that despite the wailing of big corporations about piracy, the music business is doing fine. Curiously, the advocates of new digital freedoms talk a lot about supporting creators .. but don’t bother themselves with including more than a few token artists on their boards and panels.
That might be why they don’t tell you is that it’s only fine for established acts like U2 and Radiohead. It’s cool for new bands like Two Door Cinema Club: good looking young guys, flush with the excitement of breaking into the scene. But it’s dying for the artists and artisans who just want to make a living from their art. If you’re not young, beautiful, or already rich – don’t expect to make a living from music. It will be a business for the privileged and for the safe, good looking X-Factor winner.
Unique voices like a Tom Waits or a Nick Cave might never have made it under the idea that you’re only worth what you can physically force the customer to pay. Early electronica composers such as Wendy Carlos might never have tried to break new ground. New art forms, unable to get people to travel a distance and buy a £50 ticket, might never happen.
With the odd cult exception known only to the technophiles – think Jonathan Coulton – there simply aren’t any stories of artists doing better with the new model. And let’s face it, part of his success is not because of his music but because his business model appeals to the new digital cults.
The age of digital media is reducing art to mere bits. It has no intrinsic value as the precious output of a human being expressing something meaningful, just the cost of transmission and storage. It costs a few pennies to store an album, and no marginal cost to download one over broadband. As far as the stereotypical technophile goes, artists who struggled to get a quid out of a monopolistic corporation should now settle for pennies at most from the larger, even more faceless, even less forgiving internet crowd.
Artists are caught in a perfect storm: corporate monoliths; a self-serving notion that technological might makes right; the Ayn Rand loving, free market fundamentalism of Silicon Valley. Will the left wing’s determination to destroy the notion of intellectual property (under the guise of fighting the establishment) prove to be the perfect Trojan Horse for the most remorseless market system ever devised by man?
I hope I’m wrong. But I believe the purpose of civilisation to rise above the hard maths and cruel biology of raw, physical law. Google sees them instead as a negotiation stance. Don’t Be Evil does not necessarily mean Be Good – it could just mean pure amorality.
Still, expect to see much discussion about how righteous advertising broker Google (market cap $178bn) is standing up to the likes of the evil entertainment company Warner Brothers (whose parent Time Warner is worth “only” $38bn).