There’s been a lot of linkage this week to David Lowery’s Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss? Lowery is a music-biz insider, and says he’s also a geek; and he really, really hates people like me. He makes some really interesting points; unfortunately, he comes across as a jerk.

Tl;dr · Which for those who don’t know is Net-jargon for “Too long; didn’t read”; it can be used both as a comment, and to tag a summary that precedes anything longish. Let’s do both here. First off, Lowery’s piece could have been condensed to a third of its length by a good editor. Second, I’m going to try to pull out some worthwhile bits here.

At one level it’s not obvious to me why I should do this, because Lowery clearly regards me as the enemy. A few choice quotes from him on the subject of those of us who build the Internet for a living:

  • A sort of Cyber–Bolshevik campaign of mass collectivization for the good of the state…er .. I mean Internet

  • ... they shout as they pound their tiny fists on their Skovby tables.

  • “Free expression” and “Innovation” are tech speak for being able to use artists songs, sound recordings, films, photos and books without having to license or share any revenue.

  • Google date rapes the spirit of the law

  • Silicon Valley IS the new Wall Street. It attracts the same “I wanna get rich at whatever cost” sleazebags that used to go to Wall Street and bilk old ladies out of their pensions.

On top of which, he chest-thumps about his geek prowess, because he does ham radio and “had a fascination with the old RPG punch card programming language”.

Dear Mr Lowery · You’re rude, you don’t understand the difference between “its” and “it’s”, your geek cred is pathetic, and your slides look like gerbil droppings.

Having said that · Sometimes he’s funny: “the .Zip file was a real game changer for musicians, especially banjo players.”

And if you wade through the bad slides, sloppy language, rudeness, and arrogance, there are things to learn here. Since we’re in tl;dr mode, let’s present Lowery’s points in point form. I don’t agree with all of them; but they sound like things that are worth arguing about.

  • If you do the math, the effective CD royalties paid to many musicians were a lot higher than the nominal 12% or so, because of the practice of giving advances to prospects whose records didn’t sell.

  • The practice of posting takedown notices on Chilling Effects might have an unexpected downside in publicizing personal information about people protecting reasonable rights in a reasonable way.

  • There is a perceived lack of transparency about the royalty payouts from stream services. (Nothing new here; I’ve never known anyone getting royalties for anything who didn’t find their statements opaque.)

  • It’s reasonable to wonder whether the 30%-or-so cut taken by online services like iTunes & its competitors is reasonable.

  • An artist’s best economics are in selling their own music and schwag off their own website. But all the interested-buyer traffic is being drawn away by intermediaries: iTunes and Play and Amazon.

  • When you’re doing the economics, it’s reasonable to think about not just the distribution of revenue, but the distribution of risk. Online merchants have arranged to carry more or less none.

On the Other Hand · I think Mr Lowery has some points. I think he’s also nostalgic for the historically-tiny span of years when the music biz fattened on the proceeds of the great vinyl-to-CD conversion. Music has historically been lousy as a business and while we’d all like to make it better, those profit margins are never coming back.

And I think a dialog between Net-heads and non-label insiders like Mr Lowery could be useful for both sides. But as long as he thinks we’re just a bunch of philistine scum and persists in saying so every other sentence, he’s not gonna get one going.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Nick Carr (May 26 2012, at 21:01)

A "music-biz insider"? Jeez, stack the deck against the poor guy from the first sentence. Anybody who's followed Lowery's long career in indie rock knows that he's, first, a musician and songwriter and, second, a music-biz outsider who has been very generous in helping other independent recording artists.

Yes, he sucks at PowerPoint, and that is a sign of moral turpitude.

But something tells me that you're pretending to have a thinner skin than you actually have. It's a shame that you didn't grapple with his argument in your post - I would have liked to hear your point of view on these issues.


From: Tony Fisk (May 27 2012, at 06:26)

What would Amanda Palmer say about this?

(One word springs to mind!)


From: Eric Johnson (May 27 2012, at 06:33)

Strikes me that most large corporations have been really good at shedding risk as of late, and pushing it onto their customers, suppliers, the economy, or the environment. So at least as far as the argument goes that risk isn't being spread appropriately, I don't think that has much of anything to do specifically with the music biz.


From: aguy (May 27 2012, at 21:48)

While I agree that he's over the top on the insults I don't see the need for you to get on the same train and insult his slides and grammar, that's irrelevant.

I liked his point about the "credit card" industry that needs disrupting and the fact that the tech people fail to support the creative artists after profiting from them, sometimes in ways the are tangential to the law.

What I'm trying to say is, this was a disapointing rebutal.


From: Rob (May 28 2012, at 07:40)

Just like Balkan nationalists, everyone wants to turn the clock back to one precise moment in time when they had things their way. For much of its history, recorded music was advertisement, not a revenue stream. Records were cut so that they would get airplay, generating interest and butts in concert seats. Singles were exactly like music videos-- throwaway ads. (I can remember when there were attempts to monetize music videos, you could buy them at the record store-- funny how that never really panned out.)

There was a brief shining moment when technology did not permit easy copying and market controls limited piracy, and the Beatles were able to retire from the concert circuit and live off record sales. It lasted about 10 years, until the casette technology started to erode it in the late 70s, and its all been downhill since.

Realistically, musicians have always had one revenue source: performance, whether paid for as patronage by the elite, or by the sweaty masses at the gate.

Although a lucky lucky few make a lot of money selling recorded music, the vast majority of musicians will continue to make their living the way they always have, by performing it. And music piracy essentially represents a surtax on those lucky few.


From: len (May 29 2012, at 11:37)

<blockquote>You’re rude, you don’t understand the difference between “its” and “it’s”, your geek cred is pathetic, and your slides look like gerbil droppings.</blockquote>

Meaning: "ouch that really hurt so nah nah boo boo in your general direction".

If you want to have some fun, try to analyze the Google algorithms for determining YouTube monetization (humans don't do it obviously) and see if they are pareto efficient, or just a stack of speculations about content optimized to pay out the least money possible. I think you'll be chagrined.

Nick Carr is right.

It's like making standards: a stag hunt until someone starts singing "kill the wabbit".


From: len (May 29 2012, at 13:45)

@rob: Your assessment leaves out one class of musician that still can make a reasonable living without touring: composers who can score printed sheet music. Once outside the pop vein in say the religious or academic music world, music doesn't exist that isn't printed.

Here experience, training and skill trump testosterone and flashing lights. Scoring is as precise and a bit more complex than even writing code and though it benefits from automation (Sibelius isn't cheap or easy), it uses a notation that won't be innovated or improved by the digerati because the investment to master it on all sides exceeds any advantage (high switching costs).

And it doesn't require a video although they are useful.


From: Bob Haugen (May 29 2012, at 14:25)

I agree that yours is a disappointing rebuttal.

Google (via You Tube and Google Play) could do something path-breaking to support musicians financially.

Why not help pioneer a better music business model? Think!


From: John Cowan (Jun 03 2012, at 18:50)

Bob Haugen: Nope, that's IBM, not Google.


From: JulesLt (Jun 14 2012, at 17:42)

Not a very timely response, but I have discovered that newborns and typing don't mix.

Before saying anything, I'd like to make the point that Adele has been busting sales records, including those set before people could easily TAPE records.

Anyway a few comments - tone/rudeness - let us just say that the tone of this debate was lowered long ago. Just witness the responses to any musician who has dared voice an opinion opposed to the freetard position - with bonus points if they are a woman.

Or read the experiences of those invited along to 'speak' at tech conferences - the lack of respect, the failure to engage with what is being said.

Secondly - I don't think Lowery is nostalgic for the vinyl-to-CD conversion era. He's always been in the business of selling new music, not exploiting the baby boomers. On the other hand, I can see why he is nostalgic for a higher-margin era - small businesses need higher margins.

The key point - which you pick up on in your précis - is that the new players are all risk averse when it comes to investing in talent.

Everyone wants to build a platform - a Kickstarter or Bandcamp - something that will take a small slice from millions of dollars moving through. Some of these guys are well intentioned, competing to make that slice as small as possible.

There is an irony in telling musicians they don't need a record label, while funding your startup with venture capital.

(A pleasant delusion that musical success comes from talent x perspiration?)

As for Rob's comment - I take issue at the statement - 'For much of its history, recorded music was advertisement, not a revenue stream'.

Because that doesn't look true to me - why would the record labels invest in recording performances, given that they would not profit from live performance sales??

Nope - the record companies recorded music to make a buck from selling it. Musicians might have seen it as useful advertising (and therefore been willing to take exploitative royalty based contracts, rather than insisting on Musician's Union session rates) but it was very definitely a business.

I'd also add that the question is not 'how should performers make money' but 'how should the cost of producing the digital music you listen to be funded' and 'how should composers and songwriters make money?'.

(I also use the word performers quite deliberately, as performance doesn't require great musicianship, especially in the era of live-Autotune).

I don't think that pushing all of the cost back onto the artist (or their manager) with the expectation that they will recoup through performance and merch is going to work.

And one reason is that we can't turn back the clock - we are living in a world where the existence of recorded music reduces the need for live performance - look how the municipal orchestras died off once people could listen to classical music at home, or dance bands were wiped out by the discotheque (but only after PA systems got good enough for records to compete with live).

Think of the jukebox, or radio, how we would record our favourite tracks onto a cassette or CD, the iTunes shuffle, how kids use YouTube, or the club DJ, even the old Dansette with the ability to queue up 45s.

Think about how people actually consume music - in their cars, on public transport, while jogging, as background while working.

The model of paying for recorded music works for that world - there is a natural market link between the thing people are listening to and what they are paying for.


From: david lowery (Jun 16 2012, at 18:12)

Hi Tim.

Thanks so much for illustrating my points about the self aggrandizing and self-absorbed tech elite in such an excellent and funny manner. 'Twas the rarest of all flowers! An Irony Loop.

Indeed my piece does engage in sharp and fiery rhetoric, exaggeration and hyperbole. But I think you are one of the few people to miss the humor in it and find it rude. In fact I am mystified by your characterization of it as "rude".

I find it especially amusing that your response was absolutely without a doubt a rude and very personal attack.

Look I am an active working independent musician. I'm either recording, producing or playing live shows and I don't really have time to sit around all day blogging on the internet. Nor do I have the resources to hire a editor or someone to make a powerpoint look like something other than "gerbil droppings". So what if a few typos got past me? Is that really the best you got?

Further your attempt at guilt by association is factually wrong and you should correct it. Calling me an industry insider when I'm one of the founders of the indie rock movement is pretty ridiculous. Either you didn't read the section of the piece that explains this or you PURPOSELY chose to misinform.

Again thanks for illustrating the following:

Why is it that the technology industry types (you work for Google) are so contemptuous of those of us that create the content that helps makes your company rich?

Why do you continually treat us like we are not stakeholders in the digital ecosystem?

Why don't you guys realize we artists/producers have as much knowledge of the digital marketplace as you do?

And why are you guys so thin skinned?


From: len (Jun 20 2012, at 07:17)


First, thanks. You are seeing it as it is: it takes money to make music commercially. Two points:

1. As T-Bone Burnett points out, music isn't consumed. It is heard. Just a quibble.

2. Thanks for recognizing that the music makers aren't an undifferentiated lump. There is a difference between a performer and a songwriter and a composer. All can be helped by automation but the skills required vary a lot and so does the time required. You tagged the autotune performer but usually they also have to be dancer/model/actors. The songwriter may be the weakest because a) it isn't that hard and b) you can be a terrible musician and a very successful songwriter.

A composer (for this, someone who can score printed music for others to perform) has one of the most complex jobs. Score and original piece (say approx 5 minutes or 136 bars at 92 to 62 ppm) for a choir, piano, flute, organ). By the time you are through the drafts and rewrites, you will have invested six months not full time but constant work. IOW, the precision and skills required are considerable and the time required as contrasted to say a pop song done by medium level session players (who probably make up their own parts in the studio).

The world of music production presented by the digerati who are seldom if ever commercial musicians is quite different from the real thing.

Many thanks to David Lowery. Drop by jon taplin's blog sometime where two of your articles are being thrashed out and this after some epic threads there over the past few years on this topic.


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