It’s Not All About What We Want

 “People tend to want artists to do the same thing, and it is incumbent upon artists to do something that the audience doesn’t want — yet.”

This quote comes from composer, artist, and producer T Bone Burnett in a recent Q&A with The Hollywood Reporter that has been circulating over the past week. The whole article is worth a read for several of Burnett’s observations about music, the music and film businesses, and the Internet industry, which he unapologetically calls a “con game.”  The above quote, however, is particularly resonant in that it says something true about both the artist and the technologist, who are too often poised as antagonists in the great debates of the digital age.  When it comes to innovation, real innovation, in either creative works or technological advancement, the endeavor is rarely about delivering what the market thinks it wants, but about providing something new we consumers didn’t know we wanted until we had it.  And although the creative artist and technological innovator are cousins related through this maternal principle, it seems they are frequently dragged into a blood feud over a contemporary misconception that we can only support the artist at the expense of technology or vice versa.  Perhaps the reason this feud persists is that it is perpetuated on virtual battlefields by people who misunderstand both artistic and technological innovation.

Specifically, Burnett is addressing the subjects of self-promotion and crowd-funding — two advantages offered by Web 2.0 to the independent artist that are presumed to obviate the need for legacy business models like studios, labels, or publishers.  But inherent in what Burnett is saying — and it is interesting that he uses the word incumbent to imply a kind of responsibility for the artist — is the reality that innovation in creative works, in technology, in science, in anything requires old-school, long-term investment (i.e. faith) in a process that yields mostly failures but also the unpredictable successes that spawn both cultural and economic rewards for subsidiary beneficiaries.  This is equally true for a miracle drug or a generation-changing novel.

If we want a rich, culturally diverse society with a solid middle class, I believe we have to resurrect the value of long-term investment and reject the fast-burn, short-money culture that has become the cultural norm over the past half century. But the persistent, blind faith in the digital revolution runs at full gait in the opposite direction. Web 2.0 success stories are largely wealth-consolidating, non-job-creating enterprises.  Nevertheless, while a sense of hopelessness persists among the generation now coming of age, this demographic maintains an unhealthy crush on the Internet, clinging to the futile hope that one day its reductive economics will magically yield collective prosperity if we just wait long enough.

To Burnett’s point, it may seem populist and terribly democratic for the artist to exclusively crowd-fund.  It may seem like this is the ultimate answer to the so-called gatekeeper corporations, portrayed by netizens with no experience to be sinister hoarders of culture and abusers of artists.  But even the smallest, independent imprint or record label or production company will tell you that the fundamental work surrounding the products — from investment to distribution to marketing — hasn’t changed at all. Crowd-funding and self-promotion have their uses and are wonderful opportunities for any number or artists or other entrepreneurs, but the mandate to sell ahead of production, ahead of discovery, is not always going to be the best path to innovation.  At the same time, the middle class has historically been sustained by business models that enable investment in a process — it doesn’t matter if it’s pharmaceutical research, auto manufacturing, or music production — and that process might employ dozens or hundreds or thousands of people whose continued livelihoods are maintained by occasional hits amid a lot of trial and error.

A drama professor in college once told us a story about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey taking one of his comedies out to the country to perform for the local residents.  Early into the first act, the audience sat mute and confused until it occurred to someone in the company that these people didn’t know what a play was.  The performers stopped the show, explained the fundamentals of theater, and then restarted the play from the top.  Given context, the audience supposedly laughed its heads off at the show. 

© 2013 – 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • Simple question would Bob Dylan have got crowd funding to go electric?

    I was at a concert the other month by one of the 70s guys and someone asked is there a new album coming out? The answer was no one buys albums any more and concert goers don’t want to listen to new stuff.


  • We can’t look to the past for examples of economic systems that work under conditions where more facets of human labor are becoming increasingly unnecessary or hard to monetize. This are conditions that never existed before. We need futuristic solutions to futuristic economic problems. Crowd-funding may not be the complete picture.

  • One option that just came to me is to have the government give people capital that they must exclusively use to fund other people’s projects as long as the results of the project will be freely available. This removes the need for quid-pro-quo in such crowd funding systems and it also maximizes content availability.

    • Actually, I think this solves two problems I have with crowd sourcing.

      – People who have lots of money have more money to give, so it ends up looking like aristocratic patronage (especially if the wealth gap continues to increase).
      – Quid-pro-quo (I’m giving you $$$, so I must get something out of it) encourages artists to spend tons of time thinking up “treats” for various levels of contribution instead the actual project they are trying to do. It also just generally discourages contribution in general because “you know I could pay my rent with that money instead of a theoretical movie”.

      It also solves the elephant in the room when it comes to government funding of the arts, namely, “political influence of the arts”. You take away the government bureaucrats from the equation.

  • David-

    It may seem like this is the ultimate answer to the so-called gatekeeper corporations, portrayed by netizens with no experience to be sinister hoarders of culture and abusers of artists.

    Along with, off the top of my head, leaving out artists I have a personal connection with to avoid confirmation bias, Amanda Palmer, Steve Albini, Courtney Love, pretty much every DIY band from Oi Polloi to bis and Dave Allen (who David Lowery seems to be in one of his inimitable feuds with). I’d also include Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich in that. While there’s been an attempt to fit them into the “meet the new boss, worse than the old boss” paradigm, if you actually read their arguments they’re actually arguing that the new boss and the old boss are indistinguishable and often the same people. (Which, obviously, I like because it’s what I’ve been arguing for years). You simply can’t claim that all the experience is on one side of the argument. These are divisive arguments and the ‘camps’ reflect that. Besides, are you really wanting to argue that someone has to have had direct experience of the music industry to be knowledgeable about it? Because Robert Levine doesn’t have that, yet I’d see him as of the best writers on these issues we have. Free Ride consolidated some of my views and changed others, in a way that no Lowery rant has ever manged.

    innovation in creative works (…) old-school, long-term investment (i.e. faith) in a process that yields mostly failures but also the unpredictable successes that spawn both cultural and economic rewards for subsidiary beneficiaries.

    Can you name a recent major label artist that has been given the time to develop over the long term after an initial period of commercial failure? I genuinely can’t think of any.strong examples there. If it was the case that majors were serious about artistic development, that ended years ago.

    But even the smallest, independent imprint or record label or production company will tell you that the fundamental work surrounding the products — from investment to distribution to marketing — hasn’t changed at all.

    The distribution of music has obviously changed drastically- that’s been the great leveller. Of the other two things you mention, the former can also be resolved by a bank manager (and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see music investment firms starting to spring up over the next decade) and the latter by a good PR company. So, really, when it comes to the majors, if that’s the main thing they have to offer, they aren’t bringing much that’s unique to the table.

    • Sam –

      No, the “netizens” to which I refer are the uninformed generalists on social media, who regurgitate variations on Lessig, Barlow, et al without actually knowing whence those ideas come. For instance, the generalization that the digital age means the “end of the gatekeepers” is a multi-tiered fallacy that 1) misunderstands the role of many of those so-called gatekeepers; and 2) really misunderstands that the business dynamics are the same for a small, independent business that is not so easily vilified as Sony or or WMG or whoever. Moreover, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that the “new boss” is indistinguishable from the “old boss.” Nuance is lost in so much of this debate, including the reality that “the majors” as we call them will do what any business does, which is try to respond to the market, and the market is all about instant gratification and what’s trending this afternoon — and that doesn’t just apply to creative works. In a nutshell, the distinction about “old boss/new boss” is that old boss will try to screw you and new boss doesn’t even have to try. Old boss might play shell game with your contract; new boss just exploits your work for free and calls it the future.

      Here’s a couple examples of a relevant dynamics regarding investment in works: Back in about 1992, an editor friend of mine at a big publisher told me she had to essentially produce five diet books in order to invest in one novel. And that’s pre-digital. Whom do we blame for this economic reality, the publisher, the semi-literate public, the American education system, novelists who don’t want to write 50 Shades of Grey? Fast forward 20 years, and I read an article on the subject that many Hollywood studio execs don’t really want to see the movies they have to green light. So, again, whose fault is it that Hangover 3 is a big deal while a Persoplis might struggle for attention? There has always been more money to be made with facile, accessible, mediocre products than there is with the hand-crafted, experimental, or revolutionary; and that’s not just true of artistic works. The problem is that the market forces of the digital age have exacerbated the situation, and one of these market forces is the over-valuing of public input to creative works. The more we invite the all-knowing crowd into the process, the more we run the risk of homogenizing culture according to the tastes of that much-desired but not very sophisticated demographic of 14-24 year-olds. I think this is the core of Burnett’s point. If you want the same thing over and over again, that’s exactly what you’ll get.

      As for your last comment about small indies, again it just isn’t that simple; and in this particular case, yes, you have to either work in one of these businesses or be as good a journalist as Robert to have an informed opinion. I didn’t reduce the process to three things, I bracketed the process in which there are many steps (depending on what medium we’re talking about), and that fundamental work hasn’t changed. And whether we’re talking 100% DIY or collaborating with a production entity, it still comes down to investment in (even if it’s just sweat) and return out — or not. And to Burnett’s point, that investment is all about creators (or inventors or scientists) sometimes closing the door to the world and emerging with something new when they’re ready — and without a mandate to tweet about every sandwich eaten along the way.

      • Flickr Explore is crowd sourced, and you can go there each day and see pretty much the same thing, same predicable images. All of them good photos for sure but predicable:

        This is the last 100 images uploaded to LiveJournal, there will be a mixture of soft porn in amongst it, but quite frankly the images are anything but predictable. Watch through the day as different cultures become active and then go to sleep. Its a totally different experience.

        The choice of the individual is always more than the choice of the crowd.

      • David-

        Ah, with you. Sure, I’d agree that a lot of people on social media talk a lot of ill-informed twaddle. That’s nothing new though. It’s simply that it’s now noticeable on a global scale as opposed to being confined to the local pub. And you see it from all sides.

        Depends what we mean by “gatekeepers”. I agree with you that gatekeepers aren’t always bad. One primary gatekeeper has already been the audience. And I don’t necessarily miss the nuances of the majors in the way you suggest. You seem to be saying that their entire motive is profit which is what leads them to act in the way they do. In which case, I’d entirely agree. It’s the old art vs commerce argument. I unapologetically side with art.

        On the new boss vs the old boss argument, there is such a thing as being too nuanced. If, as we both seem to agree, both the new boss and the old boss want to screw you to make money, at differences seem cosmetic to me. That was specifically referencing the Spotify issue though. What we have is a situation where the major labels, with the convenience of Merlin, deliberately set out to conspire with Spotify so that smaller labels would be paid paltry royalty rates. This isn’t the first time that the majors have gone out to screw over indie artists either- see the setting up of fake indie labels to mess up the indie charts that took off in the early 90’s. So, while I might be hostile to the majors, frankly, they’ve been throwing at least as many punches for quite some time. If it was simply a matter of them pushing out commercial music, it wouldn’t be the same issue. It’s that they have repeatedly acted in a way that attacks the indie and DIY scenes. And we have absolutely no way to ‘opt-out’ of that.

        Sure. I’m not suggesting for a second that a grindcore band will ever sell the same as the latest pop idol winner, no matter how good they are. I would say that the one positive effect of the Internet has been the effect its had on distribution. That has definitely benefited niche bands. (We also should recognise that the current trend of marketing rock to 40+ is equally problematic. In particular, it runs a high risk of pushing music into the cultural cul-de-sac that is the nostalgia market).

        I agree with you that the anti-intellectualism contained in the “all opinions are of equal weight” attitude is harmful. However, I think you are falling into the trap of treating information as some kind of esoteric knowledge only available to those initiated in the sacred mysteries. Very few musicians are economists. Taken to its logical conclusion, your argument would seem to suggest that they should stick to talking about the process of creating music and leave talk about the effects of copyright infringement to the professionals. For that matter, how can you talk about technological issues if you aren’t a computer programmer? We should encourage people to become as informed as they can and judge their opinions accordingly. We shouldn’t be attempting to wall up knowledge. Ironically, your argument is coming very close to the call for a technocracy favoured by some of the more outre techno-utopians.

  • M-

    That still doesn’t resolve the main issue that crowdfunding works for a very specific type of artist. Charismatic, good at selling themselves and pushing themselves forward, enjoy socialising with their fanbase. So, for someone like Amanda Palmer, it works perfectly. But none of those skills are necessarily part of what makes someone a good musician. So, if we only have crowdfunding, we lose the bedroom geniuses and the antisocial mavericks. Not a price worth paying, in my view.

    Also, by the time the artist gets to the level you’re talking about, they already need to have something of a fanbase established. There’s a period before that where people still need to pay the bills. So, in actuality, you’d need financial support for artists leading up to that. If you take someone like Luke Haines (of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder), if you read his biography, he actually started out with an artistic development grant from the government which allowed him to live. Unfortunately, that kind of support is way less available then it used to be over here.

    • True. But I think you can sort of solve this by forcing a certain percentage of the capital to go to “new artists”, basically requiring people to find new talent in addition to funding existing talent.

      • Why?

        The methods that worked in the past still work. I bought an album by Zsófia Boros the other month, a old Return to Forever album, was impressed by the guitarist who I hadn’t picked up on the 70s and bought a load of his albums. That’s how it worked back then and it still works today. All that has happened is that the option not to buy the content no longer requires running down the road with a bunch of records under your arm.

      • “Why?”

        Because the old system which you are referring to isn’t working. If it was, there wouldn’t be any need for this conversation.

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