2013 – The year the conversation changed.

Yes, I have a hangover, but not from drink, just from imbibing all that was the year 2013.  It was a rough one on a lot of levels both for me and for many of my friends.  I don’t know why the year seemed to bring so much bad news, but I did see a lot of folks comment on Facebook that they are only too eager to bid ’13 good riddance.

With regard to the issues covered on this blog, though, my sense is that 2013 was a good year inasmuch as I would characterize it as a time when the conversation seemed to reflect broader contemplation into what the future might look like as we come to terms with our digitally enhanced selves.  Translation:  people don’t seem to be willing to buy Silicon Valley’s world view without asking some tough questions.  I hate doing chronological recaps.  It’s a patience thing.  Once I know exactly what needs to be written, I’m already bored with the process.  So rather than walk though a top-ten highlights from the year, I’ll point to what I believe has been the most dramatic shift, and that’s an observation that the populist facade of big internet companies has started to crack and reveal the typical corporate self-interest we’ve come to know and wisely scrutinize.

One of the challenges with digital life is that as our gadgets become more appendage-like and the data-in/data-out flow becomes more like the functioning of a vital organ, the more we perceive this constant exchange as an extension of our identities.  At least one potential hazard in this ontological fog is that it’s easy to forget that the very big computers making it all work are owned by very big corporations making very big money. And when those very big corporations want to influence public policy, I would argue that no industry in history has ever enjoyed the privilege of promoting its own interests as so intrinsically and viscerally aligned with the interests of billions of its customers.  It’s just too damn easy for Google & Co. to say, “don’t let them break, hurt, weaken, control, limit, balkanize, censor….your internet.”  And while we certainly don’t want them to break our internet, it looks to me like 2013 woke a lot of people up to the fact that we ain’t exactly all in this together.

In April, Bill Moyers reported on the growing homeless population in otherwise you’ll-never-be-this-wealthy Silicon Valley, and as the year came to a close, we saw San Franciscans attacking Google shuttle buses in protest of that industry’s effect on the local real estate market.  The shuttles themselves — Facebook has its own — have become a symbol of the ivory-tower lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged minority who work for these companies and exist in a world separate from the middle class communities around them.  This portrait of alienation was central to the article Joel Kotkin wrote in May for The Daily Beast that speculated as to why these “new oligarchs” still enjoy popularity among progressives even as they contribute relatively little to the economy in terms of jobs and community involvement.  Combine these stories with questions about those secretive Google barges, Mississippi Attorney General Hood’s ongoing investigation into that company’s continued role in illegal drug trafficking, and the early December report that Google is backing some far right-wing organizations, and I think the progressive bona fides have been more than a little dented this year.  Additionally, even as the leaks by Edward Snowden spawned debate over the responsibilities of the intelligence community, it is encouraging to see that the counterpoint is not lost on people that we volunteer more information to social media giants every day than is collected by the NSA or any other federal agency.

With regard to creator rights in the digital age, I’d say it’s been a very good year; and I’m not looking at cases, lawsuits, takedowns, or arrests related to infringement.  We could keep score that way — 5 points for a takedown, 10 points for an arrest — and that certainly seems to be the way many self-proclaimed defenders of the internet like to view this “battle.”  But none of that matters unless we as a society still believe creator rights are worth protecting in the digital age, and by my reckoning, we still do.  Whether we watched the hearings in the House Judiciary Committee on copyright review or simply paid attention to trends among people on social media, my general sense is that most of us still fundamentally support creator rights as a social and economic good. At a time when economic prospects are uncertain, even Americans who don’t give a damn about copyright can understand the report released in November by the IIPA indicating these industries account for nearly 6.5% of GDP. And just in time for Christmas, came GoldieBlox, a toy company with a good message that did a bad thing with some artists’ work, and public sentiment instinctively seemed to favor the artists.

2013 also saw more well-known creators speak out about rights and royalties.  David Byrne and Thom Yorke, raised issues regarding the royalties paid to artists by streaming services like Spotify, and while other musicians have disagreed with them, the important thing is that creators are speaking out, not just the technologists. In June, the members of Pink Floyd warned fellow musicians not to trust Pandora’s efforts to push legislation that would lower royalties for streaming, and in November, Pandora abandoned its legislative efforts.  At the same time, other creative workers wrote a variety of editorials, including this very popular one by author/cartoonist Tim Kreider examining how the digital age has normalized an expectation in the market that creative people should want to work for free.  It’s become common practice even in B2B negotiations to suggest to a creative contributor that he might work for “exposure” rather than compensation, and we can hear the echoes of arguments for piracy (illegal file sharing) in this logic. Creative workers are responding with sharp, witty  blogs and OpEds, and the message is getting through that this work-for-free attitude, left unchecked, can apply to anyone, not just artists.  Moreover, with every reaction against new privacy and data-use policies by social media companies, everyday users are beginning to see the relationship between misappropriation of a professional’s work and misappropriation of their family snapshots.

The past year also saw more rigorous scrutiny of the underlying premise that the internet is a magical prosperity machine presently being sabotaged by Hollywood’s enforcement of its copyrights.  The premise didn’t hold up particularly well in hearings on copyright review on Capitol Hill, and the public message gets muddier every day as those who keep repeating this dogeared talking point are forced to define innovation and provide solid examples of the untapped potential being stifled.  In fact, in the August hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, the technology innovators called to testify in favor of copyright reform were all heads of companies that have thrived without copyright reform, and not one could produce a single statement as to how copyright was holding them back. Not that specific review and revision of these laws isn’t reasonable at this time, but 2013 was the year tech-utopian whimsy had to contend with a dose of reality.

I don’t have data on these observations regarding a shift in public perception; they’re anecdotal based on the volume and tone of commentary that was produced last year and the kind of sharing and secondary comments I’ve read. And if I’m right, why does it matter?  Because in January of 2012, a relatively small group of internet professionals and self-appointed amateur defenders of all things web successfully killed two congressional bills by convincing millions of people that public interest and this industry’s interests are one and the same.  What mattered then was not the bills themselves, but the process.  It frankly scared the hell out of me that the industry which owns the tools, writes the code, and wields extraordinary consolidated wealth could use its power not simply to control a story but to overwhelm the debate. I wondered then whether or not the industry had used up all of its populist credibility in one campaign, and I suspect it might have. As we move forward and continue the conversation about the future, it’s entirely possible that people will decide that notions of fairness, accountability, and respect for individual rights as reflected in our legal systems are not incompatible with digital life — that the internet changes many things, but does not change everything.

Here’s to a happy and legitimately prosperous New Year!

© 2014 – 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • David, thank-you for another great year of insight. I think it would be reasonable to say that you, along with a handful of other pro-artists journalist, deserve to take credit for what has clearly been not only a positive, supportive shift in the conversation about artists, but also much needed encouragement for artists to begin to take a more active role as spokespeople for their lives, their careers and their well being.

    I look forward to hearing more from you in the new year.

    Will Buckley, Founder / President FarePlay.

  • Your only concern seems to be “creatives”, but technology is harming the career prospects of almost everyone (except perhaps technologists and medical fields, but even that will change).

    Eventually something will have to change to ensure people can still accumulate wealth in a post-information age world. But it will be a new kind of economic system, not a reversion to pre-information age economics.

    Some people take for granted what technology has made possible. I can pretty much select from tens of millions of audio tracks today and have it playing on any of my devices pretty much instantly. I can create playlists or have the computer automatically generate a playlist for me based on tastes and similarity. This is pretty amazing stuff, but it has become so routine that it easy to forget how music was acquired before the rise of the Internet.

    So it is a commonality of life today, and it is very different from how the business worked before the information age. Just like only extremists support the repeal of copyright, extremists are the ones who want to turn back the hands of time and go back to this pre-information age world. The reality is, an increasingly large sum of human knowledge and culture is going to start to converge towards availability to more and more people. And it’s going to be legal too.

    • Not at all. I think creatives are, to quote Lanier, “the canaries in the coal mine.” To your other points, technology cannot make available what people don’t create in the first place, and the assumption that creative people will always produce is something of a half-truth, especially since the most popular content is still produced based on pre-internet economic models. This is because eating is a pre-internet economic model. 🙂

      • I think there are two notable things that still require huge investments: blockbuster movies and AAA game titles.

        In the case of games, previous works builds on future work. If you develop some interesting rendering technique, you can reuse it forever. So you know getting the same levels of graphics and gameplay are just a little easier year after year. Just a little. It’s still incredibly expensive to make a AAA game title, but the output gets more and more complex essentially for free. I suspect the same is true for CGI in movies.

        But for other things, there it’s debatable that there even needs to be economic encouragement. Even with the sharp decline of the music industry, you have far more published new music being produced year after year. The barrier of entry has gone down so far that every and their mother has a CD out. There is no shortage of music and the world is full of artists trying to get their music heard. It’s typical for comments sections on popular music videos to be full of other artists trying to promote their music. I call this “artist spam”. Google however doesn’t seem to treat it as spam for reason. I don’t see any to encourage more music creation. It’s already supersaturated.

      • M you miss the entire point. We’re not interested in more music created by hobbyists with no legitimate audience. We are interested in getting talented, working artists fairly compensated, so they can afford to be full time professional artists if their music merits the support.

        To often, I see this conversation hi-jacked into some misleading discussion about just because they’re musicians doesn’t “entitle” them to earn a living. No that’s not the point, I’m referring to a reasonable wage for work that merits it.

        It’s not rocket science or even science for that matter. And yes, M, it’s “man made”, which somehow has a negative connotation in you world of 0s and 1s.

      • We’re not interested in more music created by hobbyists with no legitimate audience.

        I don’t understanding here. Hobbyist music has a illegitimate audience? What does that even mean?

        To often, I see this conversation hi-jacked into some misleading discussion about just because they’re musicians doesn’t “entitle” them to earn a living. No that’s not the point, I’m referring to a reasonable wage for work that merits it.

        You keep dodging the fundamental question. Not every endeavor of a human being is worthy of industry. Lets deconstruct the idea of human time and effort for a moment. I go sit on a beach and drink mojitos, I’m doing a kind of effort. We agree that it is not work, right? But it does take time and some kind of effort, I have to you know, somehow get to a beach and it’s not entirely trivial. In fact it can be extremely time consuming. If I take a multi-week cruise, that’s a lot of time I’ve invested in something. The equivalent amount of time can produce lots of various works that I usually get paid for (of course, that’s very relative). But in the case of the cruise, I have to pay for the privilege! And by golly, it’s a metric ton of money, especially if I want an upgraded room.

        This is because cruises and vacations are considered enjoyable activities that, you know, we don’t need to explicitly encourage participation though monetary incentive, because people will do it without compensation. Likewise it would be almost silly to monetary compensate watching a ball game, or most instances of playing video games (guess what, some people get paid in both cases). What if I told you that work and play are starting to converge? At some point there won’t be a real line at all? Already it’s happening in the creative sector (especially in music), when you have producers and consumers and this weird but growing category in the middle called the “prosumer”.

        There seems to be many, many people who make music for the same reasons people listen to music: entertainment. So how much money does the ecosystem around music actually need? So why do we need a professional music industry? Can’t music be made by people who make music simply because they find it an enjoyable thing to do? Does a professional music industry produce positive effects, or is music better handled at a grassroots level? Do we even need the notion of the “rockstar” (or the “star” in general), and what does society get from that?

      • I’m going to pass. Your thinking(?) is far too abstract for what we are really talking about here.

        I suggest you have another Mojito and enjoy whatever you enjoy.

    • Also ‘M’ repeats the oft repeated myth that anyone wants to “turn back the hands of time and go back to..”
      I really haven’t heard anyone advocating “going back” to anything. We are looking forward; and we would like to see a fair ecosystem emerge instead of a free-for-all grab-what-you-can looting system that is the status-quo.
      Just because someone makes a comparison to yesterday, doesn’t mean that one is advocating yesterday… it’s just that –that is what there is available to compare to

  • In today’s world there seems to be a need to make other people wrong in order for someone else to feel right.

    Anyone who saw the recent interview with Jeff Bezos on 60 minutes could feel
    the chill in the air.

    And yes, tech is creating lots of “disruption” for everyone, not just artists.

  • Thanks for a great round-up and a year’s hard blogging. Here’s to 2014! Some snapshots of my own:

    If 2013 was the year that US Progressives fell out of love with Big Internet, it was also the year that the UK left took the gloves off. Public anger led to both Google and Amazon being given a grilling on tax avoidance in the House of Commons. The liberal Guardian ran regular stories and exposes on them, often very hostile. Linking into your point, it’s notable that the Guardian were also a major player in the Snowden revelations.

    Early 2013, Kim Dotcom’s attempts to paint himself as some kind of Robin Hood figure were largely met with derision. That’s part of a wider trend. While piracy still happens, it’s increasingly impossible for the companies behind it to present themselves as countercultural heroes as opposed to the ruthless businesses they really are.

    The backlash against Spotify was definitely a major shift in the conversation. What gives me a little flutter in my cold DIY heart is that it’s proven entirely impossible to talk about this without recognising that the major labels are equally to blame for what’s going on. That’s not new, Helienne Lindvall wrote the canonical piece on it way back in 2009. But 2013 was when that started really coming to prominence. I hope you’ll forgiven a sense of “we told you so” among indie and DIY partisans on this. Not only does it turn out that the old boss wasn’t better then the new boss, it seems that they’re still some of the same people. It was amusing to see industry apologists to try and deal with this issue by shouting “yeah, but piracy is the only issue” and then, what that didn’t work, shift to pretending that they’d been attacking Spotify on payouts all along.

    A few events from the video gaming industry you may have missed (I don’t think you’re a gamer?):

    Papers Please was the surprise success story of the year. A game about immigration controls created by a single developer which gamers everywhere fell hopelessly in love with. It probably got almost as much broadsheet coverage as Grand Theft Auto. Papers Please is why the indie sector exists.

    2013 was also the year the distributor GOG.com (formerly Good Old Games) came of age Increasingly, any serious PC gamer is going to have a GOG account. It’s interesting because, as well as being highly supportive of indie developers, they’ve found a way of monetising old PC games that were previous being left to rot. And they’ve done this all with a DRM free policy, which they’ve found has no significant effect on sales.. Treat your customers with respect and they’ll do the same for you. There’s a lot of lessons to be learnt from GOG, for anyone who wants to listen. (It’s also notable they’ve carved out a niche in the market despite the behemoth that is Steam).

    Even more niche, the interactive literature site Choice of Games (who basically do adult versions of those old choose your own adventure books from the 80’s) made almost all their games paid content. Which seems to have done them no harm at all. Again, it shows that people will pay for things that are worth paying for. And if you look at their contracts on their website by adopting the paid content model they’re able to offer really fair and ethical contracts to writers. This company was previously screwed over heavily by Google Adsense, but in the long term I think it’s benefited them. Which just goes to show that we don’t need Google.

    Hope you found those video game stories interesting. I partly mention them because it’s important that we remember that not all technologists are like Big Internet. Not only are they not always opposed to the interests of creators, some of them are creators as well.

    Big loss of 2013 was obviously Lou Reed. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s going to miss the simple thing of never quite knowing what he was going to do next. That’s the sign of a great artist- one who constantly challenges and evolves.

    To finish off this already far too long post, here’s a few things I’d like to see in 2014.

    A stronger voice for new artists and a bit less from legacy artists. I’m a lot more interested in someone who’s creating work then someone living off their back catalog. The first is an artist, the second is a nostalgia peddler.

    More challenge to the cult of free. I don’t think that’s come along as far as you suggest and it needs to be looked at more in 2014. We shouldn’t be afraid to state the blunt truth. The current situation where people expect everything for free is simply not tenable in the long run.

    A bit more positivity. No matter how vehemently we disagree on some issues, I’d assume everyone commentating here does so because they consider art in its broad sense incredibly important and care about it. Sometimes, I think we run the risk of forgetting that in all the debates about copyright, piracy etc. My main new year’s resolution is to make sure to discover at least one new band a month. If anyone thinks that’s a good idea, they’re welcome to join me in that quest.

    A happy 2014 to you and all readers/commentators!

    • Thanks for sharing, Sam. Just might be looking at gaming in coming weeks, although I myself am not a gamer. Happy New Year!

  • Sam, no question that video gaming, software development, filmmaking, book publishing and the visual arts need to all be part of the conversation about tech and digital compensation. Not only are all these factions and others entitled to be part of the conversation, it creates a story with greater depth and reach for the public.

    Legacy artists are not the only ones speaking out, just the only ones covered by the press. Blake Morgan of ECR music is getting a lot of coverage and is articulate, knowledgeable and passionate about music.

    Thank-you for your comment about music, it helped stir a new insight. First of all, we need to start dropping the record labels from the conversation. Why? Because our comments are about the individual artists, not the industry and bringing the labels in only confuses. Every artist today knows about the trade off and sacrifices artists are required to make when they sign with the majors and for some the labels still make sense.

    The second part and the one I find the most annoying is this “more music than ever discussion”, it’s bogus. Why? Because people crank out crap, because music has been devalued and few have the stomach to invest the time and money in making a sonically superior studio record. I don’t care what people say, you get what you pay for and records made on laptops are very good, but rarely are they sonically great.

    And yes, crap is crap even recorded in “real” recording studio.

    Because of Tech more people can make good records and get instant global distribution, but…….

    • The thing is “crappy music” is subjective. For every person that likes the music you like, there is probably ten who would think it is crap.

      There is never any evidence presented that throwing money at the music industry will cause it to produce “better music”, if that is even definable to begin with.

      Fundamentally though, we can talk about quantity… well quantitatively. And the quantity of music being made beyond coherent enumerations and the music that already is made never seems to go away. The end result is there is more music out there then you could probably listen to in ten thousand lifetimes. So forgive me if I don’t understand why music creation needs to be “encouraged”.

      We don’t need more music or “better music”. I’ll tell you what need though: more scientists, doctors, nurses, engineers and technologists. A lot of people work in these fields work excessive amounts of overtime not because they want to, but because they have to. These are areas where we have a critically undermanned workforce. So really, wannabe pro musicians: drop your damn guitar and put on a lab coat. As a plus, there is actual money involved. Lots of it.

      • What a stupid answer from someone who worships at the tech alter. You just want to argue to argue, don’t try and make me out to be an elitist and then pawn your world view. Go put on your lab coat and isolate. We don’t all want to be technocrats. Steve Jobs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zut2NLMVL_k

      • Actually, I don’t want to be a technologist. I rather sit on a beach and sip mojitos. But I don’t expect the economy to help with that ‘occupation’.

        It’s unfortunate that you resort to baseless ad hominem attacks. Usually when I encounter a more articulated response, it is possible to reach a better understanding of the opposing viewpoint. But it doesn’t seem like you are able to present any explanation on why we need to encourage the development of more professional musicians where there is other fields with very critical shortages of talent. That’s actually somewhat disappointing.

      • I’m busy. I guess you didn’t watch the video.

      • Well I guess I don’t understand how the Steve Jobs video you linked to is relevant. I don’t even agree with him, his work on the Mac and iPhone will be famous for quite some time even though we don’t use it anymore.

        Perhaps you’ve heard about the famous Issac Newton quote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Anyone who can help contribute to the advancement of technology no matter if their technology becomes obsolete. It is possible that Issac Newton’s quote might present an unpopular idea with pro-copyright people who would more likely refer to building on the work of others as “plagiarism” instead of advancement.

        There is plenty of artsy spiritual-emotional conclusions involved in science, mathematics and technology. Real ones. Physical science is literally the pursuit of objective truth about the nature of the Universe. Mathematics is the study of objective truth in all things and non-things.

        In comparison, the art and music world looks like a bunch of people making much of a storm about nothing. It’s not like there isn’t any value in art, but its value is entirely man-made. The higher, universal and natural truth is in science and science alone.

        Technology can eradicate the idea can you have to “work for a living”. Eventually it can eradicate death and suffering from the human condition as well. No artist or musician will ever do anything remotely close to that.

        I’ll admit a grungy haircut and guitar is a lot cooler. But putting on that lab coat is a higher calling.

      • Bingo. Pro-copyright. Hey Ma, we found as a pirate in a lab coat, who thinks Steve Jobs doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You know he’s one of those ADAPT guys.

      • I thoroughly enjoy your debate technique. Thanks for your time.

    • Thanks for your contribution Will. Some interesting points to respond to.

      Another reason to get the video games industry involved is I think it’s something of a weathervane. Because both the developers and the consumers are more technically literate then the average, patterns we see in the gaming industry often pop up later in other artforms. It’s interesting to note that there’s been a massive cultural shift against piracy among gamers over the past few years, at least in the indie gaming sector.

      Fair point on the press having it’s share of the blame on the issue of which voices we’re hearing. That’s something else I think we need to try and sidestep. Obviously, Zoe Keating is another prominent and important voice on some of these issues.

      I’d disagree that we can drop labels from the conversation. As the whole Spotify issue shows, they’re still relevant to it, much as I wish that wasn’t the case. You do bring up an interesting question for me though. If I accept (and I do) that artists signing with the majors is a free choice on their point, how far can they then be held culpable for the business practises of those labels? I’m not sure what I think on that, to be honest. But if we’re going to seriously look at an “ethical internet”, it’s a discussion that needs to be tackled.

      I disagree with you on the “more music then ever” argument. Sturgeon’s Law applies here- 90% of everything is crap. That applies to signed bands as much as unsigned ones. I came of age during Britpop. There were some shockingly terrible bands signed. (Northern Uproar spring immediately to mind). That percentage is still roughly the same, it’s just the volume of music has led to a greater amount of crap to sift through. That’s the main issue today. There’s some amazing stuff out there, but it’s getting to it. But, overall, that has been one positive effect of the net. You see the effect most clearly with niche genres like grindcore or gothic rock; bands that wouldn’t have got a major label deal in a million years are now able to get their stuff out to a wider audience. So it’s a mixed blessing. For me, the bands it advantages are likely to be ones I care about more then the type of competent workmanlike bands it’s affecting negatively, so I’m in favour.

      I partly agree on production. It really depends on what kind of music it is. A folk artist or a garage punk band are fine with cheap production because it suits the music. On the other hand, a psychedelic or a symphonic metal band are going to need higher production values then you can currently get on a laptop. What I hope we’re going to see over the next decade is the rise of a new kind of label which essentially acts as a PR company and bank. We’re starting to see that to a small extent already, especially with the former. More and more PR companies specialise in representing bands. There’s crowdfunding as well, obviously, but that’s not a catch-all solution. It only suits a certain type of artist. Sure, I like my confident self-promoting artists, but I also want music made by maverick bedroom hermits to get out there and crowdfunding will never do that.

  • Fair enough Sam. The video gaming industry is huge as proven by the latest Grand Theft Auto release and I’m glad to hear that gamers are beginning to understand the costs involved in developing these games.

    I know you are not in that camp, but pirates love to use the film and record industry to misdirect the conversation, by separating the artist from the industry. Like it is ok to burn the industry, when the artist does in fact get some level of compensation. I have my own issues on this. In the 70’s, labels operated very differently from today. They invested more heavily and stood behind artists for years, if they believed. No more.

    This quality of music is also quicksand and there is a ton of bad music, because there is a ton of music and the loss of curation with the 1996 Telecommunications Act has only made it harder for the listener to find new music.

    So much of what’s wrong with the world is a result of massive consolidation. But that’s another conversation.

  • Sam. You bring up a very important point about the labels equity deal with Spotify. I think over time, I allowed it to move into the background of my thinking. But in fact, it says everything about the deal. It was a sell out.

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