Coronavirus Exposes Big Tech’s Big Bad Ideas for Artists

Emergencies have a way of shining a bright light on flawed thinking and dumb ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed latent, and embarrassing, American weaknesses, from the highest levels of government right down to the grocery stores, where Karen and Ken refuse to follow basic public safety rules. All in, it’s been a rather stunning demonstration of national incompetence laid bare for the world to watch, shake its collective head, and put up border signs saying: NO AMERICANS PLEASE. Happy 4th of July.

In the creative world, the pandemic has illuminated one of the first lies Big Tech started pitching more than twenty years ago—namely that wiping out the market for music sales was an opportunity that musical artists were failing to understand.  Tell that to one of the industry’s latest casualties—singer/songwriter Nadine Shah, creator of four albums to date, who, according to an article published on June 25, was forced to move back in with her parents after all her scheduled gigs were canceled due to coronavirus.  Nick Levine writes …

“Shah admits she feels ‘humiliated’ by what has happened and initially ‘didn’t want my peers to know I’m skint’. But then she had a change of heart. “’It’s so important for musicians like me to talk about this, because my bread and butter comes from playing live. Once that’s gone, I’ve really got nothing,’ she says. ‘That’s why we have to encourage people to buy records and make the streaming system fairer. What artists are paid by streaming services for their music, it’s disgusting.’”

By now, it has been widely reported (or easily assumed) that everyone who works in the venue-based creative arts is suffering financially due to the pandemic. With theaters of every size shuttered, musicians cannot perform, plays and musicals are on indefinite hiatus, and all the associated economic activity—from backstage crew to nearby restaurants and bars—has come to a deafening halt. On June 29, it was announced that Cirque du Soleil will be filing for bankruptcy.

For the most part (notwithstanding America’s general mismanagement), there is no one to blame for these effects of COVID-19. At the same time, many of us who have, so far, mostly been inconvenienced by the pandemic, rather than unemployed by it, are spending more time than ever streaming music, movies, TV, etc. And not surprisingly, that increase includes outright piracy. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee commenting on DMCA review, CreativeFuture cites analytics firm MUSO finds an increase of 31 percent in U.S. visits to pirate sties between February and March, as stay-at-home orders went into effect.

But one class of creators, who should at least be sustained by legal streaming, instead watch their “spin” numbers rise on platforms like Spotify, while pennies trickle into their bank accounts. Songwriters and recording artists were, of course, the first casualties in Big Tech’s assault on copyrights. In the late 1990s, when P2P file sharing (i.e. Napster) nurtured a whole generation’s worth of opposition to the idea of paying for recorded music, individual creators not only watched helplessly as their works were pirated in the tens of millions, but they were also forced to endure a litany of absurd rationales and explanations that amounted to victim blaming. “Quit whining about music sales,” the imperative resounded. “Sales will never return. Adapt! Develop new business models. Sell merchandise. And, above all, get off your lazy butts and tour.” 

These and other helpful tips naturally came from people who neither participated in, nor knew anything about, being a professional songwriter or musical performer. As countless members of the music community tried repeatedly to explain, those other revenue streams are all fine, but they are not even close to a substitute for sales of sound recordings.

As for touring, anyone speaking so blithely about it, fails to understand how costly, labor-intensive, and unglamorous that job really is for any artist(s) smaller than mega-stars. And, of course, music creators who are exclusively songwriters and composers do not tour at all. Nevertheless, the rhetoric became so shrill over the years, that some consumers seemed to convince themselves that paying for recorded music was tantamount to subsidizing artists who were too lazy to work for a living. Not that I want to give that cynical and ignorant opinion any deference, but what happens now?

Now that piracy and the predation of “legal” platforms have devastated music sales—and there is no foreseeable date when live performance will return—to what new model should the music creators “adapt” next? Sadly, Nadine Shah has answered that one for herself—the move-back-in-with-her-parents-and-still-try-to-make-music model. And, let’s not regurgitate the “nobody promised you a career” meme. No artist is that naïve. If the market does not want a creator’s work, that’s fair. It’s a risk every artist takes. But if the market wants the work (and it appears that a sizeable market wants Shah’s music), but multi-billion-dollar corporations have managed to redirect the creator’s earned income into their pockets, that’s not creative destruction, it’s theft.

Old (dumb) Ideas Still Wreaking Havoc

In 2009, Mike Masnick appeared in a video in which he techsplained the “The Economics of Abundance,” an idea so facially preposterous, it makes trickle-down look like a sensible theory. Without a hint of irony or self-consciousness, Masnick parroted the concept that the natural price for recorded music is zero (because digital distribution obliterates scarcity). But this is good news because, as he said at the time, “…additional scarcities are created. For example, the more abundant music is, the more demand there may be for live shows or merchandise….”

Anyone with far less education than Masnick can easily figure out that just because the market has access to unlicensed (free) recorded music, this does not create a new demand for live shows or merchandise. There is no question that the destruction of sales aggressively forced musicians to rely more on those other revenue streams, but calling that an opportunity is as economically bogus as it is personally offensive. Just ask the 50+ year-old singer/songwriter with the family and a few incipient health issues how eager she is to get back on the road, while her fans are happily listening to her sound recordings, but only making money for Spotify et al.

Further, to demonstrate the big “idea,” in that video, Masnick casually circled two icons on a white board, each representing live shows and merch, as if it were just that easy. As if those revenue generators do not have their own costs and barriers, which were in no way lowered by the “abundance” of zero-price sound recordings. And let’s not forget that the internet also opened up new opportunities for swindlers to sell counterfeit merchandise, thus providing indie musicians with the opportunity to chase infringements of their musical works and their tee shirts at the same time. Because that’s how more music gets made. 

Why bother highlighting the gibberish in an 11-year-old video? Because it so neatly sums up the thinking that has persisted from the late 1990s into the age of Spotify and beyond, and which still results in an artist unable to pay her bills, despite the popularity of her music. No, it is not Big Tech’s fault that a global health crisis canceled Nadine Shah’s gigs and countless live events for so many creators. But in light of the fact that most of us enjoy music most of the time as sound recordings, there is no valid economic theory to explain why songwriters and musical artists should be providing all that abundance for the artificially manufactured price of zero.

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