From time to time, one encounters an editorial that so deftly weaves the offensive with the inaccurate that it leaves the reader stammering. I suppose this was the goal of the latest OpEd from digital futurist Bob Lefsetz, which appeared in Variety last week under the title “Film Biz Can Learn a Few Things From the Music Industry When It Comes to Piracy.” I quote:
Thank God we’re in the music business. We’ve already been through the transition; we’ve already been pushed back to zero. We’re in an era of rebirth so strong that if you think the music business is in trouble, you’re not in it. Blockbuster acts make more money than ever before. Piracy has been eviscerated, killed by YouTube and legal streaming services, and from here on, it’s only up.
If we strip away the tone of Lefsetz’s article, which conjures a notion of fiddling while Rome burns, and just mine it for its didactic elements, he appears to be asserting this: that the music industry, after being forced finally to understand the digital age, is now on the leading edge of a financial renaissance, embracing and learning to coexist with technological reality that has transformed consumer demand. Despite the underlying, economic reality that the music industry is worth about fifty percent of what it was fifteen years ago, Lefsetz could not be more sanguine about its future, and he challenges the film industry to learn quickly from music’s example in order to spare itself some pain.
Central to Lefsetz’s ebullience is the continued well being of what he calls the superstars. He offers the following:
Superstar talent may make less money off recordings than in the past, but the live business far exceeds the money it once made. And then there’s sponsorships/endorsements and privates and sync and so many avenues of remuneration that no one who is a superstar is bitching.
Never mind that what Leftsetz is saying here just ain’t true or even mathematically possible, the elitism inherent in his proclamation is a direct contradiction of those democratizing promises made by his kindred techno-utopians in the first place. Because what he’s saying is, “If you’re good, you’ll make money,” but by “good,” he means a blockbuster performer like, say, Lady Gaga. But what if you’re good like Tom Waits or Rufus Wainwright? Are these musical geniuses, who do not have screaming hordes of teenage fans or, heaven forbid, endorsements from Doritos, not good enough to make it in the brave new world Lefsetz foresees? And I like Lady Gaga; I think she’s fun, funny, and talented, but I certainly think we need to keep fostering a more diverse library than artists like her are going to produce. Unfortunately, in Lefsetz’s future the Gagas make a living (and we’ll get to what kind of living in a moment), while the fledgling Wainwrights remain hobbyists. Not only is that unfortunate for culture, it’s unfortunate for the subsidiary jobs that won’t be supported by that next Wainwright not going pro. And for all the exuberance, the data are clear that the disruptive technologies we’re talking about are not replacing those jobs.
As for cinema, we’ll set aside the apples-to-oranges flaw predicated on what I assume to be a void in Lefsetz’s knowledge about filmmaking and just stick to the macro view of the market he’s projecting. If we apply his same “superstar” rationale to the film business, what we conclude is that the Marvel Comics franchise will be fine — and I have nothing against it — because those kind of films can always sell Happy Meals, but the next Wes Anderson, John Sayles, or Marjane Satrapi can expect to see the Spotification of their earning potential as summarized in a recent tweet by Bette Midler stating that 4.1 million plays on Spotify earned a whopping $114. If you’re an indie filmmaker, try selling that kind of model to a prospective investor. See, the part where Bob is just flat out lying about the future is that, if you’re good (i.e. make something people want), you will be presented with a choice between being pirated and earning nothing or streamed legally and earning next to nothing.
Finally, Lefsetz says something so inscrutable toward the end of the article, that I can only conclude he actually hates successful creators. He says the superstars will still make good money, but of course not as much as techies or bankers. It’s one of those short, stupid statements that act like a fragmentary grenade in the mind because it’s just some arbitrary opinion presuming to set a value on something people actually still demand in large volume. An uber-wealthy banker is practically synonymous with criminal to many people these days, so why not say, “Superstar musicians will never make as much as drug kingpins?” It makes as much sense. And which “techies” is Lefsetz talking about? Because unless they’re saving lives, who decided their contributions are worth so damn much? Okay, the market did, but only sorta. I mean Zuckerberg is a billionaire, but that’s valuation based on speculation by investors, which more or less sums up the economic roulette game that is Silicon Valley. Is Lefsetz really saying that Zuck’s real-dollar value is greater than, I don’t know, Bono’s in a consumer-based market? Let Facebook charge for accounts, and we’ll find out. No, what Bob is saying is that Bono is a big enough star to comfortably survive the devaluation of music caused by technology, and then he’s arrogantly suggesting that what we’re seeing is a rational market. The part he’s leaving out is the next Bono you’ve never heard of, and quite possibly never will.
I think the film biz can learn one thing from the music industry with regard to piracy: kill it as soon as possible.