Sunday, August 2, 2020

Google takes on Denmark

In news related to one of my intellectual pursuits- namely, the internet companies and how they are slowly sucking the economic life out of the rest of us, particularly musicians- YouTube has announced that they will be removing all Danish music from the site in a royalty dispute.

The dispute results from negotiations over a new performing rights organization agreement with the Danish PRO Koda, which is basically the BMI / ASCAP of Denmark. As part of the renegotiation, the current agreement has expired- and in order to temporarily extend the current agreement YouTube has demanded a 70% decrease in royalty payments to Danish songwriters and composers. (It's actually a bit more complicated than this, as the negotiations are being conducted by a Nordic alliance of collecting societies, Polaris, but that's the gist of it- you can read the press release if you want the finer details.)

Obviously this is patently absurd and bullying behavior on the part of YouTube but such is the apparent power of being the most-important-network-node in the room, a position of extreme power and privilege for YouTube and Google to wield and abuse as they fit. (These are Jaron Laniers' Siren Servers).

To put this into a more traditional economic framework: YouTube and other tech giants continue to use their privileged network position to suppress wages of producers (in this case, the composers and musicians of Denmark) in order to provide cheap goods (i.e. free music) to the consumer. It's monopsony in action, and it's exactly the kind of thing that unites the four tech giants who were recently on Capital Hill for testimony, though some commentators didn't seem to quite understand what they were all doing there together because they seem to be all so different. (Hint: they actually aren't as different as you think, at least if you think in terms of their power).

They are the largest aggregators of product in the economy. They will seek to maintain that advantage and shift cost backwards and off their books to the people who make the stuff.

YouTube could conceivably win if Denmark doesn't stand their ground and realize what's good for them. Danish composers and artists are losing money even being on YouTube, it seems like a no brainer to act collectively and aggressively to secure a better deal for themselves. This is exactly the role of a Performing Rights Organization.


As musicians are often told by reply-guy-trolls, if you don't like YouTube's terms, just take your music off YouTube. Well that is only effective if done collectively. Otherwise, you're just Hans Abrahamsen vs. one of the largest companies in the world. This is basically what is happening here, so I hope Danish musicians realize the favor YouTube has done them.

Meantime, if YouTube follows through with the threat, you'll just have to purchase Schnee on iTunes. Or Spotify, I hear they treat their musicians well.

Google's 2019 revenue of $113.26 billion is a third the 2019 GDP of Denmark ($347.176 billion). Google finally released revenue numbers for YouTube of $15 billion, 9% of Alphabet's total revenue. They did not break out YouTube's profitability.

YouTube is probably not profitable on its own, but even it were, it definitely wouldn't be if it had to pay for all the music and videos everybody gives them for free to monetize as they see fit.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Amoeba Music and Land Use Politics

There's been a weird confluence of intellectual passions of mine- between the economics of records and digital music and that of land use planning. A strange tale, it involves the iconic Amoeba Music in Hollywood (last record store standing! Almost, anyway).

So here's the deal: insane megalomaniac anti-development advocate Michael Weinstein, who also happens to run the huge Aids Healthcare Foundation out of Hollywood, is very angry that the city of Los Angeles has approved a 26-story complex on the iconic site of Amoeba Music. The project certainly has its flaws (way too much parking) but we're in the middle of a historic housing shortage here in Los Angeles, we need everything we can get.

Michael Weinstein really hates building things. Especially things close to his Hollywood office that might block his views. He has a laughably terrible success rate, but he's sued to try and stop this development, and this one because they demolished another iconic building- an Old Spaghetti Factory (Los Angeles has really turned its back on the proud history of its old blue-collar spaghetti workers). Then, he offered to buy the building from the owners he was suing at like 20% of its market value to make the lawsuit go away in a total mafia move. That hasn't worked. Oh, he also was the financial force behind the failed Measure S campaign (which lost oh-so badly) and countless other failed ballot propositions (one I even voted for). Learning much from Hollywood (the figurative one, not the literal location) he is not one to be deterred by repeated failures. After all: why do we fall?

Oh one other thing about the Aids Healthcare Foundation and Michael Weinstein: it's basically an insanely profitable pharmaceutical company taking advantage of blatant federal drug loopholes hiding behind nonprofit status. Only around 5.8% of its income is from contributions and almost all of that is from donations to its Out of the Closet thrift store chain. According to its federal tax returns its net fundraising for 2016 was negative $410,729 (I hope to beat that number with my own fundraising efforts this year!) It did have net sales (mostly pharmaceutical) of $279 million though, and paid its executives $4.7 million. (More on the some-would-say fraudulent tax abuses of the AHF here, and here and here).

So anyway, Michael Weinstein, who hates all new buildings, decides to jump in to save Amoeba Music- or at least the iconic historic building (year of construction: 2001). He's suing for historic protection, notably because Paul McCartney played there once, iconically. 

Now the Los Angeles Times reports that Amoeba music is asking him to, well, please stay out of it. Herein lies the confluence with the music industry: it turns out that Amoeba music sold the building to the developers themselves to the tune of $34 million. In fact, it's this $34 million windfall from the land sale that is basically the only thing keeping the iconic record store in business. They are privately held so don't release their books (no ProPublica page for me to link to) but I strongly suspect Amoeba to be a money losing business right now, except for that land sale. They want to use the money to be able to move to a smaller iconic site and stay in business.

As I have discussed at length- and more to come- records are a terrible business. Yet we all still do it for some reason. I remember I had a professor in college that had owned a recording studio in Hollywood- and this was like 20-30 years ago- say that the only way you will make any money with a recording studio is when you sell the building. If anything, this is even more so today. On steroids. If you are lucky enough to own a building, that is!

Michael Weinstein doesn't care though, his main mission is to prevent building anything, anywhere, ever, and he has no problem using Medicare and Medicaid dollars to fund his political efforts to do so. From the Times article: “'We are fighting for the integrity of our community and to preserve what makes it interesting, whereas it seems many others are just trying to cash out and milk it for everything it is worth,' Weinstein said after noting that Amoeba had sold its building for $34 million."

Thanks Michael!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Use Cimbalom to Signify Light-hearted London Crime Stories in Your Movie Soundtracks

Stumbled on this promo video for a new score from Benjamin Wallfisch for some upcoming movie that is apparently some sort of London-based caper movie.

Now I'm a big fan of Wallfisch's Blade Runner score so this is not a value judgement- but I couldn't help but notice WTF is a Cimbalom doing in that big band.

I mean I like big-band cimbalom playing as much as the next guy but it is truly a bizarre musical association that this instrument has come to signify "light-hearted-London-based-crime-capers."

Well maybe it's not THAT weird. It's perhaps meant to signify something even more specific: the general "violent-yet-devil-may-care-comedy-machismo" of a Guy Ritchie film. In fact we can trace this associative meaning of the Cimbalom directly back to Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes - music by of course Hans Zimmer. I say "of course" because I don't know if Hans invents these things or not (can one "invent" a cliché?) but he certainly has a knack for latching-on and adopting these film-score trends right at the beginning (witness the debate over who invented the low-brass BWAAAAA or the "minor-thirds-on-low-strings-means-spies" clichés- perhaps signifiers worthy of another post- but either way Hans or his disciples are always right on the forefront of these things).

This was picked-up either explicitly or subconsciously for the BBC Sherlock Holmes series (music by David Arnold and Michael Price). Now we had a modern setting of the Cimbalom in London crime stories.

Now let's be clear the Cimbalom has very little historical basis in Victorian London, although Dulcimer instruments are prevalent in various Celtic music traditions from the British Isles. In fact, its primary pre-Sherlock-Holmes association would be to that of various Gypsy-music traditions or other "folk musics," specifically and primarily out of Hungary and Central-Europe. I'm not sure a sophisticated Victorian like Sherlock Holmes would have ever heard the instrument.

I've been trying to find a precursor to the Zimmer use of the Cimbalom in a similar context. Any leads are welcome.

Meantime, watch this:

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Soundcloud and the Terrible Business of Music

As the imminent bankruptcy of Soundcloud looms, it's as good a time as any to think about monetizing strategies for streaming services. Of course, I don't really care at all about the health of the streaming services themselves (and all of them are still terribly unprofitable). I care about finding a sustainable business model where money actually makes it back to musicians ("music creators"). And not just the 0.01% of musicians either. We have to find a system that pays out to middle-class and niche musicians also. So far such a system has not been developed.

Over the last twenty years an insane amount of private equity investment has flowed into streaming and media platforms, as investors assumed that someone, somewhere would find a way to profitably monetize media streaming. I focus on music streaming here, because the visual-streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, HBO) have taken several different turns from the music business in their business models that has actually put the content side of the business on surer footing than in the music business (a post for another day- it's still not clear they're profitable). This huge investment has financed the growth of marketshare for unprofitable companies, basically on the backs of investors and the lowly "content providers" at the bottom of the food chain. Lots of modern "sharing-economy" companies have similar positions, for instance the venerable Über, for whom an argument can be made that investors have just been subsidizing the world's taxi rides for the past five years.

In our case, investors have effectively been subsidizing the world's access to music. I've helpfully categorized these services for you:

Terribly unprofitable:
• Pandora (never turned a profit since 2000, trying to change to a subscription based model)
• Soundcloud (a mess of business models, including ads, subscriptions for listeners, premium subscriptions for commercial music, and subscriptions for musicians to host their music there)
• Tidal (does this still exist?)

Pretty unprofitable:
• Spotify (They continue to be unprofitable but their subscriber base is growing, there's a chance they might pull it off).
• Apple Music (still attempting to negotiate lower royalty rates- red flag!!- but acting optimistic. Obviously Apple Inc. overall is ridiculously profitable).
• YouTube (of course Google and Alphabet overall remain profitable, and YouTube plays a big part in driving data towards Google's ad / spy business.)

YouTube is, of course, the largest music streaming service in the world. Much of the music streamed on YouTube was not actually uploaded by the people that own the copyrights to that music. YouTube dictates its own terms to its "partners" (a brilliant euphemism), and they can take them or leave them. Through regulatory capture and monopolistic powers it also pays around $1 per 1000 plays, whereas Spotify and Apple are stuck around $7 per 1000 plays. $7 per 1000 plays is still probably unsustainable for creating a healthy music recording business, but this only helps to illustrate which way the cost pressure is going on the various actors in the music economy.

Someone, somewhere, will come out of the woodwork to tell me "actually, sharing is good for musicians." That may be, but so far not monetarily.

The debate over free music and royalties and streaming music can quickly get bogged down in entrenched, passionate arguments over "information wanting to be free" - which I guess is true but is kind of an abstract metaphysical argument; who cares what information wants, I care about people - so it's worth clarifying just exactly what the problem is here. Why are so many of these multi-billion-dollar market-cap companies unprofitable? Why is it so hard to be a musician in the new economy? Why are musicians always complaining so much?

First of all, music doesn't "want" to free, because music is abstract, patterned combinations of soundwaves that don't have the agency to want anything. It's people that want music to be free. And then there are some people that don't want music to be free, because they need to figure out how to make a living. Those people are musicians.

Creating music takes the time and labor of many people. Despite much of the process now being on computers, the basic fundamental act of music creation hasn't changed that much for centuries. It still takes composers, performers (whether they use these words to describe themselves or not) and recording engineers. Modern digital technology has chipped away at some of these costs around the edges, but it has actually done very little in reducing the amount of labor it takes to produce an album.

In other words, home recording studios and cheap knock-off microphones made in China might have lowered the barrier of entry to someone who wants to DIY an album, but if you literally do-it-yourself yourself it takes an incredible amount of time. Ask Jherek Bischoff. You might reduce your out-of-pocket expense in terms of paying other people, but this is just shifting the total man-hours all onto the back of a single person: you. And it's probably less time-efficient than recording in a fully staffed professional studio.

One of the most important truths that governs our collective march into the new economy is that labor is more expensive than capital. It's why healthcare is getting more expensive even as computer chips are getting cheaper. And music making is very labor intensive, which means it is very expensive. Productivity has not appreciably increased in music creation.

The economist William Baumol actually studied musicians when he came up with his landmark "Baumol's cost disease." He was confused as to why- when it takes no more work for a string quartet to perform a composition today than it did 200 years ago- are the musicians paid so much better today than they were back then? He reasoned the wages to the string quartet must keep pace with wages in more productive economic sectors. Otherwise there would be no more string quartets.

The opportunity costs of spending 200 hours in your bedroom self-producing a commercial album are huge. Think of all the things one could be doing with that time instead that would be way more profitable! The musician must try and recoup some of those costs one way or another, or the activity becomes unsustainable. They still need money to pay rent and buy avocado toast.

The advent of digital technology is actually kind of a double-whammy of unfortunate economic circumstance for the musician. When the phonograph and music recording technology was first invented, it actually created a new income stream for musicians. Suddenly, musicians could sell records! New money they never had before! A whole new business is born! Digital technology, at least so far, has had the opposite effect on musicians. It's effectively taken away the income stream from recording. Musicians have to rely on older, more archaic, income streams, and fight the streaming services tooth-and-nail for a bigger cut of their actually-quite-miniscule revenues.

(An off-topic argument worth exploring:

Music creation is as unproductive an economic activity as ever, but one thing that could potentially change that is computer-assisted composition. At least according to NPR, digital technology and Artificial Intelligence has the potential to soon write music for us. This would reduce the cost of music creation, as labor would be replaced with capital. Maybe robots could play the instruments.

I submit that this is stupid. No one cares. Half the pleasure of music is that it was created by humans, for humans. If we could build robots to compose music, hell, we could also build robots to listen to it for us as well. Does that mean no one is going to listen to music anymore because robots can take care of it for us?

We have already built computers that can play chess better than our greatest chess players. And we can build a machine that could easily beat a human in a 100-yard dash or throw baseballs faster than our best pitchers. Has this put chess, sprinters, and pitchers out of business? No. Because it's a human activity so we fundamentally don't care if computers can do it better than us. Which they can't. Yet.)

Finally, we approach an understanding of the problem facing musicians today, which is the direct cause of the trouble facing the unprofitable streaming services: while revenues to musicians have decreased due to proliferation of digital distribution platforms- which has dramatically increased the productivity of people working in music distribution like YouTube employees- the act of music creation is still painstakingly human and labor intensive.

As the productive YouTube employee's wages increase, according to Baumol, it puts further upwards pressure on musician's wages themselves, as they at least try and keep pace. The musician probably lives in the same high-cost city as the tech worker. If they aren't paid enough, eventually everyone will quit musicianing to try and get a job at YouTube. They'll have no choice.

All new digital technologies have done is lowered the cost of copying and distributing music. Think about it: in order to get music to people, it used to take things like trucks! and record presses! and retail stores! and warehouses! Of course the true cost involved in all that was the labor of the people employed in moving all that music around. But those jobs are gone. Music is free now!

Except that the cost of music creation hasn't actually gone away. It's as expensive as ever. It's just been shifted back onto the creators themselves, and onto rich wall-street investors who may or may-not have been duped into investing in music streaming services. Today, musicians are expected to pay to host their music on Soundcloud, with no real hope of renumeration. They have to pay for the production, recording, and promotion of their own album with the only hope of making any money back that someday they get picked up for a sync licensing deal or are famous enough to charge $200 for live concert tickets. No investor in their right mind would finance the creation of new music from an unknown artist expecting a return on that investment (some may do it as a charity donation).

It's this cost / revenue imbalance that no one has solved yet, and its really not that complicated. Pandora, Spotify, and Apple frequently report back to investors and regulators that they could reach profitability if only they could reduce royalty payments back to their suppliers. They are paying huge percentages of revenue back to the music creators! It's not fair! They have to compete with YouTube, after all. And YouTube effectively pays its suppliers nothing. When your competition gets its labor for free, it's hard to compete on cost.

But as we now understand, of course the streaming services have to pay a huge percentage of revenue back to their "suppliers"- that's where all the labor cost actually is! Remember, labor is more expensive than capital. It explains the modern world.

There's so many angles to explore here that this is only a cursory introduction to the structural problems facing the music streaming business and the music business as a whole. But I do leave you with this thought on YouTube, the supposed shining light of the streaming business (at least from the streaming business's perspective):

It's hard to find up-to-date data, but YouTube claims it's paid out $2 billion to its "partners" over the years of its existence, at least up to 2016. It couches this in positive terms. It's difficult to calculate how many total hours of work went into creating YouTube's unfathomably large database of human media creation, but they say that 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (that's 49 years of content per day!!!!1!!) Conservative estimates would mean that there are upwards of 95 thousand years of videos (much of which is actually music) hosted by YouTube. And for this humongous supply of content, cat videos and all, they've paid $2 billion dollars. Imagine how many hours of human thought and labor go into creating an hour of music, from composition through to recording, for which, if royalties were distributed evenly by hour, your share would be $2.40. A hundred thousand years of video content and that's all they have to show for it? And YouTube hasn't even turned a profit yet!

From the perspective of the musician then, YouTube seems like a terribly bad business. A failed one even. Their ad-based model can't possibly generate enough revenue to pay for professionally-produced content.

As such, the upheaval will continue. Streaming services have two options for survival: they have to lower the amount paid to musicians even further, or they have to figure out ways to increase their revenue. It's not rocket science. Until the music business figures out how to get more dollars from outside its sector into its sector, it will remain in turmoil.

It's almost as though by definition, sharing doesn't make that much money.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

For Real Christmas Magic, Try the I-iii Progression

I will now proceed to ruin music, and possibly Christmas, for you.

This started because there has been much ado in the media about how Christmas music works. The discovery was so Earth Shattering it went all the way to the heights of Vox Media, who asked some guy to explain to them how music worked on an iPhone keyboard. The answer to how to write a Christmas song: use a Dm7(b5) chord! (aka a D half-dim 7. That may or may not actually contain a D).


I think I've discovered the real secret to Christmassy, snow-tinged emotion. The power revealed here should not be used lightly, and should be used at your own risk. What I'm about to reveal to you, struggling young composer, is the amazing, emotional, snow power of the I-iii progression!

Now I'm going to attempt to make a very technical music / theoretical point without any musical transcription or notation. You're just going to have to trust me when I say all this music is based on the same chord progression. And that progression is I-iii (if you don't have any idea what I'm talking about, in the key of C major, for instance, this would mean the progression between C major and E minor. There's exactly one note difference between the two chords. The C changes to B- right next door, a half-step away, the other notes stay the same- and viola, the chord changes from major to minor!)

So it goes Major-Minor. Happy-Sad. Here's how it works narratively: you start out a little happy, perfectly fine, but then with one half-step change, BAM! Not so happy. More nostalgic. More longing. Yet with hardly any change! It's practically the same! It's only one tiny half-step difference between the two chords! So easy, the voice leading writes itself. (Note: do NOT confuse this with the equally powerful "Philip Glass progression": i-VI, Minor-Major, wherein one starts out kind of melancholy, and then with one half-step change- BAM! Sunlight. More hope. More wonderment. Equal but opposite).

If you don't think I'm onto something, well, I've performed on more than a few film music / Christmas themed concerts, my friend. I've compiled a brief analysis of the history of the progression below.

I mean, let's first compare the climactic moments of two recent Holiday classics. First, I give you the moment in Elf when Santa's Sleigh takes flight (or something, details are fuzzy) and we bask in the glory of Christmas (the actual I-iii progression is at 14 seconds in. You can't miss it. You'll think "oh, Christmas! Emotion!"):

This should give you a good preparation for the power of the I-iii, which had been cleverly hinted at by John Debney throughout the score to this point (notice its appearance, even in the opening credits: a cue which emphasizes the goofiness of the premise of the movie through a 50s-cheesy-and-innocent-commercial-meets-Christmas-because-sleighbells-vibe, but still breaks into the I-iii progression to say: "emotion.").

But where did he get this idea? Well, it's been in the air, my friend.

Elf is from 2003, and here's the moment of perhaps an overly climaxing, emotional endeavor by Alan Silvestri from 2004, Polar Express (directed by none other than Robert Zemeckis!). I must emphasize, this music is from a completely different movie, written and created by totally different human beings. The reason they sound so similar is because it's exactly the same chord progression, at the "money moment" anyway. I-iii. (Skip to 5 min in if you really want to hear it shine, but you can also hear it right at the beginning).

Where does it come from? Well, I'm pretty sure both of these scores were temp tracked with the ultimate in I-iii climaxes from the past 30 years, which is owned by Danny Elfman and Edward Scissor Hands (1990). Interesting tie-ins: while not specifically a Christmas movie, there is certainly a snow / ice / love motive suggested by the music and theme of the movie. Film music, necessarily, works by these shortcuts, these quick heart-tugs. What you are hearing is technically "I-iii", but this music conjures all kinds of connotations, because you are vaguely aware of scenes like this. I choose to share this famous cinematic moment because it's precisely the recollection of scenes like this that give the abstract "I-iii" progression it's power.

In this case, the references of the music connect back to powerful images of snow / beauty / love / emotion. After you've seen it, or  maybe even if you haven't, somehow these cultural references are formed. It's almost like you are being subconsciously manipulated. This progression "sounds like" snow and love because you've heard it before. Right here:

Of course I-iii is way too great to have been discovered by Danny Elfman.

No, I think we have to trace it back further. One possible source for it's prominence in my above examples might be La Boheme (1896) by Puccini, where the I-iii is obviously a prominent leitmotif. We can hear it in the famous aria "Che gelida manina" where it becomes the "love motif" of the opera. (go to 2:28 to hear it prominently. The under-pinning chord progression is the same I-iii motion we've been examining).

If you are too lazy to find the moment in this clip, because it's a bit less obvious than the film music, I have the duet between Mimi and Rudolfo here. Listen and weep, it's right at the beginning:

And in case you're still skeptical of the connection, I should point out that La Boheme is set on CHRISTMAS EVE on the left bank of Paris. How romantic! Here's a chorus singing the motive in the snow (to hear and see the point, you must go to 1 hr exactly):

It's almost like listening to all these musical clips, from the future, set you up to appreciate this, didn't it?

Now, did Danny Elfman know he was referencing this very specific connection between love, snow, and Christmas when he used the same progression to signify love and snow and ice in his score to Edward Scissor Hands? I don't know, and honestly, I'm a little skeptical he did. The melody is totally different. Yet the underlining chord progression is the same, which is why it sounds similar. But either way, this thing is in the cultural firmament, people. La Boheme is probably the most successful opera of the 20th century (though yes, it's technically from the 19th century). But it's in the air. Even if you've never been to the opera. We don't know how these exact connections are made, yet they undoubtably are.

And I'm sure there is something that Puccini is riffing on here- he's not off the hook for "ripping people off" at all. I'm not exactly sure what his reference point is, but I wouldn't doubt there is something. This didn't come from nowhere. I look forward to someone pointing me in the right direction to take the I-iii progression further back in time...

My larger point is, this is HOW MUSIC WORKS. There is no such thing as complete originality. Musical meaning depends on people making these associations before you. Merry Christmas.

Of course, if you REALLY want to signify Christmas, there's an even better way: have bells go (scale degrees) 1-5-6-3. See below. Add sleigh bells. ALl examples point to this being the most (only?) truly important thing. Maximum Christmas.

PS. Here is Laurie Anderson riffing on I-iii for 8 minutes. This progression naturally attracts the minimalists because of, well, its minimalism. It has nothing really to do with Christmas I just like it:

[Update and P.S.S.]

I feel like this is a real thing, despite some doubters. Here's a Honda commercial from this very Christmas season. Yes, maybe all these composers used Edward Scissor Hands as a temp track- but isn't it a fine line from literally using something as a temp track and ripping it off, compared to kind of being aware of it and referencing it subconsciously? How do we, as the listener, know where to draw that line?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

What is Copyright

Here, take my free ideas:

Copyright arguments have reared their ugly heads because the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) negotiated by the Obama administration cements some strict, perhaps draconian, copyright protections into the law.

Despite knowing better, I spent some not-terribly-productive-time the other day in an argument over copyright policy on Twitter. I got swept up in an age old argument (by which I mean like a decade old argument) between musicians, euphemistically known as "content creators," and tech free-information enthusiasts, who I guess like having the internet free and filled with ads and surveillance spyware helpfully installed on your computer by benevolent multi-national corporations.

(Side note: "free-information" enthusiasts refers to half a Stewart Brand quote on the topic of information, in a legendary supposed conversation with Steve Wozniak. The idea that "information wants to be free" has been used by many to argue that the internet is the greatest force of good ever discovered, and copyright is thus standing in the way of this natural benevolent order. It's also very convenient, since many of the biggest believers in this have also made huge fortunes from the current state of affairs, but I digress.)

All very boring, I know, but I couldn't help myself because of such rhetorical zingers as this gem:

I'll leave aside the absurdity of such a claim on logical grounds, since it defies my knowledge of the world to imagine a musician successful enough to own a copyright that can form a basis for retirement whom is also "lazy." But yet, I feel compelled to confront, or at least explore, this animosity. Because apparently to some, the musician who wants money is a big problem facing society.

My first thought was, why do some seem to single out musicians as so lazy and entitled? And why do other "entitled classes" (owners of other types of capital) seem to get a free pass?

This lead me quickly to a more-meta position of thinking about ownership and capital. But my gut emotional reaction, in perfect counterbalance to the assertion that musicians are "lazy" because they want to make money off their copyrights, is to think that these free-information weirdos are selfish because they want to keep and distribute huge terabyte-sized databases of music for free without having to compensate the original creators. No generation in history has felt so entitled to have access to all the world's music at their fingertips at no cost to themselves in time or money. Anyway, we can both be knee-jerk and reactionary. And both sides have a profit motive to their position. In such arguments, this is usually the case. But I'm not going to cede the ground that only one side is being self-interested here, and the other is on the side of pure altruistic good.

Julian is Alive!, for instance, seems to be some sort of digital archivist, worried that copyright holders and the big bad bogey-man record labels personified by the evil-incarnate (or just plain stupid luddite) RIAA are going to sue her and libraries for keeping copies of their music. Defenders of copyrights are lumped together as "maximalists." She's just being reasonable. Of course, my reaction to her might be similar- it seems to me she she is the one holding some sort of "maximalist" position: that people should be able to amass all this information, as much as they can, which is by nature free, and greedy musicians and record executives are standing in the way of progress and tech and democracy and freedom.

OK ok. First, let's all stop calling each other maximalists. I believe firmly in the public domain, and think the copyright term is too long, and I'm certainly not about throwing small-time music pirates in jail or even caring about them that much. I'm sure Julian doesn't want to personally own the whole of human music for personal gain and profit.

/ Does information really want to be free, or is it other people who want it who want it to be free? Which thing actually has the agency to "want" here?

A thought experiment. Why is the musician living off their copyright lazy while the heir to a fortune, living off the ownership of some other form of rent generating capital- be is stocks, bonds, or real property (land)- industrious? Is it somehow "worse" for the children and grandchildren of Marvin Gaye to be millionaires because they successfully sued Robin Thicke in an absurd copyright claim than for the grandchildren of Sam Walton to be billionaires because they were lucky to be born into the right family? (I'll use Robin Thicke as a shorthand for the whole fiasco because it's funnier).

Neither fact of wealth would seem to serve much societal good, in my opinion. In fact, they both represent a gross economic inefficiency. But in absolute economic terms, the Walton family's $3.1 billion in annual income from stock dividends is surely the greater economic drag. They have managed to capture 42% of the private wealth of the country. I will leave aside the moral question of whether the heirs should be able to do this- instead of oh I don't know, distributing their company's income more equitably to their employees. What I'm interested in here is how they manage to do it.

The answer here isn't very mysterious. The do it because they can. And they can because the law allows them to.

/ one man's inefficiency is another man's profit

In every way except in terms of dollars, when I compare "copyright" to Walmart, I'm talking about apples and oranges. As the techies are very very very quick to argue, it's an absurd comparison. But on a more meta-level, these things are interconnected. Because what is money other than an information system by which we can compare apples and oranges? Classical economics teaches us this. Money allows one guy who has oranges to sell them, and then to spend those "credits" on apples at a later time. Or alternatively, to hire Robin Thicke to sing about his sexual prowess.

So for me, when thinking about copyright, we are really forced to ask some heady questions about ownership, property, and money, and so we are lead quickly to such questions as: why do the Waltons deserve to be wealthy, while Zoe Keating is lazy?

/ Information may want to be free, but the people who create that information still need to pay the rent. The only source of information is other people.

Mine is primarily a concern of wealth and income distribution. By not thinking more-meta about how we organize society, we tend to develop big blind spots about how it actually functions. We tend to think there is law (politics), then there is economics, and then there is technology. Depending on one's area of expertise, one tends to rank them self-interestedly in terms of importance. Naturally, those working in tech tend to bias technology as trumping all three. Economists tend to think of markets as the ultimate organizing invisible-hand. And academics, lawyers, social scientists, yell from the side-lines about the importance of the state. But really, these aspects of society are always in interplay. You don't have one without the other. And changes in one always have cascading affects in the other domains. And most importantly, one area is not necessarily somehow "better" or more "pure" or "natural" than another. Ideally, they all function in balance.

It is the state and the law that creates money and markets, because it is the state that ultimately enforces property laws. It holds a monopoly on violence to do so. Economies tend to be much less functional in stateless societies, where property law enforcement is taken into individual hands. Of course, when the state overreaches and enforces laws that advantage too few at the expense of the many, the many may reclaim that right to violence in the form of revolution.

Technology does not function on some separate plain independent from the market and laws. We tend to think of technology as a benevolent truth that's out there, separate from humans, God-given even, just waiting for the right brilliant mind to discover it. But successful tech is inevitably also a successful power play. "Information technologies" represent powerful forces of economic reorganization, and they've created new economic winners (Google) and losers (musicians). This is in interplay with the powers of the market and the laws that govern them. When we talk about one aspect of society as an independent thing without considering the other forces, we have a necessarily incomplete understand of how society is working, and how power, resources, and labor are being distributed.

/ One man's new technology is another man's job.

If we decide that one force has outbalanced another, and one person has captured too much power or wealth or information, as a functioning society, we can decide to try and change the laws or invent new tech to try and balance out that distribution. In a less functional society, we can try and kill that person. But if we are a functioning democracy we shouldn't consider ourselves helpless. We, as a democracy, have passed laws that have allowed the Walton heirs to amass humongous fortunes by mere fact of inheritance and ownership of capital. The state protects rights of inheritance, and tax law preferences dividend and capital gains income.

We should be able to decide, as a democracy, that the societal benefit of this right (to act as a personal incentive to encourage the building of successful businesses) outweighs the cost of allowing one family to capture 42% of a nation's wealth. Or we could decide it's out of balance and institute a counterbalance, like say, a 90% confiscatory tax on inheritances above $20 million dollars. In doing so we would, in effect, be deciding that inheriting $20 million dollars is enough. If we wanted to anyway.

This is why all "property rights" are related. They are related whether they are real property, which is "rivalrous" and can not be reproduced, or "fictitious" property, like intellectual property, which are rights wholly created by the states. This distinction is highly semantic, and is only convenient if you are starting from the premise that "intellectual property" is by its nature peculiarly harmful, and should be restricted, and so a distinction between that and other forms of property should be found. The free-information crowd draws a big line in the sand around this point to make their legal arguments.

But the distinctions between intellectual property and other property are actually not as a great as they initially seem. This is why I prefer to think of them just as different forms of capital. To the argument that "land" is "real" and copyright is only "property" because we "fictitiously" agree that it is so by statute: land is real and tangible, true, but so are ideas. There is, in fact, such a thing as ideas. If property laws protecting ownership of real-estate went away, land wouldn't go away. But ideas wouldn't stop existing either just because we do away with copyright.

We have decided there's societal benefit in distributing some income to the creators of ideas, just as we have decided that there's societal benefit in "owning" land. The law doesn't create either thing, but it does create the right to own them. The land doesn't go away, but your right to own it does without the law. Without the law and property rights, you'd be left to defend your ownership claims on land yourself, which you can do with enough guns. But then, I could defend my music with enough guns also. It would just be harder and I'd be a pyschopath. Just as we have decided to grant the right to control the copying of music protection under the law, we have decided to protect the ownership of land under the law. The two things are apples and oranges, and the law doesn't create either one. But the law does create the right to own both.

So the current law, by international treaty, has settled on a copyright term of life of the creator plus 75 years. And so it goes. By probably misguided application of that law, that Marvin Gaye's "lazy" heirs have captured some of Robin Thicke's income. It's dumb, I get it. Perhaps the term granted to copyright is too long and this should be renegotiated. (And you shouldn't be able to copyright a friggin' cowbell anyway.) I'm no maximalist. I don't actually know that it's to the benefit of society that Marvin Gaye's children be able to sue over this. But I also don't know that Walton's grandchildren should just "get" to be billionaires. And in terms of degree, the economic impacts of the two aren't even close.

Obviously, this line of thinking leads to all kinds of other arguments, tangents, side arguments, hair splittings. Like, which right is more valuable? Which is the "greater good"? Robin Thicke's song or Walmart? Or Google, for that matter, perhaps the greatest economic beneficiary from free and cheap information of all (Google has, after all, started a space program in part from the profits from aggregating and distributing other people's free ideas. All while vigorously defending its own intellectual property).

To fully unpack all this is probably a book length argument. But unless we're talking about actual dollars, it is necessarily a value judgement. Google is indeed "productive," (which I guess means useful), and Robin Thicke is not. Fair enough, you might say.

Because in this case "productive" can't mean simply "profitable." Robin Thicke's song, however stupid, did get played millions of times and generate enough income that the Marvin Gaye estate sued him for $7.2 million. So there must be some "production" there for what is effectively a catchy piece of trash.

It's very difficult to separate "production" from "profit," and this from the system of laws that allows a specific thing to be more or less profitable than another. It's all interconnected. Ultimately, it is a subjective value judgement that Google is somehow more "useful" and impactful to the good of human life and society than "music." (I'll grant that it's more useful than Robin Thicke).

But if we're talking objective dollars, that flow from the current state of laws, tech, and economies, well I made a chart! Complete with bad resolution, it compares total worldwide music revenues for 2012 with total revenues for Google, in billions of dollars:

Hey, music did pretty well! I actually thought it would be worse than this. Except when you remember that Google has 57,000 employees and Music has... well who the hell knows but I'm willing to bet a lot more mouths to feed than that. And when you remember that this is less than the net worth of the Walton family. The Walton family could in effect afford to buy all the world's music for 2012.

Is it wrong to wonder if we can't tip the balance back just a little? I'll even go out on a crazy subjective limb and suggest that music has positively impacted the lives of more human beings than Google, to say nothing of Walmart, and that that will still be true a hundred years from now. I'm nuts! I know! Copyright is one of the only tools under the law "music" has to leverage against the aggregating power of the likes of Google, or more circuitously, the Waltons. Is that really so bad?

Friday, October 4, 2013



It has come to my attention that classical music has recently died.

City Opera is done. They have millions of dollars of debt. Operations ceased.

Minnesota orchestra. Vänskä resigns. Aâròn Jåy Kérnïs resigns.

Carnegie Hall stage hands went on strike for a day. (There are 5 of them.)

German orchestras also went on strike apparently.

RIP classical music.

Stay tuned for further updates (if necessary).

Artist's realization of the end times