Category Archives: Music Industry

There’s This Musician …


There’s this musician. He has a world-class reputation and has contributed staggeringly influential works of art to the world.

But you know what? There were many, many, many times he suffered from bouts of poverty, poor health, self-doubt, and more.

He fought with publishers to get paid. His compositions alone didn’t produce enough revenue to sustain himself. So he sought other opportunities to make money from his musical skills. He wrote on-demand for people who needed specific kinds of music. He gave lessons throughout his life, even as, from the outside, he seemed wildly successful. He still needed the money. So he kept working hard. Really hard.

He dedicated his music to people who supported him. He wrote letters to fans, supporters, detractors, publishers, benefactors, promoters, venue owners. He got in fights with people who he thought had slighted his creative work. And he wrote lots of apology letters in the aftermath.

He gave opportunities to younger musicians, lionized his elders, and could give praise where praise was due. He was also often defensive, prickly, demanding, and disrespectful. He was complicated. But in the end, he knew his livelihood depended on people loving his work, and subsidizing his efforts. So though he never compromised his art for commercial reasons, he engaged with people, and he worked hard. Really hard.

He begrudgingly made peace with what he wasn’t good at. There were certain kinds of music he just didn’t seem to have a knack for. That was hard for him to accept. There were other areas where he realized other artists had pretty much already cornered the creative market, and he just wouldn’t be able to compete. So he really focused on the kinds of works where he thought he had a chance to stand out and carve a niche for himself. It was hard. Really hard. But he kept working, hustling, struggling, and—inch by inch, row by row—gained some traction.

You know what he didn’t do? He didn’t sit around and blame everyone else for his problems. He didn’t act like the world owed him something just because he created something. Sure, he was furious when his works didn’t receive the uniform praise and rewards he thought they deserved, but you know what he did? He channeled that fury right back into his work, and he created even greater music. In between having to write publishers, give lessons, attend social events, and “network” with “influencers.”

I put the words “network” and “influencers” in quotes because I’m pretty sure they weren’t in use during his time. But the idea is the same. You had to play a bit of ball with the powers-that-be if you wanted to get a professional leg up. So he played ball. He didn’t like it, and he actually wasn’t very good at it. It was tough. There were far too many times he had to come face-to-face with the reality that he was, in the end, a working man, a commoner, a service provider, at the mercy of the wealthy. That was brutal. But he sucked it up, and he played, and he worked, and he performed, and he wrote, and he worked. He worked hard. Really hard.

Throughout it all, he had to contend with an increasingly debilitating disability. He didn’t have health care. He had to work, to pay to take care of himself. That was hard. Really hard.

Today, his music ranks as some of the most excellent music ever created.

Do you know who I’m talking about?


And I’m pretty sure he didn’t’ sit around all day bitching about Spotify and Facebook.

Et Tu, T-Bone Burnett?

T-Bone says: “In that way, we’re becoming puppets. We’re becoming marionettes that have these electronic strings attached.” I say, bollocks. 


T-Bone Burnett is one of the more visible voices out there bemoaning the demonism of the big tech boogeyman, and his umbrage is uniquely distasteful given the extent to which he seems driven to simultaneously exult the purported nobility of artists.

I am referring, of course, to this drivel, distributed to us by the PBS News Hour:

WATCH: ‘Artists are our only hope,’ T Bone Burnett says in critique of big tech

Really? Artist like U2, who literally digitally force-fed us a new album? Artists like the oh so rebellious Radiohead and Trent Reznor, who loudly sung their own praises for having given music away for free online?


Listen, Burnett’s right in a way, but not in the way he thinks.

TBoneThere’s an easy solution. Don’t use Facebook. Don’t use Google. That’s the power of the consumer. The power of the purse. If we don’t give them our money and our attention, they change, or they go away.

At the end of the day, Burnett’s self-inflating polemic is just another tiresome instance of a musician blaming someone else for the problems we ourselves have wrought. Facebook doesn’t pay themselves. We pay them. Spotify doesn’t pay themselves. We pay them.  

T-Bone says: “In that way, we’re becoming puppets. We’re becoming marionettes that have these electronic strings attached.” Bollocks. Those strings are easy to remove. Don’t use those services. If those strings remain in place, it’s our fault. Not theirs.

He blames YouTube and Google for, “returning between nothing and a small fraction of that money to the owners of the material posted on their platform.” But nowhere does he acknowledge the culpability of the artists who PUT their music on those platforms. That content didn’t get there by itself. If you don’t like a product or a company, don’t use it. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

At the end of the day, it’s all OUR fault. But that’s also good news because that means WE can also change things. Stop blaming the big tech boogeyman, and start behaving yourself by putting your money and your time where your values are. That’s the only true solution.

The Internet Made Music Free, and Other Wrong Ideas

The real story of the devaluation of creative content, and what we can do about it.

The Devaluation of Creative Content

There is a story making the rounds online right now titled “A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music.” I came across it on the Roots Music Canada site, where it’s described as follows:

“Today’s column from veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn is adapted from a speech he gave at a symposium at Trent University.  It’s a long read, but we decided to post it here all at once in its entirety because, well, it’s just that good.”

My two cents, it’s not that good.

Still, it’s gotten a deal of traction. It’s my suspicion this is because it panders to musicians who want to believe some things about their careers that are not in fact true.

To be fair to Mr. Tamblyn, I appreciated his attempt to build an argument into an exhortation, and I’ve no doubt his heart is in the right place. He also makes some decent points along the way, but whatever thematic momentum he manages to develop derails at an all-too-common stumbling point, that being this notion:

“The internet makes music ‘free.’”

If we’re ever to move beyond our current state of affairs, it is REALLY critical we do NOT accept this statement—the internet did NOT make music free. We did. All of us. Listeners and creators alike. The internet introduced a new way for free to be possible, yes, but we didn’t have to use it. Yet we did, and then some, and this renders us the architects of the very changes we so love to complain about. Every artist who has ever made something available for free, and every listener who has ever consumed music for free—we are the culprits.

I have this disagreement with fellow musicians all the time in the context of Spotify. Musicians are generally angry at—and about—Spotify. But if you need an enemy in that scenario, turn your sights away from Spotify, and train them on the 87 million users of Spotify. They’re who make Spotify possible.

in this way

Revenue on the internet mostly follows an elementary model when it comes to creative content. Think of it like a garage sale that never ends, and never charges anything.

Let’s say I put a sign up in my neighborhood that says I’m giving everything in my house away for free. Guess what happens? LOTS of people come to my house! So then, I go to the local coffee shop, and I say, “Did you know there are 1000 people coming through my house, just today? You should really pay me $500 to put a sign for your coffee shop in my living room. Think of all the people who will see it!” Now, obviously, this won’t work in real life, because after the first day, all my stuff will be gone, and I won’t have 1000 visitors anymore. But if I’m YouTube, people will keep coming, because I always have free stuff I’m giving away. So businesses keep paying me money to advertise on my site.

That’s how monetization of creative content now works on the internet. The money doesn’t actually come from the content. The content is just the bait. The money actually comes from the traffic. Because not only are there visitors, those visitors are also generating data. So sites sell the traffic (you should advertise on my site, because I have SO many visitors!), and they sell the data (if you only knew which items in my house people most wanted to take, and which rooms they went to first, and which rooms they stayed in longest, think how much better at advertising you’d be!). This is the result of creators being willing to let their content be used as bait, and this is the result of consumers being willing to have their behavior sold in exchange for free content.

How do we change this? It’s on us, and no one else. Listeners, and creators. Listeners have to stop allowing their data to be sold in exchange for free content, and creators have to stop allowing their content to be used as free bait.

To put this more tangibly, all of us would have to remove ourselves entirely from the current marketplace and take our goods and our business elsewhere, to a marketplace where content itself has value.

The good news is, this is already happening. Sites like Bandcamp allow creators to sell their music directly to consumers, and consumers can make their purchases there without fear of their behavior being re-sold in the form of data. (See Bandcamp’s terms of use for details). And, Bandcamp does not make money through advertising, they make it through revenue sharing with their artists. Full disclosure, I am a commercial musical artist, but I don’t currently use Bandcamp. I just happen to appreciate the value of what they offer.

So, that’s it. The internet didn’t do it. We did. We started it. But we can also end it. But not in the way that Ian Tamblyn honorably—but naively—suggests:

“If we as artists attend to the work at a professional level, if we support the community in every way we can as artists, and you have invested in us, is it not incumbent on the community to support in kind?”

While this may seem noble and right, it’s nonsense. It’s not upon the community to DO anything.

In a content marketplace, value is determined by demand, not effort. You can work really hard to create your music, but if no one likes it or wants it, your effort doesn’t matter—your music still has no commercial value. And as musicians and creators, we’re not OWED anything, just because we created something.

What ACTUALLY needs to happen, is creators need to set a realistic price, and consumers need to pay it if they want it, in a marketplace with no interference from advertising and data tracking. If no one pays, the creator can remove their product, change their product, or lower their price. At some point, ideally, a sweet spot emerges, and the creator and the consumer can, in effect, strike a deal. In this way, creators can create, and consumers can consume, and those that deliver value to those who value what they deliver, will make money.


note: the above post began as a comment on the article referenced in the opening paragraph

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