Hype Hype Hooray is a biweekly “critique” of the music scene and the blogosphere that feeds it, told through the lens of Jamie Hale, a journalist who likes music about as much as he likes scotch and a firm leather chair. Please enjoy with a grain of salt.
Portland music writer Robert Ham wasn’t happy Wednesday morning. “If I don’t start seeing more musicians freaking the fuck out about this Pandora news, I’m going to be incredibly disappointed,” he Tweeted. “I can’t figure out why they feel that paying musicians/artists LESS money makes the most sense. Fucking bullshit.”
That “bullshit” Pandora news to which he was referring was a federal court decision handed down Wednesday that prohibits musicians and their publishers from making licensing deals with music streaming services, like Pandora, if they’re already members of a licensing fee collecting society, like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Recently a few major labels had decided to try to negotiate separate licensing deals for some of their music on Pandora, all of which had an established licensing deal through ASCAP. The court saw those separate deals as problematic.
This effectively allows Pandora to bypass, by law, record label negotiations that could, theoretically, grant artists more money in licensing fees.
While there are plenty of valid arguments to be made here, like the fact that Pandora executives and shareholders probably don’t NEED any more money, while many musicians barely make enough money to LIVE as it is, the real debate is about what musicians should actually DO about it.
As is the case in so many times of crisis, we turn to Thom Yorke.
In a similar flap this summer, Yorke very publically put down Spotify for not paying artists enough, removing some of his material from the service in protest. “The reason is that new artists get paid fuck all with this model. It’s an equation that just doesn’t work,” he Tweeted. “Make no mistake new artists you discover on #Spotify will not get paid. meanwhile shareholders will shortly being rolling in it. Simples.” Simples indeed.
The sad fact of the matter is that this is nothing new. The music industry has been shortchanging musicians since the very inception of “the music industry.” When recording artists started writing more of their own material they created a massive shift in music culture — popular music — and helped turn record labels into billion-dollar industries.
That billion dollar industry was threatened, and damn near killed, when the wild frontier of the Internet popularized free distribution of music. And when the labels couldn’t figure out how to fight the monstrosity, other than appealing to the federal government and pushing more Nickleback down our throats, some wise entrepreneurs stepped in to bridge the divide and offer a compromise. Those entrepreneurs are now massively successful corporate entities themselves, giving musicians a new stepfather to obey.
When news came that Pandora would be legally allowed to keep licensing fees low, it was another twist of the dagger for many musicians fed up with seeing other people make more money on their music. It’s the classic struggle between David and Goliath, if instead of fighting David, Goliath had sold the boy’s slingshot design, made millions, and paid David a cool ten percent.
And so, as always, musicians find themselves pitted against this massive profit-hungry monster who feeds off their creative works, whom they need to distribute their works to the masses. How can they defeat it? What hole can they find in its armor? Again, in response to that bullshit Pandora news, what should they do?
The answer, as frustrating as it is, is to play along.
Musicians, let’s have some real talk:
Look, you guys, this music industry monster is BIG. It has the power of MONEY on its side. A lot of money. You’re not going to just up and kill the thing with a bunch of rah-rah fight-the-man anthems released on snot-nosed independent cassette labels. I’m sorry. If you want to go your own way and rail against the system because of your pride and personal principles, by all means go ahead. I respect the hell out of that. Just don’t expect to grow a wide fan base very easily and certainly don’t expect to get paid very much. If, on the other hand, you want to have your voices heard, to broadcast your songs through the biggest channels available, to grow your influence and try to change the system, to make a better world for future generations of musicians, the best course of action is to tread lightly. Don’t do anything drastic.
Once again, for inspiration, let’s turn to Mr. Yorke.
While it may have seemed petty on the surface, his small protest was actually a great strategic maneuver. While surely a whopping zero percent of Spotify executives were upset they couldn’t hear Yorke’s “The Eraser” via their streaming service, the percentage of upset Spotify users couldn’t have been much higher. (If the Radiohead catalog had been pulled this would be an entirely different conversation.) But by using his high profile to publicly pull his music from Spotify, he brought awareness to the issue of artist payment, and initiated a conversation, albeit somewhat small, about art versus profit.
The best weapon against any profit-hungry industry is to offer a competitive alternative. But while independent record labels have built a nice home of their own, there are few resources to build alternative independent empires to rival Pandora and Spotify. So rooting through their rucksacks, musicians look to their second best weapon: public opinion.
If musicians continue to stand up to voice their grievances with the music industry, if they keep the message going for long enough, yell loud enough, create a catchy enough hashtag campaign, they might be able to make a difference. But while their hands work wildly behind their backs, they need to keep smiling at the monster, keep playing along, and hope that it cares too much about counting its money to notice.
Robert Ham was right to be mad. More musicians do need to “freak the fuck out” about this stuff. We’re not talking about some crazy utopia where artists, not executives, are revered and paid millions. We’re talking about paying musicians — the people who make the product this industry is selling — enough money to live, to eat and to keep making music. Is that too much to ask?