06 May 2007

Buggy Whip It Good

One of the more notorious anti-Luddite images in American business culture is the thought that, at the dawn of the automotive era, buggy-whip manufacturers might have sued automobile manufacturers for making the buggy-whip factories no longer profitable.1 Technophiles make the same comparison to contemporary distribution of the arts.

  • Peter Gabriel has a remarkably well-considered, but still relentlessly optimistic, view.

    This isn’t to say there is no role for record labels in this digital world. The labels still have some amazing content and some smart people working it, and if they learn how to reinvent themselves they should still be able to survive. Most artists don’t want to do many of the jobs record companies do for them.

    However, the playing field has levelled because the independent labels, and artists choosing to do it themselves, can respond more quickly to the world changing around them. This must be healthy. The decimation of the record retail business has made it much harder for some minority artists to get exposure, but new doors have opened up as the old ones have closed. This is the beauty of digital music – the endless opportunities it affords artists to find people who want to listen to them and for fans to discover music they might never have otherwise known existed.

    "How Artists Can Earn in a 'Won't Pay' World," The Times (London) (04 May 2007).

  • Some radio stations, like the quasiavant-garde KEXP (station's own website), are trying to develop nontraditional distribution models. Unfortunately, a "fiscal year" is an eternity on the Internet, so nobody really knows whether these kinds of experiments are financially viable — or what mistakes they're making, opportunities they're missing, or successes they're having — until the environment in which they take place no longer exists.
  • Some authors are also participating, in their own ways, in the "digital distribution revolution." On occasion, the mainstream publishing press deigns to notice treating this as if it's new (counterexamples: the Baen "free library" of mostly escapist material, Cory Doctorow's consolidated index of his own work available in electronic format, and the Infinity Plus selection of reprint material).

The key problem, as always, is getting paid for it. Of course, this isn't limited just to books and recorded music; the actual creators of other forms of art, such as the visual arts and film and TV, often struggle to get paid, too. (Starving artists don't create wonderful paintings of daisies, because they're too busy pushing up daisies.) This, however, is far more driven by market structure than either innovation or inherent worth (whatever that may be). HMV's current whingeing that it won't show a profit from this year's biggest bestseller seems particularly ironic — and intellectually dishonest — given HMV's relentless emphasis on restocking Waterstone's to carry more copies of fewer, but better-selling, titles.

This runs back into the question of exactly what creators are creating. And Peter Gabriel is himself a snarling refutation of the commercial imperative to conform to type; although they don't seem so innovative now, try playing his first four solo albums — or much of his later work with Genesis — against a backdrop of so-called "album-oriented rock." <SARCASM> It's certainly different from the cultural wasteland of "contemporary" classical music, right? </SARCASM>

Speaking of Peter Gabriel, it's time to get my son outside mowing the lawn. And if you understand that reference without having to look it up, you have a decent chance of getting the point of this piece (and of being committed to the loony bin, but since you're already here, you should probably be looking for the men in the white coats anyway).

  1. This is also, of course, a purported smack at trial lawyers with ridiculous claims. Ironically, though, the legal system wouldn't have recognized the claim at the time; antitrust law, and in particular private-actor antitrust standing, were created only after the buggy-whip manufacturers would have been doomed, or at least doomed as purveyors of something needed outside of Amish country. Far be it from me to point out that the rabid anti-trial-lawyer crowd has no problem at all with expensive tax lawyers, or that anachronistic thinking of this nature pervades the so-called "tort reform" movement.