Can you please remind me?

by David Gillespie

Cover of "Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman,...

I just finished reading Fortune’s Fool. The book by Fred Goodman purports to be the story of Edgar Bronfman, Jr., one-time heir to the Seagrams liquor throne and would-be white knight for the music business. Having guided Universal into a disastrous relationship with French media house Vivendi, Bronfman exited that deal only to come back into the entertainment world a few years later when he and a group of investors acquired the Warner Music Group, installing him as chairman and CEO.

I say purports to be about Bronfman as while the first half of the book tells his story and that of his family, the rest of the book is really more about the people that lead WMG through the end of the last decade, the decisions they were faced with, and how they not only survived but thrived despite the odds. Goodman’s previous book on the business, The Mansion On The Hill, tells the story of the birth of the music industry itself, and is highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in how the modern label was formed, how music management came to be, and how people like David Geffen came to hold the positions they do.

Fortune’s Fool is a great behind the scenes look at the Warner Music Group, but it closes with an epilogue where Goodman allows himself up on a high horse to berate the modern music consumer for not valuing music, for downloading being the scourge of the Earth, for not understanding the music label to be not a necessary evil, simply necessary.

Goodman rightly calls to attention the people who have experimented most successfully with alternate forms of financing recorded music (from Prince giving away CDs on the cover of the Daily Mail to promote a string of shows to Radiohead’s In Rainbows where fans paid what they wanted) as having already benefitted from a major label relationship. Even the most recent darling of the movement Amanda Palmer who raised over a million dollars for her next record via Kickstarter had previously had benefitted from a label and famous pal Ben Folds. These associations, Goodman rightly contends, expose up and coming artists to audiences they are unlikely to have reached otherwise. They have their labels to thank, for better or for worse.

Where Goodman goes awry however is when he belabours a well-meaning point around the value of recorded music. Copyright exists, he says, to ensure people are incentivised to continue to create works that are in the public good. And he is correct yet still misguided; we’ve all enjoyed music that was created by some talented soul, and we all know the record label has reaped the bulk of the revenue from a hit. Music remains a hit-driven business, and the hits pay for all the chances the record companies take on the unknowns.

Unfortunately for Goodman, he is making the wrong argument: nobody needs convincing that recorded music has value. His lament is also identical to the music industry he has spent his life chronicling: this all worked fine before that pesky Internet came along and ruined everything.

In bemoaning downloading as an encroachment on copyright owners, he also glosses over the systemic extension of copyright laws that the large corporations have sought to keep works in copyright when they should have expired. The poster child for this in the film industry is Disney, a company whose defining works were created by using stories that had themselves entered the public domain (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sleeping Beauty. Alice in Wonderland. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Pinocchio. Robin Hood. Peter Pan. Winnie the Pooh. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tarzan. The Prince and the Pauper. Cinderella. Mulan. The Jungle Book. Aladdin. See this fantastic overview for more, this piece also worth reading.). Most of those works now enjoy copyright protection at least until 2047, with many staring down a much longer period of time.

Record companies are generally adept at exploiting a back catalogue, as we have seen with the various re-issues, re-mastered recordings, deluxe box sets and so forth over the past few years, each of those editions enjoying new batches of copyright protection. The changes in laws, again, brought on by large conglomerates defending the right of the creators big and small also have odd ramifications, such as work by Robert Johnson that had not been released under copyright to begin with now enjoying protection. This for work released in 1937. It is hard to argue (though bless them, they do try) that these sorts of copyright provisions encourage and support the growth of new artists creating new works.

The music business has taken a different tack in recent times, starting a campaign called Why Music Matters. The wildly flawed premise of this site is that music consumers only need to be convinced that recorded music is important, then they will start paying for it again. This at a time where there have never been more consumers of music, nor a more diverse selection of music available. It is Chris Anderson’s Long Tail with a twist: you can only profit from the tail if you have a microscopic commercial scale to match. Needless to say, this does not apply to the major label.

As I say above, music is a hit-driven business. In fact the entire entertainment industry, through movies, video games, books, what have you, is hit-driven. This is fine when the supply-side can be as carefully controlled as it once was. The issue for the entertainment industry is they can no longer control the supply-side. Conversely, while the demand-side has never been stronger, it has also never been more fragmented. The net result is the amount of attention needed in aggregate on a single act in order to return the music business back to its glory days (something every executive in the industry prays for daily) is so expensive and convoluted that it is rendered basically impossible. That, coupled with the access consumers have to an ever increasing number of sources for their music, means the genie is out of the bottle forever.

Brian Eno got, I believe, closer to the reality of the situation. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian he said:

“I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.”

While we have seen a significant decrease in the revenue derived expressly from recorded music, we have not seen a diminishing of its importance, either to music fans or to the role of recorded music in the careers of artists. Fortune’s Fool chronicles the birth of the 360 record deal, and laments the position it leaves artists in, with record labels taking pieces of other income streams that were previously the domain of the artist to do with as they will. This argument is fundamentally flawed. It suggests there is value inherently in the music business not needing to evolve with the times, as if changes in legislation as opposed to the way a company functions is the way to keep an industry alive. While the rest of the business world marches on, so important is the music business that it should be spared the ravages of time? Please, spare me.

For better or worse, cutting a deal with a major label has always been, and perhaps always will be, an artist agreeing to dance with the devil. The reality is there are a thousand Rihanna’s waiting in line to take her place as soon as she decides she is unhappy with the terms. It is the standard rich and famous contract, updated for a new millenium. That is agreeing to be part of the major label machine, to join in the collective record industry lament for the way things used to be, and to abide by new rules that will require your name put everywhere your business manager can stick it, from movies to perfume to clothing and so on, if you want to have a place in the zeitgeist the way music alone used to afford.

The flip-side to that is to wonder what it actually even means anymore to “sell out”. Keep in mind artists have always been at the mercy of their patrons when it came to their liberty to be artists (at least in starting out) as opposed to working the family farm. We will always need patrons, big and small, and while Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign may be as niche an example as Rihanna in terms of how available it is to the average musician, I have a hunch it is an avenue most of the recording artists of our time would take given the choice.

What Goodman argues against is not the demise of recorded music, but the demise of the record business as he knows it. The rest of the book is well worth a read, but skip the indulgent epilogue where the author sheds the weight of biography for pure fantasy.

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