money & beats & art

this past tuesday, beats music debuted.  if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a new streaming service being offered by a collective of pretty d*mn impressive people, including dr. dre, trent reznor, and jimmy iovine.  i did some searching around the internets and, near as i can tell, most of the media coverage around this launch was focused on that music dream team & how their product is different from pandora, rdio, spotify, rhapsody, itunes radio, youtube, etc. (the main talking point being that beats is an actual service, one curated by real humans instead of robots or algorithms or whatever).

but rather than a summary of beats’ product model, what i hoped to find was some music journalist who had broken down beats’ business model.  on none of the articles i found (even with click-bait titles such as “7 things you should know about beats music“) was the topic of artists’ revenue ever seriously covered.  i was most disappointed to not find any mention of that from pitchfork or sound opinions—until i learned that pitchfork & sound opinions were both “curators” on beats.  it was especially disappointing to not hear from the sound opinions co-hosts, not least because i’m a huge fan of greg kot, but also because jim derogatis tried to take pitchfork founder ryan schreiber to the woodshed over journalistic ethics for curating an online music tv channel.

the closest i found to any reporting on the issue was a throwaway graf at the end of a rollingstone piece:

Beats Music is also focused on creating a service that is fair to the artists whose music it streams, and will pay the same royalty rate to all content owners. “Beats Music is based on the belief that all music has value and this concept was instilled in every step of its development. We want it to be just as meaningful for artists as it is for fans,” Reznor said in a statement. “We’re committed to providing revenue to artists, while helping to strengthen the connection with their fans.”

full disclosure: i’ve had a bit of a man-crush on reznor since i first heard nine inch nails as a teenager.  and i’ve always thought he treated his fans with respect, including in what he asks them to pay for.  i mean, he gave away a whole damn album for free once.  so if the man says artists are gonna get a fair cut from beats, i absolutely want to believe him.  but he’s the “chief creative officer” at beats, not it’s CEO.  and after hearing so many artists (david byrne, thom yorke, david lowery, the black keys, etc.) complain about royalties from spotify, rdio, and the like, i’m holding off on paying for a beats subscription until i hear artists come out & actually say, “hey, we like this service—it gets our music out there & we’re getting compensated fairly for it.”  merely seeing an artist’s music on the service isn’t a good enough endorsement for me.  i don’t know if a band’s label would have made that decision for them, or if the artist is in such a comfortable position financially that they can use beats as a “loss leader” avenue of distribution.  i want the people making the music (and not just an isolated handful of them) to come out & say they feel this is a legitimate way to run a music business.

the flip side of this is that (apparently) even with all that revenue coming in, spotify, rdio, & the rest are having trouble convincing music fans to actually pay for music.  and here’s the part where i admit that jim derogatis maybe isn’t the only one guilty of hypocrisy.  how many times have i bought an e-book for my kindle because amazon had a deal selling it for $1.99?  how much money have i spent on used books instead of new books?  how many times have i screwed a writer out of income so that i could read their work for cheaper?  hell, i’d probably be better off checking books out of the library rather than buying all the used books that i do.  libraries will replace worn copies with new ones; my beloved used-book shop isn’t cutting any checks to authors.  and that’s where my buddy thom yorke hit me right in the gut with a quote from jaron lanier’s you are not a gadget:

if you really want to know what’s going on in a society or ideology, follow the money.

blogger david allen disagrees with byrne & yorke & lowery, making the argument that “we are in the midst of new markets being formed” and that this isn’t about technology, but societal shifts.  i’m inclined to agree with him on at least the latter part (the former seems like a dangerously distanced position to take).  in the aggregate, i don’t see much difference in the market behavior for music & books than i do in the markets for consumer goods: we don’t like paying (much) for things.  wal-mart did redefine the business of selling consumer goods—but they did so, at least in part, because that’s what our buying behavior showed we wanted: paying as absolutely close to zero as a seller can get.

i think decades of stagnant wages have obviously played a role in how we spend (or don’t spend) our money, but to dismiss americans’ compulsion to consume, and to get ever lower prices—better deals! always!—is to unfairly absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the state of things.  if this is an economic (and artistic) death spiral, then it’s likely a double-helix of avarice with both corporations and individuals each making up a strand.  when we start solely blaming the “markets,” and/or resigning to complain about the almighty corporations—that’s when we get ourselves in trouble: as if we are totally disconnected to these systems that are made up of us.  as my other buddy ed vedder once told me (and, well, technically thousands of others at a concert): “you vote with your dollars every day. vote responsibly.”



  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    One of my problems with this kind of service is that I don’t want to lease the music — I want to own a copy. If I pay ten dollars a month for practically everything, I also own nothing. I’d rather buy it outright — an album here, an album there.

    • Jason Sommer jason says:

      i’ve got that same problem, too. as soon as you stop paying the subscription, you lose access to everything you’ve been listening to. though i do like the idea of this supplementing the purchase of records/cds/mp3s – as a way to discover new music. i currently give a nonprofit radio station (kexp) $10 a month for that very purpose. beats could be like that, but with the added bonus of having tons of albums on-demand. i know artists love kexp, though. not sure yet how they feel about beats.

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