Kickstarter is in the news lately for its place in the art community as an agent of empowerment, ownership and control. Zach Braff is using Kickstarter to help finance a movie because a studio is too shortsighted to let him have final cut. Amanda Palmer advocates Morrissey using KickStarter to make millions for a new record.
Meanwhile, in the past year I've talked to a lot of artists who are friends, some of them new and some older who all lament over the same thing: this shit is hard, and those that used to make it easier aren't participating very well.
It used to be an artist made a record, did interviews, played live and then went back to recording. They controlled their public presentation in a highly tuned way. Their manager and their label handled the rest. Accounting, new innovations, alternative distribution, sponsorships, etc. Labels did an admirable job at that.
That was easier when the potential ceiling was so high because the breadth of outlets was so narrow. As new outlets got added, the ceiling lowered, but the relative amount of work increased. Low potential with a lot of required work doesn't work financially for the most part, especially spread upon an entire roster.
Kickstarter, Pledgemusic and the like have offered a way for artists to avoid having to depend on the label to front money for those outlets, and instead let fans participate in raising money in exchange for the work produced plus some extras. It falls into the “Best” category in the “Good, Better, Best” marketing strategy that emerged with Direct to Consumer e-commerce at the labels.
I wonder though, is this the best way?
What would be better for us as a fan: funding Morrissey's next record in exchange for a t-shirt, or funding Morrissey to buy back his master catalog from his label? Which is better for him?
A label has to bet that product will find an audience for any money to be made. They front a lot of money to make that happen, and expect to get it back. When they do, everyone is happy. When they don't, they at least retain ownership of the masters to exploit as a part of catalog marketing. When the record is successful, that retention of master rights is critical as there are infinite amount of ways to re-exploit something that was successful, i.e. 25th anniversary reissues with bonus tracks, new packaging, video EPK's. The extras cost nothing, but the revenue is all incremental and welcome. As well, catalog actually benefits from the breadth of outlets since the initial costs are already accounted for. It's all upside.
In short: the three majors could fire all their A&R and staff focused on “new”, sit on their catalogs and mint money year over year by just exploiting things they already own.
Unless they don't own them.
Metallica made some waves recently by buying back their masters, or allowing them to revert back to them. They then cut their own distribution deals with iTunes and a physical distributor. But their catalog is theirs to do with what they will. No Greatest Hits unless they want it.
Other bands have masters reverting soon as well, or the money to buy them back. Pearl Jam, U2, etc. Some of the biggest records ever are reverting.
It's known in the music circles that even private equity money is sniffing around at this. Could venture capital be applied to help artists buy back catalog for their own use? Sort of like estate asset control before death.
If we are to find any silver lining in the next few years in music, my hope is that it resides in artists being able to own the music they made wholesale and finance this in creative ways. At that point, all of the “artist service” companies that are in the market start to make sense. Empowering Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M. or Metallica to be true direct-to-consumer bands is meaningful money in the music/tech ecosystem and upsets the leverage the labels have held (in a good way).
So to Morrissey, Gang of Four, Grant Lee Buffalo and everyone else who still has a major label or distributer in the “Label” field on Amazon, don't raise money in Kickstarter to release a new record.
Raise money to change all of those to “Label: Me, mother fucker (LLC)”
Let's make these musicians' third act the removal of the unnecessary actors from the stage.
I have a playlist that I've maintained since the day I started at Warner Bros. Records. It's called “DEAD”
It served a practical purpose for me. You see, when an artist was signed at a label, there was a lot of celebration. Nice emails went around, artists came to meet with us. There were parties. But when a band was dropped, nothing. Often I wouldn't find out until an artists brother was calling to get access to the domain again. As the guy that ran the sites, I was often the last or first to know, but never from official channels. The artist just faded.
iTunes proved to be a great way to track who was on roster and who was off roster, or DEAD.
Sometimes an artist would go On Roster to DEAD within the same year.
When you talk to label executives about “what happened” in terms of the cliff that recorded music fell off of, one of the things they'll tell you is “music became disposable” or “music lost any value for people.”
It's easy to see how this conclusion could be come to. The value chain got pushed down toward free; it became not only the baseline but the norm. Paying for music was an option reserved for some sense of permanence, but even that lost resonance as taste evolved quicker than any concept of “ownership” of a music library.
Radio was the baseline, free was the new one. But “free” replaced both radio and records. Obviously something that had value losing it so fast was as a catalyst for the loss of sanctity. Obviously.
No one wants to mention the word “disposable” in regards to music.
It's not so much that disposability is new. Outside of the physical longevity of the generated artifacts, disposability is and was the norm.
Let's look at the life cycle of an artist being signed and moving between my playlists:
Artist is signed
Big party, parades around the building
Lets make a record!
Good bye, have your brother call Ethan for the domain and email list.
Music on the business side is a series of failures with the exceptional success. It is oriented toward disposability and transience. A business built on disposability and devaluing while using a self imposed scarcity and the artifice of such to inflate value when it could be exploited.
In reality music was currency in a barter mechanism between those who married content and audience with advertising, and those that held music as an asset to be exploited. The big power cluster in the music business: promotion, A&R, marketing and licensing – all depends on music not being sacred, but being a unique combination of taste and value, with value winning. Especially now.
Through this, people liked music on an emotional level, and had those emotions tapped and manipulated not to drive joy, but in the extraction of maximum value. That included those that worked on the label side. But as the industry contracts, the mechanisms of tapping into emotions became more about value extraction than emotional resonance.
Consider the product development pivots from the business in the last ten years: MVI, DRM, Plays For Sure, Comes with Music, exclusive windowing, etc. These were all categoric failures on the user-experience side, but extracted some additive value and thus were allowed to evolve into even worse permutations.
The fan, and hell those on the front line with the (justifiably) pissed off artists were flinching abused animals.
Where was the next boot falling? We avoided pain and looked for ease, only to have it eliminated. In return we got lock in at the mercy of back room negotiations between the biggest companies in the world, and those that sat on top of the biggest artists in the world.
The Makers of Representation (Apple, etc) against those that Represent the Makers. Who gets caught in the middle? Those that consume and those that make.
All things in technology are by default ephemeral. Transience measured in refresh rates, data rot and entropy, time stamps and archives. The representations of binary are by default subject to the speed of the technology that represents. Things get better, sure, but in the end its all dumped to the ether, to drive or to RAM.
This transience and ephemerality lead to many amazing things. No longer was quantity proportional to physicality. Data sets both large and small were surmountable given algorithms and systems good enough to handle them.
Disposability was a feature. The products around music reflect this.
One of the best of the music technology services could easily be a photo search engine without a fundamental UX change. Music is a carrot for the largest company in the world into an ecosystem of physical goods. For others its the white whale of discovery and monetization of time and attention.
Where the disposability of music used to be a conceit that was used to leverage the actual placement of value, the conceit is now broken. The value placement – artificial scarcity and access controls – dissolved. The consumer is now the radio PD using adds and spins in exchange for exclusivity. The consumer and artist now control the release windowing at will. The services, and their machine learning algorithms dictate discovery and promotion.
Don't bemoan the lack of value in recorded music. Rejoice. 50 years of effort finally had an effect.
Ethan Kaplan runs product at Live Nation Labs, including overseeing mobile, engineering, design and operations. He lives deep in the suburbs of Los Angeles with his wife Amy, almost four-year old Eli and two pugs.
Phone: Black iPhone 5, 64gb
Ringtone: None. I generally don't answer my phone and instead text people back. I dislike synchronous communication for the most part that is voice based. If I turn on the ringer, the opening few bars of Harborcoat by R.E.M.
Case: None. I like the form of the device too much to put a case on it, and if I drop it, oh well.
Background: Lock screen: my son. Home screen: some grass.
Last Text: From my wife, while she was in another part of our house asking me to bring her something.
Last App I Used: Netflix, I AirPlay it to our living room TV so I can control what my son watches on a Saturday morning while I attempt to sleep in.
Currently Obsessed with: AlienBlue. The social structures of Reddit fascinate me. I studied virtual communities a lot in college and seeing emergence of social foundations and norms in such a rapid fashion never ceases to be interesting.
Last Download: Mailbox. Also my last deletion.
Most Surprising App on Home Screen: Indigo from Perceptive Automation with customized interfaces. It lets me control all the lights, the thermostat and our front-yard fountain from my bed.
Text or Call: Text. I hate talking to people on the phone and rarely answer calls.
Remaining Battery: 87%. I do most of my long-form reading on the iPad or one of the Mac's.
On September 4th, 1999 I was standing in the parking lot of Jones Beach Amphitheater with my – until then – Internet friend Bex Schwartz, and a girl was on her knees begging for my after-show pass while her boyfriend smoked and looked on, embarrassed.
Bex and I had picked up our after show passes from R.E.M,'s go-to guy Kevin O'Neil just prior. They were as guests of Ken Stringfellow, who I had met the year prior at R.E.M.'s taping of “Party of Five.”
Twenty minutes later Bex and I were at soundcheck, watching R.E.M. run through about five songs. Midway through there was a stir as someone walked in and sat down five rows behind us. Michael Stipe, on stage smiled and waved. I turned around and it was Patti Smith.
When I was 16, I went through a phase of hating everything. Those who know me well will say that this is as regular a phase as the seasons. During this one particular instance I took to sleeping from 3:00PM to 11:00PM, then staying up the whole night. Mostly to avoid talking to my parents and sister. During this time I also found an FTP drop with music on it, including all of the punk records from the 70's that at this point were hard to find in stores. At night the phone line was free and rates cheap.
I got into late 70's punk in a big way, and this also corresponded to Patti Smith's reemergence into public. I saw her play the Wiltern in 1996 (and met Stipe for the first time), and basically idolized her. She was now sitting a dozen feet behind me.
R.E.M. played a great show that night. Patti joined them for E-Bow the Letter. After the show, if you have a pass, you typically line up by the backstage entrance to get into the after-show party. Bex and I waited there, spotting celebrities in the crowd. While waiting, I saw R.E.M.'s manager Bertis Downs come out and walked up to me and asked, “Ethan Kaplan?”
I answered, “Yes.”
“Michael wants to meet you, come with me.”
Bex waved as I left. I passed Ken Stringfellow on the way through the tunnel backstage as he went to get her.
At this point I had never been backstage at a show.
The light was dim, pleasant. Red. Jones Beach is on the ocean and some fog was above. It smelled like the sea. For the show, a lot of family had come out and while I didn't recognize any, I could tell they were parents and siblings of band-members. Some catering was out, some wine bottles uncorked. It was distinctly unglamorous. More after-high-school-play cast party than anything decadent.
Bertis introduced me to Michael.
“Michael this is Ethan, from that website.”
“Nice to see you. Ethan this is Patti. Patti this is Ethan, he's a friend of the band.”
The next year I watched Almost Famous and cried. A year later Michael told me he didn't like it, it but understood why I loved it.
“It's kind of you. It's not representative of the best of the world I'm in.”
Ten years later my taxi pulled up to the Kabuki Hotel in San Francisco for SF Music Tech. I had just flown in from New York City, and had plans to see Patti Smith that night at the Warfield. I got out of the cab and made my way to the entrance and Patti Smith was there in a shabby overcoat and a ski hat. We had met a few times in the last ten years at various functions.
I know she is very near-sighted so I moved closer and said, “Hi Patti, hope your show goes well tonight. I'll be there with my wife.”
She squinted, and looked at me before smiling.
“Ah, Michael's friend. I'll see you there. Where can I get breakfast around here? And what is going on in this hotel right now?”
Me and Patti Smith, after R.E.M.'s last ever performance as a band, for one song. New York City, March 11, 2009
A few weeks ago I was at the same hotel talking with another musical hero of mine, Dave Allen from Gang of Four. He, as am I, is a regular of music conference panels. This time he was in the audience of a panel I was on. We had formerly shared the stage at SXSW (at a panel).
After, he and I got talking: about music, family, mutual friends and the state of the weird world we both worked in.
He told me he had breakfast with Patti that morning a few years back.
He also told me the story of how most of “Entertainment!” was recorded live in studio.
My good friend and co-conspirator Eric Garland says, “It's the stories you tell.”
I tell a lot of them. The years between 1999 and now are a blur, and full of a lot of bad memories but mostly a lot of good. I'm very fortunate for the things I was there for, the positions I was in. I'm fortunate for the stories I've heard, but I find myself missing the stories not told anymore. We've come to a place where the present defines the near and far past, and the room for nostalgia becomes a luxury. Legends are commodity, the past is homogenized into affected persona (ie, the hipster).
Is there room for misty-eyed nostalgia in a world with cars that drive themselves down the 280?
When information becomes rapid streams, we lose the ability to decenter the narrative in order to get to the root of what caused the present to exist. The past remains defined by present definition, not by any examination of the layers which informed it. We take the whole onion at face value.
But the histories remain fascinating, especially in art. I love the deconstruction of the traces that flow through the narratives. How Peter met Michael, why Michael decided to sing in the first place. How technology drove Francis Picabia so nuts that he went from painting landscapes to spark plugs. The relationship between Fear of Music and Dadaism. How the members of the National all lost their jobs in the dot-com bust in the early 00's.
How Ethan met Michael, then Mike. How Mike introduced Ethan to Kell, who set Ethan up on a date with her friend Amy.
How my life really began at that moment.
Amy a month after we met, 2002.
The stories you tell matter more than the story you lived. It's through the act of narrative that we make what happened meaningful, and through that meaning that the past remains alive.
Never talk about royalty statements when at a table with musicians.
Down in Mexico, at the aforementioned dinner where Mr. Stipe smelled an accordion, the subject of royalties came up. It didn't end well. Thankfully the dinner was free.
For the last few years I have participated in, been on panels about or just generally engaged in discussion about the future of music and what would save the music business. It's the bubble I live in, as well as many of my peers. We go to conferences, we see the same people time after time talking about it, and we think it means something.
It's ringtones. No, it's MVI. No, it's apps. No, it's Direct to Fan. No, it's fanclubs. No, it's streaming.
Sometimes I find myself at dinner with musicians. No one in the music business, just people that have made their life about performing and making art. They talk about touring, performing, instruments, music, vinyl. I'll sometimes try to talk about the business and I get a resounding “stop.”
They aren't interested.
“People banged rocks rhythmically together before there was a business telling them how, why and for whom they should,” was the root of their argument.
This statement struck me for its accuracy. Music has always existed, arguably before speech and before humans did. The business of music is a construct around making money off the ability to reproduce, gate and control how it was enjoyed. If all of that disappeared, people would still make music, and somehow figure out how to create value by doing so.
So what will save the music business? Maybe acknowledging that only musicians can.
One late night down in Baja I was talking to an artist about the potential doomsday scenarios for the business. He was not phased.
“This is who I am, not something I do. These guys talking about the future of the music business might as well be talking about the future of fill-in-the-blank. They'll run out of ideas and move on,” he said.
Around noon on Saturday I found myself in the water, off the coast of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico with the musician Joseph Arthur and a 35 foot whale shark.
My mind immediately went to the last time I went fishing.
I caught a trout I believe, and was surprised and how energetic the fish was as it was reeled in and put on the boat. I threw it back. That fish weighed in less than a pound and was about a foot long. It fought hard enough to be hard to hold.
On this Friday, I was swimming three feet away from a 35 foot fish that weighed around 13 tons. 26,000 pounds. As I watched its tail – taller than myself – slide back and forth I thought about that energetic trout, and swam over to the side.
Michael Stipe was smelling an accordion.
Josh Kantor, the organist for the Red Sox, had brought it to dinner. Michael recounted that it was the first instrument he learned, but no, he couldn't play it anymore. Other musicians then started talking about their first instruments. Second hand guitars, their older brother's or a Christmas present. Everyone had a story.
Michael sniffed the accordion again, shook his head as if to clear it and gave it back.
Everyone returned to their wine and iPhones.
Alejandro Escovedo was hagling with a street merchant while wearing a white leather jacket with his name printed on the back, under a drawing of a skeleton playing a guitar.
Later that night he had a new bracelet on.
Peter Buck, resplendent in a shirt purchased after the last ever R.E.M. show in the US in Dallas, cradles his chihuahua Carlos as he walks around his house while a 45 – mono – spins on a turntable.
Joseph Arthur sits on a balcony ledge playing “September Baby” while a large cockroach perches on the lip of his bottle of Mexican Coke. The song extends by five minutes as everyone – musicians and non – join in with “yeah yeah, yeah yeah… yeah” while the moon rises.
In a dusty and disused government office, Ben Gibbard and Mike Mills rehearse “Near Wild Heaven,” while Mike writes lyrics in Sharpee on his hand.
We so often take for granted what it means to create while we debate the relative merits of those that enable and spread that which is created. Behind every line of text in every app that can and does play music, behind every video, every album cover, ever PR plan is some guy or girl who at some point in their lives decided to externalize what they felt through song.
In Mexico I was often asked, “what do you do?” I was a decidedly “non-musician” person with an “Artist” badge, more often than not walking around quietly with my camera or phone out, snapping photos and talking to people.
I have many stock answers. In the end it always ends with, “I was 16 and started this website…” The origin story of passion and love rather than a job. The musicians always nod and understand, even though I do not play.
Since 2005 I've been “in” the music business at a label and now an entertainment company. I've seen the ups and downs, and the changes as the role of music in the lives of the public changes with the method of access. The aura of the artifact diminishes as we covet the things that represent more than the “original.” Our iPhones are thirty-three 33 1/3's.
It's easy to become jaded as time goes on. I find myself not looking forward to SXSW. I've still never been to midem. I'm often bored or hostile just talking about the “future of music,” mostly because it seems like such a pedantic debate. Music has always lived outside of time, its just the mechanisms that represent and convey it that have changed. Why are we discussing the “future of music” if we still have never reconciled its past and present in any meaningful way?
Music is and always will be mysterious in its ability to move and effect. To bracket it within chronology implies that it lives within the narrow confines of cultural evolution. Music is the backbone of culture in its most fundamental form. It has no more future than speech. No less of a past than the Cave.
I found myself in Todos Santos for a music festival put on by two dear friends, and in the company of many other current friends and now new ones. It was here I found what I love in music again.
There is a song by a band and a line that I love in it.
I don't want to write a hagiography about Aaron Swartz. I met him once and don't even remember what we talked about. He seemed exceptionally smart and I admired his work and passion. I will mourn as others will for a peer lost because of bullying. And doubly so because it was the United States Government that did it.
I also mourn, as I do whenever I hear about a suicide (or experience one, as I have a few times), because it has echoes of a what-if for me personally.
As I said earlier on this blog, I'm familiar with depression and anxiety. I call anxiety the boulder on a hill for me. I'm ever mindful of it and do whatever I can to keep it from falling. Depression is the pit that anxiety can knock me into.
Sometimes I think I grew up at the wrong time. I'm 33, which means when I was really getting into technology between ages god-knows to 13, I was alone for much of my pursuit. At the same time, homebrew computing clubs were springing up, Byte Magazine was in existence and I'm sure college departments flourished with camaraderie about these new machines being made.
But I was a kid in Orange County, CA. In 1988, being a kid was about being a kid. Riding your bike without a helmet in oil fields (for me), neighborhood wide capture the flag, etc.
There was no Reddit, no Github, no peer group who was into what I was into. So I played around the neighborhood, and hid my hacking, programming, fucking around on PPP connections and BBS's just like I did my listening to R.E.M. and the Cure while everyone else did Poison or teen-pop.
It was lonely. In fact the first two friends I made who were into computers are still friends of mine. That wasn't until I was 13.
I envied Aaron, as I do a lot of people 5-10 years younger than I. To grow up when being into technology wasn't a stigma, and communities were so easy to find would be heaven.
It wasn't for me. It was the exact opposite.
I deal a lot with regret and what-ifs, like most others do. There are moments in my life – as with everyone's I'm sure – where I made a choice, did something or was compelled to do something who's alternative decision could have changed things. My problem is that I always think causally about everything I do, down to illogical conclusions, or the far reaching ramifications of seemingly meaningless actions. It's often paralyzing, but just as often crushing in its ability to make me grieve for a present reality that doesn't exist, while not appreciating the one that does. It isn't logical, but nothing about what can trigger depression is.
When I was 19 I called my girlfriend of five years to have another guy answer the phone, tell me she didn't want to talk to me and that he was “the new guy in town.”
I remember when I called I was walking to my car. I don't have many coherent memories after that on my way home. I had made a lot of decisions for this person, including where I went to school, where I lived, who I was friends with and others. Even where I still worked. All of those decisions were now called into question. Those what-ifs and why questions started. The boulder rolled, the pit loomed. I found myself very alone with no way out.
It took me four years to come out. In that time other things happened as well. I considered driving off on my way to work, not telling anyone where I went. I considered just leaving forever.
My parents were worried, as were others. I remember screaming at my dad once, “I am happy, just leave me the fuck alone,” when he voiced his concern.
Meeting my wife put an end the episode, but I never had really come to terms with it. I was in some therapy when I started graduate school, which helped greatly, and through time was able to really process those missing years, and all that the end of a relationship had called into question from the years prior.
I remember that feeling though. The feeling of not seeing anything through the dark. Not knowing what the future held, because it was too scary to consider. Where nothing seemed better than anything. I can't even listen to a song on KidA because it brings the feelings back too strongly in that sense-memory way. I'm thankful every day that I was pulled out of it. I have a beautiful wife, a loving family and an amazing son as a result.
Others aren't as lucky. Others are missing out on the sons that could have been, the wife they could have had. Mothers miss the son they had, and partners the love they had in their life.
I mourn for that.
The only way out of despair is meeting it, not avoiding it. Suicide is avoiding it in the most irreversible way possible. Some say it is selfish. I don't think it is. I think it's desperate, sad and in some cases beyond anyone's ability to help prevent.
What I am sad about for Aaron, his parents and the community at large is based on the fact that I know of where he stood. I'm fortunate that I turned away from the edge. If you find yourself there, be fortunate you live in a time, a place and a land so rich in spatially transcendant community that you can always find an ear that will listen, even if they are a screen name on the other end of a line of text.
Aaron's peers will continue where he left off, working so hard to create something for themselves, in the end creating something magical for each other and us. That will always be their greatest gift left for this world.
I have a friend who is working on a book called “Fear of the Empty.” The roots of it are in his collection of artifacts that make up daily living: sweetner packets, drink cups, boarding passes, ticket stubs.
Artifacts that together form dimensions of the aspects of the lives we lead.
I'm obsessed to a degree with the interpretation of dimensions of our own selves. Objectively we inhabit four dimensions at any given point: the voxel/spatial and temporal. But through this three+one representation we shed various other representative dimensions behind us, growing exponentially more as the cost of representation likewise shrinks.
I live through time and space, but I also live through records and data. My life is the accumulation of points of data that constitute my identity as a human, a traveller, a consumer of gasoline, a purchaser of cars and houses. A tax payer, a voter, a husband and father. A consumer. Through one dimension I traverse the Starbucks' of the universe and to another I'm but an approximate weight on a passenger manifest.
We are fractal. Our very being fragmenting the closer one gets to understanding the divergence of representations.
There is a concept of the quantified self that has gripped the tech-elite as of late. Devices like the Nike Fuel Band, etc. They take what we do and break them into dimensions for later analysis. They are a digital version of my friend's airline boarding passes and coffee cups.
I think these devices represent our search for a removal of subjectivity. The more our identities are allowed to fragment under the control of someone else's means of representation, the harder it is for us to find a way to quantify an objective reality and more importantly an objective memory.
When we don't own that which represents us – which we don't – then the very concept of our indelible memory is subject to someone elses whims, movements and progress, which we don't control.
Half the files I wrote in elementary school can't be read by any program anymore. Does that mean I didn't write them? I still can't download my Twitter archive, so I might as well never have tweeted past nine days.
Our fear is not so much of the empty before us, but the emptiness and hollowness of our fears. We have nothing to hold on to. When those that represent are removed through technological progress, bit-rot, corporate death or otherwise, our collective past selves become simply masses of indeterminate data, no more permanent than our last breath.
We fear losing ourselves to someone else's idea of what we are.
Then we realize: our fear is that we don't control the empty, not that the empty exists.