A response to Zoë Keating’s post about YouTube

[I don’t post comments on other people’s blog posts much these days, because as we all know the comments section is usually the equivalent of the pit underneath the blog’s outhouse. But I did post a response to Zoë Keating’s What Should I Do About YouTube, which has been making the rounds, and I thought it was worth republishing here, as it will be lost in the flood there. Go read that before you read this.]

Hi Zoe. We don’t know each other but we have a gazillion friends in common and I think we’ve spoken on Twitter before. I normally don’t do the comments section but I thought it would be worth it this time.

Back in the Dark Ages of 2003, I founded an online music store where artists could sell their own work for their own price directly to their fans and keep 70% of the proceeds. (Maintaining infrastructure was a lot more expensive back then.) I’m a musician and the grandson and great-grandson of musicians (concert pianists) and grew up as the son of a working singer/songwriter, and I wanted to build something that empowered both artists and fans.

It failed, for a variety of reasons, and it wasn’t until Bandcamp came along years and years later that I really felt like somebody had realized my dream, and done it far better than I had. Bandcamp isn’t perfect but out of all of the music services out there that I know of, it has the best experience for both artists and consumers, and I say that not only as somebody who’s worked in this sector for nearly fifteen years but also as someone who both buys and sells their work on Bandcamp.

And yet, in the grand scheme of things, they’re a second tier service in terms of market share if not quality. Is it because they’re not good at marketing? Not good at running their business? I don’t think so. I think it’s because they’re not doing what the bigger online streaming/retailers are doing, which is showing a Janus face.

With one face, they’re telling the consumers that they’re about empowering them, giving them tools to create and share. But with the other face, they’re reassuring the traditional music industry power structures that, no, it’s gonna be business as usual. And, as in most conversations about music or any other form of creative industry these days, they’re not really thinking much about the actual creator, the artist themselves, and about what you said in this post — that it’s YOUR right to decide how your work is distributed. They’re giving you ultimatums that they’d do almost anything to avoid giving to either consumers or label people. Why? Because you don’t have juice, as you said, and you’re in a position where the flow of things dictates that you’ve been put between a rock and a hard place: piss off the platform or piss off the fans. I don’t envy you that. (Though as a musician I do envy you actually having enough fans to worry about pissing them off. My fan base tends to get pissed when I don’t call it on its birthday, but that’s easily remedied by calling it up and saying “Sorry, Mom, I’ll buy you an Amazon gift card.”) 😉

There was an article today on GigaOm dismissing the tech critic Andrew Keen, and a lot of the refutations of his (often quite valid) criticisms come down to: is a world run by the tech industry really any worse than the way it used to be? And you hear that a lot in the digital content distribution space: is this worse than when the old school record industry ran things?

And the answer is: if that’s the way you have to frame that question, then it doesn’t matter if it’s worse, because it’s clearly not much better. And ultimately it doesn’t matter to the artists who’s giving them the shaft: some douche with a ponytail in Hollywood or some douche with a waxed mustache in Mountain View. It’s still the shaft. It still sucks.

The point of all of this technology is not to replace one shitty status quo with another one, it’s to create new status quos (statii quo? Whatever, my Latin sucks.) in which everybody gets what they want. I don’t think that’s impossible; I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. But it saddens me that, in all the years since the rise of MP3s and Napster and Gnutella and everything else, the one person who seems to keep getting that shaft is not the fan clamoring for music to listen to and love, and not the executive looking for a way to monetize that clamoring, but the artist. It’s always the artist. It’s why The Ramones broke up because they weren’t making enough money to pay the rent while touring and getting something like a $25 per diem per member.

That status quo has never changed.

But look: right now, you know who people are looking to to solve these problems? You. You are at the forefront of this new unexplored territory, you and artists like you, who are breaking this ground and asking these questions and taking these risks. I like to think of myself as a mostly unnoticed innovator in this space, but I still look to you to see how this is all playing out. I know it’s not a fun position to be in, but it means that your decisions will serve as a guidepost for others to come. You’re setting precedent; you’re shaping things.

I don’t know what to tell you to do. The punk rock part of me wants to tell you to tell Google to go fuck themselves and let’s build something new. But that’s an easy position for someone with no skin in the game to take. But you seem like a really smart person, and I’m sure that whatever path you take will be the one that’s right for you. And no matter how much anyone else is looking to you, that’s the only person you really need to consider: yourself, as an artist.

So good luck with it. And I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but please wish your husband the best for me. Even though I don’t know y’all, I’m pulling for you.

Rock and roll.

Leave a comment