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I Need a ShamWow to Clean up After Planet Money’s Hack Job on Jonathan Coulton (A Rebuttal)

JoCo and I

Disclosure: I'm Biased.

NPR’s Planet Money recently featured one of my all-time favorite musicians, Jonathan Coulton, in a segment done on the Internet’s effect on the music industry (“The Friday Podcast: Is This Man a Snuggie?“), produced by Alex Blumberg. NPR Music commentators Jacob Ganz and Frannie Kelley essentially wrote off Coulton’s success as a fluke, concluding with some flimsy analysis that the Internet is bad for the music industry.

Jonathan Coulton replied in great detail on his blog and it’s probably more eloquent and concise than my response, but I was so full of white-hot, self-righteous indignation that I had to publish something.

I found myself grinding my teeth during the segment; usually I have to turn to Fox News or AM talk radio to find this level of uninspired, ignorant blather.

EVERYTHING about their analysis was wrong; even the titular metaphor. In lazily grasping for a metaphor to describe Coulton, the Snuggie was settled on in spite of the fact that it’s a traditional product marketed and sold in a very traditional fashion via the mainstream media (that one customer can’t understand the appeal a product holds for another consumer – which lends it the ‘fluke’ status – is irrelevant).

There is no analog to Jonathan Coulton’s success because there is no analog to this time in history. We now have access to communication capabilities that never before existed.

If he is a lifestyle accessory-related metaphor, Coulton is like the TaunTaun sleeping bag now sold by the website ThinkGeek.  Created as an April Fools Day hoax, the product became real after the online hordes fell in love with the idea and expressed overwhelming interest in owning it (something that couldn’t have occurred without the Internet enabling such efficient two-way communication between a manufacturer and its audience).


(“Flukes” don’t make you get choked up over the unwilling pioneers of the Soviet Space Program)

Asking “is the Internet good or bad for the music business” is as irrelevant as asking “is Nitrogen good or bad for the music business.” Like the basic elements in our atmosphere, the Internet is neither good nor bad – rather it’s how we respond to it (and the element) that determines what positive or negative value we produce.

The Internet exists and has become the dominant mass medium through which people communicate. Virtually all of us (with the notable exception of the traditional music industry) have reconciled ourselves to this reality and are working to adapt to the new way of doing things, and many of us are even excited at the prospect of the innovations it will enable us to produce.

There was absolutely no structure to the analysis or structure to the discussion provided by Ganz and Kelley. What should have happened was the asking of the following three questions, and a side-by-side analysis of whether or not they were answered better by the pre-Napster music industry or post-Napster music industry.

  1. Which is better for Artists?
  2. Which is better for Record Companies?
  3. Which is better for Fans?

In each case, for Artists and Fans (ie the people who matter), the Internet era of music wins hands-down.

The traditional music industry prior to Napster was a criminally-corrupt oligopoly that exerted unfair and illegal force to both 1) squash its competition, and 2) maximize its profits. The industry stripped artists of the rights to their music and kept the lion’s share of the profits their work produced. It also colluded to inflate prices (for which it was successfully sued twice) and bribed radio stations or flexed its influence to increase the exposure to its artists.

So profit-hungry and evil was the industry that rather than embracing new distribution formats, it tried to stop them from being developed. The music industry sued Diamond, the maker of the first MP3 player (exactly the same move taken by the TV industry when the first VCR was brought to market). It lobbied the hell out of congress to turn our law enforcement agencies into their own thugs for hire, able to bludgeon copyright infringers with outlandish fines. It even had one of its representatives (working as a congressional staffer) illegally insert a passage into a bill slated to be printed so that it was made law without the knowledge of lawmakers.

The music and movie industries whine incessantly about their intellectual property being stolen online, yet the historical record shows they did virtually NOTHING to make it available online – forcing consumers underground.  Even well after Napster, Scour and the like – the RIAA (and MPAA) sat on its collective thumbs until Apple and Amazon.com stepped forward to legitimize online music sales.

It wasn’t until 2010, nearly TEN YEARS after iTunes debut, that it could finally sell the Beatles catalog of music. …and these companies dare complain when people pirate and share Beatles tracks?

What infuriated me the most about Ganz and Kelley’s analysis was the utter dearth of creativity in it. That lack of imagination informs all of the criticisms of the viability of Coulton’s business model:

  • “The Big Break” – Planet Money apparently hasn’t noticed that the traditional mass media has undergone complete upheaval in the past decade. The platforms that the music industry used to rely on to give artists their “big break” (ie promotion to a mass audience) are either dead or dying. Terrestrial music radio? – Dead. Print Music Periodicals? – Dead. Music TV? – Dead. Perhaps the greatest irony about those platforms is that it’s the cookie-cutter, assembly-line approach taken by traditional business that killed those mediums by eliminating any spark of originality.  An artist that wants to make a living with their art doesn’t need “the Big Break” – they just need a “Medium-Size Break” – or even several “Small Breaks” – all of which the Internet can deliver.
  • “Defining ‘Musicians’” – The conclusions of Ganz and Kelley only hold water if the definition of “musician” is a highly-restrictive one that basically amounts to someone who wants to make gobs of money and get very famous playing music. That definition, obviously, leaves out a lot of other people who consider themselves ‘musicians’ (and still more people whom listeners consider ‘musicians’).
  • “Coulton Wrote Code” – Completely irrelevant. The platforms now exist to allow anyone with virtually no technical expertise to create an entire e-commerce platform for virtually any product – from the millions of handmade craft items on Etsy to the apparel on CafePress.
  • “Coulton hit the Lottery” – Duh. So did all of the other major acts that ended up making a lot of money under the old regime. That number, however, was precious few.  In the Internet age, it’s much more numerous but less lucrative (for the record companies, not necessarily the artists).
  • “Coulton is not a Label” – What is a label? Is it a banner around which similar artists can pool their talents to support each other in connecting to like-minded fans of a genre? If so – we have better ways of accomplishing this end: we can now rally around ideas and we don’t need a bunch of slimy A&R people to do it. They can be fleeting or enduring depending on the need. I posit Coulton *is* a label given that he’s got a stable of artists around him (all of whom assist each other) and they’re all part of a culture exemplified by the PAX events (see below) or the JoCo Cruise Crazy experience.

Hopefully you get the idea.

Case Study: Penny Arcade / PAX

Another example of how the Internet is good for artists is the webcomic Penny Arcade. The strip focuses on video and roll playing games and general geekiness. It’s brilliantly-written and illustrated.

Despite its high quality, in the era of the old media, perhaps the best Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (its creators) could have hoped for was a monthly strip in a print magazine like Wired or GamePro or some low-budget self-published work. In the new model, they have an empire:

  • Banner Ads: the Penny Arcade comic is wrapped in banner ads. ($$$)
  • Signed Prints: the Penny Arcade comic is available as signed original prints ($$$)
  • Merchandise: Holkins and Krahulik sell tons of stuff: apparel, action figures, books, posters, and even DVDs (of their animated series and multi-disc sets of the performances at PAX).
  • Paid Strips: video game makers commission Penny Arcade to do strips on their new releases ($$$)
  • Licensing: Holkins and Krahulik have licensed the imagery from their creation to various projects ($$$)
  • Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). This annual convention is a Mecca for all geeks/gamers to make a pilgrimage to. It features celebrities and musicians of the geek world: Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm, Molly Lewis, MC Lars, MC Frontalot, the Underbosses, Metroid Metal, Anamanaguchi, and more.
  • Paid Appearances: Holkins and Krahulik earn money appearing and connecting with fans ($$$)
  • Child’s Play Charity: Holkins and Krahulik created a charity to enrich the lives of children confined to hospitals through video gaming ($$$)
  • And on, and on, and on…

What Ganz and Kelley are actually saying is that the pursuit and acquisition of cash is the sole defining quality of a ‘real’ musician. No doubt many would disagree with that definition. They may also be upset because they’re part of the declining mainstream journalism model, and may resent the crowdsourced music reviews at venues like Pitchfork.com

Right now, there are likely more professional musicians able to make a living nowadays than ever before in history. Their ability to make money and get rich is only limited by their imagination and hard work – and not by a bunch of old, payola-slinging douchebags in suits lording over an oligopoly.

Epilogue

Perhaps the best hole in the Planet Money hack job on Jonathan Coulton is that Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” album is on its way to over $1 million in sales after being released last week, two days of which it sold for a paltry $.99 cents.

Is the Internet good for music? Obvi.

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