David Lowery, of Cracker and Camper Von Beethoven fame, recently wrote an article titled “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss,” which is based on a talk he presented at a previous SF Music Tech Summit. In the article, Lowery argues that the current digital distribution model is hurting artists more than the old model that was driven by a few large record labels. The article is quite interesting, and he presents his argument from the point of view of the artist.
No doubt the current music business is complex, and I believe we are in the middle of an evolution that hasn’t completed yet. Who really knows what form the music business will take once the evolution is complete. The rise of Napster was the beginning of this change. Here’s what Lowery has to say about that:
When Napster and P2P came along honestly I wasn’t pleased. At best I was ambivalent. I thought that we’d lose sales to large scale sharing but through more efficient distribution systems and disintermediation we artists would net more. So like many other artists I embraced the new paradigm and waited for the flow of revenue to the artists to increase. It never did. In fact everywhere I look the trend seemed to be negative. Less money for touring. Less money for recording. Less money for promotion and publicity. The old days of the evil record labels started to seem less bad. It started to seem downright rosy.
His argument seems to be primarily focused on the fact that artists receive less money from an album sell than they did in the mid 90s, when CDs were the primary music vehicle and record stores were the only places to buy them. Lowery breaks down a sample revenue sharing scenario based on his experience that shows in 1996 he would receive $2.51 per $15.99 CD sold and would assume the costs of recording the album. By contrast, in 2012 he will receive $2.05 per $9.99 album download sold while assuming the same amount of risk. Clearly, he makes less per album sold.
But, part of his argument revolves around the fact that Apple receives 30% of each album sold:
And then there is that iTunes store 30%. Seems kind of high to me. What is their risk? Today in 2012? Do they really deserve more per album than the artist? At least the record labels put up capital to record albums. At least the record labels provide the artist with valuable promotion and publicity. Historically in the music business when someone was taking more than 20% of gross revenues that had some “skin in the game”. They risked losing a lot of money.
I’m not sure that 30% figure is right. While Apple receives 30% of every app sold through its App Store, I’ve never seen evidence that this is the case with music sales. Maybe Lowery has evidence that he can share about the distribution. Most of what I’ve read over the years from seemingly reputable sources indicates that Apple doesn’t make a large amount of money from music sales, at least individually. Of course, when you sell billions of songs, even a few pennies per song adds up.
Further, Lowery goes on to say:
The New Boss, in this case Apple, takes 30 percent, takes no risk and provides the artist with almost nothing in return.
I disagree with this assessment. Apple provides artists the same thing that record stores do: a distribution point. His charts indicate that in the old model, record stores had to pay “Rent/Real Estate, Employees, Utilities, Advertising, Theft, and Payment Processing.” In the new model, he argues that Apple’s risk is limited to “Host files and Payment Processing.” Lowery seems to have an understanding of technology, but does he not think hosting the files and processing payments requires that employees be present, that utilities be paid (such as the electricity required to host the files), and that the servers hosting the files need to be located in a building somewhere? We’re much more separated from those things when we visit iTunes, but the costs are still there.
At the end of the article, he boils his point down to this:
Taking no risk and paying nothing to the content creators is built into the collective psyche of the Tech industry. They do not value content. They only see THEIR services as valuable. They are the Masters of the Universe. They bring all that is good. Content magically appears on their blessed networks.
He equates Apple, Amazon, Google, et al with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). I don’t think this is an apt comparison. We can agree that at least some of the more outspoken supporters of the EFF do wish for music and information to be freely available. And, there are certainly many consumers who think that they should be able to download whatever they want whenever they want. But, I don’t think these loud protestors are working for the tech giants that Lowery mentions. We can further agree that these companies are trying to increase their margins in any way possible, but I believe that the rise of Apple’s iTunes has helped the industry as a whole. Imagine if, like the movie industry, the music industry tried to hold off from easy digital distribution for as long as possible, despite the obvious signs that consumers wanted to be able to download music. Consumers would still be downloading music, but they wouldn’t have a legal channel to do so. Apple provided a legal, and perhaps as importantly, an easy channel for consumers to digitally obtain music.
Is the music industry better off today than it was in late 90s? I think everyone can agree that it’s declined from that period. Record labels have shrunk or shuttered their doors, many people have lost their jobs, and many artists have a tougher time making money. On the flip side, seemingly more artists than ever are putting out great records, so is it really as bleak as the picture Lowery paints?
What do you think? Are we better off with the new model or did artists have it better in the old days?