He may be a great musician, but Billy Bragg’s logical faculties are somewhat lacking — that is, if his op-ed piece on the music industry in the New York Times is anything to go by. Billy writes about the sale of Bebo, and how the musicians and artists who have profiles on the site deserve to have a share of that $850-million or so. Why? Because Bebo has been “using their music to draw members — and advertising.”

The first thing I thought of when I read Billy’s call to arms was Nick “The Prophet of Web 2.0 Doom” Carr’s repeated tirades about “digital sharecropping,” and sure enough, Nick has posted another essay along those lines that uses Billy as the latest example. Nick says that:

“exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it’s wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.”

Unless I’m mistaken, exploitation is when you take advantage of someone and they are powerless to prevent it, or in some cases when you trick someone into giving you something. Bebo has done neither of these things — nor has YouTube, or Flickr, or any of the other “digital sharecroppers” that people single out. As Mike Arrington notes at TechCrunch, all of the people who have taken part in Bebo and MySpace and so on have done so knowing full well that they are not going to be paid. No one forced them to do so.

Billy also talks about how:

“the claim that sites such as MySpace and Bebo are doing us a favor by promoting our work is disingenuous [because] radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business.”

First of all, radio stations don’t pay artists to play their music — they pay publishers and copyright-holders (most of which doesn’t make its way to artists) because of the “mechanical license,” a form of compulsory licensing, and in return radio stations get to play whatever they want, whenever they want. Is Billy in favour of extending that right to anyone on the Internet? I doubt it. Fred Wilson is right — there needs to be a better way to compensate artists, but taking money from Bebo isn’t it.

Further reading:

Gerd Leonhard has some thoughts along the same lines as Fred’s, and The Stalwart says artists and the Internet are now in the same position as subway musicians (something I have a little experience with myself, even if it was 25 years ago) — although that’s not a comparison Billy likes much, judging by his comment.

The Stalwart has since updated his post, adding a response to Billy’s comment — but my favourite part is that The Stalwart’s wife has also posted a comment, agreeing with Billy :-) And Andrew Dubber of New Music Strategies puts some things in perspective (as usual) in his post on the subject. Mike Masnick of Techdirt — who also joined in the comments on The Stalwart’s post — has now put up a longer look at the topic, and Matt Mason (author of The Pirate’s Dilemma) has a good post at Torrentfreak, in which he says that both Billy and Mike are wrong.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

18 Responses to “Billy Bragg should stick to singing”
  1. Bragg is way off base here regarding work. I agree with you on that. The Marxist philosophy on workers doesn't really apply here because the workers choose to use the service for free. They agree to the terms. They choose to externalize the cost of creation for Bebo. In exchange they get a distribution pipe. It's not much different than the terrestrial radio models.

    However, I have a few points to correct.

    Payola is the other way around: Radio stations can't accept money from artists or labels in exchange for playing their music.

    ASCAP/BMI/SESAC do monitor radio stations and collect royalty fees from broadcasters. However the money that makes it's way back to artists is negligible. Radio is largely seen by the industry as a promotional tool for CD sales and concert promotion.

  2. mean-spirited beyond belief. a new low – even for you, dude. then again, i expect cheap shots from a hack like you. for the record, nick carr has forgotten more about technology than you've ever learned.

  3. […] Bebo-based editorial from yesterday’s times, including TechCrunch, New Music Strategies, Mathew Ingram and Fred Wilson. So many people ready to everyone else they’re wrong-headed, so few decent […]

  4. The artist is exploited in the end ….


  5. I think the Marxist reading is, on some level, still valid. One of the things the Web was,'supposed to do' (in my mind anyway) was transfer some of the means of production to the 'common person' so that, rather than going to a newspaper or record label, one could for no or very little investment, take control of the mechanisms of distribution, sales, marketing etc.

    A potential problem with the monetization of human activity – ostensibly the business model of social networking – is that while individuals spend time doing the things they do (messaging, posting photos etc etc), very unlike work, there is no exchange of labour for a wage. The means of production, far from being democratized, are centralised in the hands of Zuckerbergs and Thiels. I guess there's an odd contradiction at the core of different aspects of Web 2.0 – some facets do democratise and open new opportunities for people while others, while certainly fun and even helpful, do a lot to maintain the disparities between 'regular folk' and those with tonnes o' capital and influence.

    I know this sounds a bit conspiratorial and it probably is – I guess I mean this more analogously than a direct statement of “Facebook is exploitative”. That said, even though I've probably oversimplified things it seems like there's something here worth thinking about in relation to a possible 'set of values' for Web 2.0.

  6. Doesn't this contradict your earlier post on revenue sharing for videos?


    You wrote:
    I was a fan of Revver’s model early on, because I thought it made sense to compensate video artists whose clips drove a lot of traffic to the site. Among the beneficiaries of this model were video artists such as the Eepybird team (the guys behind the Diet Coke and Mentos videos) and the Lonelygirl15 project, as well as a range of other artists, including the Ask A Ninja guys and the creators of the “Will It Blend” videos. Liz Gannes at NewTeeVee has more background on Revver.

    One of the controversial aspects of a site such as YouTube is that it makes bundles of cash from the ads that top-rated videos bring, but until relatively recently the creators of those videos got nothing out of the deal

  7. Mathew “I like to see my site on TechMeme” Ingram. :-)

  8. You have no idea what you are talking about. Its very sad.

  9. You have no idea what you are talking about. Its very sad.

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