Billy Bragg should stick to singing

by Mathew on March 22, 2008 · 18 comments

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.

  • http://blog-o-blog.com Zac Echola

    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.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Zac. Good point.

    On Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 12:37 AM, Disqus

  • http://blog-o-blog.com Zac Echola

    The royalty question is a good one, I think, but I can't see the FCC pinning this one down as easily as they can force webcasters to pay license fees. There, the business determines the music inventory, in the case of MySpace and Bebo, the users determine the inventory.

    So, if I'm a popular artist and Bebo/MySpace must pay me royalties for each “spin” I'm in complete control here. It would behoove me to put a lot of my work on their sites, because for each stream, I'd get a fee from the distributor (the site where I put my music).

    If you're a start up with no set monetization strategy, you're looking at a very high overhead right from the get-go.

    Ultimately it comes down to pure value exchange. More artists get distribution/promotion with almost no barriers to entry. I think Carr and Bragg ignore this element in their discussions.

  • call jeffries

    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.

  • http://www.cozmopaintball.com Cozmo

    Wow I think he struck a nerve!
    People contributing to a site willingly shouldn't expect to get paid just because the people that actually invested the money into the site to get it going actually got paid for their efforts.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I agree, Zac. Good point.

    On Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 1:24 AM, Disqus

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Mean-spirited? I fail to see how it's mean-spirited at all — so I
    took a jab at Nick Carr. Big deal. He's a big boy — he can take it.
    You sound like Dave Winer.

    On Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 1:32 AM, Disqus

  • Pingback: Links for 3.23.08: Wikipedia’s tunes, Bragg’s tail, Ramones’ shoes… « the listenerd

  • http://www.republicofinternets.com Sach

    The artist is exploited in the end ….

    http://tinyurl.com/ys4ekc

  • http://scrawledinwax.com scrawledinwax

    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.

  • curious

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

    http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2008/02/06/wan

    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

  • http://www.scripting.com/ dave

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

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I don't think I'm contradicting my earlier post. I thought Revver's
    model made sense because it was set up that way from the beginning,
    with artists uploading clips on the understanding that they would be
    paid a portion of the revenue. The people who uploaded their music to
    Bebo did so knowing full well that they weren't likely to get
    compensated by the site (although they were clearly hoping for
    compensation from other places), so to suddenly expect a cut of Bebo's
    acquisition price seems a little disingenuous.

    On Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 4:50 PM, Disqus

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Yeah, you caught me, Dave — that's the only reason I write any of
    this stuff, so that I can make it onto Techmeme.

    On Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 4:52 PM, Disqus

  • http://www.scripting.com/ dave

    Heh. You're a good guy Mat, you can kick ass, and you enjoy a good joke like anyone else.

  • curious

    Bragg did not say everyone should be compensated retroactively after the fact.

    He said that new systems should be set up so that artists who generate significant traffic, revenues and profits for others would get some compensation.

    You've knocked down a straw man.

  • GerdL

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

  • GerdL

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

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