The dysfunctional relationship between artists and tech entrepreneurs

Eric Garland Uncategorized 2 Comments

You really must give a read to this absolutely excellent presentation about the effect of digital technologies on record labels and artists, entitled “Meet the New Boss, Worse Than the Old Boss.”The author is a professional musician who achieved some success in the business as it was, and who also had high hopes for the potential of digital to “liberate” artists. But his extremely-well-considered debate is as follows:

What follows is based on my notes and slides from my talk at SF Music Tech Summit.  I realize that I’m about to alienate some of my friends that work on the tech side of the music business.  These are good well intentioned people who genuinely want to help musicians succeed in the new digital paradigm. But if we are gonna come up with a system to compensate artists fairly in the new digital age we need an honest discussion of what is going on.  The tech side of the music business really needs to look at how their actions and policies negatively impact artists,  just as they have pointed out the negative effect record company actions have had on artists.

Too often the debate has been  pirates vs the RIAA.  This is ridiculous because the artists, the 99 percent of the music business are left out of the debate.  I’m not advocating going back to the old record label model,  to an industry dominated by the big three multi-national  labels.  This is a bit of hyperbole intended to make us all think about this question:  Is the new digital  model better for the artist?

The answer: No.

I can tell you as an professional musician and author in the digital age, the Internet is 1% cool, as a fellow listener and consumer of all this great free stuff, and 99% awful, as it destroys the path that people must walk down to become a mature creative person. Remember, becoming a great musician or writer means that you must grow into the role – and frankly, on the way to that growth, you have to make enough money to eat with. Not “light cigars with $100 bills” enough money, but “rent an apartment, have a used car, and eat modestly while purchasing fresh strings and the occasional blown speaker cone” enough money. This is what ALL of your favorite bands did starting out – make enough money to keep developing as an artist until a truly compelling artistic voice emerges. You become a great performer by touring, and you become a great artist by making enough money to survive while you write new material. When you take a link out of that chain, notably the modest amount of money to cover expenses, then you confine people to only playing local shows and keep them from making records.

I do not have a solution to this problem, but I will tell you that the author’s conclusion, that the tech industry’s assumption that content is valueless and of endless supply, is a truly pernicious development in our culture. Think it through.

P.S. I’m playing Latin music with Tino Mendivil this Friday night at Dante’s club in downtown St Louis, please stop by and support live music.

  • Eric, I’m not sure I totally agree with you here. I’m not a musician and I can barely play the radio, but I think there are still good artists out there. Karmin ( is one of my favorite current artists. They came up by making covers on YouTube. They have done significant touring and are now on the radio. I don’t know where they would be without their YouTube popularity.

    Finally, maybe I’m a bad person [probably], but I don’t care about the artists and their politics. I’m listening to their music because I like a specific song. I don’t buy albums because I want to hear everything that artist has ever done, but just that one “good” song. I’m not buying art, I’m looking for entertainment.

    •  My friend, go easy before declaring yourself a bad person! It’s not your job to get behind artists’ politics or the mechanics of this whatsoever. However you find music that pleases you is legitimate, as far as I am concerned.

      That said, musicians need ways to become mature voices. This recently has been done through touring and recording. But it could just as easily go back to the old way – playing music in public near your house on a very regular basis. We have far more TVs and DJs in bars than we do musicians. This could change, and maybe it will when the world musicians ebbs to low tide.

      I think the point that organizations are suing people over music, that there’s this catfight in the music industry that sullies everyone – it’s got to stop. Because in the end, it’s about guys listening to songs they dig. Period.