Musicians: Don't Blame Apple or the Internet For Your Problems

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It boggles my mind that so many otherwise intelligent people appear to see the world through cloudy goggles.

They're too busy casting heroes as villains to not only recognize, but take full advantage of the most exciting time the music industry has seen in what feels like ages.

I'm referring to the music industrial complex's ongoing and orchestrated campaign against Internet radio. Where Pandora (P) once absorbed the brunt, Spotify now routinely gets taken to task by a set formation of usual suspects.

All of a sudden, cats such as David Byrne and Thom Yorke feel the need to regurgitate their visionless views on the state of the music industry on a schedule that makes it less likely I'm a conspiracy theorist and more likely there's a concerted effort to discredit streaming radio.

Given the history and reality of the music industry the vendetta these guys wage makes zero logical sense. I'll never understand how Internet radio serves as pretty much the sole target of their misguided and ill-conceived scorn.

First and foremost, when you start assigning external forces the blame for your or somebody else's perceived lack of success or earnings (or whatever), you have taken step one in the wrong direction. But, if these guys are going to hold anyone responsible for the horribly imprecise assertion that artists aren't getting paid, they should go back before the Internet radio boom and look at Apple (AAPL).

The music industrial complex put its faith in Steve Jobs. That would not have been a bad idea if the record labels and other factions of the apparatus were ready, willing and able to move as nimbly as tech companies such as Apple can.

But we know they can't. And they don't. So they fall behind, point fingers and fight the trend before feebly chasing it.

Steve Jobs took the idea of the record album and murdered it when he started selling individual songs for 99 cents a pop on iTunes. And, unless you're a massive name selling huge amounts of downloads -- newsflash -- you're not getting rich. Apple is. As always.

Then Internet radio came along. Apple decided to straddle both sides of the fence between downloads and streaming. Once again, the music industry agreed to whatever arrangement Apple put in front of it on the false hope that the combo of iTunes and iTunes Radio could keep downloads from dying.

It won't. Downloads are dying. Soon to be dead. And streaming -- as personalized radio and subscription on-demand -- will rule the day.

Either way, Apple wins and the music industry loses because winners and visionaries staff Apple while a bevy of losers comprise the decision-making establishment at the labels and other cogs of a deteriorating record industry machine.

So, for the last 5-10 years or so, Apple has, in a major way, dictated the fate of the music industry.

Bruised and battered, these guys take on an easy target -- Internet radio. Because it's much simpler to craft the narrative that Pandora and Spotify don't pay artists enough than it is to take on Apple. Or even broadcast radio. Music industry executives might be dumb, but they're not stupid.

In some corners, these guys have succeeded by creating and perpetuating the patently false notion that Internet radio came along and started screwing musicians. As if there was a royalty system in place prior to the emergence of Pandora and Spotify that paid artists commensurate with their blood, sweat, tears and the value of their art.

That's bull. And the folks who allow that meme to float know it. They're something worse than liars.

Terrestrial radio has never paid royalties, outside of the publishing licenses it abides by. And there has never been a royalty system in place that made anybody rich other than mega acts. It's not like working musicians were making something just north or south of a good living off of royalties and then Internet radio came along and took that away.

Terms such as working musician and starving artist existed long before and independent of Pandora, Spotify and the others. In fact, if I was in the business of assigning blame as a major record label executive I would look in the mirror for answers to why it's so tough to make a living as a rank-and-file or even decently successful musician:

Back then (in the late 70s, early 80s) ... it was every band's dream to get signed to a major label ... And then ... well let's cut to the chase, it's the last form of white slavery. It's not a fair situation. I think we're like still in debt to them (Epic Records, a division of Sony (SNE) Music) for recording "White Light, White Heat, (White Trash)" ... We just thought they weren't really doing anything for us that we couldn't do for ourselves.

That's Mike Ness of Social Distortion, transcribed from a 2011 Guitar Center Sessions interview discussing the toxic relationship bands often have with big record labels and his decision to move to an independent label.

I could have picked any number of interviews from any number of musicians to illustrate this, but, while I might distance myself from putting the word "white" in front of "slavery," Ness has a straightforward way with words that I like.

In addition to describing how the label sends the band the bill for basically doing what needs to be done to make the record (costs incurred get subtracted from the advance), Ness noted that he was able to quit his day job painting houses after the success of "The Story of My Life" and "Ball and Chain," both released in 1990.

I provide what we'll call a representative anecdote to illustrate the very real notion that when you hear music industrial complex hacks -- from guys at the labels to the RIAA to mouthpieces such as Byrne and Yorke -- speak about what's fair, remember the culture many of these guys have either created or are strongly associated with.

As Ness put it, "It's not a fair situation."

So, simply put, we're not talking about a business that was humming along peacefully and doing right by working musicians until Internet radio came along. Before Pandora was even a twinkle in Tim Westergren's eye, a veteran like Ness was able to quit his day job and focus on music only because he took the successful musician's rite of passage -- getting screwed by a major label and, having had enough of it to the point where he couldn't wait to go indie.

All of this to say, music was a messed up business long before the Internet, Apple, iTunes and Internet radio came along. It's never been a place where anybody other than cigar-smoking label execs and a chosen few artists do really well. The bulk of the pack can only hope to get as "lucky" as Social Distortion did so they can shed their days jobs, focus on music and then extract themselves as quickly as possible from the truly evil and unfair part of the equation -- the record labels.

If the labels and the rest of the music industrial complex gave a damn about musicians ... If puppets such as Yorke and Byrne had a real clue and wanted to do some good ... If any of the people questioning the long-term value and potential of Internet radio actually wanted to move their industry forward, they would ...

  • Help manage the transition from downloads to on-demand and personalized radio-style streaming. That's something the music industry failed to do as physical sales gave way to downloads. You would think, at some point, these guys might learn from their own history.
  • Educate rank-and-file musicians on how to use the incredible number of tools available to them in the age of Internet radio. It's funny how self-proclaimed artist advocacy groups such as musicFIRST spend so much of their free time and energy (and, worse, their members' money) bashing Internet radio over royalties. Why aren't they educating bands on how to use platforms such as Kickstarter and live streaming sites like Concert Window? Why aren't they encouraging them to head to Oakland, play a whiteboard session at Pandora headquarters and see their artist data? Or, better yet, hopping on the horn with Pandora's sales and marketing people to try get some of the members involved in advertiser-backed Pandora Presents shows.
  • Where are the advocacy peeps to stand up for artists who continued to get screwed by the injustice known as pay-to-play?
  • Why isn't the music industrial complex investing (in a MAJOR way) in the great music startups tech companies such as Yahoo! (YHOO) are buying. It appears Sony Music would rather sit on its hands than build out a live concert streaming platform that could generate billions of dollars for itself and its artists.

I mean there's all of this opportunity in myriad areas -- from fundraising to live concert streaming to touring to the mass instant exposure of Internet radio just waiting to be monetized beyond royalties -- and the labels and their partners sit back and do nothing but complain about Pandora and Spotify.

If the music industry wasn't so inept in the first place, I would have a hard time believing that this is actually what's happening. But it is. And it sucks.

We should also remember -- no matter the landscape -- making it as a musician is not easy work. Internet radio didn't come along to hand working artists an easy life or a direct pathway to success. However, it has brought the tech and the data that, contrary to the cries of the blamers, has done nothing but make it easier to succeed for big names such as Beyonce to the indies and unsigned bands we've never heard of.

All I want for Christmas is for the complainers to wake up in 2014 and do something other than complain and encourage the media to write the same old thin and pointless story about how Pandora and Spotify aren't paying artists enough royalty money. As if anybody has ... ever.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Pendola makes frequent appearances on national television networks such as CNN and CNBC as well as TheStreet TV. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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