Music Industry's Culture of Learned Helplessness

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Go to musicFIRST's Website, then try to find something other than information related to royalties. Find something other than propaganda trashing Pandora (P) and Sirius XM (SIRI).

You can't. Because that's all musicFIRST, the artist advocacy organization that "works to ensure music creators get fair pay for their work," does. They fight the royalty fight.

In this article, I argue that by making royalties its sole and hyper focus musicFIRST does a disservice to the musicians it purports to support and advocate for. In fact, they're culpable for every moment wasted and dollar lost when an artist is unaware of the massive opportunity today's tech- and data-driven music industry provides, particularly as streaming continues to not merely cannibalize but crush digital download sales

I write this article, in part, to respond to some feedback I received on my 2013 year-end manifesto against the music industrial complex: Musicians: Don't Blame Apple or the Internet For Your Problems (from December 23, 2013).

To be clear, in that article -- or in any of the dozens that came before it -- I did not suggest that creators should not get paid for their work. However, I did mean to state, in no uncertain terms, that musicians should stop complaining about how much money they make via a royalty system that was broken long before Internet radio came along and provided unprecedented exposure for artists at all levels.

What musicFIRST does is reckless. And, to be fair, they're not alone; they're just the ideal illustration of what's wrong with the broad music industrial complex.

musicFIRST's singular focus on royalties is akin to me putting all of my efforts toward lifting a ban on minors cutting grass as an odd job in my neighborhood when opportunities exist for them to clean pools, walk dogs and organize lemonade stands. How can I not tell my son and his friends that they could put their talents to work and make some money in other areas because I have become obsessed with the perceived grass cutting injustice?

musicFIRST looses any good intentions it might have by getting sucked into the music royalty vacuum. While I'm not suggesting it should abandon that fight (royalties absolutely should be part of the group's agenda), if musicFIRST wants artists to succeed it needs to move with the times and educate its creators on what's what.

How do you empower a large group of people when you're setting a myopic agenda during a time of unparalleled opportunity? In effect, musicFIRST and its official and unofficial partners enable many creators to mire themselves in what amounts to a culture of learned helplessness.

musicFIRST (and other organizations) could tell its rank and file, listen, we're going to be vigilant on this royalty thing, but ...

Internet radio has helped usher in an area where tech and data drive new and different types of success at all levels. You have to be part of what's no longer just a trend; it's the way things are and will be for the foreseeable future.

In the aforementioned December 23rd article, I mention Kickstarter, Concert Window and Pandora as platforms musicFIRST should be educating its members about.

Why isn't musicFIRST using some of its resources to find out what exists, build partnerships and make its membership aware of how to leverage the opportunities dozens, if not hundreds of excellent music and music-related startups provide?

I could come up with names all day long.

Check out Patreon. Great idea. Excellent opportunity here.

How about Bandcamp. Or Songiest.

Don't count out Nashville-based Danny Murphy's startup, Game Day Presentation, as it works to place music that might not otherwise see the light of day in venues during sporting events.

So much creativity and hard work out there spawning opportunity, yet some musicians opt to mire themselves in what's pretty much a depressive cycle.

And don't ignore Pandora and other streaming services.

I have had more than one employee at Pandora tell me that the company wants to know about new and emerging artists that might not have entered their field of vision. Send them our way, they say!

And when I send an artist Pandora's way, they usually add him or her to the catalog. Just about any musician -- working, indie or major label -- has an open invitation to play a whiteboard session for Pandora employees and see their artist dashboard.

I had a guy come at me on Twitter the week of Christmas. He took exception to the Don't Blame Apple or the Internet ... article. Here are some of the things he said, as he referred to me as ill-informed and, in so many words, anti-artist.

Please understand that I am not looking to make a spectacle of one particular person. I love musicians and want to see them succeed. I'm friends with a few and becoming friends with many more. I help these folks out any way I can.

But this guy's attitude exemplifies much of what's wrong with the state of the music industry today. And it's not the individual artist's fault. The blame must fall on leaders who direct the conversation to royalties and nothing but royalties. They set an agenda that will lead most working musicians -- and even slightly "bigger" names -- on a primrose path to nowhere.


First, I have never suggested everything be free. Internet radio pays artists billions of dollars in royalties. That should not stop. And it will not stop. Nobody is asking for it to stop despite the false propaganda spewed from the most toxic corners of the music industrial complex.

Check the numbers. Pandora's are publicly available each quarter. Spotify just released some updated figures. The payouts are astonishing. They shouldn't have to get bigger because the music industry, radio and some individual artists failed to prepare for and adapt to change.

What we're seeing is not all that different from what physical retail expects from Amazon.com (AMZN).


Punish the innovator. A company like Amazon (or Pandora or Spotify) comes along and changes the game, yet in some warped way the cats who were out-innovated and left behind think they deserve reparations?

The Tweeter's "print rag" analogy is false.

Lots of print folks have moved quite well with the times. Some haven't. Quite frankly, it is "too bad for them" if they were unable to be nimble and adapt. Why would or should it be any other way?

David Pogue leaves The New York Times for Yahoo! (YHOO). Brian Stelter bolts for CNN. Nate Silver goes to ESPN. Endless examples of people making the move, at the individual level, after their employers failed to stay competitive (or whatever) at the corporate level.


Songwriters have quite a few legitimate gripes unique to songwriters. But I'll never understand why it's Pandora's or Spotify's job to mediate what comes down to an argument between songwriters/composers and performers, their labels and the folks who divvy up royalty payments.

I had to leave it at this with this guy ...


Because that's really what it comes down to.

The grass ain't always greener. Or it's the just same color on the other side.

I wake up every morning wishing I had even an ounce of musical talent. I'd love to be able to write, practice, record and perform everyday. And, without doubt, if I had the ability to make that my way of life, I would realize that along with living the dream come hardships, obstacles and feelings of hopelessness.

As much as I love what I actually am able to do for a living, I deal with struggles everyday.

All that means is that you and I probably have at least one thing in common.

The world changes. You can either kick, scream, complain and long for just a little more time with the way things were or you put yourself out there and take advantage of the opportunity new structures and technologies provide.

It's not easy to break through and make a good living, let alone a ton of money. It requires hard work and, increasingly, the willingness and ability to exit your comfort zone and be creative.

This notion that somehow this is a problem exclusive to musicians needs to end. The music industrial complex must stop enabling artists, particularly when there have never been more opportunities readily available to empower them.

But this guy would not stop. He kept coming back for more. And, with each Tweet, he, blissfully, defined a large part of the problem for us ... 


My responses best close this article. Call them the key takeways from the discussion.


Watching a presumably talented musician -- and this guy is hardly alone -- talk like this actually breaks my heart. It's one thing to see corporations refuse to think differently, try new things and embrace innovation; it's another to observe individuals flirt with the same flavor of disaster.

--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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