I came upon this review of former Billboard executive editor Robert Levine’s new book about the Internet and its effect on the music business. He describes a dysfunctional online media business that has been shaped and even corrupted by political and corporate battles…citing Napster and YouTube‘s role in the demise as well as tech giants such as Google who is playing its part in this as it fights for a more open and free Internet.
What’s wrong with open and free? Well, it depends. I particularly like and agree with one of Levin’s key takeaways at the conclusion of the book which I think puts it in perspective. Google and other media giants’ attempts to push regulations for “thee but not for me” has hurt the industry, in particular the small artist. It is the debate between open or closed networks that will determine whether these artists will be able to make their way in the online economy or not. In the coming years, poor decisions on net neutrality and other issues could have disastrous effects on creative content, how it is shared and made available across online platforms.
Levine writes, “Online activists present the choice about our online future as one between control and creativity, but it’s really about commerce or chaos. A completely closed system would indeed defeat the purpose of the Internet; it would limit both commerce and creativity. But so would an absolutely open one, where selling digital media-or anything that can be reduced to zeros and ones-would be almost impossible in the long run. We’d have a 21st-century communications infrastructure supporting a 17th-century economy, where artists need patrons and only physical items have value. That doesn’t sound like progress.”
The bottom line — the only way for artists and creative content to survive is to ensure more stuff is paid for than is taken. The system needs to be equalized so that creators get their fair share and the tech/media companies aren’t doing all the “taking” while reaping all the benefits.
Nearly 20 years ago, people thought the Internet was going to change entertainment for the better — more access to cultural and creative content and the ability for indie artists to bypass mega companies and engage with consumers directly. And this has happened, the Internet has made this easier, but at the same time it has made it even harder to get paid.
Artists — indie and major label — are beginning to take charge of the situation, making stands against tech companies that take rather than pay. I think Levine has it right, and if he does, this could mark the downfall of digital platforms as we know them today. This doesn’t mean they go away, but certainly, the big tech players and the major record labels must come to terms with and prove that music has value in a world of digital distribution if it is to continue to grow and take advantage of its full potential.