Pro tip, kids: always start your tour with a colonoscopy. Even more shocking marketing truths: Copy protection is your friend. Streaming is bad. Ownership and scarcity rule.
Roger CortonBig week. Tour starting. The first few shows are sold out. ARE YOU READY?
JCHYou bet I am, Marv! I’ve been practicing. I’ve been working out. And just to make sure I’m in tip top shape, I am havin’ that colonoscopy we discussed right before the flight.
Streaming music is a reaction to the poor way ownership has been managed. It is, as Neo says, “just another system of control”
JCHNo, it’s great. I’ll be all relaxed from the gas.
RCMaybe for you.
JCHNot that gas. The anesthesia. Don’t be gross. It’ll be the best flight I’ve had in a while.
RCAnd five pounds lighter.
JCHThat too. I owe it to the fans to have a squeaky clean show.
RCNot in terms of language, however. Switching gears, we discussed marketing and the death of CDs last time and we agreed to extend that discussion.
JCHAllow me to extend myself to you in this regard! Well, it goes back to my previous rant about that Picasso for $175 million. Music has been de-valued because it is now digitized. This make it no longer scarce. Every guy still trying to sell music is trying to make the thing unique.
RCLike Peter Gabriel with his new vinyl.
JCHYeah, that guy has finally gotten on my last nerve. Every year or so he puts out a new package of the same stuff. Re-mastered! Now on vinyl! Now with new poems and piccies! Covers by other artists! He’s like Avon Barksdale, cutting the same heroin over and over and over.
RCThat’s slightly unfair. If not insulting to his fans… your fans, I might add.
JCHLook, if you’re a fan of mine you’re a bit more layered than that. I’m sick of this ‘either yer with us or against us’ attitude that so many people have these days. You look at politics these days and people are all one way or all the other. That’s ridiculous. I can like PG’s music, but get dis-chuffed at his marketing.
RCWhat should he do?
JCHI have a novel idea: write some new songs! That’s what I want to hear. His talent now. If I want to hear someone squeezing the teat for every last drop from Milky White I can visit a casino and see a has-been group any time I want. I expect more from great artists like PG.
RCBut if people are willing to buy them?
JCHSo what? You asked for the long view on this and it’s all about what economists call ‘scarcity’ and ‘demand’. You have to decide if Peter improves his brand by creating a new high-falutin’ version of his existing catalog… and artificial scarcity.
RCLike when artists to a ‘Limited Edition’ of a print.
JCHExactly. They say “We will only mint 500 of these fabulous Elvis coins, thus guaranteeing your investment!” That’s how the majority of art has been managed over literally millennia. Artificial scarcity.
RCYou manage revenue using supply and demand. Farmers do that.
JCHExactly! Everyone yammers on about the ‘free market’ but it just ain’t so. We’ve been managing markets since forever to get the best possible price. It’s only been in music that we essentially print as many as people want. Let’s go back to the Elvis coins. When they do the manufacturing run, the guy at the switch could get distracted and leave the machine running an extra two minutes. OOPS! Now you have 712 Elvis coins. What do you do?
RCToss them in the scrap bin.
JCHOf course. They’re not like children where you made a mistake and then send them out into the world and loooove them anyway. They’re just an object. You destroy the ones you don’t want. But then they leave the factory and…
RCThey are now magically transformed into something valuable.
JCHBecause you (the creator) say they are worth ‘X’. So whether it’s a one-off like a painting, or something that could be mass produced, you manage the availability. That’s artificial scarcity.
RCGot it. So live music is automatically scarce.
JCHRight. Look at ESPN. It’s the only cable channel that’s doing really well; that can’t be devalued. Why?
JCHSo people come to my show because it’s unique. There’s only so much of ‘me’ to go round. And not to be too cynical but… the sicker I get? The more I suppose I could charge for tickets.
RCUnless you get too decrepit. Like Benjamin Button decrepit.
JCHSweet. But I contend that musicians are now only making money by live performances because they are scarce, not because of any intrinsic wonderfulness of ‘live music’. And I predict that the devaluation of music is so pervasive that this is not a long-term strategy for success. Because there is (ironically) too much scarcity.
RCIt’s too far in the other direction.
JCHRight. That’s why the tickets are so expensive. The ‘spread’ between the content, which is essentially free and the live experience is too huge to be sustainable. There’s no middle ground where the artist can provide something of value to a lot of fans, but control the spigot enough to make a living without having to price people out of the game.
RCI don’t think there is a way. As you’ve ranted, the reason music is now so ‘visceral’ as you put it, is because there are formulas to get people up on the dance floor or relaxed or ‘in the mood’. They’ve figured out how to make music completely functional. It’s mostly just a tool for altering consciousness.
JCHWell I would agree to a certain extent, but I would say that has always been the case. Composers have always written purpose-built music to please some numb skull aristocrats. Although it’s probably worse now because ‘tech’ amplifies so much of human behaviour and a guy writing music now isn’t just trying to please educated aristocrats; he or she is trying to appeal to the ‘great unwashed’ so there’s ever more reason to make songs nastier or more saccharine.
RCSo what is the solution?
JCHSomehow, musicians have to create scarcity. And I believe that this can’t be done by creative packaging.
RCLike Peter Gabriel creating a new ‘exclusive boxed set’ of some content that’s already been out there.
JCHHere’s my idea. You go to a live show and the musician has to not play the same shit that’s on his CD or download. It’s gotta be a totally different experience.
RC(laughs) which is exactly what you’ve been doing since day one. And yet? You’re not exactly (as you say) ‘rolling in it’.
JCH(laughs) OK, ya got me. The real answer is this: copy protection.
RCYou’re not serious.
JCHThe data doesn’t lie. DVDs still sell. CDs don’t. The only differences are: bandwidth and copy protection. People have been spewing “copy protection doesn’t work” for so long everyone believes it. But that’s a false argument. Trying to make it a binary. It’s actually more like shoplifting. Or birth control pills.
JCHThink about ‘The Pill’. It ain’t 100% effective, right? If someone using contraception was determined to get pregnant, they’d find a way, right? People don’t stop using contraception because it ain’t fool-proof. The desire for sex is too strong.
RCThank The Lord!
JCHOK, so the desire for entertainment is like that. And DVDs are kinda like The Pill. Or shoplifting. The combo of longer rip/download times and copy protection make intellectual property theft just inconvenient enough that the vendor can still make a nice living selling them. It doesn’t provide 100% protection. It provides enough protection. Well, that’s how the music biz should work. CDs provide zero protection. That’s the problem.
RCBut what about all those arguments that say ‘copy protection doesn’t work!’
JCHRubbish. Those are from people who grew up with Napster and simply got used to ‘free’. It’s simply people got used to something for nothing. Like Prohibition. People just have to be re-educated that they ain’t gonna get cut off. They’re just gonna have to pay. Because ‘ripping’ is wrong.
RCAnd you really think that could work?
JCHI believe that the whole music biz is, like what that guy says in The Matrix, a consensual hallucination. We’re told that ‘music wants to be free’ or ‘the future is streaming’ or ‘ownership is dead!’ and those are as arbitrary ideas and as bogus as when record companies sold CDs for $16.95. The record companies and artists can control scarcity better; not perfectly, but good enough. Well enough to protect artists. We don’t have to say ‘ownership is dead’. Look at Taylor Swift. She simply ‘tweets’, “I don’t want my music on Apple Streaming” and things happen. We constantly act as though certain things are ‘inevitable’ and that if you question that, you’re out of touch with reality. I would suggest that when someone says, “You’re out of touch with reality” before you question your sanity, ask yourself, “Do they have a vested interest?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then the problem ain’t you, it’s them; they’re part of The Matrix. The ideas that have destroyed the music biz are just that: ideas. Not inevitabilities.
RCFollowing that logic, ‘ownership’ is actually the key to valuing music.
JCHStreaming music is a reaction to the poor way ownership has been managed. It is, as Neo says, “just another system of control”. It is a loss of freedom occurring in plain sight. Because in fact, ‘streaming’ is does exactly what it sounds like it does: turns music into water; a concept where the product (the water) has NO intrinsic value. The only thing you’re paying for is…
RCThe pipe to get it to your house.
JCHExactly. The cure is not to give up on ownership. The cure is to keep trying to find systems of ownership that provide a fair amount of scarcity.
RCCool. I’ll end by swinging back to the tour. Break a leg out there.
JCHThat’s for theater.
RCSo what do musicians say before hitting the road?
JCHIt’s been so long since I’ve been on a fancy schmancy tour I wouldn’t know. For me, it might be something like, “Hope you get the window seat, Bra!”