Saturday, September 23, 2017

Thoughts Inspired By Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things (2017):

     A).    An Appeal To Warren Buffett and/or Pandora

Have you ever read Ralph Nader’s Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us? I haven’t, but I recently stumbled on a cartoon starring the animated voice of Warren Buffett called The Secret Millionaires’ Club. Buffett gives animated pre-teen aspiring millionaires (we can’t all be billionaires like Warren) innovative business solutions to everyday problems. You could call it a kinder, gentler, version of The Apprentice with the power to reach kids at an earlier age than Trump. American Entrepreneurialism at its best. I don’t know how successful this show is in making pre-teens think that Buffett and his ‘brand’ of capitalism is cool, but this particular episode, titled “Avast Ye Downloads,” features an aspiring rock band (they’re multi-gendered, and even multi-ethnic) upset that all these people have downloaded their song for free, and trying to figure out how to recoup their losses.

Meanwhile, one of their friends, Millie, is struggling because her parents’ retail store (CDS, and maybe books) has closed down because sales have plummeted thanks to the 21st century tech “revolution” that has put so many out of business and onto the streets. No need to worry, however, for luckily superhero Warren is here to save the day.

Though Buffett is only 1 of 2 on the list of top ten richest men in the world who does not owe his fortune to tech, his advice to the kids realizes that “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Accept the paradigm shift. He’s certainly not going to suggest that we force Google subsidiary Youtube to pay royalties to the artists for their song. Rather, he advises them to convert the record store to an all-ages dance venue which will 1) allow Millie’s parents to make at least as money as they did with a record store, and 2) give the band a forum, a venue, with their ready made audience of kids who of course love them, to showcase their new smash without having to rely on clueless and greedy music industry middlemen down in LA. If the Music Industry does eventually come to you, you can bargain from a position of strength!

They can use that great democratic medium of the internet to get their songs out, and it doesn’t matter if they don’t make money on the art object commodity anymore, because they can create a live experience that can revitalize local culture! Even though these kids are all American, “anytown USA,” wholesome, and their song is that boring kind of post-Green Day watered down geeky rock (that doesn’t really rock), Buffett’s advice is kinda “punk rock,” and not significantly different from, say, Steve Albini’s championing of free-download culture. Certainly, Buffet doesn’t come off like an anti-fun cop the way the RIAA executives too often come off like greedy scolds when demonizing consumers with their talk of artists’ rights (that often don’t trickle down to the artists after they blow the advance on necessities like survival). I also like the way he seems to embrace a more decentralized, locally based culture as opposed to today’s centralized LA-based music industry….
Is Buffett’s vision realistic? Does he put his money where his mouth is?[1] or has he just drunk the tech utopian’s Kool aid that disguises libertarianism as democratic?

First, this fantasy assumes that there are still enough people who can afford to go to such shows that would generate enough revenue to keep up with the constantly rising prices of rent in places where they can find jobs (or that they even have leisure time to see shows in between working 2 or 3 jobs, and long commute times)….I mean, maybe it’s possible for a kids’ “hobby” band in the socialist economy of officially standard pre-18-year-old family life (no homeless street kids in this Secret Millionaires Club!), but the second you have to pay your own room and board, bye-bye, your nice little youth art scene, time to grow up now and get serious like Warren.

Secondly, given the expenses it takes to record music, and to convert a record store into a performance venue that’s “up to code” (and can pay all the municipal fees to be legal), obviously, it would take an influx of venture capital to pull it off. One might think if Buffett truly believed that this would be a way to save small businesses (record stores, and bands) that are threatened by the technocracy, that he’d make funds available to do so, that a venture capitalist like Buffett should do more than offer kids a story that is more fantasy than reality.

But even if Warren Buffett won’t put his money where his mouth is, I wonder if other institutions with cultural clout will? A coalition of artists, musicians and other culture workers have tried to appeal to the City Hall of our town that the arts can be an “economic engine,” for this city, but our offers (and/or pleas) have fallen on the deaf ears of a government too busy privatizing what used to be its legendary civic auditorium back when Oakland took more pride in its culture. So I ask even though Big Tech got us into this mess, could Big Tech help get us out of it, maybe by providing some form of reparations for destroying the record,  book and even video, stores? And can we convince them it’s in their self-interest to do so?

I think of that streaming service, Pandora, which is based in my town, and has employed some musicians I know. Nonetheless, as a music distribution service, it might as well be located in the everywhere-and-nowhere placelessness of web culture. It has no particular connection, or allegiance, with local musical culture. By contrast, 50 years ago, one block from where Pandora’s HQ now stands, the radio station KDIA made much more room for the local than Pandora does, while still being connected to a national (but more decentralized) culture.

Now, Pandora may not exactly be up there with Facebook, Google, and Amazon in the super rich category, but if they could devote some resources into the creation of a multi-genre “local music” channel, ideally somewhat curated, it could help create a sense of local pride in the wealth of culture available in this town in which many more young folks are more aware of the music being imported from LA than of the great musicians who may live on the same block. If Pandora, or other digital tech services, would take a chance to re-establish connections with the community in which it’s based, it could create avenues so that some of the “entertainment buck” that is currently being drained from our town to enrich Hollywood and Silicon Valley’s coffers, could stay local and may even create a cultural export to help brand Oakland (or insert your town here)…

In trying to convince the techies that such ideas would be in their self-interest, I’ve found myself banging my head against the wall for several years, and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things confirms my suspicions that the reason the venture capitalists in the tech sector remain unreceptive to such an alliance with local musician collectives is not simply because they are indifferent to local culture, but actively hostile to it. Since Silicon Valley’s reigning ideology, by their own admission, is monopolistic, anti-democratic (and libertarian), they consider a thriving local music and arts culture a threat to their business model at least as much as Hollywood has since the 1970s. Besides, a thriving local arts culture could lure people away from spending so much time on social media! So, if we can’t find venture capitalists in the tech sector to realize how local “independent” music can help them, maybe Hollywood’s music industry, who has also been decimated by Big Tech in the 21st century, may finally realize that supporting local music may be in its best interest….

B) What Kind of Co-op Can You imagine: Notes To A Plea To Hollywood

“I’m not interested in nostalgia but rather in figuring out what changed.” (240)

“The entirely new fact is that the monopolist in the digital world enjoys a power that the monopolist in the physical world does not. This is the ability [not only] to isolate producers one from another and discriminate among them, but also to isolate consumers from one another and discriminate among them.”(120).

“If the digital revolution has devalued the role of the creative artist in our society, then we need to do more than play around the edges.” (279)

“On November 13 and 14, 2015, around one thousand activists and techies met at the New School in New York City to talk about reinventing the internet. Their hope was to create a co-op model: individuals dealing directly with each other without having to go through data-scraping corporate hubs such as Google and Facebook.” (214)

Subsidiarity, according the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.” (267)

I love Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast And Break Things (2017) not simply for its brilliant diagnosis of the cultural and economic crisis in which most Americans find themselves in the era of 21st Century Monopoly Technocracy, but also because of its passionate defense of an alternative ethos (for instance, “Small is beautiful”), and possible solutions for collective institutional change that could better the lives of the vast majority of us. Taplin’s wisdom is backed up by 50 years of experience working in the culture and/or entertainment industry, and he does an amazing job of creating cross-generational solidarity against a common enemy in unregulated 21st century technocracy. He compels me to ask some difficult questions.

When he spoke to an audience of mostly Generation Xers and Millennial “creative types,” in Oakland this summer, the talk inevitably turned to how Big Tech is largely responsible for the crisis in the music industry and culture, and possible ways out of it. Near the end of Move Fast and Break Things, Taplin writes: what if artists ran a video and audio streaming site as a nonprofit cooperative? Let’s assume they would let the co-op keep 10 percent of the revenue, either from ads or subscriptions, in order to run the infrastructure and have money for general marketing. The artist would take the remaining 90 percent..” 269

Such “cooperatives do not ask artists to forgo other distribution outlets but rather enable them to take advantage of a series of distribution windows that could lead to much higher income, even if it means less for the middleman. The model exists in the music business in the form of Bandcamp……” (271, 272). But Taplin is aware of a need to go beyond the Bandcamp model. “In an ideal world, this kind of decentralized infrastructure of artist co-ops might bring back some of the regional distinctions” (273) before the industry centralized in Hollywood circa 1970. So how do we bring back regionalism?

Bandcamp may be fine for some musicians, but its default position is placeless. And, in an era in which “the longstanding principles of individual success, taken for granted by an older generation, are moving out of fashion,”(271) it lacks a collective thrust needed for the daunting task of luring the music listener and/or consumer away from Youtube and other established streaming services (especially in an era when Youtube’s parent company Google can make sure your streaming site doesn’t show up high in its search engine). I think such a co-operative would need to be primarily locally based, connected to an actual place, say a live/work performance venue that’s also a recording studio (like the warehouse I lived in here in Oakland before the city government used the tragedy of a warehouse fire to crack down on such spaces). Nor need such a nonprofit cooperative be exclusive or based on genre, or sub-genre and niche-marketing. It could provide an alternative to the placeless and niche music culture encouraged by the web (in conjunction with the major labels), but emphasizing an eclectic array of local musicians. We don’t have to like each other’s music to work together for the greater health of the local culture in the spirit of “unity in diversity” or strength in numbers…..

The nonprofit cooperative video and streaming site could not only serve the function that “the record store” (or video store) did in the 20th century, but also take on some of the functions the radio had, or should I say podcast. DJs will curate shows of new, local, talent, and host local events (for instance a dance craze contest, open to musicians of all genres, or another contest in which musicians write tribute songs to the heroic efforts of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga against the digital monopolies) to strengthen the connection between recorded and live music, and create a productive symbiosis between the virtual reality and the visceral reality, to restore the “balance between local and global” (273) Taplin claims his NPR station has…..and, working from the grass roots, could perhaps provide some push back against the trickle-down culture that Big Tech pushes on us. Yet, this would be difficult to start without some venture capital….perhaps a public/private partnership….

C) Generation Gap: Appeal To Hollywood

When Taplin talks about regionalism I get nostalgic for the days when many musicians didn’t have to become national celebrities, or move to LA, to make a living….And I can hear cheers coming from the audience when he says, “In a culture such as ours, which has long advocated a “melting pot” philosophy that papers over differences, it is valuable to recognize that allowing our dissimilarities to act as barriers is not the same as appreciating the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to particular people.”(29)

While Taplin got his first gig working with Bob Dylan in 1965 in an era of top 40 radio that appreciated “the things that make each culture unique, situated in time and space and connected to particular people” much more than today’s more monopolistic culture, many in attendance at the talk came of age at least 20 years later, in an era of diminishing returns for innovative musicians, yet before the advent of the internet. We are often labelled “underground” because we try to create a grass roots locally-based sustainable minimalist cultural economy (like they could in the 40s and 50s) against increasingly difficult odds, or you could say we were abandoned by the record industry. For instance, a national network of local Punk and Hip hop rose from the ruins left by 70s centralized corporate radio and record industry only to be cherry picked, coopted, and fragmented by it circa 1991. The Telecom Act of 96 played a role in further exacerbating a wealth gap in the music business (narrowing playlists, and purging much of the more innovative hip hop and post-punk alternative from the radio), as did the media conglomerates devoting much more energy and money into pushing music from a previous generation at our expense than they did when that generation was our age.

Taplin paints a picture of an old Hollywood that valued frugality and transparent relationships with its artists, but that was largely gone in our (pre-internet) era: a bridge had become a wall.
This hurt the consumer too. The RIAA labels’, and Media conglomerates like Clearchannel, short-sighted bottom-line obsessed cultural economy in the 80s and 90s created much discontent among both producers and consumers of music. This became fertile ground for Napster, and, later, Youtube to prey on. I also believe that had record labels not phased out the more affordable single, and inflated the price of the CD-single, or EP (with maybe 4 songs) to $9.99 while the full length CDs prices nudged close to $20.00, that many would not have been attracted to Napster’s promise of “free.” I think many would have gladly paid less, but the only alternative available was “free.”

Thus, many musicians have an almost ideological opposition to Hollywood’s “Blockbuster” mandate for success, but know that music comes alive more in small venues. Many understand the phrase D.I.Y (do it yourself) is not just about “individuals dealing directly with each other without having to go through data-scraping corporate hubs such as Google and Facebook,” (120—emphasis added), but was originally understood more collectively (do it ourselves), and labored intensely in defiance of Hollywood’s gerrymandered niche marketing relentlessly bent on dividing us. Some of us may have fallen for the temptation, and the promises that the web could liberate us and provide an alternative to the way the music industry had disseminated local scenes, only to see Big Tech cut further the ground out from under our alternative arts scenes in a number of insidious ways, including gentrification (though that’s outside of the scope of this essay): meet the new boss, worse than the old boss….

So, reading Move Fast And Break Things almost makes me feel sorry for the old-money mostly white male Hollywood oligarchy, and the thought occurs to me, “if they too have been victimized by the New Technocracy, maybe they could be an ally?” Maybe Taplin, “with suspiciously close ties to the entertainment industry establishment” can be an ambassador and help forge a truce between Hollywood and us.

Though many agreed with Taplin about the cultural and economic disaster the technocracy has caused, we wonder if Hollywood can be a true ally, given its own history of crushing local music scenes almost every time they sprung up in the last third of the 20th century? Can the Hollywood establishment bury its hatchet with local musicians and regional scenes and be willing to forge a new coalition against the Technocracy that has hurt both of us? Can Hollywood realize that it’s in its self-interest to work with the “underground?”

Surely, we can find common ground with Hollywood and the RIAA establishment. Even if we may not have been receiving as much in record sales in the “Jam-Econo” era (the regimen of relentless touring of a national college radio small venue circuit until your lead singer/ guitarist dies on the road in a van), and thus may not have felt the sting that maybe Sting and his ilk felt when sales royalties dropped in the 00s (“when you ain’t got nuthin, you got nuthin to lose’), it doesn’t mean that any of us would object if we did get more fairly compensated for our artifacts—but for this to happen in the internet age the old Hollywood/RIAA/Clearchannel media conglomerates have to be seduced and convinced that it is in their best interests to cede some of their centralized power back to what currently remains of the local communities…to the benefit of all.

Taplin quotes Yrval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” on the concept of “subsidiarity.” (267) Certainly, this is lacking in the contemporary music, and culture, industries. Yet once upon a time, back in Taplin’s day, the major labels had more regional offices (back when they still had to compete with viable local labels that produced national hits before they bought them out). Perhaps subsidiarity is the only thing that can save Hollywood and, frankly, America.

So perhaps the streaming online and video cooperative mentioned earlier (section B) can actually be funded by Hollywood and serve as a “regional office” from their perspective, but one with much more autonomy, rather than the “colonization” model some of these older regional offices relied on. This would certainly help create the bridge between local and global and make cultural exchange more of a two-way street rather than the one way street it currently too often is. And I believe that if Hollywood took such a chance, and rethought its model of how it pours its profit back in to investing on content, it may be the one thing that can save it (and us). You have a choice, Hollywood, either try to compete with Silicon Valley on its own terms, or decentralize.

#MoveFastAndBreakThings. #JonathanTaplin. #WarrenBuffett #SecretMillionairesClub

[1] Buffett is best known by many ‘progressives’ for his comments about how whack the tax code is when his secretary pays more than him, which makes him sound more ‘enlightened’ (noblesse oblige?) than many billionaires, though he adds nothing about giving her a raise, or paying her taxes! I suppose even a billionaire has more mouth than his money can back up; I certainly do….

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