Many of my Facebook friends are semipro singer-songwriters. We tend to attract each other. As such, I see lots of bitter status updates about the Internet’s “devaluing” of music. I never comment; I don’t want to be a dick in somebody else’s space. Lucky for me, I have my own space and can be a dick here all day long!
The Internet hasn’t devalued anything. It’s revealed the true value of many things.
I say this after watching the two worlds in which I spend most of my productive time – music and print publishing – collapse over the past dozen years. I was cranky for a while. I got over it. I say bring it the rest of the way down.
Has the Internet destroyed our economy? Yes, absolutely; it destroyed the economy such as it had been built. So many of the things people used to blow money on have been exposed as having no monetary value. Gatekeepers and middlemen were once able to monopolize the distribution of information and assign it an arbitrary price. They can’t do that anymore.
Journalism as we’ve known it is worthless. I’m sorry. When I want to find out about news that is breaking right now, I use Twitter. I learn about things as they happen from the people who are standing right in front of them. Blogs, maintained by passionate enthusiasts, organize and refine that information at little or no cost to the user.
Most mass-market entertainment is also worthless. Something made for free and posted on YouTube or Soundcloud by a random dude in my neighborhood can be just as funny, just as resonant, just as entertaining as a big-budget blockbuster film or album. It’s not about piracy; it’s about quantity of entertainment. Free stuff entertains me as much as expensive stuff does, and it’s free.
If I go to a restaurant and there’s a wait, I usually move on. All the sit-down places are packed for breakfast or dinner rush? I can go to McDonald’s and have something that tastes good and will leave me full, and I won’t have to wait for it. No, it’s not going to be a gourmet fuckin experience, but it will fulfill my base meal requirements and probably even make me happy. In this way, all restaurants are essentially always competing with McDonald’s for my patronage. They’re also competing with my kitchen at home.
Art is assigned value by middlemen. Its intrinsic value is zero. You can hear music right now for free: hum to yourself. Whistle. You can make something right now that entertains you or speaks for you. You don’t need me to do it; you don’t need painters, or sculptors, or filmmakers, or novelists, or songwriters. Little kids know this… they can entertain themselves all day using nothing but their imaginations and whatever’s around.
Nobody asked me to write or record music. I felt a need to do it, so I did it. That wasn’t for the world at large; it was for me. My benefit has already been derived. If I needed to make money from it too, that would be a sad commentary on how much my music actually means to me.
Here are some things that have value the Internet cannot “take away”:
Expertise. Craftsmanship. Nostalgia. Arousal. Empathy. Quality. Novelty. Scarcity. Collectability.
You can aspire to some of these; others are not up to you. You can practice and learn until you are an expert or a craftsperson. What someone is nostalgic for, aroused by, or can empathize with is subjective. Some people think “quality” is something you know when you see it; I’m not so sure that isn’t subjective too. And it can be argued that scarcity and collectability only add value when combined with one of the other things on that list.
Expertise and craftsmanship are why I’m happy to scrape together the money for a mix by Tchad Blake or Pete deBoer, or session work from Anton Fig or Jerry Marotta or Tony Levin or Graham Maby or Reeves Gabrels or Ralph Carney… these guys do things nobody else can. You can’t fake them in Pro Tools or Garageband. Do they make my recordings more “sellable”? I’m not sure, but in my opinion (which is the only one that counts ’cause it’s my music), they make them better. And I want my recordings to be the best they can be, even if I’m the only one who will ever give a shit.
You don’t decorate your home strictly for guests. Maybe you do, I dunno. But I would figure you’d fill your place with stuff you wanted to see every day… and then if guests happen to show up, they can appreciate the decor, or not.
The most “successful” project I’ve done in the past five years, in terms of monetary ROI, is “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo”. The song itself is fine; a fun listen and very well performed, but as happy as I am with the finished piece I can’t say it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. And yet I’ve sold almost 50 copies of the track on cylinder, a virtually unplayable format, at a whopping $35 a pop. In this case, people are shelling out for novelty and scarcity – it’s a cylinder record, and there are only 50 signed and numbered copies. Some people collect cylinder records and feel a need to buy any new ones that are made. And there is a chance people are also paying to speculate, since Michael Doret is a name in the art world and it’s his autograph on the thing.
Almost no one is buying the product for the song itself.
And then there’s this:
Somebody forwarded me that link after it had been up for a year, collecting comments. I’ve never seen a dime from “The Bowery Electric” (unlike Jesse Malin, I suppose) – and I’m not credited or even mentioned anywhere on the page – but I couldn’t possibly feel more rewarded for my work than I did when I saw this YouTube video and the testimonials beneath it.
When I put forth a vinyl record or a CD or a digital file – just like everybody else does, and just like anybody else can – I have no expectations of return on investment, and I feel entitled to no reaction. I wanted something to exist; it exists. I wanted the catharsis of creation and I got it. I wanted it recorded; I wanted it packaged. I got what I wanted. Nobody asked me to do any of this.
If I create something that has value to a stranger, they will let me know.