Why is the New York Times Coverage on Artist Rights So Oddly Inconsistent?

If you read the New York Times Sunday Magazine (which probably means you’re over 40 or live inside of the Acela corridor), you may have noticed a story last week titled “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t“.  This piece is another of these “Sky is Rising” type things bankrolled by the Computer & Communications Industry Association, aka Google.  I’m not accusing the author of being on anyone’s payroll (except perhaps the Times itself…more about that later), but I can’t help noticing the similarities.

Here is the author’s thesis:

But starting with [Lars] Ulrich’s [2000] testimony [in the Napster case and hearings], a new complaint has taken center stage, one that flips those older objections on their heads. The problem with the culture industry is no longer its rapacious pursuit of consumer dollars. The problem with the culture industry is that it’s not profitable enough. Thanks to its legal troubles, Napster itself ended up being much less important as a business than as an omen, a preview of coming destructions. Its short, troubled life signaled a fundamental rearrangement in the way we discover, consume and (most importantly) pay for creative work. In the 15 years since, many artists and commentators have come to believe that Ulrich’s promised apocalypse is now upon us — that the digital economy, in which information not only wants to be free but for all practical purposes is free, ultimately means that ‘‘the diverse voices of the artists will disappear,’’ because musicians and writers and filmmakers can no longer make a living.

Not surprisingly, this thesis leads to the following conclusion:

But just because creative workers deserve to make more money, it doesn’t mean that the economic or technological trends are undermining their livelihoods. If anything, the trends are making creative livelihoods more achievable. Contrary to Lars Ulrich’s fear in 2000, the ‘‘diverse voices of the artists’’ are still with us, and they seem to be multiplying. The song remains the same, and there are more of us singing it for a living.

The thrust of the article is essentially just because there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that artists are hurting in the post-Napster era doesn’t mean that they are.  And we can “prove” that by looking at government data sets.

The author notes:

The problem with the [Labor Department] data is that it doesn’t track self-­employed workers, who are obviously a large part of the world of creative production. For that section of the culture industry, the best data sources are the United States Economic Census, which is conducted every five years, and a firm called Economic Modeling Specialists International, which tracks detailed job numbers for self-­employed people in specific professions.

You know, rather than cherry picking data, there’s another good way to find out about how self-employed artists are doing–why don’t you ask them?  Case in point:  The Austin Music Office commissioned a study that did just that.  You can read Texas Monthly’s coverage on it.  Somebody at the Times might want to read it–and the data collected from 4,000 respondents from the artist, music business worker and venue owner communities.  The Census data drove the conclusion, and not the other way around.  I don’t think it supports the conclusions in the Times–conclusions that were all derived from inside a library by the look of it.

It’s interesting that the author starts with Napster and then largely restates and extends the narrative crafted by Napster’s litigation PR team.  You know:  Fire good, Napster bad.

Because the thesis in the Times dances around a narrative that’s straight outta 1999:  Blame the victim.  It seems carefully crafted to lead to the desired conclusion apparently driven by a number of factors.

1.  Omit Any Reference to Brand Sponsored Piracy:  The author’s basic argument about piracy is straight out of the CCIA playbook–yes, piracy is bad, but the artists make it up on live music.  This substitution argument allows the author to sidestep the entire issue of who profits from piracy, who drives traffic to pirate sites, in fact, the whole income transfer that is essentially at work in online piracy across all copyright categories.  And you know, some of the companies benefiting from piracy are the same people who sell advertising on the New York Times website and drive traffic to it.

Even if the author wanted to avoid mentioning they who must not be named (Google), he could at least have noted the big box brands that benefit from advertising cheaply to pirate sites that attract the same demographic as do more costly and less populated music sites.  I’m not really joking about not mentioning Google’s name–it only comes up once.

2.  Discuss Independent Bookstores with No Reference to Amazon:  Here’s the treatment for independent bookstores:

This would be even more troubling if independent bookstores — traditional champions of the literary novel and thoughtful nonfiction — were on life support. But contrary to all expectations, these stores have been thriving. After hitting a low in 2007, decimated not only by the Internet but also by the rise of big-box chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores have been growing at a steady clip, with their number up 35 percent (from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,227 in 2015); by many reports, 2014 was their most financially successful year in recent memory. Indie bookstores account for only about 10 percent of overall book sales, but they have a vastly disproportionate impact on the sale of the creative midlist books that are so vital to the health of the culture.

This is a carefully worded paragraph.  Maybe I missed it, but I don’t see a cite for the number of independent bookstores.  I also note that the name “Amazon” doesn’t appear, nor the fact that Borders filed for bankruptcy and Barnes & Noble has been running on fumes for years (most recent evidence is that Barnes & Noble reportedly stopped paying its Marketplace sellers this month).

The author would have us believe that “the Internet” was only a contributing factor rather than Amazon being at least a significant cause for the demise of both indies and big box even prior to 2007, the year that Amazon launched the Kindle.  Amazon did what Amazon does best–use other peoples’ bricks and mortar stores as show rooms while offering the same goods at a lower price.  (Partly by dodging state sales tax.)  People didn’t stop buying books, they just stopped buying them from local booksellers.

Another major issue the author skipped is the brisk market for pdfs of pirated books on Torrent sites.  But why expect that level of nuance from someone who clearly can’t even see the boulder in his own eye.

3.  Everything is Awesome!  The author treats us to this list of glittering generalities:

And just as there are more avenues for consumers to pay for creative work, there are more ways to be compensated for making that work. Think of that signature flourish of 2000s-­era television artistry: the exquisitely curated (and usually obscure) song that signals the transition from final shot to the rolling credits. Having a track featured during the credits of ‘‘Girls’’ or ‘‘Breaking Bad’’ or ‘‘True Blood’’ can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a songwriter.  (Before that point [which point?], the idea of licensing a popular song for the credits of a television series was almost unheard-­of.) 

Oh really?  And what is that statement based on exactly?  First the money–Maybe–maybe–if he’s talking about a major composer commissioned to write and record a  main title theme and score for a big series.  But end titles?  I think not.  I personally have licensed recordings for many, many television programs throughout the 1990s and 2000s and I know of plenty of “popular songs” that were in the end titles and none of them got “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for the songwriters.

Video-­game budgets pay for actors, composers, writers and song licenses. There are YouTube videos generating ad revenue and Amazon Kindle Singles earning royalties, not to mention those emerging studios (like Netflix and Yahoo) that are spending significant dollars on high-­quality video.

Here’s a hot tip–unless you’re bringing personality rights to a video game, music license fees have been in a steady state of decline since I did the first videogame sound track license for Road Rash 3DO where all the artists got a per-unit royalty on the game that A&M passed through to the artists on a non-recoupment basis.  It’s a cold day in hell that any videogame company pays a royalty for music (with the possible exception of Guitar Hero-type games).

Of course, video game budgets do pay for a bunch of employment.  Glad he brought that up.  So do record company and music publisher advances.  But we don’t see much discussion about the benefits of their demise.  The kind of discussion you might have if you did something like…oh, interview someone from a record company or music publisher.

Ad revenue from YouTube is a joke–even more confirmation that the author did no original research for the story.  It is certainly true that Netflix, Amazon and Yahoo are spending money on original programming having learned from the YouTube tsunami of shite.  That parenthetical is one of the few unquestionably true statements in the article.

Filmmakers alone have raised more than $290 million on Kickstarter for their creations. Musicians are supplementing their income with instrument lessons on YouTube. All of these outlets are potential sources of revenue for the creative class, and all of them are creatures of the post-­Napster era. The Future of Music Coalition recently published a list of all the revenue streams available to musicians today, everything from sheet-­music sales at concerts to vinyl-­album sales. They came up with 46 distinct sources, 13 of which — including YouTube partner revenue and ringtone royalties — were nonexistent 15 years ago, and six of which, including film and television licensing, have greatly expanded in the digital age.

The reward based crowdfunding is a real thing that I support, and the Patronism.com and Patreon models have appeal for musicians.  However, these crowdfunding models do not make up for the consistent investment in production, marketing and promotion spend from record companies or the sustaining advances from music publishers.  And please don’t tell me that the huge hit to musicians is going to be offset by music lessons on YouTube.

I find it odd that the author had the brass to mention the Future of Music study.  Here’s what FOMC had to say about their New York Times experience:

Earlier this month, the New York Times Magazine reached out to Future of Music Coalition with regard to a forthcoming feature. We like to help out with this sort of thing, because we know that music business structures and practices can be quite complicated, and think it’s important that journalists get the facts and context as correct as possible, whatever narrative they’re advancing. Last week, fact-checkers from the magazine followed up with FMC staff. There was a good deal of back and forth as we were provided short paragraphs, and later, individual sentences, from the article and asked to verify whether they were “true.” (Unfortunately, we weren’t provided with much context.)

Alas, what ended up running was rather disappointing. NYT Magazine chose to publish without substantive change most of the things that we told them were either: a) not accurate or b) not verifiable because there is no industry consensus and the “facts” could really go either way.

4. The Most Offensive Part:  As MTP readers will recall, we’ve been using the tag line “Your Survival Guide to the Creative Apocalypse” for a good long time.  Personally, I think that’s a lot cooler than “All the News that Fits” or whatever the NYT slogan is, I forget now.  So when we saw an article using “The Creative Apocalypse” attached to such an agenda driven post, it was particularly offensive.  Get your own damn title.

So…the real question is not what this author was up to.  The answer to that is not much.  Another example of what we’ve all come to expect.

The real question is what is the New York Times up to.  On the one hand we have great reporting at NYT by journalists like Ben Sisario who has some of the best music business writing out there.  He takes the time to actually talk to people, get both sides, and so some first rate analysis.  Trying to get at the whatchamacallit..you know, that truthiness thing.  This is what we expect from the New York Times, the newspaper of record.

But to have factcheckers cherry pick issues presented “how long have you been beating your wife” style and then to not even use the information in a side bar is really hard to understand as being anything other than agenda driven.   How difficult would it have been to run a companion piece saying that people disagree?

I’ve been reading the Times so long I can’t remember when I didn’t.  But this–this is really hard to understand.

If you find it incomprehensible as well, feel free to write to the Times public editor and let her know what you think:

Margaret Sullivan public@nytimes.com

One thought on “Why is the New York Times Coverage on Artist Rights So Oddly Inconsistent?

  1. Reblogged this on The Trichordist and commented:
    Chris Castle at Music Tech Policy does a takedown of the NYT Magazine anti-artists disinformation piece… read on…


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