Pros(e)

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” wrote 18th century essayist, poet, novelist, editor, reporter Samuel Johnson. For Johnson, writing = work, and it seemed to him that anyone who performed work for someone else without being rewarded for it (presumably, voluntary, charitable work is its own reward) was simply stupid. You should therefore be aware before you go any further that I am paid nothing for my contributions to GloNo (nor is anyone else whose work appears on these pages) and that we actually spend money to keep this site up and running.

Arguably, we are densely stupid.

In a comment appended to the post about GloNo celebrating its first anniversary, Sab indicated that he is a professional writer. While not wanting to provide a biography of my colleague, suffice it to say that he works at a magazine that provides him, in return for his writing (and editing and affiliated activities), money and other benefits. Because of that exchange of writing for money, not only is he not a blockhead, but he is a professional.

Consider a prostitute. I’ll call her “Sally.”* When Sally is working, she is exchanging sexual activities for money. Consequently, she is a professional. But what is Sally when she is involved in performing those very same acts and she accepts nothing in return? Is she any less a professional then, or is professionalism a state of being that exists only when there is an economic exchange involved? (One might also wonder what Sally was the time she was involved in performing sexual acts just prior to the first time she did it for money.) It is a curious thing to consider the words professional and prostitute. Perhaps being called a “pro” isn’t exactly what it seems.

When Sab is writing for GloNo, he is still the same person who is writing for an employer; in fact, he may be doing his GloNo writing during the period of time that his employer is purchasing from him.** So while Sab is temporally making money because he is ostensibly doing something of value for his employer, he is actually doing something that puts him in an entirely different category. Perhaps instead of putting him in the “blockhead” category, it would be more appropriately labeled “amateur.” (Lest anyone think that I am being unduly harsh on Sab, let me note that I, too, am a “professional” writer, so all that is said of him in this context can be applied to me.)

For some reason, our society seems to value less the endeavors of amateurs than that of professionals. Consider, however, the Olympic athletes. They are amateurs. (At least while they are participating in the Olympics; professional sports figures are permitted to play in the games through some bureaucratic ledger main.) Does anyone believe that any of those athletes would be better if someone was paying them to do what it is they do? Would sponsorship make them better athletes?

Which, finally, brings me to the subject of music. It seems as though musicians who are professionals are also valued more than those who play for the love of their calling. In fact, many of the arguments regarding the downloading of songs for free can be said to have their basis in the nature of professionalism. Consider a musician. I’ll call her “Sally.” When Sally is exchanging her musical performances for money, she is a professional. Let’s say Sally performs a song and takes nothing in exchange for it. It is precisely like a performance she just previously executed for money. What is Sally when she does this performance for free? Let’s say that Sally records a performance. It is put on a disc. She is getting money for that work if she works for a recording company (or if she runs her own company). Someone buys that disc and copies it into a digital format that’s offered on a website. Someone else downloads the song. No money is exchanged. The argument is that Sally is being robbed because she is a professional, with her professionalism being predicated on her making money as individual copies of her recorded song are purchased. When she decides to play for free, it is her decision. She gets to be an amateur when she wishes to be. But the non-economic-exchanged extraction of her music by a download (or by some other means, such as taping) is considered a theft of property. Yet the definition of “property” becomes somewhat confusing in that a recording is a nth-level copy of an original, and typically, the original, or the authentic thing, is what is perceived to be of value due to its unique existence.

A problem with what could be construed as musical theft is predicated on the type of contract that exists between the musical performer and the organization that provides money for that performance. Let’s return to the example of Sab and the magazine company he works for. That company pays Sab $X per year. There are certain assumptions behind that $X. Fundamentally, is the publisher’s determination that by paying Sab $X, it will be able to derive revenue of $X + 1, and therefore make a profit. Let’s say that the magazine has a circulation of 100,000 one day. The publisher decides that he will increase the circulation to 200,000. Suddenly, Sab’s work in the magazine will have twice as many copies. Sab will continue to make $X. He is not paid on the basis of a percentage of his work in some volume of copies. In fact, because his magazine is taken by the publisher and placed on the Internet, there is arguably an infinite number of copies of his work out there. The publisher owns the work. Sab doesn’t. He has entered into a contract in which that relationship is spelled out, wherein he is paid $X. (One assumes that if he wins the Pulitzer Prize he’ll receive a bonus from his publisher, but there is no guarantee. Further, one would expect that his salary would be increased as a result of the Pulitzer because the publisher would assume that it would garner a greater audience, which would result in the possibility of $X2 + 3. Once again, no guarantee.)

In the case of musicians, the deal that tends to be constructed is one that is based on volume. That is, the performer gets a piece of the gate: the more units sold, the more the musician makes (or the less she owes). Presumably, this protects both parties (i.e., the musician and the recording company). That is, if the musical recording hits it big, then the artist gets to share in a greater percentage of the reward; the recording company doesn’t get it all. If the record tanks, then the recording company is out but a modest amount (and depending on the deal worked out with the musician, it may be that the musician needs to change her profession in order to pay back the advance that the recording didn’t recoup). In effect, this is almost a lottery mentality. Perhaps what needs to be done is to reconstruct these relationships between musician and recording company such that there can be an assurance of a more mutual benefit for each party without the exploitation of either. To say nothing of the exploitation of the buying public.

The whole issue of professionalism is one that seems to result in work that is less extraordinary than it otherwise might be. Of course, as mentioned, this is being written for nothing. Or maybe for the love of words: Call me a “pro.”

* “Sally” is used in the two wonderful album titles, “Chasing Sally Through the Alley” by Robert Palmer and “Sally Can’t Dance” by Lou Reed.

**Much of this was actually written during a plane trip that I was taking for my so-called “day” job. However, the ticket for the trip was not being paid for by the company that employs me, but by a third party. So what does that make this?

15 thoughts on “Pros(e)”

  1. The comparison between writers who get a flat rate and musicians who get a share of the units sold, was interesting, as are most of the economics-of-music discussions on here. But I don’t see any hope for change with regard to the relationship between recording companies and artists. There are good reasons behind this “lottery mentality” that you describe. If there was a way to assure a more mutual benefit for both artist and recording company, wouldn’t it have evolved into practice by now?This is an aside, but what is your opinion on the comments the RIAA made at the Grammys this year? I missed ’em, but most people I talked to really thought they were shite.

  2. “If there was a way to assure a more mutual benefit for both artist and recording company, wouldn’t it have evolved into practice by now?”–Why? After all, the record companies hold the upper hand as things exist right now, so they have no incentive to change, which explains why there is a trickle of artists who are now getting in charge of their own destinies (e.g., Aimee Mann, Bob Mould).HOWEVER. . .aren’t there artists who hope that they hit big and consequently aren’t interested in an arrangement whereby they don’t make the potential megabucks. . . ?

  3. Actually, that’s what this http://www.recordingartistscoalition.com/) is all about. Artists are getting together and trying to get their collective voice heard particularly in regards to recent legislation that directly impacts recording artists but for which there was no representation of their views. Namely, the exception to a California labor law in which no company can hold an employee to a contract for more than 7 years. The Record Companies lobbied to get an exception for recording artists. Seem fair to you?

  4. As long as people grow up believing that that capitalist carrot tied at the end of the stick is actually attainable, they’ll never get together for mutual good. The musicians who like things the way they are today are the ones who are already rich or hoping to be rich.Until albums were widely available and cheap, musicians made their money by actually playing their music for people. If you wrote a song, the sheet music ended up all over the place for people to play and sing, and that was it. If you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with that. Put the freakin’ MP3 out there and go play live shows for yours money, eh. As long as we can hear it, we’re gonna record it anyway.

  5. I’ve got no problem with paying for recorded music. I’m glad musicians sell records. But I like to download shit too. I just want the bands I love to make enough money for themselves and for their record company to allow them to release more records.

  6. Jake: The question is: “What is *enough* money?” There’s the proverbial rub. I think that both parties have issues. The musicians are concerned they may be screwed by the record companies (i.e., if they have a “hit”) and the record companies tend to be operated not by just business folk but (as I essayed on the subject a few posts back concerning the dropping of musicians from labels) full-out greedheads who must really crank up the stock valuation of their concern.

  7. I would like my favorite bands to keep making enough money to make music too, and in principle I agree with any organizing of workers to represent their interests. And I love this site to death and you guys are great writers.But I guess ultimately I’m not sure the recording companies hold the upper hand over artists. No one seems to be forcing recording artists to sign on the dotted line with recording companies. The music business is just parties willfully entering into agreements. It’s a great confluence of personalities, with musician-types working out arrangements with recording-business types. In the musicians’ circle, over here you have a “star” type who wants to hit it big, but then over here you have a band full of music-heads who are just happy with a small contract that allows them to make record after record, and you have all manner of people in between. And they’re all working out deals with recording business types: greedheads who want to make a pile of cash, or again, music heads who do it for love of the music. And all manner of people in-between.These people make deals with each other. Some are restrictive and some aren’t, some involve a great deal of financial risk in terms of recording advances that need to be paid back. Other contracts are more laid-back. I just don’t see the problem with any of this.If a musician knows what they’re getting into, even if it’s a 7 year plus contract, or something really financially risky, and then later they’re not happy with the contract because their record tanked and they have to take some other kind of work to pay the company back for the money they borrowed, are we supposed to feel sorry for them? The only musicians I could really empathize with are those who don’t know what they’re getting into with a contract, but even then, they shoulda hired a lawyer to look the thing over, right?

  8. That’s a hell of a thorough article. I loved the writing and I loved the math! Steve seems to be saying that bands are misled by A&R reps’ big promises, but then he says that thing about “a hundred other bands” lined up to do the same thing. It’s not a case of artists getting screwed, it’s artists LINING UP to be screwed. Like I said, I don’t see a reason for sympathy. Even a band that goes through Steve’s little matrix there, gets 5 months on a tour bus, loads of equipment, and FAME and FORTUNE… which don’t come for free. It’s a deal that the bands choose and it’s hard to feel sorry for them financially, if that’s the market they’re getting into. If a company with principles can make money in a more fair and equitable way (Disciple Global Mobile, Robert Fripp’s company talks about this ad nauseam), power to them and the artists who work with them. But as far as the traditional practice of getting screwed and dunked in the river of shit that Albini describes, I think that’s still just people entering into an agreement, paying the price for a moment in the sun. And with articles like Albini’s out there, and countless artists with stories to tell, there’s less of an excuse for artists to say, “I didn’t know we were going to get screwed by the record companies”. But I must say I’d be interested in any effort to educate musicians to the evils of the business or help them represent their interests through unions. This site is already doing a great service toward that end, it seems.

  9. Ryan,It’s odd to me that you have this stance when I know for a fact that you support the Living Wage movement for menial work. Getting screwed by an employer, regardless of what you do for a living, is wrong. Some record companies set up contracts to force the musician into long-term (sometimes lifetime…ask Jackie Wilson) employment with little hope of ever getting ahead. They charge back to the artists monies to pay for advertising and promotion, production and even give aways. Now, that’s not to say that the majors often sign bands who will NEVER make back their investment. Isn’t that business risk? Well, it’s one the labels hedge with unfair requirements for the artists to be on the hook finacially for the remainder of the money. So, the artist now assumes the responsibility of poor marketing and production decisions. That’s fucked.Again, not all labels are evil. In fact, there are som,e great Indie (and a few majors) who support great music and make it possible for us to hear bands who don’t live in our neighborhoods. But to say that dopey bands deserve the shitty contracts they sign is just wrong.

  10. I agree that no artist should be “on the hook” for advertising, promotion, giveaways, etc, if the spending is not under the artist’s control.BUT… if that was in the contract, and that type of contract is known to be standard practice in the industry, and you can’t get a contract without that clause in it, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna settle for local fans or are you gonna go for the BIG SALAMI!? And then, are you going to shed a tear when that big salami ends up shoved up your ass by the record company?!Did Metallica cry when they felt the salami going in? No! They were men! They learned to live with the salami and have become so comfortable with it inside them that they now allow the record industry salami hand to move their mouth and hands like a puppet show.Metallica couldn’t sell millions of records by itself. Tapping into the resources of the super-rich record companies is not without its price. And the price is, you put yourself on the hook for everything, unless you can somehow get a contract that says you don’t have to. It’s all about being fucking awake when you sign the contract, and knowing when you’re putting yourself at risk. Bands, for the most part, have no excuse when they are screwed because the industry has been doing it for decades!

  11. There’s a agreat interview with Anton Newcombe from the Brian Jonestown Massacre where he talks about his contract with a shady label (TVT): http://www.bomp.com/bomp/BJMpress2.html I’m not 100& sure how everything worked out with that, but they released their most recent album on Bomp, so it looks like they got out of their TVT deal…

  12. Here’s A short guide to group improvisation…I think this would be invaluable to your readers… all I ask is that you give me an author’s credit for writing it…thanks1. We all know how to play our instruments…although it is a never ending progression toward fluency2. In order to have the best results we start our improvisation by playing themes inspired by the initial composition …patiently building those themes often starting with big simple shapes…moving toward smaller more involved complex shapes and back again…expanding and contracting3. This patient building of themes will enable everyone’s voice to find their place in context with each other…letting the group proceed calmly into the great unknown4. Different situations demand that each participant to play with different degrees of emphasis on themselves in relation to the whole …sometimes we are featured in the mix…sometimes we are all equal in the mix …and sometimes we are subservient to the other instruments in the mix…and all points in between… mixing ourselves with this range in mind will increases our vocabulary as a group and let the music breathe and change with less restriction5. When each player uses enough repetition so that the group has a good idea as to where each other is going, trust levels within the group increase…when done consistently a type of “telepathy” occurs naturally … In order for these repeated, gradually evolved ideas to flow from one to the other we must accept each idea that we present to the group as valid and not discard it abruptly…if each idea is utilized in some way by the presenter, the people in the group can respond knowing full well that it will be included to some degree…one can say that no idea that is presented is faulty…each idea presented can/must be used in a positive way…with this approach established…the potential for trust and increased telepathic communication will occur6. If this condition is established it creates an increasingly relaxed social environment from which an ever widening range of conventional and less conventional harmonic/melodic statements can be used7. Cohesiveness occurs when we are all paying attention to the whole…not too much to ourselves or just certain parts of the group…but to the “whole sound” …if we consistently pay attention to the whole and how we are fitting into it we will maximize cohesiveness 8. Venturing into the unknown does not always require an imitative response to the others in the group …we can evolve from imitative responses to complimentary responses or visa versa…we can move from call and response to simultaneous conversation and from conventional parallel harmonies to less conventional incidental harmonies…etc… 9. A productive leadership role can be one that enables a situation where there is no need for the same person always leading …we can eventually establish a situation where things just happen and leadership roles change within the group as the piece evolves…as this scenario is increasingly implemented, disciplined players will support each other’s ideas with greater and geater sensitivity creating an increasingly relaxed creative atmosphere in which everybody’s ideas can eventually be included throughout the performance of each piece 10. Whatever dissonances/oddities that may occur can become points of interest and should never be deemed mistakes… we should be prepared for the inevitability of these occurrences and use them to our creative advantage…repeating them, evolving them, including them even inviting themA calm intense focus brought on by a confident understanding and a practiced ability to participate in the group improvisation process will give the most desired results…this could be said for any activity…any assessments that are made during the activity will diminish that focus and are detrimental to the balance that is being so painstakingly established…assessment is a post-creative activity

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