Libidinous Economics & The Lack of Network Effects

That's what I want...The reality of the music business being a business is something that people, for reasons that are not entirely clear, like to avoid thinking about. To be sure, there is resistance to the record companies that have been manifest by the various forms of file-swapping, resistance that has led to a Borg-like response: Napster was assimilated; now there is discussion even within the U.S. legislature about the destruction of hard drives owned by those individuals who would dare continue exchanging music in a way that is unauthorized. Get ready for the photon torpedoes. The lack of what is perceived as authorization, of course, is one that is predicated on the belief of the record companies with regard to their “ownership’ of music. (This point of view, it should be noted, is not entirely unique to the record companies: the last time you installed any software from Redmond on your computer, you probably noted that you had to agree to what fundamentally amounts to the fact that although you “bought” the product—that is, exchanged money for product—you are really just borrowing the software.) But when we leave the realm of file swapping, there seems to be a blithe blind eye toward the fact that success is as much a matter of calculated stratagems as it is of talent. Rock and roll can change our lives, we think, because rock and roll is something that smacks of some sort of purity, of an almost religious state of being. We look at performers as being able to touch something in us, and we certainly won’t let anyone in who is tainted with filthy lucre. Or so we think. Because unless there’s an accountant behind them, and a marketeer in front of the accountant, we’re unlikely to see or hear them.

Consider, for example, the ruckus caused by Johnny Loftus’s questioning of the motives of the girls of t.A.T.u. Their playful antics could probably serve as a case study for the Harvard Business School: What do moderately good-looking, sufficiently ept singers from an Eastern European country do in order to gain visibility in a saturated market? Why, of course, turn the Sapphic spin to advantage. Otherwise, they’re probably about as likely to get a spot on MTV as singers from a middle school glee club. In a recent article in the New York Times, Meghan O’Rourke decried the transformation of Liz Phair for her new eponymous disc including the observation, “In place of a sometime feminist icon, we have a woman approaching 40 getting dolled up in market-approved teen gear (the bad school-girl look, recently embraced by Britney Spears).” Do we imagine that the Tatuvians like to display their ostensible sexual proclivities in public because they are exhibitionists (yes, there is a certain level of exhibitionism among anyone who performs in public, but the girly show we are looking at here is of a different sort) or because they know that by doing so they know that they’ll get run? Is Phair facing the possibility of public extinction or State Fair gigs and therefore reverting to a sartorial approach that might extend her sell-by date, or is it that she just likes to dress up in clothes that bring to mind Rock Star Barbie? The women in the hip-hop community seem to be more characterized by their enticing charms than by their pipes; from the obviousness of Lil’ Kim to the no-less subtle grinding of Mya, the music becomes something of a soundtrack to the main act. As the line from the original Alien had it (not to be confused with the cheesecake-cum-spy show Alias (as if anyone cares a whole lot about the plot)): “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Without sex, no one can hear you sing.

Yes, there is certainly a double-standard here: men can have all of the visual appeal and talent of Carrot Top and get a gig. Go figure. It is all about the commodification of talent. To which one might say, with a soupcon of cynicism: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And you might as well sell it while you’ve still got it.” Does any of this make the music any less appealing? No. It has ever been thus. From Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building. And since. What is somewhat puzzling is that the existence of the Internet has not changed the status quo. That is, what is the extent to which people are able to be profitable musicians without being part of the majors? How many bands are able to distribute their music without going through the primary channels and are able to pay their health insurance premiums? Sure, there are the outliers, such as the well-known Aimee Mann (though I wonder whether she would be quite as successful had she not been part of Till Tuesday, which did have label coverage). But where are the alternative mechanisms to success not predicated on the seeming fundamentals of Viacom and Clear Channel? Say that you are in a band and you have to make the choice between “making it,” which continues to mean in our environment that you have to do something(s) that might mean that you are “selling out,” or that you continue to play night after night (assuming that you can get those gigs) in shitty bars and maintain what is considered, in the same context, “authentic.” What do you do? (Some people might argue that this is not a binary choice, that some can have their cake and eat it too. Some people also think that cake is good for you.) Given the creation of the network that is facilitated by the Internet (e.g., consider just the various places from which the Comments from this site come), then why isn’t there a better network for “breaking” acts and for distributing music such that there is actually a return on the musicians’ investments that is somewhat more renumerative than working at a self-serve gas station? The rocket science to make something like this happen has already been paid for by the likes of DARPA and CERN. But it hasn’t happened. So it all comes back to the cute smile and the deep cleavage. It comes back to the major corporations that buy and sell talent like livestock. It comes back to truly talented people who have to make tremendous compromises in order for them to be able to compete with those whose talents lie elsewhere. One would think that we could do better than that.

6 thoughts on “Libidinous Economics & The Lack of Network Effects”

  1. Apathy, lack of education, and an “ignorance is bliss” attitude by the masses is the reason they can be more effectively spoonfed the pretty packages. I disagree with you though, when you say that the internet has not changed the status quo, I think it really has, quite profoundly in fact, and is still doing so. As far as women go, sure looks sell, but I think women have made great strides in this aspect, and there are plenty of talented popular, non-supermodel type female performers, such as loreena mckennitt, indigo girls, joan baez, dar williams, etc… You could argue for the teeny bopers, that “boy-bands” need to be good looking too, to sell their evil package! ;)

  2. Yes, the Internet is causing changes, but if it was used to the extent that it could be, then there wouldn’t be so much concern about the RIAA’s approach because the alternatives would be so fundamental as to make it irrelevant.

    Sure, there are many non-glam female musicians, but my point is that glam sells in the main market, and therein lies the question.

    And as for boy-bands: No disagreement there–although it is interesting to note that the cover of Vanity Fair shows a group of teen girls who are in the public eye, and whereas early on the likes of ‘N Sync were being cracked even here on GloNo, discussion of them and their peers has all but disappeared.

  3. I agree. I do hope the internet DOES make the RIAA irrelevant soon. One other point is, I prefer looking at attractive people, as I think most do.. so of course be a hottie is going to help ones career…

  4. The whole ‘selling out’ taboo placed on alt. music is kind of misguided-it comes from the same notion that great music and art is always ahead of it’s time, and the ignorant masses shun it because it’s unfamiliar.

    The truth is your art isn’t really worth much if it doesn’t sell (even if it doesn’t make you rich, it should at least sell). For every Vincent Van Gogh or Rembrandt there are scores of Picasso’s, Dali’s, DaVinci’s and Warhol’s who do quite well for themselves financially, and even more who manage at least to pay the bills.

    Also, fuck the RIAA.

  5. I’m not sure what the point is. Sex sells. If it didn’t then porno sites wouldn’t be on the cutting edge of cyberspace economics. Not that I am extolling the particular virtues (sic) of internet porn.

    But as an economic force sex is as good a factor as anything. While we are asking these questions about Liz Phair on the internet there’s another question needs be asked. Has anyone bothered asking Liz?

    I was asking myself the same questions with the release of Shelby Lynne’s “Love, Shelby” . The cover picture’s her on a bed in pair of Daisy Duke cutoff’s and a tank top looking more than a little bit provocative. My question was ” Does an artist with her facility really need to present her self in such a manner?” Then I got down off of my rather tall horse and came to the realization that she was an adult who could and has made her own choices and who was I to question that.

    As regards the internet. This is a place of infinite opportunity for artist and consumer alike. F*** the RIAA. First of all most artists whom are making any real money make based upon touring not cd sales. Much like supermarkets they sell space (sponsorships) to other marketing entities to help pay for tours and then some. 2ND outrageous ticket pricing helps to line their pockets with lucre as well. Artists should not be decrying the fact that Ticketmaster slaps on a service charge when the price of admission is inflated to start with.

    I may be wrong about my perceptions of what is going on in the record industry but I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting for someone too tell me so. CD sales are down because they are inflated to begin with. Do you really need to be paying $18.98 for “Sticky Fingers” ? The recording business is the only business in the world in which market saturation of a product results in an inflationary pricing structure. For Christ’s sake I’m pretty sure that “Sticky Finger’s” Has payed for itself at least a dozen times over. This doesn’t happen on the DVD side of the entertainment industry. That’s the reason CD sales are on the decline. DVD’s and Video Game discs are replacing CD’s as major purchases and they are following the normal economic patterns by becoming increasingly lower in cost as they saturate the market. At the same time they provide more entertainment value than CD’s do. If the recording companies really want to save themselves they need to pull their collective thumbs out of their asses and review CD pricing structures.

    Finally, for the most part it is the schizophrenic nature of the CD and recording industries that by and large the self-same companies whom are crying wolf about file-swapping are the same ones which provide you with the means to do so (Sony being the example that comes immediately to mind.)

    I believe that an artist and a recording company deserve to make a fair dollar. However, point of fact, recording companies have been gouging the consumer for years. This was evidenced by a study produced by the feds which revealed that record companies along with some major big box retailers had worked together to ensure high cd prices by the means of promotional pricing. This ensured that pricing would remain up on cd’s by an agreement between the record companies and said retailer which disallowed the retailer’s from selling at a loss leader price because they were getting monies from the recording companies to maintain pricing at an agreed level. The figure I believe was too the tune of 6-16 billion dollars the consumer has been overcharged. (My figures and the mechanisms by which the overcharges were affixed are rather sketchy but I am certain I have the gist of the whole study.)

    At any rate keep file sharing folks, you bought the product, it isn’t liscenced to you and it’s allowable to share with your friends and who’s to say how many friends you should have?

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