Robert Levine Hates Me (And I’m Cool With That)
I was up in NYC earlier this week for a conference, Copyright & Technology, and while I am not planning to cover this conference in detail I do want to highlight the keynote speaker. It was Robert Levine, author and journalist, and he hates internet companies (and by extension, me).
If you have not heard of Robert before, I suggest you check out his book, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business can Fight Back.
I got a free copy of this book at the conference, and I also bought the $12 Kindle edition so I could find key terms better.
I’m not sure you need to read the book. You can deduce much of Robert’s position from the title (and from the chapter headings). He hates Google for having ads next to search results, he hates Youtube for having ads next to videos, and he hates pretty much everyone who makes money off of content which they did not create. Given that I link to a lot of content elsewhere, that includes me. And yes, hate is the correct word (more on this later).
Robert is a representative sample of a certain viewpoint in the legacy media industries. In particular he comes from the segment of the "culture industry" that likes to pretend that the culture is created by the industry, not by the artists and authors which the industry exploits.
No offense to the publishing industry folks reading this, but the company you work for is in no way required for the creation of culture.
Content is created by people, not companies. An independent artist or author can still work with many of the same people hired by the publishers or record labels without involving the companies in question.
The above paragraph alone is enough to show how Robert’s entire viewpoint is simply wrong. He has conflated the process of producing content with the companies performing the process, while in fact one need have nothing to do with the other.
I could stop there, but for my own interest I skimmed the book and found any number of points where Robert is simply wrong.
There’s the way he accepts the selling of $15 CDs that had 1 decent song and 9 crappy songs as okay, and not a model which forced customers to buy crap. He blames Apple for offering a new model which replaces the $15 CD with the $1 track, while completely failing to mention that people didn’t want to buy $15 worth of crap. Hint: Apple likely went for selling single tracks because common sense said people didn’t want to buy crap.
There’s the way that he claims that current contracts between artists and major labels aren’t exploitative (what little detail he does offer is framed as the past, not present). Given what I have read about the shenanigans being pulled right now I am almost afraid to ask what the major labels got away with 20 years ago.
Consider the issue of rights reversion, for example, in which artists can cancel the contracts they’ve signed with the labels. Next year will be the first year that artists will be able to get their copyrights back, and it has the major labels (and even some publishers) running scared.
Right now the major record labels are coming up with legal strategies which argue that the artists do not own the copyrights to the songs they created. Instead, according to some novel legal theories the songs are now "works for hire" made by employees, even though the artists most definitely did not get a paycheck while creating.
And then there’s the way the author constantly conflates the recording industry, which is dominated by the 3 to 5 major record labels, with the music industry, which includes everything from concert promoters to indie artists.
If anything, it is the recording industry which has suffered as a result of piracy. Focusing your business model on selling little plastic discs which could easily be replaced by files was not the best of ideas.
It could be argued music industry has actually grown since the time of Napster; it’s just that less of the money coming in is going to the labels, or what the author would see as the "culture industry". Instead artists are finding ways to earn as much of a living dealing directly with fans as they would by signing with a record label.
Why Hate is the Right Word
This post is growing rather long, so i will skip to one last example from the book.
As soon as I started reading this book, I checked to see how recently it was published. Given how much press the MegaUpload prosecution has gotten this year, I looked to see how this company was mentioned.
The book was published in 2011, so there is nothing on the court case, commando raid on Kim Dotcom’s house, or anything else which happened this year. But MegaUpload is mentioned in some detail, and this is where I get the impression that the author hates internet companies.
In the book Kim Dotcom, a man who legally changed his name in 2005, is referred to as Kim Schmitz. I don’t know why the author chose to disrespect him in this way, but the author also specifically describes Dotcom as obese (his word, not mine) and mentions his extravagant lifestyle as if these details were relevant to MegaUpload’s operations.
The author’s word choice is indicative of his emotional investment in the topic. If he were arguing this from a matter of principle, he would have avoided being nasty about it.
One might argue that this phrasing was added at the instigation of the publisher, which could be the case. But someone somewhere should have said that there was no need to be rude, and given that Robert Levine’s name is on the cover I am putting the onus on him. Plus, it fits with the general attitude of the book.