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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.

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cookie December 8, 2012 um 10:09 am

I prefer buying the 99 cent "Classical Music for the Reader" albums from, although one or two of them costs 1.99 for some reason. All the songs are good.

Tony Hursh December 8, 2012 um 10:32 am

A little bird tells me that there are more than a few guys in the traditional "culture industry" who are obese and live extravagant lifestyles. I’m assuming that Levine is okay with that.

digitalreaderfan December 8, 2012 um 3:30 pm

Horse and buggy folks hated cars. Sailing ship folks laughed at steam

KarlB December 8, 2012 um 5:17 pm

"Hey you digital kids, get off of my copyrighted analog lawn!"

Thanks for the interesting article. A lot of people misuse the term "ad hominem argument." It sounds like Levine’s book helpfully provides a textbook example.

Thomas December 8, 2012 um 5:25 pm

Isn’t the "culture business" a contradiction in terms?

fjtorres December 8, 2012 um 6:19 pm

A couple of quotable comments in there.
Mr Levine would likely suggest you copyright them. 🙂
Particularly this one:
"…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."

J. R. Tomlin (@JRTomlinAuthor) December 9, 2012 um 2:35 pm

No one has to suggest "copyrighting" something you write. THEY ARE COPYRIGHTED. Putting it in a blog doesn’t remove the copyright which exists from the second it is written. You are confusing registering a copyright (which allows collecting damages) with an authors existing copyright which is automatic.

fjtorres December 9, 2012 um 4:55 pm

I know exactly how copyright works.
I was razzing Levine’s whole attitude towards linking.

Richard Adin December 9, 2012 um 7:11 am

@Nate: You wrote: "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." Nice fighting statement but very far from reality and truth. It does no good, for example, for a composer to compose a sympnony that only 3 neighbors hear. It took the music industry to create and widely distribute the records and CDs. That a musician can now distribute him-/herself on the Internet only means that they are relying on industry folk at Apple and Amazon — who are not the creators — to distribute their music.

Similarly, with the publishing industry. More importantly, as the the incredible number of very poor self-published ebooks attest, publishers are required to keep quality culture alive. I would guess that 90% or more of indie authors do not hire, for example, professional editors to help with their books. As many mistakes as are found in books from traditional publishers, the mistakes are of a much greater magnitude in the self-published ebooks.

The industry does have a role to play even if you do not want to acknowledge it.

Nate Hoffelder December 9, 2012 um 7:39 am

It’s funny you should mention records; that is one of the technical innovations which the music industry bitterly resisted, with some even going to far as to say that records would kill live performances. Records are also what led, however unintentionally, to the rise of the major record labels.

Does Amanda Palmer need a record label to put out an album or do a concert tour? Does Joe Konrath need a publisher to help put out a book?

Yes, these 2 and other indies need someone like iTunes, Amazon, or Kickstarter (how Amanda financed her last trip) to get the word out, but one important difference between any of those 3 and record labels is that the record labels use their monopolistic power to write contracts which keep 90% of the income. That is something which would be difficult to impossible for Amazon to do.

You point out that indies need the internet companies to distribute their content. I don’t dispute this, but one thing you missed was that so does everyone else. Even the labels need Amazon and iTunes. What the indies don’t need are the major labels, and that was the point I was making.

And Rich, I think you are still confusing the process with the companies that make use of it. While it is true that indie authors aren’t usually putting out ebooks which are as clean as those from traditional publishers, that is mainly because the indies are not following the process and the publishers are.

Furthermore, as you have said on your blog, publishers are producing worse and worse books as they decide to skip more and more of the steps involved in producing quality content because it costs money. How much longer do you think it will be before indie ebooks are as well-made as titles from traditional publishers?

That point is bound to come eventually.

fjtorres December 9, 2012 um 8:27 am

One thing I’ve learned lurking around writers' forums of late is that creators (to use Levine’s terminology) really resent the "industry standard" contracts that turn one-time upfront costs into an eternal *majority* lien upon the product’s revenue. Whether the product be music or narrative the realization that you don’t *have* to give away 80-90% of your project’s future earnings and still have ways of reaching your natural audience–in some ways slower, in some faster–is changing the expectations of the new generation of creators.
Kickstarter in particular is starting to make waves as much as Amazon because a lot of creators are starting to understand and apply the principle of the "1000 true fans" to the business side of their craft.

The very establishment that is having fits over Amazon sponsoring the mainstreaming of self-publishing is going to go ape over the kickstarter approach to independent publishing of *print* books.

You can even see a business model evolving: write a few novels and KDP them for a couple years, using POD services to inch towards pbook distribution, growing your fan base and income until ebook sales are high enough that you can use Kickstarter or equivalent to pre-sell enough copies of a new release to finance a small print run (not POD) and with the net from that you finance future print runs of new projects and the backlist. In other words, the mechanisms exist to go from unpublished writer to successful Indie Publisher, *if* (big if, of course) you have the talent and dedication. It won’t work for everybody but it will work for enough new writers that at least come of the established writers will see some merit in going indie.

Taking it one step further, I can easily see writer co-ops as the next step in the rise of what we might call MicroPublishers (think: micro-breweries)–a handful of friends setting up a shared publishing house the way garage bands are formed. Each one contributes their titles to the brand but instead of each riding the KDP/POD/Kickstarter 1000 true fan process they *collectively* pool their visibility and shared brand to grow the business. The most successful (and *some* will be that successful) will grow it enough to hire a small staff to take care of the production side of the business and they can settle back to writing and having a life.

Again; it won’t work for everybody but then, not all garage bands become superstars.
But the process does allow for creators to make a heathy living off their craft outside the borders of traditional publishing.

It’s coming.
And there is nothing the BPHs–obsessed with Amazon as they are–can do about the coming of the MicroPubs.

Stephen Godden December 9, 2012 um 3:45 pm


I’m a member of a writers' collective/co-op and I see the near to mid future the same way. Thank you for putting into words the ideas that have been bubbling through my head for a while now.

fjtorres December 9, 2012 um 4:59 pm

You’re welcome.
But it seems pretty obvious, no?
Once you look at writing as a cottage industry all sorts of well-known business practices become applicable, no?
Not all will work but as the ebook evolution progresses we’ll know about what works when.

Tony Hursh December 9, 2012 um 12:59 pm

Nate: "It’s funny you should mention records; that is one of the technical innovations which the music industry bitterly resisted"

Yep. Also radio, home tape recorders, player piano rolls and (if you expand it to the entire "culture business") movies and VCRs.

Rich Adin: "I would guess that 90% or more of indie authors do not hire, for example, professional editors to help with their books."

Editors and publishers are not the same thing. An editor is an employee performing a job for a fixed wage. A publisher typically claims ownership rights in your creation.

Nor are distributors like Amazon "publishers" in the traditional sense. An author can yank a book out of KDP at any time and Amazon will have no further financial claims on the book.

fjtorres December 9, 2012 um 7:50 am

Nate seems to be making a semantic distinction between *creating* and *distributing* which mr Levine doesn’t.
It hinges on what you consider to be the product: the narrative or the book.
This goes to the heart of the disruption that ebook mainstreaming is leaving in its wake; the *perceived* value of the value-add of the different players.

Think of this week’s announcement that some Mac computers will be assembled in the US. They aren’t going to be *made* in the US at all. The parts will still be manufactured–created–elsewhere; all the Apple is doing is paying people to lovingly clean and polish and place the parts in casings and wrap those casings in foam package them for sale. There is real value-add there but they are hardly *making* Macintoshes and by law they can’t claim to be making them. So they are labeed as Assembled in the USA because Apple has been taking political heat over not building their toys in the US despite their fat margins.

There are distinctions at work here that didn’t use to matter because there was only one "legitimate" road to market and the gatekeepers took great pains to de-legitimize the alternatives. eBooks have changed that by introducing alternative roads that the market has legitimized with its collective wallet. Even the NYT Book Review has taken note and they have started reviewing self-published titles.

The issue isn’t that "the industry" (more properly, the traditional players) don’t have a role to play but that that role is no lnger mandatory. That there is life beyond the borders and that that life is quite viable (and profitable) and even enjoable for the creators as well as the consumers.

What mr Levine seems to be missing out is precisely the point that now there are different delivery paths to market, different processes, with different value-add propositions. The online links he decries, for example, are a discovery mechanism that serves to publicize the content and it serves as "free" advertising for the owner of the content. The owner may not control that advertizing (it’s the internet, of course, where nobody really controls anything) but he’s still benefiting from it to one extent or another. Trying to delegitimize those links and fighting the process that stems from their legalization is simply wasting time and effort better spent elsewhere.

I would suggest that railing against indie publishing for its anecdotal/statistical failings is similarly futile. The environment has changed too much.
The djinn has left the bottle.
No amount of persuasion is going to change that reality.
The old processes and players still have a role but so do the new processes and players. Both are here to stay.

J. R. Tomlin (@JRTomlinAuthor) December 9, 2012 um 2:37 pm

I’d call that pretty extreme wishful thinking. I can (and do) hire the same editors and cover designers that publishers do and keep most of the profits. They aren’t necessary. As far as your "all self-published books are crap" attitude, you might want to consider best-selling authors such as Hugh Howey or the thousands (yes, thousands) of "mid-list" self-published authors such as I am.

| The Passive Voice December 9, 2012 um 12:03 pm

[…] the process, while in fact one need have nothing to do with the other.Link to the rest at The Digital ReaderClick to Tweet/Email/Share This Post wpa2a.script_load(); Big PublishingNo Comments to […]

Thomas December 9, 2012 um 2:08 pm

Please, won’t somebody think of the middlemen????

J. R. Tomlin (@JRTomlinAuthor) December 9, 2012 um 2:38 pm


fjtorres December 9, 2012 um 5:00 pm

Why should we? 😉

SteveH December 9, 2012 um 2:48 pm

Long live the Long Tail!

Kat Caverly December 10, 2012 um 7:15 am

You must have read a very different version of "Free Ride" than I did, and then again maybe you didn’t read it at all. Because if you read it you’d know that Rob Levine doesn’t hate Internet companies; far from it.

Since I read the book in November 2011, I have followed everything that Levine writes, and watched literally a dozen keynotes. and what strikes me the most is not only his consistency and tolerance of much of the copyleft, his discussions/debates with detractors such as yourself are often too conciliatory for my tastes.

To paraphrase an old wise saying by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you are entitled to your opinions about the copyright debate but not your own facts. Sadly if this blog post is any indication of your intellectual rigor, you won’t be bothering to gather any facts about, well probably, anything.

Nate Hoffelder December 11, 2012 um 6:44 pm

One, This is a blog post, not a published book. Attacking it for a supposed lack of intellectual rigor is a little over the top.

Two, You say that he respects the copyleft movement. I do not see the relevance to my claim that he hates internet companies. While some in the copyleft movement also work for and run internet companies the 2 groups are by no means congruent nor do they have the same goals.

Three, I am criticizing someone whose level of debate lies somewhere in middle school. So long as I can maintain a more adult tone I figure that I have come out ahead.

Four, I cannot debate the merits of Mr. Levine’s book on an intellectual level because (as I see it) many of his premises are factually incorrect. For example, early in the book (Kindle location 615) Mr. Levine claims that no one is going to start or fund businesses which create original content online because it is too difficult to compete against the aggregators and pirates. This is arguably one of the core premises of the book, and it is incorrect.

I know of hundred of blogs and news sites which have launched in the past decade, some of which are quite profitable. Why do you think AOL bought Engadget? Why do you think The Verge was launched? What about the major blog media companies like Gawker, GigaOm, Web Media Brands, and AOL’s HuffPo subsidiary?

I could go on, but I think I have made my point.

dez./ December 11, 2012 um 9:09 am

I am afraid you hate Levine much more than he ´hates´internet companies.

Nate Hoffelder December 11, 2012 um 6:23 pm

I cannot help but reciprocate the emotion I felt coming off of Mr. Levine while watching his keynote. And that is a problem because … ?

Is the Internet a Greater Threat to Publishers than Self-Pub eBooks? – The Digital Reader October 10, 2014 um 9:47 am

[…] 2007 book, The Cult of the Amateur. Working from a viewpoint that had much in common with Robert Levine’s Free Ride,  Keen argued that web companies didn’t actually create anything but instead were decimating […]

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