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Hey Filmmakers, You Guys Are Next: A Word of Warning from the Music Industry
I feel most filmmakers are looking at this moment in time as an age of opportunity. But having gone through this revolution already in the music business, I feel compelled to tell you why right now we should be questioning everything.
There are countless comparisons between the music and film industries. On the critical side, both traditionally have had an extremely insulated network of good old boy executives who know little or nothing about the creative process, yet try to tell you how to make your art. Both have a history of obnoxious fat cats living in excess. Both still have an endless string of gatekeepers that have a stranglehold on the means of distribution, and who rarely showed much love for independent creators except with lip service at the cool film festivals.
The music industry was perhaps the first to go through the digital transition. For better of for worse, the smaller file sizes of music made it a primary target for piracy over the much larger sizes of films. By watching the mistakes made by the music industry, and having a few years head start to prepare, the film business has really had an enormous advantage over the music business. But this does not mean all is well. In fact, right now we are at a critical moment in the internet revolution. This year we seem to have entered the internet revolution part 2, the streaming revolution, and it is imperative that we take a closer look at the direction we are headed to ensure this path is good for independent creators.
One of the great promises of the internet revolution was that of the possibility for a direct connection between artist and fan. In the music industry, this didn’t quite work out. Although this is of course technically possible, at least in the music industry, the countless layers of middlemen still haven’t gone away. The stranglehold on the means of distribution hasn’t gone away either, the names have just changed. For film, it appears this may be the case as well. Instead of a national theater chain, it is now massive corporations like Youtube and Netflix distributing our work, most likely taking an equally obnoxiously large cut for themselves, and most likely without investing a dime in our work. It seems we’ve traded the old monopolies for new ones.
Not all monopolies are necessarily bad inherently. Apple is another monopoly in the music industry. Luckily for musicians, Apple ended up being a benevolent force in this story. They provided a legal platform to download music which was something everyone else failed at. They got major labels to actually agree to do something together, which is almost as impossible as getting Congress to agree on something. Although I personally prefer these new monopolies to the old ones because of the creative opportunities, having that much control, power, and money in the hands of a few companies usually doesn’t work out well, especially for independent creators.
So it seems the concept of streaming services (which for the most part failed a decade ago), is now the direction both of our industries are headed. But is this a good thing? The music industry’s equivalent of Netflix, Spotify, hasn’t exactly been the most transparent company in the world. And the fractions of a penny they pay artists per stream is horrific even compared to the old major label days. Now I’m not saying Netflix is exploiting filmmakers in the same way. In fact, I don’t have the information I need in order to make that call just yet. Thus far, my overall opinion of Netflix is actually good. I can now see independent films I simply didn’t have access to before. But this sounds familiar doesn’t it? Consumers said the same thing about accessing music on the internet. For fans, things have never been better, but what about the people who actually make music and films? We’ve finally solved the problem of access for fans, but now we have the whole making-a-living problem to deal with for creators. Take a closer look, and things start to smell funny.
Despite the suspicions I have about many large media companies, it appears that Netflix is actually investing in creators, unlike Spotify and Youtube who invest essentially nothing towards creating the music that powers their platforms. Although Netflix’s investment thus far does appear to be big money into a few projects, which doesn’t really help independent filmmakers, at least it is a step in the right direction- a step away from the music industry.
It may be too early to tell in the film industry, but the music industry has been languishing for years in this conundrum. We’ve gone from the devaluation of recorded music from piracy, to the new era of streaming services. The proliferation of piracy actually enabled this new wave of legal streaming services to exist. Streaming services for the most part failed when they were first attempted back when music had a higher perceived value. But after a decade of piracy, artists and record labels now find themselves in the terrible position of either having their music taken for free, or accepting fractions of a penny from the big established streaming services who dictate the terms from their large market share. 10 years ago, labels and artists never would have licensed their music to Spotify for such terrible terms. But now, its either fractions of a penny, or you get nothing. So piracy has had an enormous impact, and streaming platforms have certainly capitalized on the fact that piracy devalued music. So shouldn’t we be more critical of this direction that both our industries are headed? Shouldn’t we be striving for more value in what it is that we have spent our lives creating? Should we be accepting this new status quo?
We should take a look back in recent history to remind ourselves what has happened thus far in the internet revolution. Musicians were hit first when we jumped head first into the digital age. In the early days when it became apparent that piracy wasn’t going to go away, we really had no choice but to embrace the new “age of free”. Even though most of us immediately saw the problem with all music becoming free, we also saw the opportunities we now had creatively. There were so many positives compared to the old system, and given the apparent impossibility of fighting piracy, we accepted it and hoped we could move on. After all, creatively we were liberated. No longer would some executive tell us what kind of art to make. We could reach our fans directly!
Most of us also believed the myth that allowing our music to be free would ultimately end up working out for us, and that our careers would blossom in other ways. We were told not to fight it. Allow your music to be free and you’ll make up for it from touring and selling more Tshirts! Many people believed this myth and you still hear it perpetuated by the tech world and in the media. But this didn’t turn out well for independent artists who actually lose money on their tours. In the music world, only the top touring acts actually profit on any sustainable level. So how will this affect filmmakers? They can’t go on tour filling up venues across the country selling Tshirts (except maybe Steven Soderbergh. By the way Steven, if you do a tour, my band will TOTALLY open for you bro!). Anyway, unlike the handful of musicians who actually make money touring, the work of filmmakers, journalists, and writers cannot afford to be devalued the way music has. Their work has to retain its value in order for them to survive and create more of the movies, books, and art we love and depend on. It is heartbreaking if your favorite band stops creating because they have to get day jobs, but it is downright scary when journalists and filmmakers aren’t able to break important stories that actually save lives because all of the money has been squeezed out.
This is where the film industry does not benefit from going through the digital transition after the music business. For better or for worse, we now seem to have settled on a new system, the streaming paradigm, the terms of which are largely due to the fact that recorded music has been so devalued. But will the streaming age work out well for filmmakers? We are now finding out from musicians that thus far, it isn’t working out well for them. One by one, artists are speaking out against the large streaming services like Spotify. So are filmmakers headed for the same fate as the music business? Are films being devalued the way recorded music has been? Can filmmakers survive on the income from streaming?
These are the questions we should be asking right now. Although it is easy as a filmmaker to get caught up in the optimism of the time we are living in, we should collectively be taking a critical look at the unintended consequences to ensure that the internet revolution is not just good for a few rogue pirates and massive corporations. If you ask me, if things aren’t good for independent musicians and filmmakers, they simply aren’t good. Regardless of your views on this often heated topic, one thing I think we all could agree on is that this is a conversation we should be having right now, and the voice of independent musicians and filmmakers should be heard.
Count is a San Francisco based music producer who has worked on projects with such artists as DJ Shadow, Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, New Order, No Doubt, Galactic, Zoe Keating, Tycho, Trombone Shorty and more. His documentary Unsound currently has an indiegogo campaign to raise money for post production. The campaign ends this week on Thanksgiving Day!