Billy Bragg is Wrong

The Royalty Scam – New York Times

I love the music of Billy Bragg. Billy Bragg was one of my central musical influences in college and I think he’s enormously talented as a musician. I’ve purchased every album he’s ever released and I have a bunch of bootleg recordings of his on top of the legit albums. Some of the bootleg versions of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” are far better than his recorded version and the way that he changes his lyrics when he plays live makes those recordings even that much better.

That said, I think Billy Bragg is wrong about musical artists deserving a piece of the action from the recent sale of social networking site Bebo to AOL.

From Bragg:

“What’s at stake here is more than just the morality of the market. The huge social networking sites that seek to use music as free content are as much to blame for the malaise currently affecting the industry as the music lover who downloads songs for free. Both the corporations and the kids, it seems, want the use of our music without having to pay for it.

The claim that sites such as MySpace and Bebo are doing us a favor by promoting our work is disingenuous. Radio stations also promote our work, but they pay us a royalty that recognizes our contribution to their business. Why should that not apply to the Internet, too?”

Let me ask you this question Billy. Why only the musicians? What about the photographers on Bebo? What about the non musical artists? Heck, what about the 19-year old hipster who drove even more traffic than many of the musicians simply because everybody else wanted to be *just like him.* And what about the 18 year old girl who publishes titillating provocative self portraits of herself in her lingerie? Should she be entitled to a cut of the action too?

I put my photography up on Flickr and lots of other places. As part of Yahoo, Flickr very well might be sold to Microsoft. If Microsoft buys Yahoo for $45 billion should Thomas Hawk get a dividend check out of the deal? Under Bragg’s logic I should. I mean I’m sure that folks have come to view my photos at Flickr. I’m the talent right? Not just me of course, but really every photographer is the talent — especially merkeley??? — buy his book here. We all know that Flickr wouldn’t be Flickr without merkeley??? right? After all, Flickr is simply a shell making the content possible. Without content from it’s users Flickr would have no traffic.

According to Flickr’s stats program I’ve had over 8.5 million page views at Flickr. Let me ask you this Billy, as an artist, do you think that I should be entitled to a dividend payment when Microsoft buys Yahoo? And how much should I get? A penny a page view? That would mean I ought to have about $85,000 coming to me. What are you proposing musical acts ought to get per page view?

Because I don’t think I ought to be entitled to anything.

The reason why I don’t think I’m entitled to a check is simple. I was never promised one. In fact, not only do I *not* get paid by Yahoo, I actually *pay them*. That’s right. I, the artist, pay Yahoo for them hosting my content. A deal’s a deal in my book and nobody is forcing me to publish my art at Flickr.

So why do I accept such a crappy deal? It’s simple. Because I get something out of it. Just like all of the musicians who posted their music to Bebo got something out of it.

In the case of the musicians on Bebo, they got exposure. They got new fans. They were made a little more famous by making their music available. This isn’t disingenuous, this is life. Nobody held a gun to their head and told them to put their songs on Bebo. Now maybe participating on Bebo translated into money in their pocket — and maybe it didn’t. Maybe some new fan found their work on Bebo and then paid them for a concert ticket and then bought a tshirt at the concert and maybe that fan never would have known about the band band had they not seen them on Bebo. Or maybe not.

For what it’s worth, I know that I’ve been rewarded economically from posting my photos on Flickr. I’ve had people find my photos on Flickr and pay me money for them. I’ve had magazines publish my work after they found it on Flickr. I’ve had my work paid for and used in television commercials, on greeting cards, etc. I’ve made thousands of dollars personally by paying a social network to host my images even as they benefit at the same time.

But for me the reason why I participate on Flickr has nothing to do with money. It’s about the art. More than anything Flickr represents a vehicle that I can share my art with the rest of the world. In a larger sense, Flickr represents a movement towards the democratization of photography and art in general. A movement where artists can use the tools of social networking and promotion to bypass the old guard who so tightly control the access to the actual physical fine art museums and galleries in the world today. No longer is great art decided by a select group of gallery owners and museum curators. No longer does who you sleep with or whose politics you embrace determine whether or not you get shown. You can now bypass the gatekeeper and publish directly for little to no money.

“The Art we look at is made by only a select few. A small group create, promote, purchase, exhibit and decide the success of Art. Only a few hundred people in the world have any real say. When you go to an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”

Banksy

I consider Banksy to be one of the greatest artists in the world today. If Banksy paints his graffiti on the side of a building and that makes the building that much more valuable, ought Banksy to be paid in the event of a building sale? Interestingly enough someone actually tried to sell their house once, marketing it as a Banksy with a house attached after he painted on their house.

Should Banksy be paid in this case? No. He should not. Because Banksy lives under a social contract that says that unless you make a deal with someone you’re not necessarily entitled to a chunk of the profits.

So why does Banksy make public art where he doesn’t see a dime? Who knows. But he does. I suspect it’s because he has something to say. I also suspect that in the end of it all he might benefit from making his free public art. I suspect though that more than anything the art is inside him and simply must get out. I believe that there are those who walk amongst us who have figured out that there is no higher calling than creating art. Maybe Banksy’s one of these.

If Billy Bragg wants to give musicians a chunk of the $850 million that Bebo sold for he can’t stop there. Because it wasn’t the musicians alone who made Bebo. And unless he’s going to try to break down every single user’s contribution down to the least popular member on the site (who still had her Aunt Edna come visit once a month), then his argument is the one that seems disingenuous to me.

What Billy is mostly arguing for is the same thing he’s been arguing for for the past 20 years. Socialism. And my advice for Billy Bragg is that if indeed the socialist social network is the best model then go ahead and go out there and build it. In fact, I’ll take it one step further, I’ll be happy to contribute my photographs to his socialist social network and participate. But in the meantime nobody is promising any participants in social networks a dividend
check. Nobody is blindly going into participating on Bebo or Facebook or Flickr or anywhere else being misled. Artists contribute for a myriad of reasons and those reasons are perfectly legit and perfectly valid.

More reading on this matter at Techdirt and The Stalwart. Someone actually going by the name of Billy Bragg is participating in the comments over at The Stalwart.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Slightly off topic, but I find it interesting that, in this entire debate on the value of art expressed through digital media, it’s as if technology might take us back to the system of centuries ago. They’re used to be no permanent record of art. In 1600, if you wanted to see Much Ado About Nothing, you had to go see and artist perform Much Ado About Nothing. There was no other way. In the beginnings of copyright, you held only that, copy rights. If you wrote a book, as an artist, you didn’t automatically own the play that it could become. In the beginning of copyright, you only held the rights to the actual art you created, not the art that could be created based on it.

    For the better or worse, tangible recordings became possible and artists didn’t only own the actual art they produced, they started owning possibilities and tangible recordings.

    Nowadays, with more recent technologies, physical support has become essentially useless and the economic value of digital recordings (and so of any recording) is now essentially zero (whether artists and labels like it or not, the price of a copy is zero, so you can copy it an infinity of time and the fixed initial costs divided by an initial number of copies is, well, zero). So it seems that with new technologies, performances is what has value now, at least for a musical artist. Recordings are now only a marketing tool to get people to go to your concerts. My limited knowledge of the music industry tells me that, economically, it doesn’t change much for the artist. Wasn’t it so that artists didn’t see much money from records anyway and that their main source of revenue was really “derivative sales” (an ironic name) of stuff like concert tickes and t-shirt.

    Anyway, by now it’s way too long for a comment. I’ll make this a blog post at some point. On my own blog, don’t worry. :)

    Regards,

    Charles