Dave Allen: Stop blaming the Internet! It has always been hard for musicians

The musician fires back at David Byrne, Thom Yorke, David Lowery and others who argue the Web is bad for artists

Published December 12, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Dave Allen    (Chris Hornbecker)
Dave Allen (Chris Hornbecker)

As the debate rages over the plight of musicians in the digital age, the battle lines have begun to harden: Call it the war of the three Davids. But instead of involving biblical kings, this one has provoked musicians from three high-credibility bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven and David Byrne of Talking Heads have taken a position critical of what the online world has done to musicians and their livelihoods. (Byrne takes a more complex and ambiguous position in his book "How Music Works" than he does in his recent Guardian pieces.) Dave Allen, bass player for Gang of Four’s first two albums, has offered retorts to their arguments, especially in his opinion pieces in the Guardian.

“The problem of leisure/ what to do for pleasure,” as Gang of Four exclaimed in its early song “Natural’s Not in It” is still among Allen’s concerns, but the world has changed drastically since the post-punk days of 1979. Given his roots, Allen’s point of view surprises some people. “The advances of technology help to make a better world,” says a line on the original jacket of “Entertainment!,” the band’s first and best record. “The popular medium shows the benefits of democracy,” goes another. These sentiments were surely not meant sincerely. Luna’s Dean Wareham has compared Allen circa 2013 to neoliberal guru Thomas Friedman.

But Allen is no capitalist stooge. Smart, rigorous, culturally serious – in his exchanges with us he expressed his fondness for the essayist Geoff Dyer, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky – Allen may be the most forceful exponent of the anti-Lowery point of view. He urges musicians to adjust to the new world. “There is a fierceness to him — he strikes first and warms up later — that makes him perfect for the job,” Rick Moody writes.

Allen, who teaches at the University of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest College of Art, also blogs at the Portland, Ore., branding company North. He corresponded with us by email.

Let’s start with the basics. A number of musicians lament the way online piracy, the Internet in general, Spotify in specific, the demise of labels, the souring of radio, and other recent developments have made their lives harder. In brief form: How do you see things, and how would you like to see musicians respond? You’ve emphasized, I think, that making a living as a musician has always been difficult, and that there have been all kinds of “disruptions” over the years.

I’d rather begin this discussion by focusing on the present, not the past. The recording industry and musicians have had roughly two decades to adapt to the way music fans want to access music. This is not to discount the effects that the Internet has had on transforming the industry, it is just a simple fact.

One falsehood, that always trips up the argument of blaming the Internet for musician’s woes, is the idea that there was some golden age of music where every musician could be famous and live better than the rest of us. It never existed. Competition today is the same as it ever was.

The most popular musicians get rich; the rest, not so much.

Meanwhile, the Internet is an equal opportunity technology; it has transformed many, many businesses, often for the better.

In a fascinating interview, Marc Andreessen said this in response to a question about how new technologies tend to displace jobs: “of course some people just want this all to stop. Some people just say, 'Just let me do what I've been doing, and don't interfere with me.' But the counterargument to that is always, 'Okay, how much worse off should the rest of us be because you don't want to change?'"

When it comes to the Internet, musicians are not a special subset of society nor should they be allowed to change the way that society uses the Internet.

I believe that the root of musicians' complaints are not focused directly on the Internet as a construct; they are lamenting the fact that they signed contracts with record labels and publishers. When those companies go out and make deals with Web companies, under the terms of those contracts, they feel helpless as they are left out of the negotiations.

Being left out of the negotiations is a real problem that can have a real solution. Outside of music circles I often see people and companies creating “problems” that only they can “solve.” That is a real problem.

Is it your sense that you’ve been misrepresented in the discussion around music in the 21st century? Some have seen you as an apologist for the Internet, for instance, or a defender of the most heartless aspects of capitalism.

When one speaks out in public one has to accept the slings and arrows that come with the exposure. As a professional musician who sees the benefits and opportunities of the Internet, while considering the downside, I am seen as a traitor to the musician’s “cause.” The problem is I’m totally uncertain of what the “cause” is.

You go into strange territory, though, when you say people see me as “an apologist for the Internet.” I’m not sure that’s even remotely possible. The Internet is a people-powered construct that does not need defending. If people didn’t see the major benefits to society that the Internet brings, they simply wouldn’t use it. I doubt very much that those who know me well and support me would ever consider me as a “defender of the most heartless aspects of capitalism.” Those who think I am culpable are entitled to their own opinions. They’re just wrong.

I am most misrepresented by one musician who clearly never reads and digests my essays or posts before trying to tear me down. Other musicians that disagree with me tend to leave reasonable comments regarding their own position, which means reasonable debates are possible. Being called a “corporate stooge,” a “front for Google,” et cetera, is all water off a duck’s back to me, as none of it is remotely true.

Your band, Gang of Four, came out of the same Leeds scene that produced the Mekons – a place that, almost two centuries before, had been a cradle of the Industrial Revolution. Does looking back to that smoky history – the pain and also the eventual growth – help us understand the situation that musicians and other creative types are experiencing today, as digital technology and a globalized economic system rewrite the rules?

I’m glad you asked this question. History reveals all if one cares to research it. History, anthropology and philosophy are my favorite subjects, ones that I press upon my students at the University of Oregon. What you tend to find is that “new,” transformative technologies are often built upon the foundations of the past. Heraclitus understood, “You could not step twice into the same river,” which is a great metaphor for the flow of the Web at times. He also said “Nothing endures but change …”

Your question conflates transformative technologies and “musicians and other creative types” as if the latter are a separate subset of society. That’s not the case. As Chris Anderson, formerly of Wired, has written: “the Internet is one of those once in a century phenomenons …” and he’s right. Just as the locomotive changed the transportation industry in its time, the Internet is still transforming business, culture and society today. As Zeynep Tufekci has written: “The Internet is a socio-cultural sphere. It is not a subculture. (Subcultures exist on the Internet, as everywhere else). The Internet as a socio-cultural sphere is just another among other socio-cultural spheres. (Like education or sports).”

Change is inevitable. Adapting to the constant changes in an Internet era is critical, but not crucial if one sees other paths. And don’t mistake my position as one of defending every Web company, far from it; society leads the way and the changes in the social construct should be analyzed and understood.

 We can argue over whether Gang of Four was Marxist, Situationist, post-Marxist or whatever. But part of what you guys did so well on those early songs like “Natural’s Not in It” and “Damaged Goods” was write about the injury unchecked capitalism could exert on the human soul and society itself. Alienation, commodity fetishism, false consciousness and so on. Do you still see things this way, or has your point of view changed?

Have my views changed? No, but I’ve adapted my thinking.

Context is key. The messages we were employing in our songs were a reaction to societal shifts, if you like – a punk rock revolution, the miner’s strike and the paramilitary police battling them, massive youth unemployment, the Cold War, et cetera. More than 30 years ago the soundtrack to this societal upheaval was punk rock. That soundtrack included Gang of Four where lyrically we explored the idea that every act is a political act -- the way we live shows our politics; what we drive, where we shop, how we spend our work and leisure times.

In a modern context I was interested to learn that the titans of Wall Street and their supporters were studying the works of Marx and Engels for insights into the collapse of the banking industry in 2008. What goes around comes around …

Would musicians be better off if during those first few years post-Napster, if a label or consortium of artists found some way for people to buy music online? That is, could a legal music-industry option, with decent royalties to musicians, have developed before or alongside iTunes?

Yes, of course they would but it didn’t happen. Change is hard, and when you live in fear of a technology that brings about change you don’t adapt to the opportunity it brings, you attack it.

You mention decent royalties. I don’t want to put words into your mouth but that sounds like code for “fair.” A question for you: What exactly is a “decent royalty”? My answer would be that there is no general “decent royalty” to be had because the phrase is too broad. A musician’s royalty payments are negotiated during the run-up to signing a contract. Once that contract is signed the musician has entered the marketplace; is in business, in other words. At that point the royalties that are received in future are dependent on the success of the label and musician working in tandem to sell as much music as possible.

Currently we see some musicians obfuscating the issues at hand to serve their own purposes. If we’re going to have any chance at resolving the multitude of real and serious issues our culture is facing, the No. 1 thing we can do is speak 100 percent honestly and frankly about what those issues are.

Let’s get to the real complaints that some outspoken musicians have -- I say some because I’m not hearing it from very many musicians, 16 apparently:

“Google is stealing from musicians because they allow advertising on infringing websites, or “streaming music services don’t pay musicians properly so I’m removing my music from Spotify,” and so on. Although there is some substance to those complaints it’s amazing to me that instead of having reasonable discussions around the subject, the argument lapses into statements such as “Silicon Valley is destroying all the creativity in the world. Let’s shut it down.” When someone frames it like that then they are no longer part of the argument.

“Deriding new technology is as old as innovation itself. In 1876, Western Union said the telephone was ‘inherently of no value to us.’ Fifty years later, a radio pioneer called television “commercially and financially…an impossibility…of which we need waste little time dreaming.” [Link]

You write in one of your most important posts on musicians in the digital age, “if musicians and other creators decide to ignore the changes brought by the Internet today, could they still make a living?” You answer yes to this. Can you tell us what you mean here?

I wrote about the parallels of musicians and hunters as artisans throughout history. It was in reaction to the ridiculous idea that the Internet destroys creativity. It’s not complicated. A musician will always make music, a cobbler will always make handcrafted shoes, a writer will always write. Those skills can never be taken away from them. The point I make is, that if those fictional artisans want to make a good living from their crafts while ignoring the Internet in terms of its reach and distribution, then they are missing a huge opportunity for reaching people who might buy their work. They can still work but it’s a challenge.

If these artisans decide that their day is better spent challenging Web companies that are built on the Internet, professing that those companies' technologies are destroying their careers, then so be it. The majority of people who use the Internet, a very large portion of the global population, don’t see it that way. They only see the benefits.

Musicians are happy to use free Web services when it benefits them; posting a video to YouTube, using Twitter and Facebook to reach millions of people, giving away free MP3's so their music gets heard. Musicians who do this have found success – whether that turns into a decent income has nothing to do with the platforms they use; it has everything to do with how music fans like, or don’t like, their music.

Are you the same Dave Allen who wrote that Spotify is “like applying the poison to your own dinner every night”? Has your point of view changed here?

I notice that in current society it is apparently impolitic to suggest that you were once wrong. My favorite blogger is Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, who writes detailed posts about our current economic travails with a simplicity that ensures the average person can understand the underpinnings of economics. He has his detractors but his positions are strongly bolstered by his willingness to be wrong and admit it. (His latest post on the effects of a digital economy is fascinating.)

I have been wrong about Spotify and the other streaming music services. And I admit it. I hope that admission is taken as a sign of my willingness to be as open-minded as possible. I was wrong because I got caught up in the rhetoric around Spotify and its royalty payments to musicians. At the time this blinded me to where society was actually shifting, or had shifted. A large majority of music fans now want to rent, not own, their music.

Last week Spotify launched a service to address some of the complaints against the company while giving musicians tools to benefit them: Spotify for Artists. If you care to be disabused of some misinformation it is worth a look.

Streaming music services, all of them, have to come to terms with the owners of the copyrights, usually large record companies but also the independent record labels. Those copyrights holders are the ones who make the deals and who then pay musicians as per the conditions in their mutual contracts. (There are nuances inherent in individual contracts, but you get my point …)

If you are an artist that gets a lot of “play" in these new services you will see more income. The system is new. The old system was never great. Recording industry contracts signed in the past were meant to favor the record labels. Those contracts, willingly signed, are still binding, and as much as musicians complain about “unfairness” I doubt there’s a court in the land that will nullify those contracts on the basis of “unfair.”

You’ve expressed skepticism to the claim that the Internet can become – as the Trichordist gang argues – “ethical and sustainable.” What are these people getting wrong?

Let me be clear. I understand that not all musicians are against technological advances. Many advances in recording technology have resulted in thousands of home studios, I’m sure. And musicians are right to complain about bad technology. When those complaints turn to the idea of “humanizing” machines, we end up driving the discussion down an endless rat hole.

I am not suggesting that the Trichordist “gang” is wrong. In fact, when I cut through the clutter of their website postings I find many points that I agree on. I simply assert that it is up to humans to consider their own personal moral and ethical stance. As I wrote for the Oregon Humanities magazine: As a construct, the Internet is not ethical. As a technology it cannot be. As a social organization principle, maybe it can, in the same way a government can be ethical.

If your website byline is “Artists for an ethical and sustainable Internet,” I would say that it would be very useful to have three things: a clear manifesto for all to read, a list of the people behind the moniker “Trichordist” and a list of all the musicians who support the organization’s cause.

Why hide?

We know from recent history that some artists have adjusted to the new conditions. The most obvious example is Amanda Palmer – who is canny and extroverted – and she is not alone. But I think of some of my favorite artists over the years – saxophonist Eric Dolphy, composer Billy Strayhorn, visual artist Vija Celmins, guitarist Joao Gilberto, novelist Thomas Pynchon. I am thinking of figures – literature is full of them -- who were either introverted, obsessively dedicated to their craft, reclusive or allergic to self-promotion. I don’t doubt that the Amanda Palmers will thrive, but I wonder what kind of talents we lose – who we will never hear from – when the old world of labels, publishers, etc., is leveled by the Web and every artist has to be entrepreneurial. Do we lose anything important?

This is a very important point. It also would require an entire interview to cover it but I will attempt brevity.

I believe only pessimists would suggest that we would end up living in a world without labels or publishers. I don’t believe that all artists need to be entrepreneurs. (Although the majority of musicians are technically running a small business.) Perhaps "proactive" is a better term?

You say, “Some artists have adjusted to the new conditions.” I’d say quite a lot have. Also, you don’t make mention of all the new, young artists who didn’t have to adapt – they knew no other way; they grew up with the Internet and fully embrace it.

And being allergic to self-promotion shouldn’t be a barrier either: Sigur Rós are probably the most introverted band I’ve ever witnessed; yet they do a fine job of using the Web to reach their fans. I know this as I buy direct from them online and subscribe to their email list.

You mention Amanda Palmer as someone who has adapted to the “new conditions.” There’s also David Byrne, Thom Yorke, Beck, the Black Keys, Aimee Mann, Will.I.Am, Nigel Godrich and Zoe Keating. They are all in the list of 16 artists that Digital Music News says have come out against streaming music. Adaptation clearly only goes so far.

And I hate to dig you in the ribs but you keep falling into the trap of suggesting that the Internet has made it more difficult for musicians. As I said above, it has always been difficult for musicians to be discovered and make a living regardless of whether they are introverted and publicity-shy or not. You also infer that the Internet is somehow responsible for an artist’s lack of success.

A musician has choices: make a living by continuing to perform live and producing music to sell while avoiding online social platforms altogether; or do all of the above and use those free social platforms to reach a vast global audience that is unattainable by simply touring. Another choice is to hire the “Fifth Beatle” – someone who handles all online communication on the musician’s behalf.

Let’s end by going back to those 19th century Leeds smokestacks for a moment. In the long run, industry brought great advances to England, and then to the world, but in the short term there was a lot of damage – to the land, to the villages that were abandoned, to people’s livelihood. And in the medium term, there were many decades that were simply inhumane – dangerous working conditions, crippling levels of pollution, child labor, etc. It was only in later generations that regulation, resistance and trade unions tamed industry, made it, for a while, sustainable and humane. You make some very smart points in our conversation, Dave, but I conclude it wondering if you see any role for ethics in the relationship of the Internet to culture. Is it simply naive or wrongheaded to try to bring ethical standards, the same way we eventually brought them to factories, to automobiles and so on?

Oh boy! That is a heavily freighted question that will be difficult to address. In doing so I may offend people, but here goes.

Unbridled and unregulated free enterprise in 18th and 19th century Britain led to great injustice. That cannot be denied. Yet when I step back and consider the modern world today, dangerous working conditions, crippling levels of pollution and child labor around the globe have not been fully eradicated. Would you argue that McDonald's is a “tamed industry, that is sustainable and humane”? I doubt it.

Millions of people in the USA today are impoverished and struggling to even subsist, yet here we are discussing the lot of musicians versus Web companies.

Ethics and morals are critically important to people’s well-being. When I consider my own morals and ethics I realize this is why I am a solid supporter of trade unions; why I support raising taxes on the rich to fund government programs; why I support single-payer healthcare for all; why I support the right to affordable education for all; why I support a $15 national minimum wage. I believe it is unethical to not support those positions.

The Internet is not an industry; it is a set of actions. The Internet is culture. The Internet is not a company, therefore it doesn’t employ anyone. So no, we can’t bring ethical standards to it as a construct.

Humans are fallible and our ethics and morals can be malleable, but we don’t live in a separate online world and an offline world – we live in one world where we apply our ethics and morals. Plagiarizing someone’s work online is as unethical as plagiarizing it offline, for instance.

You mention bringing ethics to automobiles, an idea I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at as a car is an inanimate object, but it leads me to Bruno Latour, a French sociologist and anthropologist, who argues that speed bumps in the road outside schools help us make a moral decision not to drive too fast near a school. The driver makes the moral decision, not the car or the speed bumps.

We could then say, when “driving” the Internet, please be ethical.

You are best known these days for your work in business. But what are you up to musically? Do you still play? Do you cross paths with the celebrated Portland indie scene much? Does the bass still give you the same thrill it did when you were a young man ripping out the line behind “I Found That Essence Rare”?

I’m not at all sure that I am “best known” for my work in business. That description might apply to the fact that I write many essays and posts for my company’s blog, yet it’s clear to me that my detractors don’t understand what I do for North. I would say that I am very well known as a public speaker and an essayist who attempts to bring clarity to some very fraught issues. I hope that my legacy as a founding member and bass player of Gang of Four will remain intact.

In the end it might all come down to what the heavyweight-boxing champ Joe Louis said upon his retirement: “I did all I could with what I had.”

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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