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Speculating About Rebecca Black’s Money

To start, four takes on how much the Rebecca Black phenomenon might have made last week.

Forbes: $1,000,000.  “At 30,000,000 views, that lands Black and Ark Music Factory $20,000 – a 1000% return on investment …the song currently sits at #45 on the iTunes Top Singles chart. According to 101 Distribution, an independent music distributor, iTunes pays out $.70 per single download in the United States. That’s a much juicier check for Black and Ark Music Factory; even if the numbers are exaggerated, the intake from ‘Friday’ could top $1 million.” (via Forbes)

Digital Music News: $45,850.  “This is not the rags-to-riches story the mainstream media craves, and it may never be.  So far, after a week-long frenzy and 35 million YouTube views, Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ has stirred just $45,850 according to our estimates, far less than the gargantuan numbers reported in places like Forbes.  That number will increase, and may push past $100,000 soon enough” (via Digital Music News)

Slate: $40,000. “there are a few problems with this accounting. First, the numbers. As for downloads, Billboard reports that “Friday” has sold just 37,000 copies, meaning the song has earned about $26,000. And as for YouTube plays, the number could be lower. Rates depend not just on page views, but also on how many people click on the advertisements. Thus, the song and video have earned perhaps $40,000 and counting—hardly chump change, but hardly $1 million either.  Then comes the all-important question of who is benefiting from such frothy pop nonsense. Specifically, how big of a cut is the Ark Music Factory, which wrote the song and made the video, taking?” (via Slate)

Billboard: $24,900. “Here’s the math: 43,000 tracks at $0.70 cents to the artist minus a 9% distribution fee, minus 0.91 cents apiece for mechanical royalties equals $24,900.  She may be pulling in a bit more money from YouTube views if she had the foresight to set up a content partner agreement before she got 30 million views. If so, that could amount to $15,000 to $20,000 for her 33 million views.” (via the excellent Glenn Peoples at Billboard)

On Friday, Ark Music released an exclusive video interview with their CEO vaguely describing their business practices, which in many ways reminded me of the major label model.  It inspired me to revisit Steve Albini’s now infamous essay about the Problem with Music from the artist’s perspective.

With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies! Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are. (via The Baffler)

This essay captures the heady rollercoaster ride of ‘success’ while also shining a light on exactly how various standard music industry practices typically result in the artists walking away with very little.

Some people might compare Albini’s analysis with Rebecca Black’s situation and say, it’s different because she’s famous for being bad.  She was told not to expect anything to come from the video.  But based on the evidence I’ve seen, her situation doesn’t seem to me to be substantively different than many high profile artists that are widely considered inspiring or talented or otherwise worthy of benefiting from their gifts.  In both situations, the artist does not do it alone – there is a partner that makes an investment in their potential, shows them the ropes, and expects compensation in return in the event of success.  Sometimes the relationship becomes a fruitful partnership, other times it’s a power struggle, sometimes it’s both.  The devil is in the details of the agreement.

Did you see the Ark video?  That Patrice Wilson guy is running a business.  He co-wrote the song, produced and appeared in the music video, is advertising her iTunes downloads on his website.  In the video he talks about how “we provide that video, that image consultant, the photo shoot, everything… you even get lunch” for $2-4,000.  You think he’s not going to put a clause in their agreement that says in event of unexpected overwhelming viral success, he recoups his expenses and/or take a managers cut?

This false narrative we’re seeing of Rebecca Black making a million dollars in a week is problematic for me.  You really can’t count her money until you’ve seen the contract.

Niche To Mass

One of the ongoing stories about culture over the past decade has been the rise of niches. Mass culture has broken down and atomized as the digital revolution made niche interests more viable. As people had access to more choice, more of them stopped going for generic mass culture served through limited channels.

Audiences for the traditional television, radio, movies, music newspaper and magazine industries declined precipitously. It’s been reasonable to think perhaps that the kinds of mass audiences television used to gather would not be seen again. And the music industry? A few weeks ago the No. 1-selling recording on the Billboard charts sold only 40,000 copies, a record low.

But there’s a new mass culture emerging, and it dwarfs the audience that TV used to command. It’s the kind where Justin Bieber can get 500 million views on YouTube for a single video, Lady Gaga can get one billion views for her videos and Charlie Sheen can get three million Twitter followers in under a week.  You don’t have to be famous to get an audience. A stupid farting baby video has more than 150 million views. Matt Harding has had 34 million views for his goofy dancing.

And it can be profitable too. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black got almost 50 million views after YouTube critics called her video the “most appalling thing on the internet.” Forbes says she’s a millionaire from all the interest from her video.

Then there’s Amanda Hocking, a 26-year old, who’s making millions publishing her own books online:

She gets to keep 70% of her book sales — and she sells around 100,000 copies per month. By comparison, it’s usually thought that it takes a few tens of thousands of copies sold in the first week to be a New York Times bestselling writer.

The comparison isn’t entirely fair, because Hocking sells her books for $3, and some $.99. But that’s the point: by lowering the prices, she can make more on volume, especially impulse buys. Meanwhile e-books cost nothing to print, you don’t have to worry about print volumes, shelf space, inventory, etc. And did we mention the writer keeps 70%?

There are thousands of these stories now.

Everyone seems to be complaining about information overload these days. Content is expanding at a faster and faster rate. And the nature of that content is shifting. Seventy percent of all the content made on the web this year will be made not by “professionals” but by internet users. There were 250,000 books published by traditional publishers last year. But there were 750,000 sel-published books. Traditional gatekeepers seem to have fled the building.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the choice. So the key to surviving the overload is finding trusted people or websites or services that  sort through the masses and deliver what we’re looking for. It’s the rise of the curator, who are like human search engines who better deliver the information we want.

I get more and more of my news from Twitter; I follow people who are interested in things I’m interested in and are sharing what they find. I don’t have time to closely follow all the things I’m interested in, so I depend on the 100+ people I follow to monitor and point me where I need to be. It’s like having an army of curator/editors working for me. In return, I point people to the things I find on ArtsJournal and elsewhere.

Maybe this is harder to navigate than when there were only a few news options, but put in a little work, and it’s possible to be much more informed about more things than it was in the “good old days.” And it means that if you have something to say it’s possible to be part of the conversation and find an audience.


Fat Fingers and Due Process

(I really tried to come up with some awful pun for the title of this post… Something like “I.C.E. is Not So Cool”. But then I just couldn’t pull the trigger…)

From a February 16th article on TorrentFreak:

The US Government has yet again shuttered several domain names this week. The Department of Justice and Homeland Security’s ICE office proudly announced that they had seized domains related to counterfeit goods and child pornography. What they failed to mention, however, is that one of the targeted domains belongs to a free DNS provider, and that 84,000 websites were wrongfully accused of links to child pornography crimes.

So some official at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) division of the Department of Homeland Security is charged with shutting down websites that are found to be trafficking in counterfeit goods or child pornography. Ten such sites are identified, and he gets a court order to take them offline. But then – OOPS! A fat-fingered typo occurs and he accidentally knocks out 84,000 legitimate, innocent websites in the process. For several days, any attempt to visit one of those sites was met with this lovely image, branding the site owner as a trafficker in kiddie porn:

This story rapidly made the rounds in techie news circles, but I haven’t seen any coverage of it in the general interest press, much less the arts and culture media. Here’s why you should care:

As a content producer and/or distributor, you can be shut down without any kind of authentic due process. This is true whether or not you’re the victim of an unfortunate typo. When I.C.E. wants to shut someone down, they’re required to get a court order, but there’s no opportunity for the accused to offer any kind of defense, and there certainly isn’t a jury of one’s peers. But the important thing is to take these sickos offline ASAP, right? Well, sort of. It’s not always that simple, though, which is why we have a judicial system in the first place.

Modern technology hugely amplifies otherwise modest human error. In the internet age, tasks that once would have taken huge amounts of manual labor can be executed with a single keystroke. Generally speaking this is a wonderful thing, and I for one owe my career to this phenomenon. At the same time, this amplification of individual human impact warrants extraordinary quality control mechanisms, since the consequences of a small mistaek can be enormous. Clearly, I.C.E.’s procedures lack any kind of reasonable checks and balances to ensure that their enforcement actions don’t inflict enormous collateral damage.

Music and movies are next. The US Senate is currently considering an insidious piece of legislation called the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). This bill would expand I.C.E.’s domain-shutdown mandate to cover sites accused of unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials (e.g., music and movies). It’s supported by a number of organizations that  are ostensibly interested in protecting the rights (and income) of content creators: the Motion Picture Association of America, the Screen Actors Guild, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, and Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States.

It’s not hard to imagine the myriad ways COICA can go wrong. It’s a blunt instrument, employed by people who presumably have little or no subject-matter expertise (either on the content itself or the nuances of copyright law and fair use), with the same lack of due process and vulnerability to human error that exists with I.C.E.’s current activities. Furthermore, in practice it’s likely to be enforced primarily in response to requests from attorneys at large media companies. Senate sponsor Pat Leahy has proposed an amendment which is intended to address some of these concerns, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

I believe in the importance, value, and legitimacy of copyright. I pay for the music I listen to and the movies I watch, despite having ample opportunity not to do so. But in our zeal to protect the interests of artists and content distributors, let’s keep the old saw in mind: “first, do no harm.”

The Fight for Public Broadcasting (links)

The latest attack:  “Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) introduced a bill Friday to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which doles out federal funds to radio and television stations.  DeMint said it ‘should be an easy decision’ to halt taxpayer money for public broadcasting while the nation is ‘on the edge of bankruptcy.’  ‘Americans struggling to make ends meet shouldn’t be forced to fund public broadcasting when there are already thousands of choices for educational and entertainment programming on the television, radio and Web,’ DeMint said.” (via The Hill)

Arts organizations respond: “Non-commercial radio stations provide social and cultural value that their commercial counterparts do not. We value and appreciate commercial radio; in fact we wish there were more commercial stations committed to the traditional values of localism, competition and diversity. But we recognize that, ultimately, the overwhelming majority of today’s commercial radio stations exist to deliver specific demographic audiences to advertisers. When it makes business sense for these stations to discuss or promote a local symphony or band, theater performance or new gallery, they do it, and we appreciate it. But these are programming exceptions, not the rule.” (via Fractured Atlas Blog)

Artist respond: “Thousands of today’s artists rely on the exposure generated by NPR and non-commercial radio stations. Eliminating funding for public broadcasting would be tremendously damaging to working musicians, not to mention having a negative impact on local economies.”  (via CurrentTV)

But will it be enough? “To give in to that panic is to cooperate in your own demise. Which is exactly what the NPR board did by demanding that Schiller–a visionary leader who knew where NPR had to go in the digital age–resign immediately, and without a fight. This was a stupid and cowardly act, which will be justified as institutional realism, the price for one too many slip-ups. It is not realism. The decision to let Schiller go originates in a delusion, captured so well by Jon Stewart during the Juan Williams controversy when he told NPR: you brought a tote bag to a knife fight! The delusion is that you can keep doing that and somehow it will all work out in the end.  ‘Not only does this overreaction weaken NPR, it exposes them as an organization that is fundamentally weak,’ writes Joel Mearas in CJR. I agree. But I would add that this weakness is not simply a matter of missing backbone. It is related to the inability to think politically about what it takes to secure a space for public broadcasting in this country. It takes more than friends in Congress, and a commitment to an impartial news service. Imagination is also required. There has to be something in between arid non-partisanship and politicizing public radio. Schiller couldn’t locate it, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.” (via PressThink)

Q&A: Jeff Chang

author of the forthcoming “Who We Be: The Colorization of America

What’s the piece of news this week that is forefront on your mind when you think about technology, policy, and the arts?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural change and political change, and the relationship between the two. The events of the last month or so just bring back to me how crucial culture is in creating the conditions for political change. In Tunisia, a rap song by Hamada Ben Amor, aka El General, helped fire the young revolutionaries into the streets to topple the regime. And in Egypt the crowds in Tahrir Square and around the country were inspired by singing, street plays, poetry readings, and street art. All of this culture didn’t come from nowhere. Cultural change always precedes political change. The culture has been shifting and preparing those publics for these moments for decades.

Why do you think this issue is relevant to the arts community?

The arts have been treated badly by politicians, activists, and intellectuals. Demagogues condemn the arts as hell-bent on the destruction of the social order, and would leave the production of culture only to the marketplace. On the other hand, even those who support the arts often think of artists as “soft” actors in the drama of social change, unorganizable and unserious, as the velvet glove covering the fist.  Artists only get the call when it’s time to raise money or to be entertained.

It is silly to think that people are only interested in change when the elections roll around. Politics is where some of the people are some of the time. But culture is where most of the people are at most of the time. If movements for social change don’t play in the cultural realm, culture-making is ceded to the marketplace and subject to the opponents of change.

Recently, the culture wars have been coming back: I think of Chagoya’s art being destroyed in Loveland, Wojnarowicz’s work censored by the Smithsonian, Bush’s media push-back against Kanye. If people concerned with change are not disturbed by the rise in the intolerance and suppression of artists, if they are not thinking about how to do cultural work to win change, their movements are already doomed.

What are some exciting things happening in the nonprofit arts sector with respect to policy?

I think that the nonprofit arts sector has been beginning to rethink culture in a broad way. In the past decade, culture was primarily seen as something that declining cities could cash in on to rebuild their deteriorating downtowns. But at the same time, we saw the rise of local organizations that straddled old definitions of community organizing and arts organizing, many in the youth sector, reaching broad new constituencies. All of that people power and infrastructure played a role in Obama’s election. As in Egypt, all that creative outpouring did not come from nowhere. Culture revealed the mass desire for change in the country.

But then when the Obama administration stepped in, it cast culture back to its place on the margins and the excitement dissipated rapidly. We’ve now reached a moment where the nonprofit arts sector can focus much more intently on what kinds of culture work does encourage and foster progressive change. It’s a time to assess lessons and invest in experimentation.

What do you see as a major challenge for the arts sector with respect to technology and copyright policy?

Balancing creativity with compensation, and making sure artists are compensated over corporations. It’s pretty clear that the system that exists now does not work well at all. From music-making to documentary film-making, artists have lost so much to corporations over the past two decades. In one sense, it’s more difficult than ever to see this problem clearly–we are bedazzled by the sheer volume of cultural products on offer. But I think we’re really at a crisis point. It’s hard to see how one can continue to do the work without becoming in some real sense an outlaw.

Anything you are working on that you would like to share?

I’m working on organizing writers, poets, playwrights, and journalists around immigrant rights in a group called Wordstrike. In times of economic dislocation, immigrants become the first target of those afraid of change. But there is no better time than now to be envisioning the kind of nation we really ought to be, and there is no better group of folks than artists to begin to outline those visions.

Follow Jeff’s work: Website, Twitter

(Photo by Monica May for Theme)

Supply and Demand (the economic force that dare not speak its name)

(Cross-posted on the Fractured Atlas blog.)

So Rocco really stepped in it. The NEA Chairman is under siege because he dared to suggest that perhaps there’s an oversupply of arts organizations relative to the (well-documented) dwindling demand. He’s not the first to bring this up, but it surprised a lot of folks that he used his bully pulpit to express an idea that many in the arts community find repugnant and misguided. To his credit, Landesman addressed the controversy on the NEA blog today.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have an NEA Chair with the cojones to speak his mind, even if it means occasionally getting into trouble. On the other, I have to question whether this is the right time for this message to be coming from the NEA itself, given that its very existence is under attack and this may well serve as red meat to its political opponents.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny the fundamental logic behind Chairman Landesman’s assertion. The number of arts patrons in this country has been on a slow decline for a long time, while new non-profit cultural organizations are proliferating at an unsustainable pace.

No More Lincoln Centers!It seems to me, though, that there are some unspoken assumptions in this debate that are worth bringing to the surface. I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that there’s an oversupply of art, just that there’s an oversupply of non-profit arts organizations. The real problem is that our industry still worships the cult of the eternal institution. Repeat after me: corporations, including non-profits, are perpetual entities that are expected to outlast the participation of their founders. Not every idea – no matter how brilliant, creative, lucrative, etc. – warrants forming a new perpetual entity just to house it. Lincoln Center is not the only valid model for eager young MFA grads to aspire to. In fact, it’s a rather expensive, inflexible one, and it’s particularly ill-suited to artists whose creative interests lie on both sides of the conventional boundary between commercial and non-profit fare.

What this community needs is a little lean-and-mean, with some agile thrown in there as well. We need to embrace flexible new business entities like the L3C and make greater use of tools like fiscal sponsorship that allow ephemeral collaborations to raise charitable dollars.

And for those of us running the big honkin’ institutions that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (yes, that includes you, Rocco), we need to get better at supporting and facilitating this kind of work. Because as long as serious funding is only available to organizations with granite columns on their front lawns, and as long as major non-profit service providers devote the lion’s share of their attention and resources to those same organizations, then the proliferation of aspiring mega-institutions is only going to get worse.


Today we launch a new blog on ArtsJournal. It grew out of discussions Jean Cook, Adam Huttler and I had after a week-long group blog conversation we had here last summer on artist rights and creativity.

What are the animating ideas of our time? Certainly the revolution in the ways we get information is one. But it’s not just the idea that technology has made it possible to get access to more information than ever before and gee, look what we can do now. Nor is it just about the democratization of access to more stuff. The tools of the revolution are fascinating and cool and sometimes just plain fun, but it can’t just be about the tools and what’s possible.

I think what is more interesting is what this technology revolution is changing in our values and what it is not. Values like who owns information and the products of our creativity. Values about how power is shared and how it isn’t. Values about how (and how much) artists get compensated for their work.

Technology is changing notions about how things can best be accomplished. Technology challenges the ways we organize to get things done. Do we still need institutions? If so, should they be different kinds of institutions than the ones we have now? What’s a recording worth – not just the money value, but the reputational value, the community value? Who owns it, and what does it mean to own something now?

Then there’s the whole issue of government; technology holds out the possibility that we the people will be more informed, better organized and better able to see how our government really works (or doesn’t). But technology might also be the thing that makes government better able to repress and control us. What protections do we need? What rights do we need to assert, and how do we have a reasonable discussion about them?

For me, technology is a values debate. Which of our traditional values reassert themselves in the new technology. Which need to evolve because technology removes some point of friction or reward that was important in the old but not so much in the new.

One of the surest ways to fail at technology is to not understand the values or the people who will be using it. Technology can’t change our fundamental values with a click of a switch. But it can certainly change how those values are expressed – for both good and bad. This blog is where I’d like to see some of those debates about values play out.

Jean and Adam no doubt have different aspirations for posting here, but this is the way I’ll be approaching things. A small administrative note: You’ll see in the side right column the RWX newswire. These are stories about issues that seem to fit the RWX idea that we’ve curated from sources we all read and they’ll be updated daily. The column on the right below our lead story will be filled for now by links to stories we want to especially draw attention to. We’ll add other things as we go along. Thanks for coming.

an ArtsJournal blog