Wu-Tang Clan on the Wrong Side of Debate Over Music Biz

On the surface, this gimmick by the Wu-Tang Clan seems so crazy it’s cool. I mean, exclusivity, numerology, symbolism, a mystery box made of wood and silver, a bidding war that reached $5 million … it has all the right ingredients.

But as much as I love Wu-Tang, I’m sad to say the thinking behind this is actually really backwards.

From the Guardian today:

The point, says RZA, is to make a statement about the value of artists in an age where everything is available for free, and therefore disposable. “Artists are very rare people,” says RZA. “Things have value when they are rare.”

In XXL:

The album was created in an attempt to break free of modern-day streaming companies like Spotify and YouTube, which encourage freely-shared music.

“This has never been done before,’ said RZA after playing the record. “Music is just handed out now, the industry is in crisis. People feel like they deserve to have it for free. This is art. You can take a picture of the Mona Lisa but that’s not art. The same with this: you can never reproduce it – this is the final thing.”

The music industry is in crisis, this is true. The fact that advances in technology helped bring this crisis about is true. But the assumption that these changes are BAD, and that the music industry in its traditional form was GOOD, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Though there are many competing ideas for what the future of music distribution will be, the war over the music business can basically be broken down into two camps: people who want to preserve the way things were, and people who believe a long-term revolution of music revenue models is inevitable. If you can’t tell yet, I’m obviously part of the latter, along with most technology companies from Spotify to Google and to a certain extent, Apple.

I do not necessarily think any of these technology companies has come up with the definitive answer, but I believe that evolution takes imagination, and they are the ones who are thinking big, thinking long term, and investing in that evolution.

The music industry traditionalists will tell you that technology companies and bad music consumers are killing creativity, stealing music and devaluing it.  This understandable in a sense because, from their point of view, they used to be able to put a direct dollar value to every track they released commercially. It was based on the number of times someone purchased the rights to listen to, play, or repurpose that track. It was a hard, easily definable number. And those sales translated to billions of dollars in profit. Profits are obviously smaller for indie labels, but their revenue models were the same: sell the music.

In order to slow down the erosion of those profits, then, these labels are fighting TOOTH AND NAIL to hold on to status quo. They rage against ad-supported streaming services. They spit numbers out, rapid fire, trying to convince the world that companies like Spotify are basically robbing them by paying them pennies on the dollar for what they would make selling music the old school way. Perhaps fueled by propaganda from their labels, artists are infuriated by this–they see it as an insult to their art, a literal devaluation of their creations. And if it were technically possible, they would prevent every last person on earth from accessing pirated music, kill all streaming services and go back to selling CDs, or perhaps stick to the iTunes model.

But they are thinking about it all wrong. First of all, they are totally ignoring reality. Their desire to kill all piracy and streaming services, and to return to a world where albums cost $20 and that’s that, is a pipe dream for two reasons: 1. As fast as they shut piraters and bootleggers down, more will pop up, and they will discover new ways to steal music. The effort is just a game of whack-a-mole; and more importantly, 2. The way in which people listen to and discover music is changing, thanks to technology, and changing for the better. The Internet has enabled niche and indie artists to emerge from obscurity and in some ways turned the music industry into much more of a meritocracy. A scientific survey would have to be done to prove this, but I’m willing to bet that many of the kinds of people who would have listened only to top 40s music and whatever was playing on the radio 20 years ago are now sophisticated music fans who have exposure to all kinds of interesting sounds. Thanks technology!

Basically, music tracks themselves have become commoditized, kind of like computers or smartphones. And what has happened to the profit margins on those products? They’ve gone down! Yes, there will always be a market out there for premium products, kind of like there will always be a group of people who will shell out good money to buy albums on vinyl. But 70% of the market, and probably more, is destined to be a low-margin business.

What does this mean to vendors–should they stop selling their products altogether? NO! It means that they need to come up with new revenue models, i.e. making money on software and services. Get a dirt-cheap smartphone into the hands of every last person on earth for only 5% profit, if that, sign them up for an app store, and voila–you have a new platform to make even more money off of those people, just in a different way.

The movie industry has gone through the same problems, too. Film studios were scared SHITLESS of home videos when that technology was introduced. They were freaked out that no one would go to the cinema anymore. If they had their way, they would have sanctioned the whole idea of home video and DVDs never have come into existence. But the world moved on, and they had no choice but to figure it out. If they’d embraced the whole idea earlier, and tried to innovate to find new ways of earning profits, we might have had cushy arm chairs and 3D film releases much earlier than we actually did.

So it’s tempting to accuse platforms like Spotify or Youtube of treating amazing songs or albums like they’re only worth a single-digit percentage of what they used to be worth, but it’s not true. What these companies are actually proposing is for record labels and artists to take a short-term hit so they can capitalize a long-term music revolution. For example: an artist may only make negligible revenue on a per-stream basis for each track today, but imagine 10 years from now if everyone in the world was hooked up to a streaming service? What would the business ecosystem be around that? Aside from much more valuable, targeted ad products to make money from, that could mean infinitely more exposure and opportunities to sell merchandise and other services.

The potential downside is that the Katy Perrys of the world might make less cash for their labels. Emphasis on “might” and “for their labels.” But for all the money that doesn’t make rich people richer, there will be much more money to go around to the little guys who make great music, too, and who can never get any exposure under the current system. It is a myth that no one pays for music. Everyone will always love music, and the vast majority of consumers will willing open their wallets if you give them a compelling reason to do so.

If you’re dubious, check out what TLC did, or some of the indie labels that have cropped up around the world and who are making single-digit millions, instead of tens of millions, on super-popular albums by distributing them on Youtube and shopping their artists around for tours and live shows. I know of several in Brazil that actually GIVE THEIR CDS AWAY at concerts as promotional gifts. They sell their tracks on iTunes, and do make some cash from that, but while their core product is music the vast majority of their revenue is from everything surrounding the  music, not mp3s themselves.

These guys are so good at promoting themselves on social media (that is the core of their business) that people basically have their music videos playing on repeat on Youtube, and they get paid for ever single of those millions and millions of plays. They know people will always love music, and will always support artists and buy merchandise in some form or another, but they have embraced the new reality that record labels may not make billions and billions of dollars, and can still be very profitable. They just have to keep putting out great music.

And isn’t that what we all want?

 

Why I’m uber-iffy about Uber

So Uber has swept the nation, and the world for that matter. But I am not convinced.

I’ve gotten as far as downloading the app and signing up for it, because I am not the type of person to write something off before I’ve tried it. But I never did get around to using it yet, for many practical reasons, which adds to my impression that this application is both unnecessary for my situation and basically glorified hitch-hiking. And I’ll tell you why.

1. I hardly ever take taxis in New York, and hardly ever did, even before Uber existed. Because yuppies, hipsters, bougie millenials and transplants rule certain corners of the Internet and get the most attention amongst New Yorkers, you might think this is odd, but it’s not. Most people in New York don’t pay for rides on a regular basis because it’s crazy expensive. Public transportation in New York runs 24/7, goes almost everywhere, and has been mostly safe since the late 90s, so it does just fine for most purposes. They even have new green cabs now that specialize in taking people out to the boroughs. For late nights, cold weather and high heel days, sure, we get lazy and sometimes want a ride home. When that happens, we call Chinese or Korean cabs, dollar vans, or whatever underground ethnic alternative we are plugged into that is cheaper than anything on the books, Uber included.

2. In Queens, at least, we drive our own cars, so we barely even need those Asian car services. Again, most New Yorkers are not living the Sex and the City lifestyle. We wanted to floss in high school just like everyone else in the country and dreamed of having our own cars one day. Of course, owning a car is more expensive in New York because of the lack of parking spaces and higher gas and insurance prices, and the minimum age for driving is also higher (18), so many of us never got around to buying a car. But most of us wanted to, and those of us who wanted it badly enough got one, which we drive on nights and weekends when street parking throughout New York is available and even free. I almost always go home to get my car before going out at night. I’m a grown woman with a good job so the least I can do is enjoy the luxury and freedom of getting myself around. Carrie Bradshaw’s way might seem more glamorous, but it was also fiction. (Side note: I looked it up, and Queens does have a higher rate of car ownership than the other boroughs.)

3. As far as safety goes, those aforementioned ethnic car and van services are safer than Uber. While most of those services have long histories in the communities they serve and have to answer to a strong, established, network of customers, Uber drivers are anybody and everybody. There have been Uber rape cases. Uber sexual harassment cases. I’ve heard cases of Uber drivers using fake names. There have been Uber drivers who’ve pulled up to me on the side of the street asking if I want a ride, not caring if I had the app or not. So do not tell me that Uber drivers are totally safe because they are registered, or checked, or rated, or that everything is on the up and up because it’s through the app and they’ll find the driver if you get kidnapped. (Hello, I’d already be kidnapped, though!)

Using just common sense, I can pretty much guess how “background” checks go at a startup that is hungry to get established and raise as much money and buzz as possible: a driver shows up, shows proof they have a valid driver’s license, that they own vehicle and it’s insured, and bam. They’re an Uber driver, and Uber gets to add one more person to its driver count to impress investors. I doubt they even do a criminal history check to see if the person is, say, a convicted sex offender, or a racist or homophob who’s committed a hate crime. The whole transaction is handled through a nifty app, though, so they gotta be legit, right? (NO.) But hey, at least if you do have the misfortune of meeting the crazy serial killer Uber driver, they’ll know the address his car is registered to so they’ll be able to find your body. SMH.

4. For that matter, regular taxis are ultimately safer than Uber, too. Uber drivers do not have to be full-time drivers, so they don’t necessarily count on Uber income for their livelihood. Taxi drivers do, which gives them incentive not to kill you, even if they do have smelly cars or a bad attitude, as all Uber fanatics like to say. (For the record, though I rarely take cabs, I would say less than 10% of my experiences with cabs have been bad. Where are all these horrible, smelly dirty cabs that people keep complaining about?) Also, NYC taxi medallions are worth hundreds of thousands to upwards of a million dollars. Those licenses and the jobs they come with are worth good money, so you’d be hard pressed to find a taxi driver who’s just f*cking around because they are either serious investors or paying rent to serious investors. The high start-up/operational cost of operating a taxi, then, means there is a higher threshold of entry for anyone who wants to do it. And the beauty of Uber is also its danger–it’s just an app, with a relatively low cost structure to both the developer and the drivers who sign up with them. It’s just too easy.

I’m not totally against the idea of getting into a strange car; what I have an issue with is the false sense of security everyone seems to have with Uber. I’ve taken black cabs in Chinatown and gypsy cabs in both Manhattan and Queens that are just as sketchy as any Uber situation, going purely on instinct–does the driver seem like a creep or a psycho? No? Price is good? No prob! The difference, though, is that I’m fully aware of the situations I get myself into. I pay attention and am on high alert because I’m ready for the driver to try to rip me off or do something crazy at any moment, and yes, some strange things have happened. But people seem to think that Uber is totally safe, which leads me to believe they are being too careless, assuming that they are doing something SOOO legit simply because they hitchhiked through an app instead of on the side of the road.

I think if people understand that every time they get in someone’s car, whether Uber or not, they are taking a BIG leap of faith and risking their lives, Uber would make more sense to me. In other words, if you’re going to hitchhike through an app, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. But at least acknowledge that you’re hitchhiking!

I felt the same way when Airbnb came out, everyone jumped on board and then people started acting surprised when guests would show up at their apartments and steal their computers or leave meth pipes behind. Hello! What do you expect? Did you think that, because this person booked their stay at your home through an application, that it would be any less risky than inviting some random dude off the street to sleep on your couch? Sure, 95% of the time you’ll probably be ok–but all it takes is being part of that unlucky 5% for everything to go to hell.

I actually use Airbnb as a guest, but I would never rent my apartment out with valuable shit in it. And I’m still waiting for an opportunity to test Uber, so I can give a fuller review of the service. It might end up being when I travel to a new city. I don’t hate these entrepreneurs for finding a way to cater to this market. But you best believe that if the driver pulls up and I get the heeie-jeebies I’m not getting in the car, and I’ll be ready to jump out of a moving car at the first sign of problems.

Common sense, people, common sense.

My year-long break from shopping: 1 month update

So after filming my video on tips for recovering shopaholics, I figured I should keep you guys posted on my second-ever shopping diet.

As I said in my video, the first few months are the hardest, because that’s when you’re training yourself to resist impulses. And that gets really hard when you come across the first few things you really REALLY want, like these…

This Ted Baker rolling carry-on posted on Fashion for Lunch. I nearly convinced myself I could use this for “work” and thus it wouldn’t be a fashion purchase. But no, I was just playing myself lol:

New Yorkers and sneaker heads will understand this. The Nike Lunarwavy Sky Hi‘s:

And these custom Nike Roshe Runs in python and black leather, which may possibly have broken me if they weren’t unattainable:

Clean. The all white custom python leather #Nike Roshe by @_calebthomas_

A photo posted by HYPEBEAST (@hypebeast) on

 

So how am I getting through this? Basically, every time I see something I like now, I just think back to these few items and ask myself if I’d rather have that thing, or one of these. Usually, I don’t want it as much, and it becomes super easy to just step away when I realize that if I WERE to spend money, it would be on something else. And that just gets easier and easier.

If I DO come across something I want even more, I’ll just add it to this list of will power aids.

I actually clipped the Lunarwavy’s and styled them in Polyvore, just to scratch that itch that comes when us shopaholics spot something we want in our wardrobe–i.e., we immediately start daydreaming about ways we could incorporate and wear them. So though I will never own these, because they will be sold out by the time I come out of my year-long shopping ban, it was kind of therapeutic to be able to style them anyway:

Need these kicks

 

Speaking of therapeutic, even writing this blog post eases the pain a little bit, because storing this little list on my blog adds some relief. Like I found them, and I may not own them, but I’ve bookmarked and shared them. Does that make sense? :) I’ll keep you guys updated as my journey continues…

Video chat: The problem with dating

Someone asked what’s “appropriate” for a third date. And that’s precisely the problem with dating these days–who cares? Dating isn’t about making the right moves, it’s about finding someone you like and who likes you. Just enjoy it.

On me:

Shirt (one of my favorite basics): Forever 21 http://bit.ly/1DsCSe4
Earrings: Dare Accessories http://etsy.me/1wH3aH7

Apologies and Intentions

Update: As I was about to post this, Giuliana Rancic released this video apology, which I think says the right things. Whether or not she means it, someone at E! got the message, which is a step in the right direction. This is why we need more diversity in media–so lessons like this can be learned from and we can move forward. I’m still posting this up, however, because she was far from alone in her mistakes and I hope others can learn from them, too.

 

So everyone’s talking about Giuliana Rancic’s offensive comments about Zendaya’s dreadlocks on the red carpet.

For the record, I thought Zendaya looked beautiful. And she already gave a perfectly classy and eloquent response to the ignorance of Rancic’s comments, so kudos to her for that.

A photo posted by Zendaya (@zendaya) on Feb 23, 2015 at 8:20pm PST

What I want to talk about today is what happened afterward, a.k.a. Rancic’s “apology.” Because anyone who is part of a minority group that has ever in history suffered the brunt of insensitive commentary or jokes knows all about these so-called apologies, which aren’t apologies at all.

Translation? I have no choice at this point but to publicly apologize to you. But actually it’s you who took what I said the wrong way. Your feelings were hurt because you are too sensitive, and you misunderstood what I said. Now LET ME CAPITALIZE SOME WORDS JUST TO EMPHASIZE THAT I’M NOT RACIALLY INSENSITIVE.

In short, she learned nothing.

The first thing people need to understand when it comes to apologizing for saying something insensitive that hurts or belittles other people is that their intentions don’t matter, it isn’t about THEM. No one cares what they meant or didn’t mean to do with other people’s feelings before they had verbal diarrhea.

If you are ever caught believing in or saying something that you didn’t realize had offensive and hurtful connotations for someone else, it’s because you are either a product of the culture that made it offensive, or because you’re ignorant. Either way, it’s still your fault that you said it, not your victim’s fault for taking offense. So instead of accusing your victim of being too sensitive, or for having bad comprehension skills, maybe you should figure out whatever stereotype etc. it was that led you to make the offending remark in the first place.

Yes, that might mean that you are racist, even if you don’t call yourself that. News flash: just because you’re not a card-carrying member of the KKK doesn’t mean you’re incapable of saying racist things. And no, it doesn’t count if your best friend, your cousin by marriage, or your sister-in-law is a minority. If the R word freaks you out, though, and you prefer to call it something else, like insensitive, ignorant, or stupid, that works too.

(Oh … does that hurt your feelings? I’m sorry.)

The point remains that you should probably consider re-examining yourself and the things that come out of your mouth, so you can be smarter the next time around.

Let’s put it this way: if you’re a bad driver and you hit me with your car one day, and I’m lying on the street bleeding from my head, you can say sorry all you want, and I could even forgive you. But it doesn’t change the fact that you hit me with your car.

So instead of begging for my forgiveness and worrying so much about whether people will think you’re a bad driver, maybe a better use of your time could be… I dunno, to learn how to be a good driver?

Here’s the funny thing about sorries. Whenever I fucked up as a kid, and got caught, I used to go crawling to my mom full of tearful apologies that were a whole lot more sincere than what we saw from Rancic. You know what my mom said to me? “Sorry means it’s too late.”

In other words, just because I said the magic “S” word didn’t mean I got an automatic pass for whatever messed up thing it was I just did. I might’ve thought I was slick, and I might’ve even been genuinely upset, but saying I was sorry didn’t mean I was actually sorry. And whether or not I meant anyone harm by it didn’t matter, because the deed was done.

So to Rancic and all the fake apologizers who came before her and who will come after her: I’m just saying, sorry means it’s too late.

Is TLC on to something with this Kickstarter campaign?

I am a fan of any productive effort to discover new revenue models for music. I’m also a fan of TLC. Thus, I am loving this Kickstarter campaign they’ve put together.

Nah but forreal, if the majority of the proceeds of this campaign goes to the making of this album, or even to them, this is a great idea. First of all, if you have brand equity like TLC does, use it. It is a myth that no one will pay for music. Many, many people are willing to pay for music, i.e. die-hard fans, audiophiles and niche music fans. And excluding the mega pop stars of the world, because they actually do make real paper on iTunes etc., there is a whole world of music out there that doesn’t really benefit from the backing or revenue model of a traditional record label, which seeks to support itself with high-grossing, gimmicky, over-produced artists. There are also a lot of artists out there whose albums were never meant to generate millions of dollars; but they produce high quality, innovative music that has a loyal niche audience.

T-boz and Chilli capture all of this by putting themselves out there on Kickstarter, and asking fans to donate money toward the creation of their last album, a very interesting way of proposing that a person open their wallet for music. As I’m writing this now they’ve raised over $380,000, well over twice their target of $150,000, just by changing the sales pitch. The same fans who might have hesitated to pay $15 to purchase the digital album on iTunes or Amazon, at least half of whom were probably going to just download it illegally, are happily pledging $15 to their kickstarter campaign. Why?

The difference, I think, is because this campaign is intimate. By having the artists ask fans directly for support, they give the impression to potential “donors” that by “giving” money, they are essentially expressing their desire hear this upcoming album. This is, ideally, what the music industry really wants all music fans to believe they are doing when they pay for music, but they don’t. Partially, it’s because everyone today knows that record labels make billions and billions, so they have become faceless corporations in a corrupt industry, their artists just an extension of that image. And something about mp3s just makes it hard for people to grasp the work, time and money invested into the creation of one track. This campaign addresses that disconnect perfectly, giving “donors” a sense of power and purpose, even though they are basically just buying an album they haven’t even heard a sample of yet.

There’s another thing this campaign does right: it recognizes that there is a lot of opportunity to create NEW demand and new potential revenue sources, for music, and that it has very little to do with the music itself. In the digital age, mp3 are a commodity with diminishing value. It will be virtually impossible to convince everyone in the world that it is their civic duty and obligation to the arts to pay for every mp3 they download. But there are ways to add value, making them worth more in the eyes of the consumer. Curation is one way, i.e. services that help people discover new music. What TLC does here is a little bit of everything: pay $15, and you get the album. Pay a little more, and you also get a list of their favorite songs. Pay more, and you get a limited edition t-shirt. Still more, and you get autographed CDs, autographed vinyl, a video dance class, a chance to meet them, and so on. People are paying hundreds of dollars to get all these extra services. And this is all before the album has even come out.

This is just one experiment of many in the digital music world. It may work, it may not. But what I definitely know is that there is a time limit on the old way of doing things in that business, and anyone who’s trying to innovate now is going to be ahead of the pack later.