Friday, March 13, 2009

The Giftie Gie Us

Jimmy Page spends his time, according to Mick Wall, watching footie on the telly. Meanwhile, Jack White has recorded a bluegrass version of Old Enough with Rickie Scaggs and Ashley Monroe, written, recorded and filmed the new James Bond theme, recorded a White Stripes album and made a movie with Meg White, done half a dozen other videos and re-recordings, opened some set of ventures or other to do with vinyl and wet photography, and has now formed a new band, The Dead Weather.

Jimmy Page formed a band in 1968, which besides himself (ex-Yardbird and session musician), included Robert Plant (ex-Band of Joy), John Bonham (ex-Band of Joy) and John Paul Jones (sessions musician). All of these musicians stopped what they were doing and bonded, forming what Page referred to as a "fifth element".

Jack White 'formed' a 'band', The Raconteurs in 2005. The Racs include Jack White (of The White Stripes), Brendan Benson (a solo artist) Patrick Keeler (of The Greenhornes) and Jack Lawrence (of The Greenhornes and Blanche). All of these musicians were doing something else, and they continue to do something else, hence the quotes around 'band' there.

Although The Raconteurs continue to exist as much as they ever did exist - they had a name, after all, and produced two records under it – Brendan Benson has a new record out soon, according to his MySpace page (warning: plays sound). The Raconteurs re-recorded their successful Old Enough with Rickie Scaggs and Ashley Monroe for a bluegrass feel. When I heard it I had no clue why they'd done it; they seem to be enjoying themselves and some people will probably buy it, sure, but it's not a move I recognize as a rock'n'roll ploy. Isn't it mixing things? Isn't it complicated and hard to find out about and…just a little casual and irresponsible?

Wait, am I too old to get it? Try again. Bands like Zeppelin aren't just called dinosaurs because they're huge. They're called that because they're extinct. Maybe Page is stuck in an outdated paradigm and can't break it. He's waiting for his band to come round again, the one that broke all the records the first time. If it's not Led Zeppelin, it won't be that thing he does. And if it's not that thing, he doesn't want it. This is so frustrating for fans that even uber-fan Steve Sauer recently said:

Screw it, Jimmy. Go ahead and tell us what your next band will be like. Forget your image. Just go out there and play some killer music already. Do it quickly before John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham slip away from your grasp once and for all. Can't you see that Michael Lee is already gone. Robert Plant's a lost cause. You can have Jones and Bonham today. Go and get them.Defending the work of Led Zeppelin is a task that is unending. But your work as Jimmy Page the artist is for a limited time only. You must act now. (From Lemon Squeezings, December 2)

On the other hand, Jack White is perfectly happy in a new paradigm, as at home in it, and possibly as unaware of what he's doing, as a dolphin swimming in the sea. It comes naturally – he's living in the musical equivalent of the gift economy.

The old model – the one based on building, breaking and milking an act – has tanked. It won't make money any more, as Bob Lefsetz' blog, among many others, will tell you. They can hardly get anyone to buy a CD anymore, and although iTunes is said to be doing well, it's only doing well in comparison. It's still not making money, except for Apple, who make the MP3 players.
Atlantic Records Says Digital Sales Trump Physical CD Revenues. What blows my mind is that the "New York Times" can write this tripe with no analysis and Websites like can repeat it. This wouldn’t have happened when Jeff Leeds was on the beat. But he’s gone. Cut off your nose to spite your face. The newspapers are good at this…To say that Atlantic is making more money from digital than from CDs is like saying Harley-Davidson makes more money off tchotchkes than motorcycles. Like HP trumpeting its printers are selling like hotcakes but its computer sales are down. Like HBO saying that they sold a ton of "Sopranos" DVDs but ten million people canceled the service.The point is, Atlantic Records is in the recorded music business. And sales at the iTunes Store are not making up for the fall-off in CDs, they’re factoring in ringtones, satellite radio, all kinds of revenue. The question is, when are they going to come up with a reasonable way to monetize music?
Live music has been trumpeted as the savior of modern music – give 'em the tunes for free and the punters will come to your concert and buy t-shirts and posters and keychains, they said. Objects which are solid, not digital, and can't be traded through the wi fi by the youngsters. But live music is tanking too. No one's ever heard of the younger bands, the older bands are tapped out and above all, the experience of going to a live concert is almost as much fun as going through airport security, except you have to buy tickets at outrageous scalped prices (tickets are distributed by a virtual monopoly) before being put through the indignity.

(See Bob Lefsetz, again, and Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian.)

The old economy is dead. The old ways of making it big have died, and dinosaur-sized bands have gone with it. The reason for keeping a recognizable brand name in the forefront of people's minds – as Jimmy Page has been doing with Led Zeppelin – has vanished. Loyalty, of band member to band member, of fan to brand-name band, of record company or manager to artist, has bitten the dust. The remaining musicians are living in, and living off, a variant of the Gift Economy.

Jem Matzan, writing at (about free software) explains it like this:
A "gift economy" is a social system in which status is given by how much one shares or gives to one's community, as opposed to an "exchange economy" where status is given to those who own or control the most stuff. In today's world we're used to the latter economic philosophy, as it has been closely affiliated with the capitalist system since at least the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the corporation. But the Industrial Age is over -- this is the Information Age now, and things are changing.
The gift economy concept does not interfere with capitalism at all, despite the general misunderstanding and mythology that surrounds it. There are already many microcosms that thrive on the concept of the gift economy, the scientific community being the most famous.
The Gift Economy pays its providers, not with money but with prestige. As you make things and provide them to others, your status grows. If you have high status, people will know your name, and buy your products. They will give you things for free – their own products. People who have something of yours feel an obligation to give something back, to you or to the community in general. Bruce Sterling has written a famous story about a Gift Economy future – Maneki Neko. Charlie Stross has written about a high-status Gift Economy individual in his successful novel Accelerando. It's a very simple model to apply to software. Eric S Raymond wrote a nonfiction book about it – The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The model has been around literally forever – in a hunter-gatherer society, the status of a hunter is based, not on the size of the antelope he kills, but on the number of his people he feeds with it. The modern variation is anarcho-communist, and has been around since at least the Situationists in the sixties. If everyone provides what they can, the model says, each person will get out of it more than they put into it.

Like software developers, musicians can now (or once again) carry their businesses with them. Gone are the days when a record company was needed to front $40K for a recording session in a multi-million dollar studio in a distant city. Pro-Tools is cheap – cheaper than Photoshop. Instruments and equipment can be bought in large, expensive emporia where you can drop thousands on a signature something-or-other, or it can be bought from some electronics genius who does some effect that some guy told you about. If someone brings their good instruments, and somebody provides the good home studio, and somebody's willing to do the mixing, if, in other words, the musicians gift each other, they can record. Distribution, which once involved mastering and vinyl distribution through dedicated chains of brick and mortar stores, can be done on the internet (largely built by hacker culture as a gift) and may not involve any pressed plastic at all. Feedback, via MySpace, blogs and fansites, is instant.
The key to the new economy, Gifford Pinchot says, is in taking pride in our contributions to others instead of taking pride in our ownership of possessions - including pride in our ownership of past glories.

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