“Dad I when I grow up I want everything in the world to be free. Nobody charges for anything.” This was how the morning-drive-to-school started with my 10-year-old son.
“So, how do you get paid for anything if everything is free?”
He kind of halted. I don’t think he’d thought it all the way through. But he never misses an opportunity to argue with the wall …
“Well …if NOBODY gets paid for anything, then nobody NEEDS to get paid for anything. We all just do what we love for free and so does everybody else and it’s all just there for whoever needs it.”
At 10, he is already more dialed in to socialism than most socialists …but I digress.
Then I asked the tough question: “What if someone we REALLY need in our society doesn’t actually LOVE what they do? Can we force them to do it for free anyway? Isn’t that slavery?”
That’s where he decided to think more about it. I’m sure he’ll have an answer soon enough. Trust me …he will.
My 10-year-old has the luxury of thinking everything should be free because in his world, everything IS free. He was riding to school in a car he didn’t pay for, full of gasoline he didn’t have to buy or produce or refine. He was wearing clothes that just magically appeared in his closet …a closet that has always been there in his room …that he doesn’t pay the mortgage on. He didn’t build it or pay for the construction.
But I did. I bought, built and supervised every stick of wood that went into it. I made the trips to Home Depot. I know what it cost …and why.
We live in a world that doesn’t SEE the money anymore. Money is not paper. It’s ones and zeros that show up through direct deposit. Our lives do not require physical currency. We can literally go through entire weeks, months or years without ever needing any “cash” on our person. It’s all FROM an account TO an account. Keystrokes. Swipes. Pin numbers. It’s all so easy …it almost seems free.
But I believe this newfound transactional commerce has lulled us into a civil war over the very thing my son was talking about in the car. Because we don’t actually “pay” for things in the traditional sense anymore, we place a different value on everything.
All of my entertainment is piped into my house. I send a few digits to an account and …BOOM …Netflix is there for me. It’s the same with all my utilities, services and luxuries. In fact, I can do ALL my Christmas shopping on my iPhone or computer if I want. The only reason I left the house this year was because I still like being around people …sort of …in small doses.
Music is at the forefront of this new swipe-and-serve economy. In fact, it was the first canary in the coal mine. And guess what? Whether you know it or not, the canary got black lung and is still recovering.
I’ve spent the better part of a year making a documentary with three friends about the dying industry of content (particularly song) creation.
It’s all very complicated but put simply: When you stream a song, the streamer gets paid, the record label gets paid and the recording artist gets paid. The only one they forgot to put in that equation was the person who created the underlying work. And so, as the masses change how they consume music, an entire profession disappears from the American landscape. Families lose houses. Kids’ college funds get raided. Middle aged men and women have to start their lives from scratch.
But don’t worry …it’s not that many people. Just the ones who write your favorite songs.
Enter Chance the Rapper …
This uber talented young man just went home with some Grammy hardware for his mantle, this week. HIS new music model is not much different than my 10-year-old’s idea. He gives his music away for free. He says he doesn’t want to be limited by commerce. And he will make his money touring and selling merchandise.
He’s not alone in this. A lot of youngsters his age are joining the ranks of the “free music” movement. And I totally get it. You can pull down the very pillars and foundations of the music-business-controls-you machine if suddenly they can’t make money on your back. YOU control what you do. They don’t. And no one has to wait to get what you have to say. It’s all there for the taking …as it should be …in the world of 10-year-old economics.
As an aging man in this business, I would simply offer a few words to keep in mind, if you are young and staring at the genesis of your career …
Chance is 23. And his career is red hot …at the moment. Money and offers are everywhere for him right now. It’s raining opportunity in his life. But one day …not that long from now …he will be 33 and someone will be ten years younger and ten years hotter (and cooler) than he is. He might have a misstep with a project or (God forbid) injure himself in a way that keeps him off the road. His intellectual property (on its own merit) has literally NO value. Because he has given it no value …from the beginning.
I’ll bet he doesn’t give the t-shirts and hats away for free. He certainly doesn’t do free concerts. He has told you – the public – that everything in his orbit has value …except the music itself.
I’m 49. I was once the hot, upcoming artist who was going to tour year-round, have multiple income streams and look good on a product cover forever. But my story got halted by a chinese orphan and a radio programmer in the northeast. And just like that …I was ushered out of the spotlight.
But it’s cool because they tell you (while putting you out to pasture), “you’re a great writer, man. You can ALWAYS write!” So …I write.
But if the thing you’ve written has no value, then CAN you write? And what difference does it make if you do?
As hot as Chance the Rapper is right now, if he called me to collaborate on something with him, I’m not sure I would do it. Because I can’t for the life of me figure out how I would get paid from it. If he’s giving the music away for free …what’s in it for someone who doesn’t tour with him or who isn’t making his t-shirts?
Every society decides what it values. We’re in the middle of deciding the value of music right now …in real time.
My Ghost Town Troubadour buddies and I just shot more of our documentary in New York City. And, while there, we played a free show at The Bitter End. The girl who sang right before us was very excited that she had just beed added to Pandora (or Spotify …they’re all the same to me).
My weathered colleagues and I just smiled at each other. There’s no way she could see, from her 20-something stage view, the future of car payments and house payments and weddings and kids and medical bills and unexpected disasters and taking care of an ailing parent and all the things that life might and will throw at her.
If she’s lucky she will have created some music that people will want to sing or dance to or get married to or graduate to or get buried to. And THAT should always be worth something …whether she can be there personally to sing it or not.
As a creative, I’m learning to navigate a new economy. I do a lot of things for free. I’m do this thing you’re reading for free. And people always say, “learn to monetize.” That’s a big, popular word, “monetize.” They say you have to do a dozen things for free to find that one thing someone will pay you for. It’s all bait for something else …down the road. But at some point we have to decide what we actually value.
And right now, music – one of humanity’s greatest natural resources – is being used as bait for something else …somewhere else. Music is just a loss leader for t-shirts and concert tickets. That’s because people who make music will do it for the love of it. But people who make t-shirts don’t do it for the love. They do it for the money. If they don’t get paid …t-shirts don’t get made.
And that leads us back to my 10-year-old son’s utopian dream.
These days, for those who earn a living from intellectual property and royalty based income …that dream is starting to look more and more like a nightmare.