I’m going into the T-shirt business. Seriously. Not to make lots of money, but to make a statement.
Recently a colleague sent me an article from Wired that absolutely made my blood boil: “Clive Thompson on How T-Shirts Keep Online Content Free.” And I just finished reading a new book: Fred Goodman’s Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis (Simon & Schuster). Goodman also wrote a previous well-regarded book about the music industry, The Mansion on the Hill.
The epilogue of Fortune’s Fool alone is worth the cover price: Goodman rails against an industry that is choking off the very idea of recorded music — foreclosing the advent of the next Beatles, Steely Dan, Public Enemy, or name-your-favorite-techno-artist; and robbing inspired moments caught in time, like a future Kind of Blue or Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, of their immortality. He provides powerful evidence that musicians will end up even worse off without some form of record companies than they are today if music is to be given away, and he calls out people who advocate for free content (like TechDirt’s Mike Masnick) for their glibness and hypocrisy.
Thompson’s article in Wired (from late 2008) repeats a common Silicon Valley refrain: that artists should give away their content in order to build a fan base, then sell them other things — like T-shirts. It offers advice on how to get your T-shirts made with little or no up-front investment through online retailers like Zazzle and Cafe Press. Just follow Thompson’s advice and the world will be a wonderful place, with ubiquitous content free for the taking and enough people proudly sporting advertisements for artists on their chests to compensate for lost sales of recordings. (And take no notice of the fact that the T-shirt retailer pockets most of the profits.)
Reading this article made me think of the advice in handouts that companies give to workers being laid off: clip coupons, go to Salvation Army or other used clothing stores, buy generic instead of name-brand merchandise, borrow your books from public libraries instead of buying them. Pragmatic, realistic advice? Perhaps. But it’s advice being given by the entity that just cut off your income.
Hence my new T-shirt. It says, simply, “I buy music. Not music T-shirts.” It contains no branding, not for this blog and not for my consulting firm. It’s just a T-shirt with a message about T-shirts. And thanks to the good folks at Zazzle — yes, their service is excellent — it’s available in a range of styles and colors, though I designed it in red.
Whether or not you are a fan of DRM, rights technologies, ISP subscriber levies, or other means to preserve revenue from copyrights, the point is simple: artists should be able to focus on and make their livings from what they do best: creating content.
It’s unreasonable to expect musicians to spend time on activities that are unrelated to making music (and that includes maintaining blogs, Twitter feeds, etc.). It’s especially unfair to those who focus on studio craft rather than live performance. Marketing, buzz building, and artist development ought to be entrusted to entities other than musicians. Those entities might not be any of the established record companies, and the financial terms might work differently from the way they do now, but the basic concept has to be the same, or recorded music will asphyxiate.
By the way, I say this as someone who was housed, fed, clothed, and educated because my father made a living as a musician. (He retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1994; now, of course, that esteemed institution is in financial trouble.)
So buy the T-shirt and make a statement. Maybe I’m railing against the inevitable, but it’s a cause worth fighting for.