Will Taylor Swift ultimately emerge as a role model for musicians, writers and other artists toiling in the pastures of pop culture? This could become reality because the pop megastar took on a role usually assumed by investigative journalists: She decided to “follow the money.” So when she discovered Apple was prepared to give away her songs for free (no royalties) in a promotion for its streaming service, Swift told Apple, “I don’t ask for free iPhones, so why free music?” Apple backed down after Swift wrote an open letter to its CEO Tim Cook, and not only paid for her music offering during the promotion period, but the tunes of every other artist.
Swift’s rebellion may pay dividends long term by pointing up this broader question: Why is it that, while vastly more creative content is being consumed worldwide, less revenue is flowing to the people who create it? This is the issue probed by Jonathan Taplin in an important new book that demonstrates how intellectual property has been hijacked by what he calls the new “marketing monoculture” led by Facebook, Amazon and Google. Taplin even puts a number on it: He estimates that some $50 billion a year has been quietly shifting from content creators to “owners of the monopoly platforms.”
Taplin’s book, from Little, Brown, is titled Move Fast And Break Things: How Google, Facebook And Amazon Cornered Culture And Undermined Democracy. Its message seems timelier following the recent techno love-fest between the web giants and President-elect Donald Trump.
Taplin’s own career has spanned the creative spectrum, starting as a roadie for Bob Dylan; he then moved into film production, then academia where he directed the Annenberg Innovation Laboratory at USC. I have known Taplin for years and have found him to be a smart and thoughtful student of the cultural landscape. Having examined it from different perspectives he became infuriated by its anomalies. Why, he asks, have creative people, and the companies who control content, tolerated a level of piracy that has impoverished everyone except the kleptocrats who distribute content?
One reason: We’ve all been distracted by the wrong issues. Objections have been raised to the proposed merger of Time Warner and AT&T, for example; yet the combined $300 billion market cap of these companies is about half that of Alphabet, the parent of Google. According to Taplin, every pirated music video or song on YouTube or Facebook “robs the creators of income,” given that YouTube is dominated by unlicensed content. YouTube presides over a 55% market share of streaming audio.
To be sure, this phenomenon is especially rampant in the news business where revenues from advertising have been all but obliterated as Facebook (among others) has sucked up a giant share of digital advertising revenue. But the dangers, Taplin argues, go beyond the flow of money to the flow of news, real or fake. “We have ceded much of our freedom to choose by giving networks like Google and Facebook control of our (news) menu,” Taplin points out
Few of us “outsiders” understand exactly how the news menu is determined by the black box algorithms, which significantly shape the course of our digital lives and beliefs. According to Jim Rutenberg, writing in the New York Times, the election of Trump might potentially present an opportunity for news organizations to challenge this. “Buying a subscription is tantamount to supporting the pillars of democracy” — that’s the new post-election sales pitch from magazines ranging from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker to The Atlantic, he reports. The home page banner of Vanity Fair heralds that it is “the magazine Donald Trump doesn’t want you to read.” Conde Nast claims a record 42,000 new signups by last Sunday.
What can creatives do about these phenomena? Taplin for one is launching a series of Artist Rights Forums, visiting creative communities nationwide which he feels are “in denial.” He firmly believes artists can be mobilized to support legislation and other initiatives to restore a degree of equity in the distribution of artistic income.
In short, more people should follow the money, like Taylor Swift did. “Taylor Swift won her battle with Apple last year,” Taplin said, “but only a very few artists have the muscle to set the terms of their deal.”