Have You Got Any Matches?
A Modest Proposal For Musicians And Other Creative Types
by Chris Randall
Introduction, Wherein I Learn To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb...
For a little while in the mid 90s I was a bit famous for making a certain type of music, a
type that is relatively easy to make, which is another way of saying I was lucky. The
phrase that was just handed to me is “mid-tier rock star.” I’ll take that at face value.
Famous enough to headline theaters and have a tour bus. Famous enough to look, to a
certain segment of the music-consuming populace, like I knew how to make a living
The funny thing about music is that people can tie a certain song to a speciﬁc event in
their life that occurred when they heard that song; the two become inseparable. I never
really ﬁgured that out while I was making music professionally, but now, with the long
lens of approaching middle age, I can see it plain as day. I ﬁrst noticed it in 2004, on the
last real tour I did as a performing artist. The ﬁrst day of the tour, I was in the audience
waiting for the opening band to go on, and someone came up to me and said “it’s so
cool you’re here! The ﬁrst time I heard you was...” and then went on to describe a
particular life experience that was occurring when he ﬁrst heard a song I wrote. There
were over sixty shows on that tour, and a night didn’t go by that I didn’t hear that
speech, or a variation of it, at least once. It quickly became a running joke, The First
Time I Heard You, and soon after that it became a conversation I dreaded.
It was a heart-rending thing to hear, night after night, because I thought they were
saying “you used to make things I liked. Now you don’t, but I’m here out of nostalgia.” It
took an epiphany to realize that the First Time I Heard You conversation is is meant as a
sincere form of ﬂattery. “You are an ARTIST. You created something that MADE ME
FEEL. This is IMPORTANT and I need to TELL YOU so you know that we have a
CONNECTION.” Since that tour, virtually every time I’m recognized by someone that
knows me for my musical output rather than the various other things I do, I hear that
speech, and while my outward demeanor hasn’t changed (I imagine I adopt the same
look of passively mild interest as a therapist, since that’s what I am in that situation, for
all intents and purposes), internally I accept the speech in the spirit it is given, rather
than resenting it, and embrace the epiphany.
That epiphany, and a realization that the act of creation can and should be entirely
decoupled from the business of commerce, is what I want to talk about. In fact, let's
boil it down to a pithy aphorism: the coin of this realm is reputation, and our imagination
is an ATM.
1 - Fuck Art. Let’s Kill!
Hundreds of thousands of words have been typed in the last dozen years about how the
Big Bad Music Industry was kneecapped by a couple of college kids. And the people
that typed those words were, for the most part, journalists who are now ﬁnding out ﬁrst-
hand how fun that bit of serendipity was for the musicians. The guys that think that story
would make a pretty good movie are going to be shufﬂing their feet in mute
embarrassment in a few years, as well.
Being a professional musician that suddenly had the rug yanked out from under me
turned me in to a ready-made cheering section for the disaffected. Every time a
successful musician put out a missive about how big record labels were in the business
of repeatedly giving starving artists a kancho (Google that if you’re unfamiliar with the
term; I’ll wait) I was all “YEAH! PREACH IT BROTHER!” And then, when the record
labels’ Standard Oil model collapsed, and the new Music Economy 4.0 sprang in to
being, I was the ﬁrst one in line for viewing the latest infographic showing how little
money musicians actually make from Spotify.
The recent history of the music industry is littered with righteous indignation. It really
started with Steve Albini’s open letter The Problem With Music, printed in Maximum
Rock ‘n’ Roll in the early 90s. Concurrently, we got Prince’s ridiculous The Artist Is A
Slave Who Formerly Made Sense phase, wherein he had some sort of hard-to-deﬁne
problem with Warner Bros., followed by Courtney Love Does The Math in Salon in 2000.
Spoiler alert: Courtney Love isn’t terribly good at math. Neither is Steve Albini. And I
honestly don’t know what the fuck was up with Prince.
There was a brief period where it was kind of fun to watch the entire music industry
collapse in on itself, like a dying star. Can we get more of Metallica suing people for
liking them, please? But Seans Fanning and Parker didn’t make Napster because they
were moved by the plight of the working musician. They did it because they could, and
the act itself, the act of petulant children bent on destruction, was nothing more than a
path to greater things for them, increasing their reputations. The music industry, for its
part, was eminently destroyable, as it had created an economy of artiﬁcial worth, by
virtue of its “throw all the spaghetti at the wall and see which noodles stick” business
model. The general course of action in the 90s was to sign any band that was signable,
pay to have them make a record, and see if anything happened after that. Hardly
anything happened. Most bands come apart at the seams from the stress of suddenly
being put on the Autobahn when they were happily cruising their jalopy down dirt roads.
The general rule of thumb at most large labels is that one successful artist per year can
pay for a couple dozen gambles. The gambles get fucked, as my dear friend Martin
Atkins so eloquently puts it. Kancho incoming.
That’s ﬁne, and business is business, but the problem is that all those bands think they
are special ﬂowers (and the labels are in no small part enablers of this thinking; they
spend a lot of time and effort making those artists feel like special ﬂowers), and if their
record cost $500,000 to make, then it is worth $500,000. Simple economics: a product’s
worth is what someone will pay for it, for the most part, not what it cost to make. Hence
the utterly false values ascribed to music today. The major labels still do this, and it is an
unsustainable practice. Newsﬂash: John Lennon is a special ﬂower. Mozart is a special
ﬂower. Coltrane, Picasso, Hemmingway, and Leonard Cohen are special ﬂowers. I’m
willing to accept a well-reasoned argument that Serge Gainsbourg is a special ﬂower, or
at least special. You, on the other hand, are most likely not. Mathematically, the odds
are against it, anyhow.
The infographics that have lately become fashionable (you know, the ones with circles
showing how many songs someone would have to sell to make minimum wage) imply
that the value Spotify ascribes to any particular song is laughably below market value
for that song. Something happened to me a little while ago that makes me think the
Spotify valuation is high, if we’re using currency as our means of valuation. Someone I
know, who is in the military, was recently deployed to Iraq. While she was there, a friend
of hers gave her a portable hard drive with 250,000 songs on it. She told me this when
she got back stateside, and asked all her friends if we wanted to copy it. She had
absolutely zero malice about it. When I told her the minimum penalty for a single copy of
a single song, if the mood struck the RIAA, was $750, and the maximum penalty for
giving a clone of that hard drive to anyone was a quarter million dollars and 10 years in
prison, she looked at me like I’d just told her the sun rises in the west, and also to watch
out for ﬂying pigs.
To her, this hard drive was “cool,” and furthermore “a neat present.” That it contained
roughly 1/8th of all the commercial music ever recorded by Western civilization didn’t
change the fact that, on a visceral level, the worth of it to her was essentially the cost-of-
replacement of the physical drive itself, because she could always get another copy. If
you want to afﬁx an actual monetary value to music, that value is now, and ever was, a
function of two things: the true cost of the medium it is stored on, and how easy that
medium is to duplicate. The quarter million dollar ﬁne the U.S. government could
theoretically levy as punishment for copying that hard drive reﬂects the false economy
the labels have created, not the actual value of the music itself.
To be clear, I am in no way implying that art doesn’t have intrinsic value. But that value
is not quantiﬁable in dollars. If we extrapolate the cost of that hard drive to the individual
songs, we can say that each song cost roughly 4/100th of a cent. While this is about 2/3
of the payment for a typical Spotify stream, the money went to the drive retailer and the
manufacturer that made it, and none whatsoever went to any artist, publisher, or label.
The actual value, in real dollars, of the music on the drive is zero. It has no value
whatsoever. The Seans win.
2 - Fuzzy Math...
Obviously, lots of people make good livings as artists. A few people live exceptionally
well, and hundreds of thousands are able to supplement their normal income in a
meaningful way. So something’s wrong with our math, or we’re looking at the whole
thing wrong. I propose that the latter is the case.
I just demonstrated that the intrinsic monetary value of any particular song, in and of
itself, and free of context, is nothing. We can safely assume that a similar argument can
be applied to the written word and the visual arts. But as a means to a
gedankenexperiment, let me relate a story.
In the summer of 1976, I was eight years old. My single mother hired a babysitter for my
sister and I so she could work. Every day, the babysitter’s boyfriend, on his lunch hour,
would pick us up in his AMC Matador (I vividly remember the cursive metal “Matador” on
the dashboard, that I would trace with my ﬁnger), and drive to the park in the center of
town. He’d eat his sack lunch, then they would make out for a while on a park bench.
While this went on, my sister and I would sit in the Matador and listen to the AM radio.
The Billboard #1 single that summer was “Afternoon Delight.”
Why do I remember all of those things 36 years later? When I hear “Afternoon Delight,”
to this day, I think of that girl and her boyfriend, and the ﬂies on the windshield of the
Matador, and the color of the seats, and the smell of locust trees, and the ashtray full of
cigarette butts, and the ticking of the engine block as it cooled in a polyrhythmic
counterpoint to the song, and trying to keep my 2-year-old sister entertained so our
babysitter could have her “adult time.” All of those things go together in a powerful
sensory experience package that informs, in however small a way, who I am. If I met a
member of the Starland Vocal Band, the urge to tell him this story would be
overpowering. “The ﬁrst time I heard you was...”
As for our gedankenexperiment, think about how to put a monetary value on that set of
experiences. It is a piece of me, in the same way that learning multiplication tables or
how to ride a bike is a piece of me. Is it the $750 minimum the RIAA says is the penalty
if I send an MP3 of “Afternoon Delight” to someone? Is it the $0.99 Apple is selling it for
in the iTunes store? Is it the $0.0007 that is the average amount Spotify distributes if I
stream it? Is it the $0.0004 that is 1/250,000th the value of that hard drive full of songs?
No, it is none of those things. It is, quite literally, priceless.
As an artist, if you choose to ﬁght this battle over monetary value, know this: you will
lose. That is a foregone conclusion. In fact, you have already lost. All of that nonsense
with numbers and who’s getting paid and whether life is fair or not is all inside baseball,
and the average person (the one ultimately footing the bills, it must be said) couldn’t
give two shits. To them, pieces of art are tied to memories and experiences; they are
either trying to recapture the emotions they felt when they ﬁrst experienced the art in a
particular context, or trying to create new emotions to go with new contexts. They are
willing to spend a certain amount of money, for altruism’s sake, if it’s convenient. (And
“convenience” is something we’ll get to in a bit.) But ultimately, the art’s value to them is
at a much more internalized place than the high-brain abstract world of monetary worth.
I’ll go one step further, and say that the situation is not even worth grumbling about. In
fact, it should be embraced whole-heartedly, and celebrated for the freedom gained.
3 - You Didn’t Forget About Dre, Did You?
There are artists that thrive in the old Music Economy 3.0, and whatever its analogs are
in the print and visual mediums. The fact that they thrive can be attributed to one (or
more) of three factors: a high level of skill at their chosen method of expression, being in
the right place at the right time, and business acumen.
As far as luck goes, Branch Rickey (the man who signed Jackie Robinson to a Major
League baseball contract) put it perfectly: “luck is the residue of opportunity and
design.” Nowhere is this more true than in the creative ﬁelds. Being in the right place at
the right time is nice and all, but you have to make sure that you’re in all the places that
could potentially be right, and at the times appropriate, and you have to exploit the
opportunities when they arise. If you want an example of Branch Rickey’s quote working
in real life, read about the early years of the Ramones or Madonna.
And for the other two, there are reams of paper and entire universities devoted to the
concepts. They are well-worn, well-researched, tried-and-true paths that still work ﬁne
today. There are still major labels, big publishing houses, galleries, managers, agents,
the whole shebang. There aren’t even that many less than when things were booming in
the Gay 90s, numbers-wise. The problem, from the artist’s standpoint, is merely one of
supply and demand. The barrier-to-entry to a career in the performing arts used to be
years of practice to be even moderately good at any form of expression. Now it’s as
simple as downloading an app to your iPad, and following a couple tutorials on
YouTube. So there are way more moderately competent artists now than there were
before the PC Revolution really took hold. The task largely becomes one of creating a
story for yourself that enables you to stand out from the crowd.
4 - It Was A Dark And Stormy Night...
So, it isn’t really as bad as things might seem. People that are good at what they do are
generally recognized for that. People that aren’t so good, or who had their day in the
sun but ran out of steam, generally stand around shouting at the clouds. Same as it
ever was. It was the case in the 50s. It was the case in the 60s and 70s. It was certainly
the case in the 80s and 90s, and it is the case today. It is, to put it mildly, hard out here
for a pimp.
People in my peer group generally make the point that “well, shit is all fucked up. Damn.
Thanks, Internet!” That devastating argument aside, in my honest assessment, the
opportunities are far greater now, and the rewards as ample or perhaps even more so.
It’s easy. Just forget about money. Seriously. Let it go. You’re not getting paid? Join the
club. Robert Johnson and Scott Joplin were the founding members. Muddy Waters, HP
Lovecraft, and Jackson Pollack each got an achievement award. David Crosby gets the
Bad Life Decisions Honorable Mention. You’re in good company. You should be proud.
I don’t want to be seen making the case that being in it for the money isn’t a valid
reason to be in it at all. It is fairly easy to get in to the creative industries and earn a
good living. Session musicians do it all the time. So do writers, graphic designers,
photographers, and the various creatives that work in the game, computer, and
Neither do I want to come off as a neck-bearded freetard. Nothing could be further from
the truth. There are not many groups of people I disdain more than the Doctorow mash-
up crowd and their inspired thinking that art + art = better art, and everybody has the
right, nay, the responsibility to make their own Mickey Mouse movies. If that’s the sort of
thing that ﬂoats your boat, so be it, but on your head. Jaron Lanier, in his excellent book
You Are Not A Gadget, does a much better job of taking apart these digital Maoists, as
as he calls them, than I ever could.
I’m just saying that there’s another alternative, the currency of reputation. The internet,
and by extension the public, rewards earnestness. Witness the recent, what?
“Explosion” is the only word that works for the amount of support Amanda Palmer got in
her latest Kickstarter campaign. Is she that much more talented than all the other
Kickstarter music/art projects that have come and gone? While my opinion on the
matter is subjective, I’ll happily make the case that she is not. Rather, she has created a
scenario where people can buy in to the concept of an ideal Amanda Palmer, and to a
certain extent steer this automata in a direction of their choosing.
(Personally, I still think the whole thing is an elaborate hoax dreamed up by Terry
Gilliam, but I’m willing to be wrong there.)
Did Amanda Palmer need all that money to realize her artistic vision? No, she did not.
Her artistic vision is not so complex that it requires such a large pool of funds, and one
could make the case that she already had access to reasonable funding prior to the
campaign. The entire campaign became self-perpetuating, and her reputation was such
before the campaign that she was able to cash in some of that reputation for real-world
money. One could make the argument that she gained reputation through the act.
People love an underdog, especially one that wins.
The same could be said for Penny Arcade’s recent Kickstarter. They chose to cash in
their reputation that they earned through years of slogging it out in the trenches, and
while it was a bit of a gamble (you lose reputation if you don’t make your own self-
imposed goals, obviously) in the end it payed off and then some, to the tune of a half
million dollars in working capital.
These Reputation Credits, an arbitrary unit of my own devising, are a reﬂection of how
earnest you are in tending your public-facing persona. This persona isn’t, of course,
you, but rather a reﬂection of you, the compendium of all the ﬁctional people you create
online, plus the ones you send to work every day, or put up on stage in front of a real
audience, if that’s your bag. If the entirety of your public face consists of trolling the
comment feeds of YouTube videos, plus occasional pictures of your cat on FaceBook,
then you don’t earn positive Rep Credits. Conversely, if you contribute to the human
cultural experience, you do earn them, and the more you contribute (or, perhaps, the
higher the quality of your contributions) the more you earn. You can then turn these in
for real-world dividends that can, for instance, pay the rent or buy sushi.
5 - TANSTAAFL
Your public-facing persona, and the Rep Credits it earns, are an asset that can, to
borrow a phrase from the publishing industry, be exploited. The public is, for the most
part, a passive consumer of media. When a member of the public hears or sees
something that connects in that part of the brain that says “like, want, more” he or she
becomes an active consumer, to a certain extent, but here’s where we get to that most
annoying aspect of the reputation economy: convenience.
Emily “The Intern” White, NPR paper shufﬂer, meet David Lowery, professional creator.
You all know the story. Emily loves music. She, in a fairly ham-ﬁsted way, tries to explain
that it’s inconvenient for her to pay for all that music she loves at the value given to it by
the false economy of the music industry. (She sees right through that shit, of course,
although she doesn’t really know that yet.) David Lowery thinks it’s inconvenient for her
to not pay for music, because he signed a contract that was written before everyone
had a supercomputer in their pocket connected to a global information exchange, and
that contract says that he only gets a check if Emily coughs up the coin. Hilarity ensues.
Yet another musician yelling “get off my lawn” at the kids.
In my head, this is like that scene in Fight Club where they’re on the highway, and Tyler
is trying to get Jack to Just. Let. Go.
David Lowery needs to let go. We all do. I’m not saying what Emily did was “right,” any
more than what she did was “wrong.” She is perfectly willing to ascribe value to all that
music, but that value is not monetary in nature. It is wholly emotional. She’ll happily go
to a show, or buy a t-shirt, or fund a Kickstarter (all direct transfers of actual money from
the consumer to the artist) but a reasonable person, in the 2010s, can’t expect her to
buy in to a ﬁctitious economic system because it is “the right thing to do.” Things don’t
work that way any more, and you’re trying to map her habits on to a consensual
hallucination that was, to be generous, ﬂawed.
I propose that time spent trying to guilt Emily in to doing whatever one considers “right”
is time wasted, and David Lowery lost a lot of Rep Credits in the process of doing just
that. (And let’s all be honest with each other here and agree that he didn’t have a lot to
lose in the ﬁrst place.) He would have gotten just as much press for a well-written
argument on the Trichordist wholly in favor of Emily’s plea for convenience, and he
would have gained reputation in the process, which he could have then spent on
something more beneﬁcial to his lifestyle, like bourbon or something. All he really ended
up with was some general mutterings of agreement from other old musicians, pining for
the days before Napster, and a bunch of pissed-off hipsters yelling “shut up, you old
has-been!” Not a net gain, at the end of the day.
It falls to you to be as convenient as possible to the Emily Whites of the world. Don’t
treat her like a second-class citizen or a thief. She has no fucking idea what you’re
going on about with this guilt trip. She just wants to hear that one song that she heard
right after that thing happened. Give it to her. Make her FEEL. She’ll remember. Of that,
you can be certain.
6 - Achievement Unlocked!
So, where do we go from here? If I was going to cop out, I’d say “fuck if I know! Good
luck!” But I do know. So do you. We have to tend our reputation gardens. It is really not
a complicated process:
Put it in front of as many people as possible.
Engage the resulting audience.
The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it, the more Rep Credits you’ll have, and
the further they’ll go when you need to spend some of them. People want to be
entertained. They’ll go all honey badger on some good entertainment. Give it to them,
for fuck’s sake, and stop bitching about money. That’ll come in its own good time.
©2012 Chris Randall
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0
Unported License. Some rights reserved.
My sincere thanks to Mark Teppo for keeping me on point.
For more of my pithy aphorisms and shouting at clouds, visit my blog at
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org