Fortune’s Fool: Goodman On The Record Industry

As is thimage from  graphics7.nytimes.come case when a new tome is released that chronicles the plight of the record industry in the digital age, interviews abound, and author Fred Goodman’s latest book, Fortune's Fool, is no different.  That said, it has been interesting to see a new perspective emerge where the likes of Steve Knopper and Greg Kot had previously shown.  Recently, Goodman sat down with Wired editor Eliot Van Buskirk to discuss his book.  Early on, an excerpt appears in the segment, where Goodman writes, “The sorry fact was that record executives had no personal financial incentive to be forward-thinking.”

This view relates to one I’ve expressed here previously; the essay, Music as Commerce, explored the relationship between the ailment in the record industry and the mindset of music as commerce, as seeing music as strictly a means through which money is made.  When financial incentives, more specifically bonuses, are based chart performance and market share, the capitalization of short-term gains, in the form of creating blockbuster albums, comes at the expense of both the artist’s and industry’s long-term stability. What then happens, as a result of this mindset, is that music as culture suffers, because when the focus is solely placed on the parts of popular music that return an immediate profit, the parts that require nurturing and development to grow, inevitably, get shelved, or lose their funding.  So too, as Goodman states, the greatest consequence is that thinking of music as commerce led the major labels to not address the fact that “the CD business was being rendered unnecessary and needed to be reinvented.”   This point of view only served to distract those in a position of influence over the record and music industries further from the real-world ideas and activities through which they might have actually been able realign themselves with not only the technological and societal shifts, but the changes consumer behavior that had occurred over the course of the last decade.

Another interesting aside comes when Goodman talks about Edgar Bronfman Jr. buying MCA, Interscope, and Polygram.  How if he had known Napster was coming, should he have made those deals?  "No," Goodman retorts.  “But,” he says, “nobody knew Napster was coming.”  To me, this is an interesting Nassim Taleb, black swan type moment.  To many, Napster was a complete surprise; it had a substantial impact on everything—people, society, and artists—and in hindsight, the lore of the social epidemic of file-sharing, it has been, as Taleb suggests, completely rationalized, as if it had been expected.  When it wasn’t.  Which makes me wonder what other events lie ahead—that no one could’ve ever predicted—how they may revise the record industry again, for better or worse.   

Further into the interview the conversation shifts to the topic of the public opinion of the record industry and how, in accordance with the RIAA suits against the file downloaders, fans began to see these  record executives and their empires as malevolent, out-of-date pricks and legacy institutions that feared the revolution, but planned to do nothing about it.  In regards to this widely held contention, Goodman asserts that “People should look in their record collections and make an honest assessment of how many of the records they love were produced by the record companies that they now say are evil.”  In all fairness, I tend to come off as an anti-label advocate, due to the critical nature of my essays and the spite that filters through my words.  Does he make a good pointYes, to some degree.  There are many albums that I own—artists that I really like—whom are products of the system that is the record industry; music that is a big part of my life.  This may not, however, be a very just statement.  Of course a majority of people’s collections contain albums that are from the major labels.  Though revolutionary, the web has only been a facet of our lives for a relatively short period of time, when compared to how long the record industry has been producing music.  Even as music becomes democratized and the barriers to music are lowered, there has always been the quandary of how to make the explosion of choice meaningful to the average people—those fans characterized by their passivity.  To this day, web music companies are still trying to figure out how to make the prodigious tunes that exist online part of people’s everyday lives and not just anomalies enjoyed by the few.  I suppose the better question here is that if I happen to like certain kinds commercial music and spend a majority of my time writing essays and using rather harsh parlance towards the naivety of the labels, does that make me a hypocrite?  I don’t know, but I’m certainly not an apologist.  I take stance with the Mike Masnick’s, Greg Kot’s, and Larry Lessig’s of the world.  So, my perspective of labels isn’t that they’re evil, but I am cynical.

A final point of curiosity might be this one.  In the second part of the interview,  Goodman maintains that he’s “very concerned that if there is no money in creating things, people will create something else.”  It’s comical that he asserts this because, while I couldn’t play a musical instrument to save my life, I actually partake in an even narrower and quite a bit more obscure interest called cultural and music industry criticism.  I am fairly certain that there is no money in writing such things, but I do it anyways. I did so, for nearly two years, never asking for money, before I found a way to make it sustainable.  The moral of the story is that, even if I never found a way to support this passion and my creativity, I would’ve kept doing anyways.  Easy to say when you’re in your early twenties.  I know.  But, why would I do that?  Those privy to the ideas Dan Pink put forth in his book Drive would be keen to remember that in many cases, like mine, our intrinsic motivation—this desire we have to direct our own lives, get better and better at something that matters, and belong to something bigger than ourselves—enables us to pursue our passions, in absence of any financial incentives.

While monetary gains do drive us to perform certain tasks, often times, as Pink’s argues, in creative pursuits, whether they be music or essay writing, not only can financial incentive demotivate creative works, but it tends to make any resulting work, less creative as a result. See, Goodman seems to make the assumption that music will disappear if there isn’t financial incentives to create it. “This is patently false,” says Wired commenter rgeller. “People made and listened to music long before there were recording labels and will continue to do so no matter what. There is no shortage of talent and genius.”  This is, of course, not to insinuate that artists should not get paid—that their intrinsic motivation should be force behind their music.  Instead, it is just important to remember that a majority of artists, even if they couldn’t make enough money creating art; they wouldn’t just do something else.  If they did, it would likely still be a creative venture—not dentistry.  Besides, everyone knows that you can’t make enough money being a teacher, yet, in droves, students still pursue the profession and end up teaching.

Read part one and two of Goodman's Wired interview.

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