The Oatmeal's "The State of the Music Industry"

The Oatmeal, one  of the better social commentary comics on the internet, posted a comic today about the past, present, and future of the music industry.  It's funny, pithy, and broadly accurate.  And because I love sucking the humor out of things with analysis[1. For the record, I don't actually think that analyzing a joke or drawing serious conclusions from it actually damages the humor of the joke -- unless it was a bad joke, in which case it might have depended upon the biases or false beliefs of the audience, and deserves to be punctured.], I want to talk about it. Make sure you actually read the comic.  Analysis below the fold.

Panel 1:

This is definitely an accurate view of the record industry around the time of CDs.  I'm not sure it was a long enough time to justify calling it "A very long time," but that's a very long semantic argument and prior to Napster the record industry was a highly stratified, artistically stifling system.

Panel 2:

I have no objections to this one.

Panel 3:

This "Now" is very accurate, and highlights all of the major ways distributors make a profit on their platforms via artists' content.  The big institutions may make a lot less -- YouTube is popularly rumored to run at a loss[2. I hear it all the time, but I'm having a surprising amount of trouble finding any firsthand sources.  The closest I get is that Google is very tight-lipped about how their profit breaks down, so YouTube might actually be profitable now.] -- and the artists are still making almost nothing.

Panel 4:

This is the one that made me want to pick it apart.  Because this panel is a dramatic oversimplification -- and I want to unpick why, because I agree with the comic's message in almost every respect.

In this excellent Tumblr post, Mike Doughty unpacks the important role that labels play in making bands happen, using Radiohead as an example.  John Green follows it up with the same argument, for publishers.  And a lot of the people in the music economy argument want to avoid acknowledging the fact that labels add real value to the artists' work -- connecting them with producers, putting them in expensive recording studios, and giving them massive loans that allow them to build their careers through touring.

Broadly speaking, the labels aren't using these powers for good.  They control the kinds of music that the artists can make, and they use the cost of touring to create a sort of indentured servitude -- the band may be getting paid ridiculous amounts of money, but they're technically the ones paying for all the tours.  (I read an article years ago explaining all this in some detail, but am finding it very difficult to find.)

Like any other kind of work, artistic work is not an endeavor one embarks upon alone.  Extraordinary acts of musicianship require extraordinary resources, and if those resources are distributed solely on an individual artist's ability to sell themselves we're not going to get the best possible music.

It's good that the labels are dying, and it's good that individual musicians can now empower themselves on the internet.  But we need some kind of institution system, possibly collective artist-owned groups, that can give individual artists resources that have an initial cost greater than the potential profitability of their work.