“The information age is going to make
everybody more like an artist — individual, creative, hands on, proactive, responsible — and therefore artists will no longer be special, different and isolated. They will be like the rest of us, approachable, malleable,
and responsive. We will all fulfill each other’s artistic needs, and fill
the world once more with love, communication and decoration.”
Momus (insound) a.k.a. Nick Currie is a songwriter and (in his own words) “a satirist, a provocateur, sexually unpredictable, a bit of a tease, and rather rapacious in his imagination.” He’s also an experienced veteran of the indie music scene.
Provocatively prolific, with a Catholic’s sexual preoccupation and a
Protestant’s work ethic, Momus has thrilled fans for years with his more
chords, more words, more ideas and more albums to his name than some geographic
regions can claim. In thirteen years he’s released more than 15 records,
not to mention the dozens and dozens of songs that he writes and produces
for other artists. His most recent project,
When he’s not recording or performing he’s curating his expansive
J: I wanted to begin this series of conversations with you, Momus, because of your vantage point on the issue of publishing and piracy. You are one of the few independent artists I can think of that makes a significant portion of their income through publishing royalties by writing songs for other artists, and yet you remain supportive of advances in digital download technology that are purportedly threatening those traditional publishing revenue streams. Is that true?
M: I make about 80% of my revenue from writing for Japanese artists like Kahimi Karie. I think it’s about 80%. I’ve never actually worked it out, you know, but it’s a large chunk of my royalties.
J: What about piracy… is it really an issue? There seems to be two schools of thought regarding this question.
The first believes that piracy is fine. It’s free publicity for the
artists. It encourages fandom and support of the artist’s other revenue
streams and ultimately increases the number of CDs sold. This school argues
that “fear of piracy” as it is played in the press is a smoke screen perpetuated
The second worries that, without encryption, artists will have a difficult
time getting compensated for their work. This school points to the global
economy and uses
M: Well I’m sort of Anarchist-Utopian on this one. I welcome a post-copyright age in which somehow we can all compete for mindshare, just like there are all these big Internet companies that have really high share prices but never turn a profit. I think we are all competing, giving things away, in order to get mindshare. I’m all in favor of endlessly deferring gratification on this. I think if I can get revenue from other outlets…
It is a paradox because I do get a majority of my revenue the old fashioned way with royalties from artist rights organizations all over the world, but I really look forward to a day when there are no copyrights and it all works out another way. Maybe by patronage… Maybe in the same way that I’ve been experimenting with this “Stars Forever” project where I’m sort of asking for more money from fewer people, for more exotic and advanced services instead of just making a $10 CD for them. I think we just need to experiment with new ways to make money, whether it’s selling t-shirts or whatever. In fact, I believe all the best music is made by people who would make it for no money anyway. I don’t have a problem with a radical change in the way we artists get paid. I think we’re entering an information economy where attention is more important than money anyway. Getting people’s time and attention is a lot better than money, whether that sounds Utopian or “up in the clouds” for me to say that or not.
J: That leads directly into the next question. Wired Magazine recently dedicated an issue to MP3. In one article a writer suggested that technology and piracy have forever changed consumers relationship to music. He said that previous publishing methods, which attempt to compensate artists for music, are now outdated and need to be replaced.
M: Yes, they are obsolete, and obsolete doesn’t mean that everything disappears overnight, it just means that those old ways of doing things are no longer relevant to the current situation.
J: See, but what frustrates me about that is that the author makes a pronouncement of obsolescence without suggesting a new strategy of how artists should be compensated in the future. In truth he didn’t seem interested in making sure that artists were going to be compensated at all. This is particularly scary considering the fact that BMI/ASCAP and SESAC seem awfully behind the curve with regards to tech issues. In other words, the ones making the decisions or framing these issues are more often tech-heads whose main priority is forward motion and not artist compensation.
You wrote an
M: Well, disintermediation is one of my favorite ugly, ugly words. It means getting rid of the people in between and letting the process work. The people who took (and continue to take) most of our revenue as artists to pay the rents on their offices and to pay the petrol and transport costs for transporting the atoms of CDs around. So you know, we just disintermediate, we simply set up websites on our own and we have credit card processing facilities and we sell people MP3 files directly. Why do we need anybody to intermediate at all?
J: Yes but while the MP3 format is open now, I wonder if it will be forever. Right now the format is open in order, as you say, to gain mindshare, to try to get artists/consumers to commit to MP3 over, say, Liquid Audio or whatever the next format down the road will be. For now, you can get a Real Audio player for free and you don’t have to pay for access to that technology every time you want to download a file. Once a format becomes established as the standard, my guess is that it will be like cable television or any other entertainment-technology service, you’ll probably have to pay a subscriber’s fee.
M: All attempts so far of blocking things out and making people pay for things that were once free have failed. This is part of the information age. What succeeds is what is given away for free and I think that is going to continue to be the case. Also what succeeds is technology that has open standards. Open standards, free give aways, these are not just special offers to get people hooked and then catch them later.
J: But there is a precedent for that.
M: Well people like Microsoft came along and tried to have closed off, second tier, internets but nobody wanted to go to that second tier when they are getting everything for free in the first tier. When you give someone breakfast in bed they are going to want that forever. I think the people who use the internet now are getting breakfast in bed they are not going to start going down to the lobby for their breakfast.
J: But you pay for cable television because there is something else that you want from that technology that you can’t get from ordinary television. What I think is interesting about this period of time right now, is that your home page is the same as Warner Brother’s home page. Maybe they have more expensive tinsel like little animated mice that dance around or something but for the most part your pages are on the same scale as the pages for multi-national corporations. Once we move to video-type technology or more expensive technological techniques, however, artists will have to pay software royalties in order to access those techniques. Don’t you think the monetary division will re-establish itself? That we’ll be back to a world of fanzines vs. cable again? I’m not nay-saying. I really believe in the underground community and I also believe that ultimately people are more interested in ideas than dressing. Maybe not everyone, but I believe that there is a significant proportion of people who will be interested in ideas. That said, I still see very clearly how that monetary difference will establish itself. People will want to get paid for the tinsel and the tinsel will cost a lot more money.
M: Yeah, I think there are obviously going to be different ways
and there may be a lot of people into accessing the Internet through web
set-top boxes and they are going to be paying in a different way and receiving
in a different way and personally that doesn’t bother me as long as the
alternatives do continue to exist. As long as there is a simple easy way
to code your website where you can just spiel about whatever
J: But they’ve done it before. The first place where I see a lock out, is in these digital download access setups that require you to sign an exclusive deal in order to work with them. It’s interesting because these sites have contacted Kristin and me about licensing Simple Machines’ catalog and I’ve often put them off.
M: I’ve avoided all those things.
J: I don’t think they are all bad, but some of their practices are pretty smarmy. So when we were approached with the possibility of working with one of the sites, we said we’d do it but we would need a non-exclusive contract.
M: But these are middlemen…
J: And the fella said, I understand the history of your label and that you can’t be expected to sign an exclusive contract. And I explained that it’s not just the ethical precedent of our label that keeps us from signing exclusive deals, it’s just that the concept of exclusivity doesn’t make business sense. I don’t believe that it benefits an artist to sell their records exclusively through one store. He tried to reassure me by explaining that his digital download company had exclusive partnerships into X, Y, and Z stores and instantly I thought, OK, this is what the major distribution houses did before. In order to get into the big chains you’d have to sign an exclusive distribution agreement with a one larger distribution company and once you were exclusive with them you had to accept their inflated costs and inflexible terms.
M: Exactly, it just goes back to the old system but the difference is that now you have an alternative. Now you are as reachable on your private website as you are at the Tower Record website. Who wants to go to the Tower Records website anyway? You just get a ton of flashing advertisements at the top of their page. Nobody buys into the cool underground vibe at Tower do they, whereas your website probably has a really interesting vibe and it’s something that they might want to investigate.
J: You’re saying exactly what I think. But another part of me gets frightened that it’s becoming this locked down set up all over again.
M: Well they are trying to lock it down but it only works if you sign that exclusive contract. So the whole message is, “Don’t sign those contracts, boys and girls!” Make your own websites. It’s not very difficult or time consuming and put your heart and soul into it.
J: OK, this question is more hypothetical and I’m not quite sure what I mean by it but it’s been floating around in my head. It’s hard not to want to be aligned yourself with technology that scares the majors so much causing the RIAA to offer up to $10,000 to kids who turn in pirates and sending every one off in a race to create encoding and Big Brother pirate-detecting software.
M: HMV in Britain just said they would take off the shelves, not only the current albums of artists who have released their albums in MP3 format but all the back catalog as well, so if David Bowie puts MP3 files of tracks off his new album on his website before the album is released to HMV in physical form they are going to take all the previous David Bowie releases off the shelves forever, that’s how scared they are.
J: So yes, it’s fun to be part of something that is shaking up the infrastructure. Still, looking at the history of the Industrial Revolution, it’s clear to see how technological innovation promises to help the worker/artisan by lightening their load and increasing their productivity, but often these same new structures of technology lead to the devaluation of that artisan/worker’s product.
I’m not even quite sure if this applies here, and this may be an entirely different question, but I see it happening with regards to the value that is placed on music when it is now given away for free. And I’m not speaking about this specifically with regards to MP3, because I think that many of the bands that are giving away music now through digital channels are getting a lot of novelty pull. But what’s frustrating to me, even just being a critic who receives free CDs, if I get 10 CDs a week I begin to think of them as less special. So I wonder how access to free music will effect a whole culture?
J: I wonder what you think about that; there is always this language of how technology moves forward and that is great but there is never a focus on what is lost in the forward motion. I’m not a Luddite in any sense of the term and I’m very attracted to the new technology, but it doesn’t always have the best outcome.
M: I have mixed feelings on this. When there is a plethora of stuff out there, yes, it becomes less special; but also, the very variety allows you to be specialized with your tastes. I mean critics, when they are bombarded with CDs, it’s random stuff and their soul is not saying, “I want each of these 10 CDs and it’s going to fulfill something in me.” But if you are in the pull medium of the environment of the Internet where you’re not being forced, there’s no pressure on you from the outside, whether that’s reviews or your peer group, to consume certain records. You’re just sort of going at your own pace finding artists at your own speed. And that means that they are more special in the end. Also you can find things that you wouldn’t have been able to find before. I just found this guy Bruce Haack (insound) who created 60’s experimental, children’s electronics. So I think it’s… I’m not sure… there is a fetish value in a CD definitely and it’s got a cultural value and there is still a common culture that critics can refer to and we all enjoy participating at the same time as other people…. I think the anxiety of losing all that common culture is replaced by new satisfactions. The satisfaction of eclecticism, of personalization, of customization, for me actually outweigh the pleasures of conformity or of having a common culture.
J: Well I wasn’t even speaking so much to the loss of common culture as I was to the idea that the freedom that this technology purports to offer seems a bit too good to be true. Again, just look at the Industrial Revolution… Back then a cobbler had his tools and owned his means of profession. Once the shoe industry becomes mechanized he becomes dependant someone else’s machinery in order to earn his living. And he becomes vulnerable. He can be taxed on his usage of the machinery, or he can be made to work longer, standardized hours because he is dependent on the machinery for a job. I worry that this technology is only empowering when you have access to the controlling mechanisms. That’s my big fear, that as things will become encoded, or as all the MP3 players require you to adhere to an encoding standard, that you will then have to pay a royalty on them (like the 7 cents that Philips gets for each CD). Who knows, maybe it won’t be prohibitively expensive, maybe it will just be 7 cents and we’ll be no worse off than we are now? But I fear that companies will get greedy here because so many of their previously establish “brick and mortar” revenue streams are drying up and they will be looking elsewhere to make up that deficit. You’re seeing that greed already. Bands are signing away download rights to songs in exclusive contracts and they’re only getting a guaranteed 7-cent royalty per sale. This is ridiculously low…less than the already small amount that they would receive off CD singles. What makes this worse is that artists are agreeing to be paid less even in the face of the eliminated burden of distribution costs for the majors. Again, I’m not saying that we have to agree with these contracts. I mean, clearly, you don’t…I don’t, but there are thousands of bands out there who are buying into this set-up.
M: It’s all very fluid at the moment. We don’t really know which way it’s going to go. We don’t know if these new ways of … I think it’s comfort food in a way… It’s people trying to make the new medium resemble the old medium and I think that ultimately, it’s not actually going to resemble that old form. It’s not going to be like the 50’s or Tin Pan Alley or whatever. It’s going to be much more diverse. The formats which today look like they are already imposing themselves as standards… maybe in two or three years they will be forgotten they’ll be overtaken by some new format. I think there will be a sort of Darwinian thing where the most flexible, simple to use, non-centralized formats will succeed because that is what the internet is about, not centralizing, not blocking people. You root around impasses and you also root around profit makers or spammers or whatever. There are ways around these things always. So I believe the formats which will survive are the non-proprietary formats.
J: And we’ll always have access to the means of production?
M: Yeah, I think so. I mean I’m just comparing my experience from 10 years ago working in the music industry with what I experience now. And because of digital production I have vastly more control of my work and vastly fewer impediments. I do just about everything.
J: What is the best thing about the new technology? What is the best piece of technology?
M: The best thing about the new technology is the accessibility and fluidity of it. If you have basic digital literacy you can replace the jobs of everybody that you are dependent on as an artist.
My favorite piece of technology, apart from obviously the computer or “My Macintosh” is a 6-speed CDR drive where you can actually save soundfiles, do the mastering and cut CDs right there at home. Or else, I guess I would have to say my website where I can write a song and put an MP3 file up the same day and it’s there it’s published to the world: instant gratification.
J: Are you planning on selling songs that way, digitally off your site?
M: I keep toying with the idea but I haven’t got round to it yet.
I rather like the idea of
J: Oh yeah, it’s totally litigious. Some major labels are attempting
J: What’s worse, as this contract stands, if Momus left Sony down the line to go to V2 that URL would not come with him/you. This means that fans who went to www.momus or whatever your URL would be would be tapping into Sony’s revenue streams and not those of your new label.
J: Even scarier…there are other lawyers who have begun arguing that this new language is moot as most major label artists have usually already given these major labels the rights to put their music/ likeness etc. out in all formats throughout the universe. So they have ostensibly already signed away URL rights if their URL becomes a “format”. I’m waiting for the legal battle that sets the precedent on that one.
M: I can’t be that sympathetic. I’m sorry but bands that sign those sorts of contracts understand that that is the sort of relationship they will have with those labels. They all have dollar signs in their eyes when they sign those contracts and they are normally very happy to sign away just about every attachment to their creativity that they have. If creative individual expression and maybe the right to sell their own t-shirts matters to them, then they won’t sign the contracts. So what’s the problem? I would never in a million years sign that contract.
J: Do you have to sign any contracts? Do Kahimi Karie’s records come out on a major label in Japan?
J: So what’s in that contract?
M: Well Japan is not so “lawyer-heavy” as the US. In fact, nowhere is as “lawyer-heavy” as the US. You know you have a really hard time here because everything is just so totally fought over before you’ve even got there.
Matt, owner of Le Grand Magistry Records: My contract to put out the Kahimi record from Japan is 2 pages. It’s nothing.
M: Also you can get away with murder in terms of sampling. It’s very lax and there isn’t this litigious, greedy thing stopping people doing things.
J: How does that work? If you are allowed to use a lot of samples on a Kahimi Karie record in Japan and then you want to sell it in the United States or you want to release it here.
M: Then it takes years to clear the samples as Minty Fresh found to their cost. They have to spend years clearing the samples that for years were fine in Japan, or anywhere else in the world.
J: I heard a statistic attributed to the RIAA from about 4 years ago, which said that in that year more records were released by independent bands than major labels. I’m not sure if that is measured by title or by number, but it made me think how powerful the independent music community could be if it refused to participate through these exclusive channels (digital exclusive agreements) or standard distribution systems. But the underground rarely sees its power.
M: No it won’t because it’s not powerful by numbers… it’s the power of a bunch of outsiders. I think the Internet shifts the whole focus from a belief that there is a center and there are the outskirts or pariahs. It doesn’t really work that way anymore.
J: I worry so much about this language of mindshare anyway. The first website that spoke with Kristin and me about doing this project wouldn’t pay us scale for our articles. They wanted to pay us in “mindshare” because that many more people would see our work.
M: Mindshare comes in different flavors. There is the mindshare of people who are browsing in a fairly feckless way and there is the mindshare of people whom really care and are seeking something out. Just because someone has 3 million hits a day doesn’t mean that those hits are going to be intelligent, informed people or people who really care about what you are going to say.
J: Well I think one thing that is interesting about your recent project is that you made sure you were going to get paid, although you may be giving other songs away different places. There is a huge legal thing that happened when all the newspapers went on line. They wanted their writers to sign agreements that said they could archive the stories on their websites exclusively everywhere. Whereas before they had rights to the story for publication on said day and if you wanted to re publish or anthologize them there were established requirements and compensation. This also has happened with music magazines who sell their entire back catalog of reviews to record store sites who wanted to beef up their content and these magazines didn’t pay the writers a second time even though the magazines were getting paid up front for the writing. It worries me because I understand the amount of work that goes into writing/music. It seems the author should be able to participate in the ultimate value of his or her work.
M: What do you think about the argument that everything that is worth doing is worth doing for no money.
J: Well, I understand it. I ran an indie record label for 7 years. On the other hand I also believe that people will not pay you unless they are required to. Your patrons wouldn’t have walked up and offered to pay you $1000 to write a song for them if you hadn’t made that a specific financial requirement of the project. It’s a fluid process. Who knows, there was a lot of unpaid work that went into making the persona of Momus, which gave you the fan base that would allow Stars Forever to happen. You were not getting paid in order to get paid…the Stars project was just a coming to fruition?
M: That’s what I do. I cross-collatoralize because it allows me to be experimental in the important areas of my life. Artists should be very resourceful people they should be able to make money in any circumstances. I mean, commercial approaches are good as long as they don’t draw you into the bad old habits of doing things that other people have done just because it made them money. Commercial pressure can actually make you fresh and original as well as boring and conformist.