Who is the A$%#hole?

In his blog post Can we kill the music business too?   James from songspin.fm has the magic formula to kill the major labels. He says:

In a nutshell, to kill the major label run music industry, startups will need to:

  1.  find great music from people who aren’t assholes
  2.  let people do cool things with that music
  3.  let users share what they create
  4.  profit!
James goes on to offer his definition of asshole:
By assholes, I mean people who will sue you for using their music in your startup, which probably makes this first step the hardest. You can’t have a great music startup without the music and more than that you need good music.

(Note that in that last quote, the first ‘sue’ link points to Grooveshark)

James is certainly right – you can’t have a great music startup without great music, but he goes off the rails if he thinks that companies protecting themselves from theft  infringement are assholes. A music startup, or any business should not be able to build a business on top of  someone else’s IP without compensating them for the use. It is easy to build a company that makes money by giving away someone else’s property. But it is not legal. For some insight on how things work at Grooveshark, read this thread on Digital Music News about how King Crimson tried to get their music taken off of Grooveshark. Included in the comment thread is this tasty bit by an individual who claims to work for Grooveshark that describes how they  ‘enhance’ the Grooveshark music library:

We are assigned a predetermined amount of weekly uploads to the system and get a small extra bonus if we manage to go above that (not easy).The assignments are assumed as direct orders from the top to the bottom, we don’t just volunteer to “enhance” the Grooveshark database.

All search results are monitored and when something is tagged as “not available”, it get’s queued up to our lists for upload. You have to visualize the database in two general sections: “known” stuff and “undiscovered/indie/underground”. The “known” stuff is taken care internally by uploads. Only for the “undiscovered” stuff are the users involved as explained in some posts above. Practically speaking, there is not much need for users to upload a major label album since we already take care of this on a daily basis.

Are the above legal, or ethical? Of course not. Don’t reply to give me a lecture. I know. But if the labels and their lawyers can’t figure out how to stop it, then I don’t feel bad for having a job. It’s tough times.

Why am I disclosing all this? Well, I have been here a while and I don’t like the attitude that the administration has acquired against the artists. They are the enemy. They are the threat. The things that are said internally about them would make you very very angry. Interns are promised getting a foot in the music industry, only to hear these people cursing and bad mouthing the whole industry all day long, to the point where you wonder what would happen if Grooveshark get’s hacked by Anonymous one day and all the emails leak on some torrent or something.

James may be right – that a big part of the future of music is letting developers do cool things with music, but holding up Grooveshark as an example of a music startup is a mistake. What Grooveshark is doing isn’t cool. It isn’t something that developers should emulate. James called those that sue Grooveshark assholes, but from my vantage point he got it exactly ass-backwards.

  1. #1 by Colin on January 23, 2012 - 12:17 pm

    I think you’re missing his point because he’s (regrettably) decided to use strong language amidst his argument. The core of his argument is not that people who will sue you for using their music are assholes (though he does seem to have this opinion), and I don’t read it as him saying that because they are assholes you should use their music with no regards to IP or copyright (I certainly don’t think his link to Grooveshark implies that he is saying this is how to create a startup). Instead, the core of his argument is that startups should AVOID using music by these people (not use it illegally), so that they can avoid IP/copyright issues altogether and help promote new artists and a new model which does not have such a strong focus on the copyright-holding “gatekeepers”.

    As a side note, while I agree with him that a new model would be good which bypasses the “gatekeepers” (isn’t that what everyone is saying the Internet will do for musicians?), I think it will be incredibly difficult (a very llong battle) to convince the general public that there is better music “under the radar” than Bieber and Gaga, etc. Maybe I’m pessimistic but the majority of the public is content getting their music taste decided for them by the recording industry. I don’t think the next megastar is going to be someone who is posting CC tracks on SoundCloud… or someone who is discovered on songspin.fm for that matter.

    • #2 by Paul on January 23, 2012 - 12:22 pm

      Colin – I’m not trying to address James’s larger point – that is something for another day, but I am taking umbrage with his view that the labels are the assholes for suing Grooveshark. — Paul

      • #3 by Colin on January 23, 2012 - 12:28 pm

        Fair enough – I agree that calling IP-holders/protectors assholes is overly strong, but I think many people are frustrated that their favorite music startups keep disappearing (whether that’s a valid frustration or not) and that a new, non-gatekeeper-centric model has not shown up yet.

      • #4 by Tim Sell on January 23, 2012 - 5:55 pm

        @colin they keep disappearing because they have no business model. This happens to startups everywhere, it’s not just music startups. Most startups fail before they find one.

  2. #5 by Ben Fields (@alsothings) on January 23, 2012 - 1:36 pm

    tl;dr – I like courts, let’s not ignore them.

    Full version:
    While I totally agree with your point that Grooveshark are assholes given their behaviour, I’m really uncomfortable about resting that opinion on an anonymous comment from a DMN blog post. I have really mixed feelings about indicting Grooveshark in the court of public opinion on the back of a non-verified anonymous comment. If the referenced email leak were to actually happen or this comment was accompanied by some other proof that something entirely different, but as it is this is extraordinarily weak evidence. Again, in a probably futile effort to hold off a mass of fire, I’m not saying this commenter is wrong *or* that Grooveshark is a shining cloud service on the hill, just that anonymous comments on blogs are a pretty weak means by which to condemn a service.

    Rather, I think they’re assholes not because of what someone claiming to be an intern said, but because of the multiple well publicised interactions they’ve had with artists (eg. the blog post about king crimson where that comment was made) where they’re clearly just screwing with artists rather than honouring take down notices. I have plenty of issues with the current lay of the land around music licensing, but I think running what seems to be a protection racket for artists is probably the wrong way to run a business.

    So yeah, by all means, Grooveshark are assholes. But totally anonymous comments are worth exactly their ability to be verified and nothing more.

    (to clarify this, I don’t think it’s at all inappropriate for the labels to sue, in fact given all the artist-based evidence they clearly should, but I don’t know that the outcome of the suit is a forgone conclusion, that depends on way more than is currently public. ie. filing a lawsuit is not the same as a finding in your favour.)

    • #6 by Paul on January 23, 2012 - 2:51 pm

      Hi Ben – indeed I’m not indicting GS based upon that one anonymous comment, but rather on their history of disregard for content owners rights.

  3. #7 by James Gagan (@jgagan) on January 23, 2012 - 1:37 pm

    Hi, James here, author of the blog post in question. I agree, Grooveshark maybe isn’t the best example of an underdog who ran afoul of major labels. It was just one that came to mind as I was writing that post. I could have (should have?) chosen another – there’s is certainly a long list. But how about the others like muxtape, or SeeqPod? In fact not only did SeeqPod get sued, a user of their API was sued just to make an example of him ( http://michaelrobertson.com/archive.php?minute_id=287 ). Since EchoNest is a company whose core business is music API’s, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that situation.

    • #8 by Paul on January 23, 2012 - 3:04 pm

      Hi James – thanks for commenting. Yes, there’s a long list of companies that have tried to build a music startup around licensed content that they didn’t own the content for. Many of them have been sued. Are you saying that the labels should just look the other way when a music startup starts giving away what the legit services like Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Apple, Amazon and others are paying good money for? Does that really make them a-holes?

      • #9 by James Gagan (@jgagan) on January 23, 2012 - 3:34 pm

        I would definitely suggest that popular opinion is not on their side, and let’s not forget their heavy handed campaigns against individual users. Besides, as Colin correctly notes above, the point of my post was that the way forward is for developers and startups to ecschew content from those who would sue them for using it. My hope is someday major labels will give away their content to let people build great apps. But maybe by the time that happens, nobody will care, because there will be enough great content out there that is ok to use without fear of reprisal.

  4. #10 by DensityDuck on January 30, 2012 - 5:14 pm

    The problem is that people don’t care about the platform; they care about the content. You could have the BLT sandwich of music-playing services, but if you don’t have all of Lady Gaga on there nobody will even give you a second look.

    Which means that unless the enforcement environment is draconian, people who steal(*) content are always going to have an advantage.

    (*) shut up. It’s stealing. And you know it’s wrong, which is why you cry so hard about what word gets used to describe it.

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