Backbeat: Robert Levine, David Carr Trade (Friendly) Barbs Over Levine's New Book, 'Free Ride'
Backbeat: Robert Levine, David Carr Trade (Friendly) Barbs Over Levine's New Book, 'Free Ride'

When former Billboard executive editor Robert Levine decided to call his new book, "Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back," he clearly wasn't pulling any punches.

Given that provocative title, it would've come as little surprise if Levine had tangled with at least a few of the 60-some people who turned out Wednesday evening at Manhattan's Core Club to hear the author discuss his book with New York Times media columnist David Carr.

But the approving nods and appreciative laughs Levine drew throughout his appearance made it clear that his pro-creator message was being heard by a receptive crowd. So it was up to Carr to act as a foil.

levine-carr
New York Times media columnist David Carr (left) with Rob Levine (Photo by Louis Hau)

"'Destroying the Culture Business'?" the columnist asked. "I know it's supposed to be hyperbolic, but really."

"I think you can't have a culture business without a market for culture," Levine responded. "For 300 years, copyright law has given us a market for culture. It's a flawed market, it could be better, but it's a market -- sellers set prices, buyers meet them or don't. The Internet has really destroyed that. If payment becomes optional -- if you can choose whether or not to pay and there's no penalty for not paying -- how do you have any kind of market?"

Carr persisted. "You're screaming bloody murder...but I don't see the body," he said. "I think this is a golden age of culture."

Levine proceeded to point out examples of professionally produced entertainment content -- critically acclaimed dramas on premium cable TV networks, albums underwritten by record labels, movies with beautiful cinematography -- that would disappear without viable business models to pay for it all.

levine-jacobsen
from left, Jaybird Communications president Laurie Jakobsen, MTV senior VP of corporate communications Nathaniel Brown, Rob Levine and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia senior VP of communications (and former EMI Music senior VP) Jeanne Meyer. (Photo by Louis Hau)

"Most artists don't make their best album on their first album," he said, adding that, "if you think about the great bands, they took awhile to make their best work. That requires them to have the funding to stay at it...There are obviously talented bands. The question is, do they have the resources to make the kind of album they ought to make?"

"Do they need them though?" Carr asked. "The relative cost of production has dropped so much."

"You're not including a producer," Levine countered. "That's like saying, 'Wasn't it a lot easier to write your book because you had a great word processor?" I haven't heard any writer say that. Having a great editor really helps."

Levine also emphasized the central role that entertainment content has played in the success of many technology companies.

"What was Apple before the iPod?" Levine asked. "It was a dying computer company. Music videos helped make YouTube a business...If you could only listen to Creative Commons music on your iPod, how much would you pay for that iPod? Or how much would someone have to pay you to take it?"

Carr partially conceded the point. "A lot of world beat, I'm thinking," he cracked.

"You're so narrow-minded, man," Levine joked. "You've just gotta give it a chance."

Recording industry executives were among those who turned out for the Core Club event. "I love that someone's tackling these questions seriously in a way that addresses a lot of the really tough issues," said Tucker McCrady, VP of litigation at Warner Music Group.

levine-etc
from left, Dalek Capital Management managing member Joseph Spiegel, Viacom executive VP/general counsel Michael Fricklas and Rob Levine. (Photo by Louis Hau)

Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, said Levine's book "framed the issues really well from both a creative community as well as a user community perspective...He understood, as he said, that creation will cease unless there's compensation."

Viacom executive VP/general counsel Michael Fricklas expressed his admiration for the book in simpler terms. "I think what he's done is he's restored the common sense that's been missing from the debate," he said.

(The Nov. 5 issue of Billboard magazine will feature an extended excerpt from Robert Levine's new book "Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying The Culture Business, And How The Culture Business Can Fight Back" (Doubleday).)