T Bone Burnett Goes on Anti-Free Streaming Warpath at Americana Fest Panel

Anna Webber/Getty Images for Americana Music
T Bone Burnett attends the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference - T Bone Burnett Keynote on Sept. 22, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

If T Bone Burnett’s message in his two fiery speaking appearances at the Americana Music Festival & Conference this week could be summed up in one sentence, it might be this: Do not go gentle into that good stream.

America may be the land of the free, but Americana is the land of the anti-“free,” with Burnett and co-panelist Jonathan Taplin sounding the alarm on what they described as monopolies determined to give music away while providing its owners and creators an infinitesimally tiny fraction of their billions of dollars in ad revenue.

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“Artists must not submit to the demands, or the definitions of, the iTopians,” Burnett declared to a full ballroom in the keynote speech/battle cry that opened the conference at Nashville’s Sheraton Hotel. Over the weekend, during a more intimate two-man panel he and Jonathan Taplin convened in a conference room, the celebrated producer got more specific with his gripes and possible solutions.

“The technologists have been saying, ‘Look, we’ll play your music for free, and then you sell T-shirts’,” said Burnett, addressing Americana badgeholders Friday (Sept. 23). “I tell you what: You play my music for free and I’ll sell records. That is a much better connection between the fan and the audience than a T-shirt.”

It may be easy to mock merch as the most mercenary solution to musicians’ profit loss, but Taplin took on the more idealized notion of the live experience as the only remaining income-generating experience. Most musicians today, Taplin said, have succumbed to “Stockholm syndrome -- thinking it’s just the way it is and there’s no way out of this. So they’re being condemned to make a living the same way a musician made a living in the 18th century: make people pay to get into a physical space with me, shut the doors and lock them, and that’s the only way I can make money. And that’s just insane.”

Added Taplin, a USC prof and artists’ rights advocate once best known for producing The Last Waltz: “The thing that T Bone and I believe is that as long as any piece of music is available for free on YouTube, then all the dreams of a streaming future where musicians can really make money are pipe dreams.”

Burnett doesn’t have any nostalgia for CDs or even downloads, seeing a combination of pay-only streaming and vinyl or other analog souvenirs as the future of the business.

“Digital copies of things have been made valueless, and we can accept that,” Burnett said in a weekend panel. “But the thing that seems clear is that the Internet is a broadcast medium that has to be treated like the radio. These radio stations, or advertising platforms, can share their revenue in a fair way.

“In 1926, the record business fell off 80 percent in one year because of the proliferation of radio in the big cities and because if people could get music for free, they didn’t want to pay for it anymore, right?” Burnett said. “A very familiar story. So ASCAP, who really at the time were about five guys -- Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and a few other people -- went to the broadcasters and said, ‘Look, you’re playing our music for free and selling advertising and you’re sharing none of that advertising revenue with us, so we’re pulling our license and you can’t play our music anymore,’ and the broadcasters came to the table. They came up with a rate for each play on the radio that led to ASCAP and BMI and the investment of billions and billions of dollars in the record industry that after the world war led to rock and roll, venues all over the country, and (more) radio stations. An incredible proliferation of culture exploded on just that one decision, which was a funding mechanism for the whole music community.

“So just as radio played music for free and sold advertising, search engines play music for free and sell advertising. Google bills almost $40 billion a year in advertising. Music is 10 percent of their searches, I think -- maybe more now. In the last numbers I saw, music was the second highest ranked search category, after…”  A pregnant pause for laughs. “…the weather. I know what you all were thinking. But that’s how pervasive music is in our culture: as pervasive as the weather.”

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Windowing new releases only on paid services for a period of time -- as artists from Taylor Swift to Adele to Jason Aldean have done -- strikes Burnett as the right idea. He might do it for a new album he has in the works… or might just get in line at the unexpectedly overworked pressing plants.

“Artists should certainly have the choice about whether to put their stuff up for free or not,” he said. “I think all of the successful artists are windowing now -- release it (to pay-only services) for six weeks… One of the things I’m going to do personally: I’m going to make a record I did just to make a record.” (If he makes good on this, it will be his first solo record since 2008 and only his third in the last 25 years.) “I’ve written some new songs that are really good songs, and I’m going to control its distribution very carefully, just to do it…  First of all, I’m going to just release it on vinyl. And I don’t know if I’m ever going to even put it on a digital platform. I don’t know if I’m ever gonna digitize it. I don’t really care. I don’t really care how many likes I get. It does nothing for me, that kind of attention. You know the saying: artist dies of exposure. So I’m going to stand up for my own work and I’ll decide what value I’m going to place on it.

“And maybe I will put it on Spotify for six weeks; maybe I won’t. I’m doing a series called Drawn and Recorded that you’ll all be seeing soon on Spotify, and they’re being responsible and I’m enjoying working with them. I don’t ever see my stuff burning up Spotify, right? It’s not like Beyonce or something. Maybe Spotify will work for me, maybe it won’t. But why chase after something that’s going to return nothing? Why waste my time with that? I would much rather press 10,000 records, at a budget where I can make money on 10,000 records, and go play and sell those and make that an income stream that I control.”

He’s big on the LP bandwagon: “I think we all have to invest in vinyl. I think vinyl is far preferable merchandising to T-shirts. They’re saying, ‘We’ll broadcast your music for free and sell merchandise’ -- well, that’s good merchandise to sell. That’s personal, and it’s powerful.” But when an audience member shouted out that vinyl represents only a minuscule percentage of the music pie, Burnett reiterated some of his previous whispers about a new analog technology being on the way.

“There are new storage media coming that will be even more powerful. So there’s a bright future ahead for that part of the record industry… I got interested in this idea about three or four years ago that we stopped developing analog sound technology in the 1980s… We have developed a new analog storage medium that is an advance over both digital and analog technology currently,” he said, while adding that “this is something I can’t talk about, really, because there are patent issues.”

Even as Taplin emphasized that he and Burnett are non-Luddites, Burnett espoused the virtues of the physical: “If we were living in a purely technological world and someone handed you a book, you would say, this is an extraordinary advance! It’s aesthetically pleasing. You can random-scan it. You don’t have to charge it. It’s got so many advantages over these stupid (devices).”

Both of Burnett's sessions ended with pitches to join up with the Content Creators Coalition, or C3. Taplin suggested a need for antitrust regulations and enforcement to rein in what he called the big three monopolies: Google, YouTube, and Amazon. Asked if the answers for musicians lie in government legislation or artists banding together in coalitions, Burnett answered: "Both. Why exclude one?"