Dirty Tricks Are For Kids…and people who work in publishing

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the sock puppet, review buying scandal “gripping” the ebook world. I used quotes because, frankly, I’m fresh out of shits to give about whatever system-gaming tactics other people are engaging in. Don’t get me wrong, I believe the people using fake accounts to rip other writers and their work are cowardly bastards that deserve our scorn. I also believe faking an account or getting you friends and relatives to write glowing reviews of your stuff comes off as desperate and a little pathetic. As for buying reviews, I’m honestly a little indifferent to that. It’s not something I’d do, and it’s deceptive if you know the reviews are bogus. But marketing itself is far more frequently deceptive than not. We don’t bitch when our favorite athletes or movie stars take fat checks to hock cars, watches, fast food or what have you. That’s obviously fraudulent marketing, too. Why aren’t we railing against that? No, buying reviews doesn’t even register as something I care about in the least.

My primary issue is the self-righteous indignation that has exploded in some circles over this matter. Don’t you people have anything better to do, like writing a book or something? System gaming and pushing the boundaries to get ahead is the American way. Rules exist simply so we know where the lines are when we cross them for personal advantage. Sure, that’s a cynical attitude, but then I’m not the one sitting here spewing morality and lying to myself about human nature.

I am shocked by one thing, though, that there are so many people who seem to have no conception of what the publishing industry really is. It’s a shark tank filled to the brim with lies, deception, trickery and questionable ethics, same as it ever was. Stomping this set of tactics out will only serve to the advantage of whoever’s got the next system-rigging scam ready to put in play. Is it fair or ethical? Hell no! It’s publishing.

Anyway, the whole mess reminds me of a piece I wrote over 2-1/2 years ago when some well-meaning but naive folks tried to start a new daily newspaper in the Detroit area. When their effort failed in all of four days, they proceeded to launch a massive whine-fest about the dirty tricks their competitors played on them. I think many of my points about publishing then are still applicable today, and they’ll still be applicable a decade from now, too. So, here is that piece along with the new intro I wrote in italics for its inclusion in my book, The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Empire.

By the way, see what I did there? I plugged my book, complete with hyperlink. Is that ethical? In fact, is this entire post just an excuse to promote my book on the back of a high profile scandal? It’s not, I genuinely think this is a perfectly valid point that I’ve also made in the past. But can you be sure of that just because I say so? Do you want to spend all your time sussing out who’s being totally legit and who’s being manipulative? Is it even possible to tell with any degree of certainty? If so, good luck with that. I’ve got stories to write.

Dirty Tricks- December 1, 2009

I was part of a start up publication a little over a decade ago, taking on an established, much bigger entity.  They tried every trick in book to derail us.  They swiped our papers from store racks, they pressured printers to not do business with us, the threatened possible backers, even filed a totally and completely frivolous lawsuit that was designed to get us to spend on legal fees instead of actual competition.  That’s the nature of this business. 

Dirty, low down trickery is second nature in publishing.  Always has been, always will be.  We, however, were prepared for it, didn’t go under in four days like these guys I talk about here, successfully fended off the lawsuit and, in fact, quite completely kicked their ass head-to-head.  The lesson in all this is be prepared.  Just having some money and what you think is a good idea is never enough, especially in a fickle industry like publishing.

If you haven’t heard, today I’m going to address the brief life and quick death of the new daily paper in Detroit, which lasted all of four days.  Now, when I first read about this, my thoughts weren’t particularly optimistic.  This is simply the wrong time in the wrong industry to try something so brazenly risky, but, hey, give ‘em points for effort.  Anyway, today, I read a lament about the paper’s demise, which largely blamed dirty tricks on the part of Detroit’s other two long-standing major newspapers.  You mean publishers actually engaged in dirty tricks against the competition?  Color me shocked.

How can anyone at this point possibly be naive enough to have not expected this?  Publishing is an industry built on dirty tricks.  If there has ever been a manipulative, back-stabbing, sneaky, dirty trick played in the business world anywhere, it likely had its start in publishing.  Just because you have a group of well-meaning people with good intentions and more money than sense doesn’t mean that everyone else will just step aside, congratulate you and say, “welcome to the game.”

Publishing is, and always has been, a screw or be screwed industry.  That doesn’t mean that you have to play dirty, but you do have to be prepared for it.  Expect otherwise and you’ll get eaten alive.  It’s part of what attracted me to publishing in the first place.  You have to constantly be on your toes because the minute you let your guard down, people will be lining up to burn you.  Everyone has an agenda, and part of the fun is in figuring out what that is, while keeping your own close to the vest.  Reading between the lines, figuring out the real motivations behind people’s actions and words; those are essential skills.  These dynamics exist everywhere in publishing; employee on employee within companies; company on company within markets, that’s simply how the game is played.  Whining about dirty tricks after the fact just makes you look even more unprepared than closing up shop in four days does.

When I first heard about the shut down, which has been called temporary (yeah, sorta like death is temporary) it suggested a few things to me.  The first is that they were either ill-prepared or seriously underfunded.  It’s probably both.  But to complain about printers charging you up front, and other competitors putting pressure on vendors to not do business with you?  Exactly what industry did you think you were getting into?  First off, I wouldn’t trust a printer that didn’t try to charge you in advance for a new start-up.  There’s a long-standing tradition in printing, passed down through the generations, of getting small publishers in hock up to their eyeballs in print bills just so they could take them to court and strip them clean of any and all assets.  Never, and I repeat, never allow your print bills to be secured debt and run up out of reach.  You’re much better off paying up front and shutting down before that happens.

Secondly, it seems that these folks were counting on a massive influx of revenue right out of the gate.  Apparently, they took the dissatisfaction of the community with the existing players to mean that just starting a new paper will bring them on board.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  It takes time to establish a solid revenue base, and if you don’t have the money to fund at least a year’s worth of production without earning back a dime, don’t even bother getting started.  It doesn’t matter how pissed people seem, they’re not going to throw money at you until you can prove that you’re a better alternative.  Four whole days isn’t even close to making that happen.  Four months isn’t long enough.

That being said, I appreciate their initiative, misplaced as it was.  The best we can do is learn from their mistakes.  Even a weakened print industry isn’t an easy target, and they will not go quietly into that good night.

Steal Your Face! The Grateful Dead disproves the notion that sharing is destructive

Get a load of this. Sometimes, I actually enjoy these little screeds that turn up now and again about copyright and the great internet menace. I especially like the parts where the writers pretend like anybody on the industry side really gives a shit about artists. Does anyone really believe the RIAA, MPAA or publishers’ interest in stamping out what they call piracy has even the slightest thing to do with protecting artists? That line is the media conglomerate equivalent of the great political deflection “won’t somebody please think about the children?” These are, after all, entities that have done some amazing work creating innovative accounting tricks specifically to screw over the various artists they claim to want to protect. In reality, their position can be far more accurately described as, “How dare you steal from the people we’ve been stealing from!”

But that’s neither here nor there. Those folks are the real crooks in this debate and just about everyone who doesn’t have a direct financial interest in allowing the continuation of their money grabs from actual content creators knows it. What I’d like to discuss is the principle reason I simply don’t believe that sharing is piracy, and further, why I don’t believe it’s harmful but in fact can be beneficial. All I have to do is look at the wall of shelves filled with cassette tapes in my house, and I see right through the corporate bullshit that has defined sharing as a steeply punishable crime, and re-christened the activity with the much more ominous and deceptive term “piracy.”

Admittedly, cassette tapes are very much a technology of the past, but this is the past I’m talking about here, how casual sharing has always existed ever since there was a widely available means of reproduction accessible to regular people. Far from destroying legitimate markets for creative goods, sharing has been very likely the principle means of discovery for consumers, and I believe it has done more to create demand for artistic works, as well as putting money into the pockets of both artists and media companies, than all the marketing dollars in the world.

To begin, there is absolutely nothing illegal about any of the two thousand or so tapes in my home. Every one is a copy of a live concert recording of bands that explicitly allowed that activity. Every one was either given or acquired by me in a straight trade of other concert recordings with no money changing hands, a behavior also sanctioned by the bands in question. It’s a large and varied selection of some of the best musicians we’ve ever produced, and all indisputably the result of legal, sanctioned sharing. I say this to head off anyone throwing accusations of piracy at me for this collection. But sanctioned or not, I still don’t believe it’s piracy, and I know that it’s far from destructive to the artists.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had been turned on to the Grateful Dead by a good friend when he gave me a few copies of some bootleg tapes of their concerts. This set off a life-long interest in music for me that has directly led to my spending tens of thousands of dollars on CDs, concert tickets, books, tee shirts, even digital music, thus far. I’ve been so appreciative of that act that I’ve returned the favor many times over by giving copies of some of this music to many different people over the years, turning numerous people into fans (and paying customers) for a wide variety of bands.

A few years ago, I turned a friend of mine on to a bluegrass jam band called Yonder Mountain String Band by giving him a copy of a concert recording I had acquired. Yonder also allows taping and the free sharing of such recordings. Since then, he’s bought their CDs, bought tee shirts, hats and seen them perform live at least three dozen times at venues up and down the East Coast, tripling the amount of times I’ve seen them myself. And that’s just one instance with one person and one band. I’ve turned hundreds of people onto hundreds of bands over the years. None of it would have happened if not for that first person handing me that first Grateful Dead tape twenty years ago. I can’t even begin to estimate what the total dollar figure that resulted from my sharing of this material would be, but my best guess is well into six figures, possibly more. Without that first tape, without that sharing, none of that spending exists.

Let’s discuss the Grateful Dead for a moment because, above all else, they are a fascinating case for how open sharing can generate buzz and a paying fanbase, turning a band that the mainstream music industry had little use for into one of the most widely recognized, influential and highest grossing music acts to ever grace a stage anywhere.

The Dead released 22 total studio and contemporary live albums during their 30 years. By contemporary, I mean live albums released as they went along in their various incarnations at the time. They’ve since released over a hundred live recordings from their archives, but the 22 albums I’ve sited are the only ones fitting the standard music industry album release pattern. Of those, only one ever reached the top ten on the charts, that being the 1987 album In The Dark, which peaked at number seven. Only three others even hit the top twenty. As for singles, the Dead had a grand total of one Top 40 hit, Touch of Grey, from In the Dark, which peaked at number nine. Not exactly the kind of success you’d expect to see from a band that ended its run as one of the highest earning bands ever. And unlike the current top grossing bands who charge absurdly high ticket prices, the Dead’s concert tickets were always affordable. I still have my stub from the very last show they ever played at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995. I had field seats, row 30 from the stage that day, generally pretty fantastic seats. The price printed on the ticket was $33.50. Today, those kind of seats for a major rock band would easily be ten times that, maybe even more.

So if mainstream commercial success was virtually non-existent, how were the Dead able to build the empire they did? They built a large, enthusiastic community of followers unmatched in music history. Name one other band that had a following of tens of thousands of fans who would tour the country with them. Every show. Every tour. Every year. A Grateful Dead show produced a literal village at every venue they stopped at. Bands like the Dead-inspired Phish from Vermont, managed to replicate some semblance of that, but no one has ever fully embraced the notion of community like Jerry Garcia and the boys. It was those bootleg tapes I referred to earlier that were instrumental in building that community. They ended up with a large group of fans who were virtual archivists. I, myself, have over 500 Dead concerts on tape spanning the late ’60s right up to their final show. Honestly, that collection is one of my prized possessions. I’ve since digitized many of them, and I very rarely listen directly to the tapes themselves anymore, but I still can’t bring myself to part with them, and I’m pretty sure I never will. At least not willingly.

Dead fans were a unique group, most possessing an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the band and its music. All of that stemmed from the enormous community they cultivated. And that community, in turn, grew out of the free and open sharing of their material. The Dead became immortalized not by selling records, not by an association with a giant record company, and not by any massive marketing effort. They did it by cultivating a community of fans based very much on the concept of sharing.

While it’s very true that times were different then, and that there are some very real issues with downloading that need to be addressed, I’ve always believed that their approach held many lessons that directly apply to today’s artists, musicians and writers. For instance, the Dead would allow the free distribution of concert bootlegs under one condition–no one tried to make money from them. I saw nearly twenty Dead shows in my time. Only twice did I ever see anyone trying to sell tapes in the parking lot. In both instances, the seller was essentially shamed into shutting down by the fans themselves. The band built such a strong community that they didn’t even have to police the distribution of those tapes, the community did it for them. How many of today’s artists have that kind of mutually beneficial relationship with their fans? I can’t think of one.

Sharing isn’t piracy, and it doesn’t have to be destructive. The Grateful Dead have proved that. Completely outside of the recording industry machine, they built a stunningly successful commercial entity. They did it by building a community with their fans, encouraging the free and open non-commercial sharing of their work, keeping the prices for their material affordable and by retaining all the rights to their recording masters and publishing rights. Seems to me like there’s a lesson or two in there that might apply these days, don’t you think?

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