Gene Simmons: we don’t have a clue

In creative commons, culture by Michael Tiemann

The hosts 35,000 producers, musicians, audio engineering professionals, and aspirants who talk about everything from high end gear (aka the expensive stuff) to low end theory (studio bling on a shoestring) to politics and serious social issues (as seen from the mix position). I believe that experience is the best teacher, and my own experiences have been greatly informed by the conversations and arguments I’ve read and contributed to on many of the forums.

This past week, one of the hotest posts in recent memory was started by this post containing this quote from Gene Simmons (KISS frontman and Entertainment Weekly’s Crackpot of the Year — Male.

[Simmons:] The record industry doesn’t have a f—ing clue how to make money. It’s only their fault for letting foxes get into the henhouse and then wondering why there’s no eggs or chickens. Every little college kid, every freshly-scrubbed little kid’s face should have been sued off the face of the earth. They should have taken their houses and cars and nipped it right there in the beginning. Those kids are putting 100,000 to a million people out of work. How can you pick on them? They’ve got freckles. That’s a crook. He may as well be wearing a bandit’s mask.

Doesn’t affect me. But imagine being a new band with dreams of getting on stage and putting out your own record. Forget it.


[Simmons:] That doesn’t count. You can’t pick on one person as an exception. And that’s not a business model that works. I open a store and say “Come on in and pay whatever you want.” Are you on f—ing crack? Do you really believe that’s a business model that works?

Crackpot or not, Mr. Simmons is asks a critical question facing the music business today: what is the right business model? Should we wish away the Internet? Incarcerate the remaining youth who are not yet in prison? Or should we explore the possibilities now before us? Simmons did well for himself under the old model, so why would he want to change the status quo? After all, revolutions are seldom initiated by the land-owners.

In 2004, Felix Obenholzer (Harvard Business School) and Koleman Strumpf (UNC Chapel Hill) published The Effects of File Sharing – An Empirical Analysis. In that paper they measured, with a high degree of statistical confidence and across a wide range of hypotheses, that music downloads have precisely zero effect on commercial sales. And because they published their methods, it would certainly be possible to re-validate their conclusions using 2007 data. But as far as the study is concerned, Gene Simmons is wrong on the statistical facts.

Simmons may also be wrong on the cultural facts as well. What Simmons fails to grasp, and what Larry Lessig understands and expresses so well, is that if freedom is a core human value (and that wealth is merely an amplifier of freedom, not a rivalrous substitute), then we must accept that those who can, will, and that those who cannot will want to. Gene Simmons was one of the lucky ones who, in the 1970s, could, and so he did. As did I (to which I will return anon).

I was a boy in the 1970s, and I’ll admit it: I listened to KISS records. As a choirboy, I could not countenance their appearance, but I loved their music. Let’s face it: KISS rocked (at least in the mind of a 12 year old). But as recording, production, and distribution technology became commoditized, more and more could record their own songs, produce their own songs, release their own songs, so more and more did. What does “Top 40” mean when the number of weekly releases goes up by a factor of 1,000 or 10,000? Even less than it meant in 1977. And to an artist whose work was recorded (as previously mentioned), what does it mean that I can no longer access my works except when they come up for sale at Used and Rare bookshops?

I believe we must accept and celebrate the expansion of creative freedom that technology has provided. And I believe that there should be a fair bargain that allows art to transcend the limitations of any one model of commerce, especially models of commerce that have failed me. Technology makes it possible to archive and maintain enormous libraries of creative works at very low cost, a fact that does not diminish the value of art, but preserves it. I believe we need to build the business models more directly around the experience (which KISS has clearly done) and less around the lottery model of legal frameworks that offer huge potential payouts to a few and virtually nothing to most people. I believe that the intentional art of music should be able to find equally intentional acts of commerce, but we must make those commercial actors feel welcomed and honored, not abused and ignored.