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Courtney Love does the math (2000) (salon.com)
175 points by dmor on Jan 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

For those turned off by the title TL;DR musician Courtney Love eloquently walks through the math of the recording industry for an artist, details some serious pain and problems in the system, calls out the RIAA for blatant theft of copyright and laws passed in the middle of the night, and explains why she's stepping out of major labels.

...and plagiarizes Steve Albini:


That's a very negative take on it. The second person to object to SOPA wasn't plagiarising the first.

They're making the same point using a similar argument but that's very different to plagiarism.

I don't see it. Can you point out similar passages?

Well, for one, compare Love's entire first section to the table at the end of Albini's essay.

Either you haven't read both articles or you need to refresh your memory on what plagiarism is, because this isn't even close.

great finding! thanks!

Steve Albini said it in the early 90s. http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

My main issue with the maths as outlined here is the costs. I don't dispute that bands spend $500,000 recording an album or making a video but I do dispute that they should.

I have a friend who is a producer / musician who has been in a successful (top 10 singles) band. He'll tell tales of spending a day in the studio sampling a snare drum sound. One day, one snare drum sound. Given the cost of studio time that's just obscene.

Now maybe that's what the highest production standards demand, but I think we need to view the $500,000 album and the $500,000 video as a luxury, not the norm. If those costs come down (and that's perfectly realistic) then the maths potentially looks very different.

The issue here is (surprise surprise) most likely with the record company. After all the better the production the more likely the record is to sell (arguable but it's probably not going to hurt) and the record company don't care whether the money goes to the band or to the studio / producer.

But bands do need to take some responsibility for how THEIR money is spent. In the scenario outlined there is meant to be a scramble for this band. If that's the case then bands need to argue for more control rather than just more money as money seems to be pointless without it.

Makes me think about the contract the Wedding Present signed when they moved to a major label. They gave up a load of cash to have complete control over studio, producer, artwork and so on and if the label didn't like the resulting record, to be able to take it to someone else. More bands need to think in those terms.

My indie band's self-produced CD cost us only $16K in 2001 (we were signed to a small label), but to be completely candid, we cut corners all over the place: 1) We dropped two tracks because the live lay down (which we used as the base for all overdubs and re-tracking) just didn't click. We recorded live over three days and we just got burnt out. If we had been signed to a major, I would have appreciated the ability to spend a whole day on each track until the vibe felt right. 2) Overdubs and re-tracking were done quickly and efficiently, but again, felt rushed in order to save money. 3) Multi-tracked vocals, guitars and percussion were sparse. We had played these songs for years (true for most "debut" albums) and it was hard to experiment in the studio without feeling we were going broke. Add a jangly 12 string playing double stops ping-ponging in stereo over the changes? Sounds great we'd tell the engineer, but we can't afford it. 4) Mixing (which took 50% of the total studio time) was painful. The permutations -- even considering the sparse tracks we had -- all begin to sound the same after a while. Ideally I'd like at least a week to mix each song: producing variations that we could collectively listen, get used to, and then debate.

So, although 500K sounds like a lot, I think the studio wants to rightfully allow the artist enough freedom to track, experiment, and mix without worrying about hitting their budget ceiling.

Oh, shameless link to our CD: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/future-perfect/id4478315

The studio and the band can want that but the numbers seem to suggest that it's unsustainable even at music buying's peak. I'd also ask that given that by and large it's not the studio's money (as it comes out of the advance) so is their view that significant?

I'm not saying that bands have to produce an album in three days but you could have had maybe six times the time you spent (which I'm guessing would have removed plenty of pressure and allowed a little time to experiment) and still be coming in at under a quarter of half million dollar figure which seems to be seen as reasonable. I'm guessing that If someone had said to you your budget is $100,000 you'd have been absolutely convinced you could do something that did the music justice.

The question isn't about what would be nice, we're talking about commercial realities so it's about it's about what is feasible. From the band's perspective (and it's ultimately them paying) the figures Albini and Love put forward suggest that $500,000 is a long way from it.

Courtney Love my have done some math but it adds up to an empty argument. She conveniently leaves out the fact that most records, major and otherwise, sell virtually nothing and leave the label holding the bag on costs. So they structure the contracts to get the bulk of the revenue so they cover the cost the money losing releases. This objective reality, it's just how the business (has) to work. Really there are few viable alternative music business models.

As an indie musician this is frustrating. I've actually produced a pretty good record. It's available as a free download on my site:


Like many musicians I'm driven by love, if I could figure out how to make money with it that would be swell; as it is I just want people to listen:)

I would guess similar tensions must exist in the tech/VC space where a few hits got to cover the costs of the losers for the VCs. I would expect a similar disproportion in the way the individual deals would appear weighted in favor of VC against the companies they invest in. Im not familiar with how the investments are structured though.

Doesn't that just make it more absurd? If I were the record company I'd be slapping down $500,000 recording costs.

If you can record an album yourself and afford to give it away free, it would seem to suggest that it's possible to do it cheaper than half a million dollars (though what do I know, you could be a .com millionaire...).

They are slapping down recording costs, and they definitely less than in the nineties. However the marketing costs remain very high. I'm a full time music producer and have my own studio. That cut some of my out of pocket costs but the true cost of my album (it's eight songs) is probably $30-40k which I experience as opportunity cost (i.e. I'm not working on paying projects) and I stretched it over a couple of years. It's not a rational use of resource for me by any measure, I'm just obsessed. The cost of production can categorized in different ways; time, money, talent, effort. At a certain point one seems to reach a limit that can't be breached. Music is organized information, it takes a lot of fighting against entropy just to make it competent, never mind good. It's like some kind of law of information entropy dynamics! Seriously, if you compare any commercial release against the ocean of self produced music (like you find on MySpace)the amature stuff is not listenable and the commercial releases are, and they cost a lot.

I have to agree. Any other industry would be testing the waters and weeding out garbage more thoroughly instead of paying the insane costs for every band and then not paying any of them.

The thing is... The musicians allow this. They sign the contracts, even with these articles all over the internet. They knowingly step into this.

I think it's as sleezy as the next guy does, but until the musicians stop agreeing to it so freaking readily, there's not much the rest of us can do for them.

This article is from 12 years ago. A lot of the math doesn't apply anymore.

Labels will rarely front that much money for recording costs unless justified by past success. The days of million dollar videos are over (in just the last 5 years), and the 360 deal racket is the last great hope of recorded music labels.

The biggest problem with recorded music isn't the label, its the corporate parent. Labels are trying to make good on the promise of 360 by staffing for 360. They can't do so because of resource constraints and resource consolidation at the very top.

Also, blaming labels is one easy thing for artists to do. They should also blame themselves and their managers and lawyers for signing crappy deals to begin with.

I've been at many contract signings (in fact, one artist did the photo-op in my office because of the computer screens), and I never saw a gun held to a hand as they signed what I think everyone knows was an inevitable small disaster, and the small potential for success.

As for Ms. Love: the last 12 years she's been bailed out a lot by people that played in the system she abhors. I personally like Courtney. I've met her many times, and we share common friends, but a 12 year old article does little to comment on today's climate, and in situ it wasn't even that great either.

I'd much rather see what Troy Carter, Scooter Braun, Ken Hertz, Peter Mensch, etc, or producers like Dr. Luke would write about recorded music as a business today. It'd be a lot more interesting.

A few other points:

The RIAA should not be a metonym for recorded music.

Labels are rarely to blame for the problems they are blamed for, their corporate parents usually are.

Artists have the power as a creator which is much stronger than a representative body in 2012. Use it.

I strongly believe that the following excerpt from the article directly applies to any line of work including software development:

"I don’t know if an artist can last by meeting the current public taste, the taste from the last quarterly report. I don’t think you can last by following demographics and carefully meeting expectations. I don’t know many lasting works of art that are condescending or deliberately stupid or were created as content.

Don’t tell me I’m a brand. I’m famous and people recognize me, but I can’t look in the mirror and see my brand identity.

Keep talking about brands and you know what you’ll get? Bad clothes. Bad hair. Bad books. Bad movies. And bad records. And bankrupt businesses. Rides that were fun for a year with no employee loyalty but everyone got rich fucking you. Who wants that? The answer is purity. We can afford it. Let’s go find it again while we can."

Reminds me of the Darth Vader that was never compensated because every year Star Wars showed a loss. Anyone have a link?

These are exciting times. We are in the midst of a technological revolution and recording companies should stop wasting their efforts in trying to cripple the internet and fight change in a scramble of keeping their money. They should find that being able to download music over the internet allows the spotlight back on the artist and allows them to gain more fans and exposure. It allows a more personal connection with their audience which is good because consumers buy a record because of the artist not because of the record company producing it.

"Why aren’t record companies embracing this great opportunity? Why aren’t they trying to talk to the kids passing compilations around to learn what they like? Why is the RIAA suing the companies that are stimulating this new demand? What’s the point of going after people swapping cruddy-sounding MP3s? Cash! Cash they have no intention of passing onto us, the writers of their profits."

Even those recording companies with selfish motivations should be able to recognize the amount of profit that could be gained from this change so that they are able to prepare and adapt to this new environment if they want a good chance in becoming forerunners in their market.

Scratch your old business models and start doing market research.

I found the article on Neal Stephenson to be more interesting. A link to it appears in the second last para.


Neal is one life's greatest hackers. Not technology, but life in general.

Excellent article to bring up with recent events. This rant happens time and time again, the record companies double dip and screw over the artists and their customers repeatedly. When is enough going to be enough?

To whomever can revolutionize the music/media industry with stewardship for the arts you deserve these profits for your work.

Last time I read this article, I remember my perspective of Courtney Love shifted from "Possible Murder Suspect Courtney" to "Underdog Courtney" in only a few minutes. I found the psychology of it pretty fascinating.

At the time of writing, Napster was still very much in consciousness, so, if you've become famous for something negative, get known for something people care about. She should have hammered at this drum a little louder and for a lot longer.

Long, but awesome. Love her tone.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if a huge artist like Adele ditched her current label and just went with a Humble Bundle style one? Imagine paying what you want for an album and allocating the money between artist, hosting, and the artist's favourite charities. It would be a lovely way to cut out these dinosauric middlemen.

Thanks for posting this; it's a good and timely read.

Could you put a [2000] in the title, please?

Yep sorry, fixing

Great post!

Great line from the article that pertains to today.

"It’s piracy when the RIAA lobbies to change the bankruptcy law to make it more difficult for musicians to declare bankruptcy."

Is this also true for startups & VCs?

The person putting up the money will always assume that they deserve more than they do. Wave 8 figures at any young founder and they can't help but say yes, regardless of how ridiculous the terms are. Look what happened to Eduardo Saverin, and he's someone that by all means should've known better.

I had no idea Courtney Love was so articulate. Great article!

12 years ago, and more meaningful today than ever.

Fortunately musicians are starting to (finally) get a few more options to escape The Cartel.

Much like Universal attacked MegaUpload regarding their self produced YouTube video, I have to wonder how much effort would be directed at killing new independent digital publishing venues via bogus claims using SOPA / PIPA style laws. The answer is probably: a lot.

What's great is that the cartel is so late to the digital game. They've fucked themselves, and the only thing left to do is do what they've always done...lobby.

But it's too late. It's game over for these jerks. Whether it takes 5 or 15 years, they're on the downward slope in terms of control.

Not just a cartel, in many ways it's as exploitative as sharecropping.

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